Something that I’ve noticed recently is that my clients want healthier meal ideas (especially for lunches and easy dinners), but don’t necessarily feel up to juggling several different recipes throughout the week. Enter: grain bowls.
These easy-to-prepare meals only require you to prep a few ingredients and you can mix-and-match to suit your tastes day to day. Plus, if you take them for lunch at work, you don’t necessarily have to re-heat them, as they’re delicious cold!
In this blog post, I’m going to lay out:
- Ideas for grain bowls and how to build them
- Nutrition considerations and caveats
- Tips for making life (and math) easier
Ready to get started?
Build-Your-Own Grain Bowls Flow Chart
The thing that holds many people back from eating healthier is analysis paralysis. I made this chart (below) to eliminate this decision-making quagmire and make choices easier.
It’s like getting in line at Chipotle… except that this is your shopping list, instead of your order. Go through each category and plan a few versions so that you can mix and match grain bowls throughout the week.
If you’re a very visual person, print out several copies of this chart and literally circle the right number of items from each category to make a few different types of bowls.
In some ways, you may want to start at the far right side of the flow chart – decide what flavor palate you’re going for, and then plan everything else accordingly.
A Southwest bowl could be:
- 3/4 cup cooked brown rice
- 4 oz ground turkey
- Grape tomatoes and spinach
- 1/2 cup black beans
- 1 tbsp. olive oil and 1/4 avocado
- Lime juice and cilantro
A Mediterranean or Greek bowl could be:
- 3/4 cup cooked quinoa
- 4 oz chicken breast
- Cucumbers and grape tomatoes
- 1/2 cup chickpeas
- 1 tbsp. olive oil and 1/4 cup Feta cheese
- Red wine vinegar and oregano
A sushi-style bowl could be:
- 3/4 cup cooked brown rice
- 4 oz salmon
- Cucumbers and spinach
- 1/4 avocado
- Soy sauce or coconut aminos
Some of the combinations above are similar to recipes in my 5-Ingredient Meals for Easy Weight Loss cookbook. You can download it now, for free!
… And of course the possibilities are endless and can be tailored to your preferences! It doesn’t have to follow a specific theme if you just want to make a bunch of vegetables and proteins and toss everything together!
Nutrition Considerations and Caveats
The flow chart will create roughly 400-500 calorie bowls. But I have a few tips for you if your goal is weight loss or fat loss:
- Consider using salad greens instead of a grain base for several of your bowls per week
- If you’re aiming to lose pounds, avoid tripling up too often on a grain, a starchy vegetable, and two fats… If you want to use two fats instead of one, consider dropping either the grain or the starchy vegetable. For example, the Southwest bowl that I described below the chart could be modified to be over salad greens instead of rice if you want to use both the olive oil and the avocado.
- Go crazy with the fibrous vegetables! While I say “pick 1-2,” that’s just to make your life easier. You can pick as many as you want!
- Measure. Measure. Measure. Use measuring cups and spoons to make sure you’re really nailing the portion sizes, especially with the grains, fats, and starchy vegetables.
- When in doubt, use one of each category instead of two – with the exception of the fibrous vegetables.
Important note: if you are vegetarian or vegan, double up on the non-meat protein sources like legumes or eggs. If you are vegetarian/vegan and trying to lose weight, just make sure to stay on top of the full caloric value of the meal, to make sure it suits your goals.
Making Life (and Math) Easier
So how do you get the portion sizes right? How do you make this easier, without overthinking it?
My suggestions it plan 1-2 varieties of bowls per week, use the chart as your shopping list, and then prep it all at once, maybe on Sunday night.
Here’s a portion control cheat sheet:
- 1 cup of dry grains (to 2 cups of water) makes four bowls.
- 1 pound of meat makes four bowls.
- 1 can of canned beans makes four bowls.
- To make cheese math easier, buy cheese in blocks (instead of shredded) and pre-slice according to the package serving size. For example, if you buy 8 oz of feta, each ounce equals 1/4 cup. Cut it into 8 chunks and use one chunk for each bowl.
- For some vegetables, frozen is as good as fresh. Consider using frozen vegetables like sweet peas, sweet potato, butternut squash, etc. to make your life easier.
- If you have a certain seasoning or dressing that you already love (I’m thinking of many Trader Joe’s products!), it can certainly be featured to make life easier!
- If you are tracking using MyFitnessPal, use the “Create a Recipe” function to start with the full amount of each ingredient (i.e. one pound of chicken breast, one can of black beans, one pint of grape tomatoes, etc.) and have it split four ways. This way you don’t have to track the individual components of each bowl every single time you eat it. Much easier and faster!
Keep in mind that the possibilities are endless! Use your creativity, and suit your own tastes.
Use grains, herbs, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and sauces/salsas that I didn’t include in the chart. The flow chart is very basic, and is just to get you started!
Just be sure to measure, and to be aware of the proper serving sizes and how everything adds up. I talk with clients about the “mental discounting” we do of healthy foods – we assume that superfoods like pumpkin seeds or quinoa or salmon are calorie-free, which is one of those small mistakes that can cause weight loss to completely stall out (if that’s the goal). Check out this article that has additional tips and ideas for making sure your grain bowl is actually healthy for you (instead of huge).
Ultimately, the goal of this flow chart is to make healthy eating easier for you – to lower the brainpower needed to prep and enjoy food that tastes good and is good for you.