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Build the ultimate grain bowl with these recipes for bases, proteins, toppings and sauces

Roasted Chile Lime Tofu Bowls (Scott Suchman for The Washington Post/food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

When, exactly, did the grain bowl become such a thing? This lunch staple, a pile up of a grain of your choice, though in most fast-casual lunch spots, it’s rice, a protein, vegetables, various toppings for extra flavor and texture, and a sauce, has become standard whether you’re working from home or heading into the office. Perhaps you like yours piping hot after a spin in the microwave, or maybe you prefer a room-temperature lunch that you don’t have to refrigerate — the grain bowl is as customizable as it is filling.

With that said, maybe you’re in a grain bowl rut. Maybe you haven’t made one before and want to see if it could become a reliable go-to meal. Whatever your reasons, you’re going to need recipes!

This is a comprehensive list of recipes — your grain bowl does not have to have all homemade components, and the end-product doesn’t only have to be for lunch. Pick and choose what you’d prefer to have homemade: Maybe you prefer making your own proteins but use store-bought toppings, or maybe you prefer using quick, ready-made proteins and cooking your own grains. Everything is fair game for mixing-and-matching so long as it gets you to your end goal: feeling full and fueled for the day.

Grains

Rice, farro, quinoa, barley, bulgur … the list of grains you can use as a base goes on! You can make plain grains to let the other elements of your bowl shine, or start loading up flavor from the get-go. If you’re leaning toward the latter, these recipes for bases vary from simple to more complex, and can help make your meal taste better from bottom to top. If you’d rather just make plain rice, check out Becky Krystal’s guide to cooking rice. And, don’t forget couscous, which can be a neutral, filling foundation for your bowl, too.

Vibrant Turmeric Coconut Rice, pictured. Fragrant with coconut water and a little coconut oil, gorgeously gold with turmeric, this is a great simple base for a rice bowl because you can build lots of flavor with additional elements. Want a different, bright yellow rice? Make Lemon Rice, with tart lemon, curry leaf and added protein from lentils.

Any Tender Herb Rice Pilaf. When you have a pile of tender herbs like basil, cilantro, parsley, dill, chives, mint or even scallions, chop up big handfuls to perfume plain rice. You can try this with brown or wild rice, as well as couscous, bulgur wheat or quinoa.

Quick Quinoa Pilaf. This flavorful pilaf takes just 30 minutes and, thanks to scallions and toasted almonds, has just enough textural intrigue.

Upgrade your meal with one of these quick-cooking grains

Garlic Fried Rice (Chahan). No need for the base of your bowl to be basic. Tons of flavor from garlic, soy sauce and mirin means you don’t need to rely on your toppings to do all the work.

Grain Salad With Carrot, Herbs and Sesame Seeds. Start with freekeh, farro, barley or quinoa, then add herbs, grated carrot, lemon and toasted sesame seeds. All you need now is protein on top.

5 hearty grains and how to use them in bowls, salads and even cake

Farro and Charred Corn Salad. Skillet-charred corn adds sweetness to this base, which tastes as great at room temperature as it does hot.

Red Rice. Onions, peppers and tomato puree adds oomph to plain rice.

Cuban Beans and Rice (Moros y Cristianos). When you have flavorful beans already mixed into your base, you don’t have to rely on your toppings to keep you full until the end of the day. And, honestly, this in itself can be a full grain bowl, as can Red Beans and Rice, or Rice and Peas. And if you want to reduce the carbs, make Red Beans and Cauliflower Rice.

Start your grain bowl right with these 5 jazzy rice recipes


Proteins

Decide ahead of time if you want a grain bowl designed to be eaten room temperature or reheated, because that can help you determine the best protein for the occasion. You can also choose something that doesn’t require cooking, like canned beans that have been drained and rinsed, or canned tuna, and skip to the toppings and sauces sections to pack in the flavor at those stages. And if you want to skip the toppings section, you could make a full dish like Honey-Hoisin Roast Chicken and Vegetables, which takes care of the protein and the add-on in one go. Many of the fillings in our list of recipes for the best taco night ever will also work wonderfully in a grain bowl, so be sure to check that out if you don’t see what you’re looking for here.

Sheet Pan Chicken 3 Ways, pictured. If you’re a person who hates eating the exact same thing every day, we are here for you. Use this method to make three different flavors of chicken, and alternate which days you eat them on your grain bowl. The flavors here are spicy barbecue, maple-sesame and lemon-rosemary. You could try this with tofu, too.

