Weeknight Cooking

How to Make a Grain Bowl Without a Recipe

January 26, 2015

Here at Food52, we love recipes -- but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.

Today: Chuck that takeout burrito bowl out the window and mix and match the contents of your refrigerator for your new favorite weeknight meal.

Grain Bowl

Shop the Story

I realize that I may be alone here when I say that bowls are my favorite piece of dishware. (What, you don't have a favorite eating vessel?)

Hear me out: Unlike plates, which waste sauce and discourage you from mixing a meal's different components, bowls are vessels that empower you to combine multiple flavors and top everything off with a grand finale of dressing. And after a full day of work, few of us have the energy to sit at the dinner table with our fork and steak knife poised at a lamb chop. Enter: The grain bowl.

Grain Bowl Ingredients

Chances are, you've inadvertently made a grain bowl out of layers of leftovers before, but these bowls, constructed of grains, vegetables, protein, and dressing, have the potential to become your go-to weeknight staple. The best part? As long as you follow the golden rule that good ingredients make good meals, they're hard to mess up -- no matter how motley the ingredients.

Here’s how to make a grain bowl, without a recipe: 

1. Pick your grain. Go the obvious route with a layer of brown rice, or take this opportunity to work ancient protein-rich grains into your diet. Think freekeh, quinoa, farro, and couscous. When in doubt, open your refrigerator and start scoping out your leftovers. Polenta, grits, wheat berries, and that box of sticky rice from your Thai takeout are all excellent options. Consider cooking your grain in chicken or vegetable broth to give it some extra flavor.

Farro for Grain Bowl


2. Add some vegetables. You have some options here: Add a handful of raw leafy greens or cooked seasonal vegetables, or go all out and use both. If you opt for uncooked greens, grab a fistful of your favorite salad base (spinach, arugula, kale, and radicchio are all great options) and place it on one side of your bowl -- be careful not to add too many leaves here, lest you end up with a salad.

Steamed chard, roasted beets, or sautéed mushrooms are all great options. During colder months, I usually go with roasted vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli rabe, and brussels sprouts. Add just enough vegetables to your bowl to cover roughly 1/2 to 3/4 of the grains so that there's room for protein.

 Vegetables for Grain Bowl


3. Pick a protein (or two!). While you can pick your grains and vegetables independent of each other, try to consider which protein will taste best with the vegetables you've chosen. Salmon, for example, pairs well with lemony sautéed spinach, and kale and bacon are a match made in heaven. Looking for a vegetarian option? Add a creamy cheese like ricotta and rejoice as it spills over your greens, or fry up some tofu or tempeh. When in doubt, a poached egg is always a good idea -- just make sure that the yolk is soft enough that it covers the rest of the ingredients with eggy goodness when it breaks.

Grain Bowl with Vegetables and Egg


4. Add a dressing or sauce. Here's the part where you can decide the "personality" of your grain bowl. Is it going to be Asian and tangy, classic with a touch of vinaigrette, or spicy and dredged in a thick sauce? I suggest you seek inspiration from the forgotten condiments in your refrigerator door. Pesto, harissa, Sriracha, and peanut sauce can be used with a heavy hand. Or, add a soup base like chicken broth or coconut milk to your dressing to provide a deeper flavor without overpowering the natural taste of the vegetables. I often opt for something in-between, like a vinaigrette made of red wine vinegar and honey.

Dressing for Grain Bowl 


5. Add some garnishes. Garnishes are the most overlooked area of grain bowls, but they can be just the thing you need to turn your weeknight meal into a pièce de résistance. Consider adding mandolined cucumber, pickled radishes, toasted seasweed, or avocado slices. Or, get some crunch with toasted panko crumbs, toasted nuts like cashews and peanuts, and seeds. Turn to herbs like cilantro and dill for a picture-perfect finish.

Garnishes for Grain Bowl

If you're looking for inspiration, here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Farro + radicchio + sautéed kale and brussels sprouts + persimmons + poached egg + feta cheese + dill, with a red wine vinaigrette (pictured above)
  • Quinoa + roasted and sliced portobello mushrooms + sautéed tempeh + red pepper flakes, with a miso dressing
  • Brown rice + smothered cabbage + roasted chicken + panko 

What ingredients do you use to make your grain bowl into something special? Share with us in the comments below!

Photos by James Ransom

Order now

A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

Order now

Join the Conversation

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Joe
  • robin lewis
    robin lewis
  • Jill Fergus
    Jill Fergus
  • Judy P
    Judy P
  • thelastmike
I eat everything.


