Cooking Formula: The Best Way to Make Great Grain Bowls

Grain bowl recipes aren’t hard to come by, but we want to make sure you can build a grain bowl with anything you have on hand. We’ll share our grain bowl formula that will teach you how to make grain bowls with leftover ingredients!

  • By Jess Dang
  • May 13, 2020

Here at Cook Smarts, we love grain bowls — all those bright colors contrasting against one another, the flavors mingling together as the sauce makes its way down through the protein and vegetables and into the grains, the crunch of one ingredient paired with the creaminess of another . . . *chef’s kiss*

And a big bonus is that they’re so healthy, too!

But one of the main reasons we love grain bowls is that they’re a great way to use up leftover roasted vegetables, rice, quinoa, chicken, or lentils from earlier in the week (to name just a few options). They’re also super easy to throw together on a busy weeknight. Toss on some sauce or vinaigrette and you have a healthy, balanced meal with very little fuss. 

So we’re going to share our step-by-step, mix-and-match formula for putting together grain bowls with whatever ingredients you have on hand.

1. Cook Grains

We recommend ⅔ to ¾ cup of uncooked grains for 4 grain bowl servings. (Cooking for one? Make some extra to use throughout the week!) If you’re using leftover cooked grains, go for around ½ cup per serving or a little more, but no need to be precise. Cook your grains in water or broth with a pinch of salt. 

Grains that work well in grain bowls include (but are not limited to!):

  • Barley
  • Brown or white rice
  • Buckwheat
  • Couscous
  • Farro
  • Millet
  • Polenta
  • Quinoa

You can also use this formula with pasta, and a few tweaks will make a great oatmeal breakfast bowl. Prefer to eat lower-carb? Reduce the grains by half and add salad greens to make up the bulk, or try cauliflower rice instead!

2. Prep and / or Cook Veggies

Vegetables contribute a variety of flavors and textures to grain bowls. For best results, mix it up! Including both cooked and raw veggies and aiming for a range of colors and textures in your bowl will give you the tastiest meal — not to mention the greatest variety of nutrients. Aim for about 1½ to 2 cups of diced veggies per person, some raw and some cooked (we like to use two of each).

Veggies that you’ll chop and throw in raw include:

  • Avocados
  • Cucumbers
  • Lettuce
  • Olives
  • Sprouts
  • Tomatoes

Others will usually or always require cooking:

  • Asparagus
  • Bok choy
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Butternut squash
  • Parsnips
  • Potatoes and sweet potatoes
  • Zucchini and summer squash

And there are some veggies that can go either way, enjoyed raw or cooked:

  • Beets
  • Bell peppers
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • Corn
  • Green beans
  • Kale
  • Mushrooms
  • Radishes
  • Snow peas
  • Spinach

To cook veggies, try roasting them in the oven with some oil, salt, and spices, or tossing them on the grill. They can also be cooked in a wok or skillet along with garlic or onions and, optionally, your spices of choice. However, this is a great opportunity to use up leftover ingredients from salads, soups, or roasts earlier in the week. All those odds-and-ends of roasted sweet potatoes, mixed salad greens, and stir-fried broccoli are perfect to add to your bowl.

Think outside the veggie box and swap some vegetables for fruits! For a Caribbean-inspired grain bowl, add a little diced pineapple or mango. Strawberries go great with salmon / chicken and spinach grain bowls. And a morning quinoa / oat bowl pairs well with bananas, apples, or berries.

3. Cook Proteins

If you have cooked proteins made earlier in the week, the easiest thing to do is to reheat and add to your grain bowl. If you don’t, though, do a quick sauté of any protein that needs to be cooked, or toss them in the oven along with any vegetables that also needs cooking. These proteins can include chicken, beef, pork, fish, shrimp, and tofu. One serving of protein is roughly the size of your palm.