Tomato-Balsamic Chicken. Don’t feel like actually cooking the chicken yourself? Grabbing a rotisserie bird and using it in your lunch grain bowl throughout the week is a great way to cut down on cooking. Make this tangy tomato and balsamic sauce to liven up that precooked chicken.

Simply Perfect Pot of Beans. Beans are really the MVP when it comes to planning ahead. Make a big pot, then use it in grain bowls and tons of other things. If you aren’t a fan of making beans from dried, that’s okay. You can add plenty of flavor to canned beans in many different ways. Borrow the flavorful beans from this recipe for Pizza Salad With Marinated White Beans, which has you take canned white beans and essentially marinate them in a vinaigrette, or make a bean dish. Imagine having Rajma Poriyal (Kidney Beans With Curry Leaves) over the Lemon Rice in the above category for lunch. Or take the hack from this recipe for Roasted Potato Wedges With Black Bean Chili: All you need to do is mix a jar of salsa with canned black beans and let those flavors meld together.

Picadillo. This Latin American dish involves ground meat simmered in a spiced (but not spicy) tomato sauce and would be wonderful atop a rice base. The best part is, you can replicate this method with lentils for Vegan Picadillo.

Beef, chicken, bean and vegetable recipes to make ahead for smarter meal prep

Coronation Chickpea Salad. I’m a huge fan of chickpea salad, in any way, shape or form. With curry paste providing the bulk of flavor, this is easy to put together and is excellent at room temperature. This would be fantastic with a chewier grain such as farro.

Chicken, egg, ham and chickpea salad recipes for quick sandwiches in the home office

Cajun Shrimp in Foil Packets. If you’re a fan of shrimp, cook them up in foil packets ahead of time, and then you can have them cold or microwaved (though I personally wouldn’t microwave to reheat; I find that reheated shrimp doesn’t have a great texture, but you might). You could also make zesty Pickled Gulf Shrimp, designed to be eaten without heating. This could go well with rice or quinoa.

Baked Marinated Tofu. Freezing and defrosting tofu can give it an appealing, meat-like texture; baking it only makes it better! Tofu is a flavor sponge, so marinating it ensures that every bite is delicious. Try pairing with couscous, rice or quinoa.

DIY Mexican Chorizo. Cook up store-bought chorizo to serve over rice or quinoa, or make your own with this do-it-yourself recipe. Love the flavors of chorizo, but avoiding meat? Make Tofu Chorizo.

Pomegranate-Glazed Meatballs. Meatballs with a tart-sweet glaze are sure to be a treat at midday. But if these meatballs aren’t right for you, you could make Greek Chicken Meatballs With Squash, Mushroom-Walnut ‘Meatballs’ that eschew meat altogether or make a batch of the meatballs in this recipe for Baked Meatball Sub. You can choose your grain according to the type of meatball you prefer.

Hard-Cooked Eggs. Sometimes all you need is an egg! Our favorite method is to steam them, but if you prefer to boil them, go right on ahead.

4 big-batch, make-ahead recipes to help you cook throughout the week


Toppings

A touch of freshness, an extra hit of protein, flavorful veggies, a little bit of acidity or even just a sprinkle of crunchy flavor can take your lunch from just fine to absolutely amazing. If you’re commuting, you could consider packing your toppings separately to preserve the sensation of a warm grain bowl and cool topping (packing separately can also maintain the texture of things like nuts or seeds), but if you intend to eat your bowl at room-temperature, go ahead and pack everything in the same container. Mix and match as you please. You don’t have to pick just one topping. You don’t even have to have cooked toppings — you could opt for raw vegetables, lettuces (ones that are less prone to wilting), nuts, seeds or premade toppings are all fair game.

Pulled King Trumpet Mushrooms, pictured. This evokes the chewy, crispy, saucy deliciousness of pulled pork or chicken, but without the actual meat, making it a great option for vegetarians and vegans. Because there’s not really a lot of protein in here, try pairing this with a base that has a protein like beans or lentils already in it. Looking for a less saucy mushroom dish? Make herby, citrusy Mushrooms With Chiles, Limes and Mint. Both can be reheated in the microwave with success, so you can pack these right on top of your grains and proteins.

Pico de Gallo. Bright pico de gallo can add a lively freshness to a hearty lunch. You might like to pair this with a beans and grains, or choose a protein from above like the Cajun Shrimp, Picadillo, chorizo or chicken.

Dukkah. This spice blend of seeds and nuts can add a boost of flavor and a little coarse crunch. Traditionally you might eat dukkah with bread and oil, but a hearty shake of warm coriander-cumin-fennel-pepper-paprika flavors over rice and a protein like chickpeas or chicken (with, perhaps, a creamy sauce) will certainly be delicious.