Joe April 21, 2018
My favorite style of eating now. Allows creativity and healthy food choices while looking for that mix of flavor in each bowl.
robin L. October 24, 2015
I have been really treating myself (and my daughter and her friends when they sleep over) to these bowls. And somehow, I thought all along that I should add some beans...so I have added chickpeas here and there, and tonight black beans. Just curious: why aren't beans mentioned? I've no problem that they aren't, I'm just curious, w/all the different diets these days that are befuddling me (including paleo, which says no to beans and discourages any grains except white rice)...!
robin L. July 22, 2015
This was a delightful article to read and I love the photos. I just made myself my first bowl, too. Delicious! I could eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and I probably will!
Author Comment
Leslie S. July 22, 2015
So glad you agree! I could eat them for every meal too!
Jill F. May 23, 2015
My family loves (brown or black) rice bowls to which we add seared salmon, avocado, brocollini and sautéed shiitake. Favorite topping is usually a homemade teriyaki sauce or Thai version accented with lime and fish sauce! (I use coconut/palm sugar or maple syrup- never white sugar and prefer gf tamari over soy sauce)
Judy P. February 2, 2015
My favorite go to for healthy suppers are what I call my skillet dinners. A little EVOO in my large nonstick skillet, chop up some fresh veggies, like onions, carrots, cabbage, tomatoes, or go Mexican and do yellow hominy instead of the carrots and cabbage, add some diced jalapeno, or do Oriental and toss in a couple of cans of oriental vegetables, and I love rice noodles. I use a can of chicken for which ever way I go and use broth for my liquids to add flavor, and depending on which I decide to do, add lots of herbs and seasonings. Such as ginger, cumin, garlic, cayene pepper, cilantro, basil. Very good and low cal.
thelastmike February 1, 2015
I sometimes make a decent size pot of cabbage and rice (or whatever grain(s) I feel like) and use it as a base for meals for several days. Very handy when you have a busy few days coming up or as a make-ahead weekend setup for a busy work week.
Then I just add whatever to it, or sometimes nothing at all. Sometimes a sauce or sometimes just a little butter and garlic or yogurt or sour cream. I'v had it with fried eggs, poached eggs, chicken breast, turkey, pork chop. I've added it to soups to make them more hearty. I've even just had it with a hotdog for a super-fast meal.
The possibilities are endless and makes a nice filler instead of the regular parade of starches. Of course if you are in the mood for a starch then it goes great with potatoes too.
Also - works fine on a plate as well as in a bowl. ;-)
burns W. February 1, 2015
I've been doing these a lot lately myself. A couple of notes: Some of my fav additions are toasted nuts (usually almond, sunflower, walnut, pecan), and pomegranite seeds. Cooking up small quantities of 4 or so different grains gives you a kind of palette to select from. I like cooking them separately so that when they are combined they tend to express themselves better, and then you can get several different salads as noted in the blog. I also enjoy working out what kind of oil and then vinegar to pair it with. Such a world of variety in this! But one warning - if you think it is going to be still leftovers in a couple of days, make sure you use veggies that won't go off in that period.
Rachel January 28, 2015
Favorite grain bowl: red quinoa, chick peas, sautéed kale, sweet potato & avocado with a squeeze of lemon
amylou61 January 26, 2015
I had a yummy brown rice bowl at The Northstar Cafe here in Columbus that had chicken, broccoli, carrots, and a peanut sauce. I've tried to re-create it at home and have come pretty close. I like the peanut sauce recipe found here: http://www.veggiebelly.com/2013/02/stupidly-easy-peanut-noodles.html
Author Comment
Leslie S. January 28, 2015
That sounds delicious! I might have to try it out myself!
Pristine January 26, 2015
I too love bowls! So much so that I have collection of bowls of all sizes, tiny ones for garnishes, small ones for soup, medium size ones for congee and large ones of salad or noodle soup!
Author Comment
Leslie S. January 28, 2015
That's exactly what my cabinet looks like, too!
Fairmount_market January 26, 2015
My favorite variant on these bowls is a hot pot: heat a hot pot or small skillet, coat with sesame oil, pack in the grains and then layer on the veggies and protein and let it all warm up and the grains get a toasted, crunchy layer on the bottom. I just made this with millet for lunch today and it was delicious.
Author Comment
Leslie S. January 28, 2015
Oh that sounds delicious - love the idea of toasting the grains on the bottom!
Diliana S. January 26, 2015
Brown rice, feta, avocado,cucumber, dill, olive oil and lemon. Topped with fried egg and a little bit of yogurt. It is the most divine lunch ever!
Author Comment
Leslie S. January 28, 2015
That sounds perfect - especially the fried egg!
MartiC January 26, 2015
I definitely love to eat out of bowls more than other dishes. In fact I just had a conversation this weekend about how the top of the dishwasher is always filled up before the bottom at my house.
susan G. January 26, 2015
Yes to bowls! for all the reasons you gave, and because I enjoy using pretty things, uncovering the picture at the bottom when I'm finished. Who knew my leftover meals had a name?