Whole grains are trending. The National Restaurant Association declared them one of the top 20 food trends of 2017, multiple surveys report that consumers are seeking them out, and thousands of grocery items have been reformulated to include more in the past year. That's a good thing because there is a tall stack of research supporting the health benefits of eating whole grains, which include preventing the risk of stroke, diabetes and heart disease and helping with weight management.
Even so, they don't make it to the table enough. Although we are eating more whole grains than we did 10 years ago, most Americans still get less than a single serving of them a day (while, incidentally, eating double the allotted amount of refined grains).
Clearly there is a disconnect, and part of it has to do with convenience. Although several whole-grain foods can be cooked quickly, many take an hour or more to prepare, and some require advance soaking. On top of that, many people are unfamiliar with easy ways to season and serve ancient grains. There are a multitude of fast and flavorful recipes to turn to (many have been published in my Nourish column, for example), but sometimes life demands more grab-and-go options. Happily, food companies are stepping up with innovative products that help bridge the gap. I had the chance to sample a few this past June at the Fancy Food Show presented by the Specialty Food Association and since then have scouted several more. These are my top picks for new, healthy convenience foods that harness what's hot in whole grains.
The Mediterranean diet is renowned for its health benefits and deliciousness, and whole grains are part of that appeal. Some of the best new convenience foods capitalize on that, bringing what might otherwise be considered slow food to the table instantly. I was won over by the taste and convenience of the Ready to Eat Farro and Quinoa Meals by Cucina & Amore, portable cups of fully cooked farro (an ancient variety of wheat from Italy) blended, untraditionally but deliciously, with quinoa. The grain cups, which will be landing in stores this fall, come with a separate chamber of sauce and seasonings to mix in, with flavors such as grilled vegetable and herb, or artichoke, lemon and roasted garlic. They are perfect for on-the-go eating because they do not need refrigeration, come with a little spoon and are tasty at room temperature (or they can be heated in the microwave).
Another find to help you get old-world Mediterranean flavors on the table fast is the heat-and-serve Bulgur Pilaf from Wild Garden. It is a fully cooked, flavorful side dish of bulgur (cracked wheat) in a tomato sauce with Mediterranean herbs that's based on a traditional Turkish recipe. It comes in a microwaveable pouch that takes 90 seconds to heat, and it would pair well with chicken breast, kebabs or just about anything else you might be tossing on the grill.
Rice bowls — a mound of hot rice topped with an array of proteins and vegetables — are all the rage nowadays. And when it comes to rice, red and black are the new brown. Several new products allow you to whip up a rice bowl in minutes with black (also called forbidden) or red rice, whole-grain varieties that are much more intriguing, and have even more antioxidants than brown. Lundberg Family Farms now sells steamed, organic red jasmine rice in microwaveable pouches that you can keep in your cupboard; they not only make for an instant, fragrant rice bowl base, but they can also be a quick side dish or bed for a stir-fry. Lotus Foods puts cooked black or red rice in a bowl for you with their organic heat-and-eat single-serve rice bowls, which are perfect for keeping at work. Just pop in the microwave and top with whatever you like — diced tofu, boiled egg, sliced chicken, beans, edamame, avocado, carrot, cucumber, radishes, leftover cooked vegetables, for example — then add a drizzle of your favorite Asian-style salad dressing, and lunch is served. For an already-complete rice-bowl package, check out Luvo Planted Bowls, a modern take on the frozen meal. (Luvo is a past sponsor of my public television show, "Ellie's Real Good Food.") Besides organic whole-grain rice, each bowl, which just needs to be heated, either in the microwave or oven, has at least two servings of vegetables and a healthy portion of plant protein. Their So Cal Kale and Bean has red rice, white beans and broccoli, and their Hawaiian Un-Fried Rice has black rice, shiitake mushrooms, pineapple and cashews.
If I go one school week without making a batch of overnight oats, I hear about it from my daughter, who relies on the lightly sweetened pudding-like mixture of oats, nuts, seeds, fruit, milk and yogurt for breakfast and afternoon snacks. Mine is not the only family who loves them, based on the nearly 400,000 Instagram posts that include the hashtag #overnightoats. Although they are fairly simple to make, sometimes I just can't seem to get around to it, so I was thrilled to discover Quaker's new Overnight Oats in single-serve containers. I found them to be a perfect shortcut solution that my daughter will happily prepare on her own. They are slightly sweeter than my recipe but not overly sugary. You just add milk (and, optionally, a couple of tablespoons of yogurt, which we liked for the creaminess it added) to the container of oats, dried fruits, nuts, quinoa and flax. Then stir and let sit for at least 6 hours in the refrigerator, as you would with any overnight oat recipe. We like them best with fresh fruit and nuts added on top the next morning for a healthy breakfast that's 100 percent whole grain and that couldn't be easier.