Quick-Pickled Jalapeños. How about a zesty, spicy, crunchy boost? Or if you want zesty and crunchy, but not so spicy, maybe use Quick-Pickled Onions. And if you want spicy but also cooling, what about Aar Ketimun (Cucumber, Chile and Shallot Pickle)? And if those aren’t quite the right pickle for you, read Becky Krystal’s guide to quick pickling the vegetable of your choice. You could even pickle herbs or incorporate fruit, like this Cherry-Fennel Giardiniera does.

Apple Fennel Slaw. Maybe you’re looking for cooling crunch, but not necessarily pickles. Enter slaw. You’ll get sweetness from apples, aromatic crunch from fennel, without the sogginess that can get in the way of a good slaw. But if this isn’t the slaw for you, we’ve got plenty more in the Recipe Finder — just search for “slaw.”

6 quick slaws to satisfy all the mayo haters out there

Speedy Homemade Hummus. A little hummus can go a long way. If you’re trying to weave more veggies into your life, perhaps make Harissa-Roasted Carrot and Bean Dip and add a dollop on top of a bowl of, perhaps, farro and a protein like chickpeas, chicken, tofu or the Pomegranate-Glazed Meatballs.

Sauteed Swiss Chard. Get your daily greens in with this quick sautee. And don’t limit it to Swiss chard — make an easy sautee of kale, mustard greens, even spinach and add to a bowl.

Herb-Marinated Tofu Feta. I talk about this vegan feta a lot — for good reason! If you love cheese but your body doesn’t, it really hits the spot. And if you can digest dairy, marinate regular feta, too. Cheese, in general, can be a tasty boost to a grain bowl.

Colorful Roasted Vegetables. You can add in a scoop of any roasted veggies you like; we like this combination for its vibrancy and warming flavors. This particular recipe can support simpler flavor bases and proteins. You might like it with quinoa and kidney beans, or with coconut rice and chickpeas. Of course, you can and should roast up any combination of vegetables you like.

Garlicky Marinated Tomatoes. Once tomato season comes around, these easy garlic-infused tomatoes will be a juicy addition to a grain bowl. I’m thinking farro, a protein like white beans, and maybe pesto as a sauce.


Sauces

With a pileup of grains, protein and toppings, you might need a sauce to bind things together. There are so many options for sauces, but we’ll keep this list tight — just know if you don’t see the right sauce for you here, you can check out our Recipe Finder for more ideas.

Classic Basil Pesto, pictured. Herbaceous pesto is a fan-favorite sauce for so many reasons: It’s flavorful, provides a gorgeous, fresh green hue and can be used in many different ways. Pesto pairs well with white beans, chickpeas, chicken, fish and even the right meatball. Grains such as farro or barley — perhaps cooked in broth — would be a good start to a bowl finished with pesto.

Lemon, Garlic and Herb Yogurt. Yogurt on its own can be a cooling addition to a grain bowl, but with just a little citrus and add-ins, it can become even better. You could also skip herbs and use spices like cumin, paprika or coriander. If you’d like to take your yogurt to the next level, make Labneh With Garlic Confit. Think rice bowl, with maybe lemon-rosemary chicken (scroll back up to the first item in the protein section), yogurt and dukkah.

Green Banana Cashew Sauce. If you’re looking for a creamy sauce sans dairy or eggs, turn to bananas. Garlicky, with a hint of paprika, it could pair well with roasted carrots and spicy barbecue chicken atop rice or quinoa.

Creamy Maple Balsamic Dressing. If your grain bowl could use a touch of sweetness and tang, this dressing is ideal. Imagine this with a chewy grain — maybe farro — chicken or beans, sauteed greens and this dressing. Salad dressings work just as nicely in grain bowls as they do in salads; the grain bowl I just described would taste equally good with Caesar dressing.

How to leave those bottled dressings behind and make your own vinaigrette

Romesco Sauce. A little smoky, a little sweet from roasted red bell peppers, romesco is a great sauce to have in your arsenal, period. I’d use this in a bowl with a heartier grain like freekeh, farro or barley, a protein such as tuna, chickpeas, chicken or white beans and roasted veggies.

Black Pepper Sauce. This sauce keeps for up to 3 months in an airtight container, and it tastes like steak sauce, but better. In a grain bowl, you could have a simple white or brown rice base, proteins like chicken, beef or tofu, this sauce and crunchy pickled veggies.

Lemon Relish. This is a recipe for green beans plus relish — the green beans are a great way to add veggies to your bowl, and the relish itself adds an aromatic, citrusy boost thanks to preserved or roasted lemons. All together, you could have farro, green beans, a protein like white beans or chicken and this relish for a bright midday pick-me-up.

