Whole grains are a perfect choice for the lunch box, because they are cheap, filling, and best of all, they hold up well until you get a chance to eat.
One of the best habits you can adopt to streamline your cooking is batch cooking a new whole grain every week to make into salads, add heft to soups, or serve as a side to any meal. I like cooking my grains in a good flavored stock or well–salted water to add a little depth. At the same time, I’ll roast a pan of seasonal vegetables. For those of you with a little less time on your hands, there are also some great ready to eat and frozen grains on the market* (see below).
My favorite way to prepare them? The Whole Grain Salad. Essentially, I pick any whole grain (and there are so many to choose from), add in “the fixins” and toss with a vinaigrette, a handful of torn fresh herbs, and salt and pepper. Your grains will hold up splendidly until lunch, and the longer your salad sits, the better the flavors will infuse into each bite.
Many of the salads I make have decidedly “mature” flavor profiles, but these can be great salads for a kid’s lunchbox as well.
Things to think about: to achieve your ideal grain salad, you want a range of textures and flavors. I like something chewy, something crunchy and something soft. As for flavor, I like something earthy, nutty, green, sweet and tart. And sometimes I like a little punch of heat: either from red pepper flakes or hot sauce.
The Formula: the good thing is that these salads are flexible. You can make them as big or as small as you need. Usually, for a lunch box I serve ½ to 1 cup of whole grain as a portion. I like my salads on the more vegetable laden side, so I’ll add about a cup of vegetables per person, but ½ cup is probably more reasonable. The dressing amount is up to you – you want to add a small amount at first, and toss your salad and taste – if you need more, add a small amount, toss and taste. I usually add my salt and pepper to the dressing, but sometimes it’ll need more salt if it tastes a little bit flat. Sometimes I’ll pack a little lemon wedge to brighten it up before I eat.
The Grains: some of the best grains for lunches are the ones that are firmer in texture when cooked: barley, wheat berry, farro. Bulgur makes a softer salad, millet and quinoa are even softer. I also use a lot of brown rice, wild rice and Israeli cous-cous (not technically a grain, but a tiny round pasta) as the base to my salads. (Technically quinoa, wild rice, and israeli cous cous aren’t true grains, but we use them in the same way).
The Fixin’s: here you can go wild, but typically I like to add seasonal vegetables (particularly roasted vegetables, but I like a mix of cooked and raw vegetables), some sort of bean, fresh herbs, and cheese. Sometimes I’ll add a small handful of nuts or dried fruit as well.
The Dressing and Herbs: this is where you get some flexibility to really change the flavor profile of your dish. You can choose a soy-ginger marinade, or maybe a Californian Green Goddess dressing, or a citrus vinaigrette. Most often I just use a basic vinaigrette of one part vinegar to three parts oil. If you feel uneasy making your own dressings, there is no shame here in using your favorite bottled dressing, (but making your own is cheaper and more flavorful). Don’t be afraid to add a good amount of fresh herbs, I like to think of them as a vegetable rather than just a garnish. Green is good!
9 Great Whole Grain Salads:
These aren’t traditional recipes, but combinations that I like and start with. I typically use a few cups of grain (but sometimes I double it). Don’t be afraid to mix and match your grains, or use multiple grains at once. I might swap out the vegetable, add some chopped egg or crispy bacon or tofu (although, you have to be more careful about how long you keep them in your lunch box when you add those). Usually I keep them room temperature, but if I’m eating them at home for lunch, I might re-heat them on the stove and eat them warm and call it a “pilaf”. For those with a little less time on your hands, you can use pre-cooked grains (*see below), frozen vegetables, and bottled dressing, and these will still taste pretty darn good.
Farro Salad with Tomatoes, Basil and Feta: take 2 cups of cooked farro, and toss with a chopped ripe tomato (I find that cherry tomatoes work well in winter time, when you can’t find sweet ripe heirlooms). Add a handful of roughly chopped or torn basil, crumble in some feta cheese, and toss with a balsamic vinaigrette.
Not Quite Tabbouleh Salad: take 2 cups cooked bulgur wheat and mix with a cup or so of chickpeas (garbanzo beans). Add a handful of chopped parsley, some cherry tomatoes, a small chopped shallot, a sprinkle of cumin, and some lemon vinaigrette.
Greek Wheat Berry Salad: take 2 cups of cooked wheat berries, and toss with 1 medium cucumber, chopped. Add a small handful of chopped dill, a ½ cup of yogurt, and the juice and zest of a lemon. (You might want to try half the lemon juice, but I like it quite tart). You can also toss in some feta and pine nuts if you’d like to gild the lily.
Barley Salad with Broccoli, Blue Cheese and Walnuts: take 2 cups of cooked barley, add 2 cups of roasted (or steamed) broccoli, cut into bite size pieces. Add crumbles of a strong blue cheese, some toasted walnuts, and toss with balsamic vinaigrette.
Quinoa, Black Bean and Corn Salad: take 2 cups of cooked quinoa, add ½ cup of black beans, and ½ cup fresh (or frozen) corn kernels, and ½ cup chopped red bell pepper. Add some chopped red onion and avocado (if you like them), a dash of cumin, and top with lime vinaigrette. Kick it up with some hot sauce, or a few spoonfuls of salsa if you’d like.
Brown Rice, Asparagus and Edamame Salad: take 2 cups of brown rice, and mix with a cup of asparagus, ½ cup of edamame (or broad beans, or peas), a good handful of torn mint and a lemony vinaigrette. This one is good with bacon.
Wild Rice, Cranberry and Nut Salad: take 2 cups of cooked wild rice, add in 1/2 cup dried cranberries, ¼ cup toasted hazelnuts (or walnuts, or almonds) and toss with a citrus vinaigrette. (Orange juice and zest is stellar in this).
Bulgur with Eggplant, Pistachios and Mint: take 2 cups of cooked bulgur, toss in a cup of roasted (or grilled) cubed eggplant. Toss in a handful of pistachios and some freshly torn mint. Toss with a lemon vinaigrette. You can also add in a couple of black olives and feta, and you’ll be a happy camper.
Israeli Couscous and Cauliflower Salad: take 2 cups of cooked Israeli couscous, and add two cups of roughly chopped roasted cauliflower. Toss with fresh parsley and a dressing of lemon juice and olive oil, with a tablespoon of capers and a few chopped anchovy filets.
A note on precooked grains: I’ve long since made it a habit to cook batches of grains at the beginning of the week. I’ll often freeze small portions of cooked grains to reheat. As this isn’t practical for everyone, I’ve also spent a lot of time tasting pre-packaged grains (both shelf stable and frozen), and find many of them to be really good. Trader Joe’s has some really good options (frozen organic brown rice, frozen organic jasmine rice, fully cooked wild rice, and their multi-grain pilaf). My other favorite is a company called Village Harvest which I tried several years ago at the Fancy Food Show and fell in love with. They recently sent me some of their frozen whole grain samples (it pays to write about companies you love, I tell you) – and what sets them apart is the flash freezing which really preserves the grain, and their combinations: my favorites being the Farro & Red Rice, and Wheatberry & Barley.