Other delicious options include:

  • Canned beans (black, garbanzo, pinto, white)
  • Canned tuna or salmon
  • Deli meat, diced (ham, turkey, pastrami, roast beef)
  • Egg – fried, soft-boiled, hard-boiled, scrambled, poached
  • Lentils
  • Rotisserie chicken
  • Sashimi-grade raw fish
  • Tempeh

4. Assemble Grain Bowl

Put a scoop of grains in your bowl, and layer with your veggies. Add the protein on top. Easy assembly, right?!

5. Drizzle with Vinaigrette / Sauce

Of course you can use a bottled vinaigrette or sauce for ease, but it’s so easy and tasty to make your own! Our cooking formula for a simple vinaigrette calls for 60% oil, such as olive oil, avocado oil, sesame oil, or grapeseed oil; 30% acids, which in this case means vinegar — rice vinegar, balsamic, red or white wine vinegar, and sherry vinegar are some of our favorites, and you can also supplement some of the acid with lemon or lime juice; and 10% of any other flavors you like, including mustard, honey, jam, or fresh herbs. 

For sauce options, we love these five sauces you can use on everything, including nuoc nam, chimichurri sauce, and adobo-honey sauce. You can also make a very basic sauce by mixing mayonnaise with chili-garlic sauce — perfect for topping tuna poke bowls or if you like a bit of heat – or keeping it super simple with a dollop of Greek yogurt. 

6. Add Extra Toppings

Roughly one tablespoon of nuts or seeds per bowl adds interest and a great crunch to any bowl. Or try topping your bowl with some shredded cheese or chopped fresh herbs. Some of our favorite options include:


  • Almonds, slivered or sliced
  • Cashews
  • Macadamia nuts
  • Pecans
  • Walnuts


  • Hemp seeds
  • Pine nuts
  • Poppy seeds
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Sesame seeds, white and / or black
  • Sunflower seeds


  • Any shredded variety (Mexican, cheddar, mozzarella)
  • Bocconcini (small fresh mozzarella cheese balls)
  • Feta, diced or crumbled
  • Goat cheese, crumbled
  • Nutritional yeast (for a vegan, dairy-free option)


  • Chives
  • Cilantro
  • Dill
  • Green onions
  • Parsley

And there you have it! A simple formula for building customizable grain bowls whenever you want. If all of these options sound overwhelming, remember the easiest way to make a grain bowl is to use leftovers and whatever you have at home. No need to go buy specific ingredients, since the point of a grain bowl is to enjoy a variety of veggies and proteins over grains. You’ll be surprised at how delicious combining elements from leftover dinners throughout the week can be!

But if you would like to get started with some simple grain bowl recipes, keep reading!

Grain Bowl Ideas

If you need a visual of how to put together a grain bowl, we have a short video on How to Build a Vegetarian Whole Grain Bowl, but of course the concept still applies if you’re using meat or skipping the heartier grains.


How to Build a Vegetarian Whole Grain Bowl

See how easy it is to build a tasty, satisfying and healthy vegetarian whole grain bowl!

For some delicious grain bowl inspiration, these are a few of our favorite flavor combinations:

  • This vegetarian Quinoa Bowl with Za’atar Chickpeas has a little bit of everything: creamy sauce, spicy arugula, warm roasted vegetables — and who can resist a soft-boiled egg?
  • Perfect for summer grilling season, these Beef Kebab Grain Bowls involve cooking beef and veggie skewers on the grill (though a sauté pan is also fine!), then using them to top barley. Everything is finished with a creamy, craveable chimichurri sauce.
  • We can’t get enough peanut sauce, which is why we love these Roasted Tofu and Vegetable Farro Bowls topped with the protein-rich, gingery, sweet-and-salty sauce.
  • One of our members’ all-time favorites, this Tuna Poke Bowl is quick to assemble and bursting with flavor from the sesame-and-soy-tossed tuna, ripe avocado, and spicy garlic mayo.

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How to Make Grain Bowls | Cook SmartsHow to Make Grain Bowls | Cook SmartsHow to Make Grain Bowls | Cook Smarts


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