Wolfgang Puck’s Chimichurri. One of my absolute favorite grain bowl combinations is a chewy grain such as farro, plus canned tuna or chickpeas, all mixed together with chimichurri. I might also throw in some roasted veggies. Of course, you could go traditional and pair the sauce with steak, and then put that over a grain and a topping of your choice.


Full Bowl Inspiration

Don’t feel like starting from scratch? That’s okay. We have full grain bowl recipes from the base all the way to the toppings so you don’t have to. These take care of all the flavor pairings for you, and once you find a pattern you like, you can tweak according to your own tastes.

Green Goddess Grain Bowls, pictured. This totally vegan bowl is very adaptable. Joe Yonan writes, “My grain bowls are usually the result of various building blocks I’ve cooked in advance: grains, of course, plus beans, roasted vegetables, a dressing or sauce, and some crunchy topping I have around. … I’ve often recommended such an approach, and I stick by that. But what if you haven’t done any of that advance work?” That’s where this ultra-simple bowl’s template comes in handy: cook greens with beans, make a simplified green goddess dressing, put on top of a grain like quinoa and finish with sunflower seeds. Done!

Grain Bowls With Sweet Potatoes and Edamame. An ultra-simple lemon-tahini-maple dressing binds together figs, pumpkin seeds, sprouts, roasted sweet potatoes and edamame over cooked quinoa. Feel free to swap out the quinoa with other grains, and definitely make extra dressing because it’s a delicious addition to other dishes, too.

Tex-Mex Quinoa With … anything you like, really. The base of this is a spiced (but not really spicy) quinoa, packed with black beans and peppers. What you add next is up to you — maybe you want cubes of tofu or chicken, and perhaps you’d like a salsa on top.

Roasted Chile Lime Tofu Bowls. Roasted broccoli and flavorful tofu make an excellent pair in this easy grain bowl. You can save the sprouts to sprinkle over top after reheating, or you can certainly eat this bowl at room temperature.

Brown Rice Salad With Crispy Spinach and Pecans. What’s the difference between a rice salad and a grain bowl? Honestly, not much. You’ve got your grains, your veggies and flavor from golden raisins, scallions, oranges and smoked paprika. To make it extra filling, adding a protein like chicken or beans is the way to go.

Grain Bowls With Cucumber-Dill Sauce. Farro makes the base of this simple bowl. With chickpeas, carrots and spinach, you’ve completed the basic needs of the lunch bowl. And, with this delicious cucumber-dill sauce, you’ve made it taste amazing.

Vegan Sushi Bowls. As much as we love raw fish, we can’t exactly prep a sushi bowl ahead of time to eat throughout the week. So instead, make vegan sushi bowls with all the flavors and none of the safety concerns. Mushrooms and edamame make a tasty topping for seasoned rice; quick-pickled vegetables add brightness.

Lemon-Dressed Farro, Tuna and Chickpea Salad. I have made variations of this many a time and haven’t gotten tired of it. Good-quality tuna is a lifesaver for a quick meal; a citrus punch from lemon plus plenty of parsley makes a tasty, easy bowl that at the very least, has never disappointed me.

5 recipes that prove canned tuna is totally craveable


Break the mold

All of the below technically have a grain as the base, even if they aren’t grain bowls in the way you might picture them. So expand your horizons and rethink what it really means to be a grain bowl! Who is stopping you?

Oatmeal With Bacon, Cheese and Pickled Jalapeños, pictured. You can have a grain bowl for breakfast. You could also eat this breakfast-y bowl for lunch or dinner. This recipe even has instructions for microwaving.

Breakfast Grain Bowls With Caramelized Bananas. Here’s another tasty breakfast bowl, this time with a sweet touch.

Polenta With White Beans and Italian Salsa Verde. Polenta is made from corn, and therefore is a grain. A whole grain, at that. And you’ve got an excellent recipe for a briny, herby Italian salsa verde within this recipe that you can use for other dishes, too.

Cold Sesame Noodles With Shredded Chicken. Noodles are made from grains! So technically this is a grain bowl. Feel free to use a different type of noodle — I particularly like buckwheat-based soba noodles. This dish is great cold or at room temperature.

Bacon and Spinach Orzo Salad. Orzo looks like a grain, and is made from grain so … close enough. We’re counting it. This is excellent freshly made, and it’s excellent at room temperature, too.

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, couscous was referred to as a grain. It has been corrected. Traditional couscous is manmade using coarsely ground grains, such as semolina. Read more about it here.

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