A Look Inside Healthy Grain Bowls

Tips on how to make a healthy grain bowl from the author of the cookbook Bowls of Plenty.

Grain bowls are trending, and there’s an art to making these one-dish creations. I called on the expertise of Carolynn Carreno, author of Bowl of Plenty: Recipes for Healthy and Delicious Whole-Grain Meals,for tips on how to make bowls that are as beautiful and balanced as they are delicious.

What inspired you to write an entire cookbook on one-dish whole grain meals?

Eating bowls filled with grains and topped with smaller amounts of deliciousness has been my way of keeping myself healthy and feeling good for years. I had some pretty serious, chronic issues with my health, and the way I got better was by restricting a lot of foods from my diet. But there was no way that was going to last forever.

Eating and cooking in a non-restrictive, “gourmet” way is a major part of my life. I test recipes for cookbook collaborations. I travel to other countries, such as Italy and Mexico, and I want to experience the foods of those places. I go to food events and I go out to eat about every other night in New York City. Plus, I just love good food.

I didn’t want to deprive myself, so as I started to feel better, I kept myself introducing small portions of what I call “the good stuff”—flavorful proteins and dairy and condiments—onto piles of steamed brown rice (quinoa came later, and then farro and the rest) and Brussels sprouts or broccoli. I’d put a tiny portion of shredded Mexican pork on a big bowl of brown rice with some black beans and broccoli for good measure.

It was a middle ground between healthy and delicious that allowed me to have everything I wanted, without feeling like I got ran over by a truck the next day. When grain bowls went mainstream, I wanted to show the world that there can be so much more to a grain bowl than pink hummus and watermelon radishes.

How can grain bowls become a healthy meal on its own?

Grain bowls are, at their essence, healthy meals. They are basically the same concept as a TV Dinner, but in a bowl, and with the current standards of a healthy diet in mind. They contain all the components — the healthy carbs, protein, and vegetables.

Does the type of bowl you serve in matter? Which type of bowl do you recommend using?

Everything matters. I have every size and shape bowl known to man, and I use them all. I love small (and I mean tiny, almost like Japanese tea cup-size) bowls. I eat out of bowls like this all day long.

But for main dish bowls with many components, I like a large, wide-mouth bowl, something probably meant to mound mashed potatoes in on Thanksgiving. It’s really fun to sit down with a giant bowl like that in front of you and just dig in.

What three tips would you give a home cook who wants to make grain bowls for the first time?

Do people have fear of the grain bowl the way that I have fear of croissant making? It’s just food in a bowl. Here are my three recommendations:

1) Learn how to cook rice, or get yourself a rice cooker. People are intimidated by the idea of making rice and I admit, you might have to screw it up a half dozen times before you get the feel for it, but even imperfect grains do the trick. This is dinner, not Top Chef.

2) Get yourself a couple of big bowls — probably meant as serving dishes — that you love. It’s life altering in a sort of nonessential way, like having a pair of rain boots on a rainy day.

3) Make my Vietnamese Bowl (found in my cookbook), which has options for the carnivore, pescatarian and vegetarian. I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t like that bowl. Plus, I believe it’s The Original Grain Bowl.

What are 5 to 7 must-have ingredients if you want to whip up one of your whole-grains bowls?

Grains: Brown rice, quinoa, and farro make a good grain bowl starter kit, but millet has also won me over most recently.

Vegetables: Whatever you like, and ideally whatever’s in season. You’ll find a bowl in my book to use them in.

Eggs: Farm-fresh eggs are worth their weight for the golden-color of the yolks alone. And then there’s how they taste.

Frozen shrimp: I keep a bag of frozen shrimp on hand when I want to make a quick, flavorful meal. I use them all the time to make the Baja BBQ Shrimp Bowl, one of my all-time favorite quick-and-easy grain bowls.

Nuts and seeds: Roasted and salted cashews, sunflower seeds, and peanuts can add just the salt and crunch and richness you need to take a bowl next level.

Leftovers: That little bit of salmon or steak that you were almost too embarrassed to ask for a to-go-bag, can be the start of a beautiful, last-minute burrito bowl.

Coconut Curry Rice Bowl with Green Vegetables and Sweet Potatoes Recipe

Serves 4


Coconut oil (or canola oil)

1/4 cup Thai green curry paste (such as Thai Kitchen or Mae Ploy brand)

1 (15-ounce) can coconut milk, shaken

1 cup chicken stock, homemade or sodium-free or low-sodium store-bought or water

1 lemongrass stalk, smashed with the flat side of a large knife (optional)

2 tablespoons fish sauce

2 teaspoons raw, granulated, or coconut sugar

1 medium purple or yellow sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch rounds

6 ounces Brussels sprouts (or broccoli florets, or a combination)

2 heads baby bok choy, halved lengthwise, or 1 head bok choy, quartered lengthwise

1 bunch kale, collard greens, or Swiss chard, stemmed, leaves torn into bite-size pieces

2 serrano, Fresno, or jalapeno chiles, very thinly sliced into rounds

Small handful of fresh basil (preferably Thai basil)

1 cup long-grain brown rice, cooked (about 3 1/2 cups cooked rice)


Coat a large saucepan or straight-sided skillet with oil. Add the curry paste and cook over medium heat for 1 minute, stirring continuously, to release the flavors.

Stir in the coconut milk, stock, lemongrass (if you’re using it), fish sauce, and sugar and bring the liquid to a simmer. Add the sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts, reduce the heat to maintain a simmer, and cook for about 15 minutes, until the potatoes and Brussels sprouts are tender.

Add the bok choy and kale and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes more to wilt them. Turn off the heat, remove and discard the lemongrass, if you used it. Throw in the chiles and basil, and serve the curry over the rice.

Excerpted from the book BOWLS OF PLENTY by Carolynn Carreno. Copyright 2017 by Carolynn Carreno. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Life & Style. All rights reserved.

Carolynn Carreno is a James Beard award-winning food writer. She has coauthored many acclaimed cookbooks, including Nancy Silverton’s Mozza at Home and Pat LaFrieda’s Meat: Everything There is to Know. Carreno lives in San Diego, CA and New York City.

Related Links:

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. She is the author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day.

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