This Easy Grain Bowl Formula Will Make You Quit Sad Salads

infographic showing formula for how to make a grain bowl on teal background with leafy greens
A balanced grain bowl can be just as nutritious as a salad, and our formula will give you endless grain bowl ideas and combos.
Image Credit: Anna Puzatykh

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Salads are ​fine —​ but they aren't exactly cozy. Which is why we love grain bowls: They're just as customizable and nutritious as salads, but offer a whole lot more comfort and satisfaction.


"Some people want a more hearty dish," Maya Feller, RD, CDN, owner of Brooklyn-based Maya Feller Nutrition, tells "When you build a grain bowl with some whole or ancient grains and you add nuts, legumes, seeds, fish, tofu, chicken, you name it, that can be quite nourishing and warming, especially in the winter months."

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Plus, grain bowl ideas allow for more creativity when it comes to preparing your ingredients. In the categories below, you'll find opportunities to boil, braise, pickle, roast, sauté and more.

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Step 1: Start With Whole Grains

The base of your grain bowl is — no surprise here — whole grains. These nutrition superstars are packed with nutrients, such as B vitamins, magnesium, vitamin E and iron, according to the American Heart Association.


Feller loves black rice, which cooks quickly and has a mild taste and good fiber content. Its dark color offers a different mix of antioxidants and plant compounds than other lighter-hued options.

Choose 1/2 cup of these grains:

  • Amaranth
  • Barley
  • Black rice
  • Bulgur
  • Brown rice
  • Buckwheat
  • Farro
  • Freekeh
  • Quinoa
  • Millet
  • Steel-cut oats
  • Spelt
  • Wheatberries


Want more healthy meal ideas? Download the MyPlate app and get simple, tasty meals and snacks tailored to your nutrition goals.

Step 2: Add a High-Quality Protein

We'd be nothing without protein, an essential macronutrient most notably known for helping to build and maintain muscle.


Pick a lean, cooked protein for your healthy grain bowl (also sometimes called a protein bowl, and not without reason!). Your protein of choice can be animal-based, plant-based or a mixture of both.


Aim for 3 to 4 ounces of the following:

  • Beans and lentils
    • Adzuki beans
    • Black beans
    • Garbanzo beans
    • Great northern beans
    • Lima beans
    • Kidney beans
    • Pinto beans
    • Lentils
    • Edamame
  • Dairy
    • Cottage cheese
    • Yogurt
    • Cheese
  • Seafood
    • Canned or fresh tuna
    • Salmon
    • Shrimp
    • Scallops
  • Pork
    • Pork loin
    • Pork tenderloin
    • Center loin
  • Poultry
    • Chicken (skinless)
    • Eggs
    • Turkey (skinless)
  • Steak
    • Bottom round
    • Eye round roast
    • Sirloin tip side steak
    • Top round
    • Top sirloin steak
  • Tofu or tempeh


Step 3: Pile on Nutrient-Rich Vegetables

Veggies deliver a variety of vitamins and minerals, plus fiber, which is crucial for healthy digestion and weight management, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Fill your bowl with a mixture of 2 cups of leafy greens or 1 cup of other vegetables per serving. Try one (or several) of these ideas:


  • Beets
  • Beet greens
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • Collard greens
  • Cucumber
  • Dandelion greens
  • Fennel
  • Kale
  • Radish
  • Spinach
  • Swiss chard
  • Tomato
  • Watercress

Step 4: Sweeten With Fresh Fruits

Fruits fancy up your grain bowl a notch, adding a touch of sweet and a bit of crunch — not to mention additional vitamins, antioxidants and other health-promoting plant compounds.


Pick from any of these fruits:

  • Apples
  • Cherries
  • Blueberries
  • Blackberries
  • Grapes
  • Mango
  • Peaches
  • Pineapple
  • Pomegranate seeds
  • Raspberries
  • Strawberries

Step 5: Decide on a Dressing

Have fun with flavorful dressings, but don't forget to read the labels. Avoid pre-made drizzles with more than 4 grams of added sugar per serving.


"Depending on the direction I want to go with my grain bowl, I'll top it with either a tahini-lemon dressing, a bit of olive oil with feta and lemon juice or, for something more on the creamy side, I'll go with yogurt and avocado mashed together with red pepper flakes," Feller says.

If you're packing lunch ahead, keep the dressing separate until it's time to eat.

Add 1 to 2 tablespoons per bowl of one of the these options:

  • Pesto
  • Hummus
  • Salsa
  • Vinaigrette
  • Peanut sauce
  • Hot sauce
  • Miso
  • Vegan Caesar
  • Tahini yogurt


Making homemade dressing is easier than you might think — plus, you can make a big batch and use it all week. To make a simple vinaigrette dressing, mix 1 part oil, 1 part acid, plus spices.

For example, you could try 1 cup of olive oil, 1 cup of balsamic vinegar, 1 tablespoon of Dijon mustard and some salt and pepper. Store your dressing in an airtight container in the fridge for up to two weeks.

Step 6: Sprinkle on Toppings

Grain bowl toppings offer texture, flavor and nutrients, too — but they're often higher in calories, so a little goes a long way.

Check ingredient labels on your toppings, too: Look for unsalted nuts and seeds and dried fruit without added sugar.

Stick to 1 or 2 tablespoons of any of the below:

  • Shredded or crumbled cheese
  • Olives
  • Toasted nuts or seeds
  • Dried fruit

Put It All Together in These Recipes




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