Food philosophy: Great grains

Variety is the spice of life, and I certainly take that to heart when it comes to grains (and food in general!).  As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t go for lo-carb or fad diets (as a health- and eco-conscious vegetarian, a decent number of my calories come from whole grains and legumes), but I DO avoid eating large quantities of refined grains.

The first step for me was switching to products (bread, pasta, breakfast cereal, crackers, etc.) that were 100% whole wheat.  Growing up, my family used a lot of whole grains, and did most of our baking with 100% whole wheat pastry flour, so this wasn’t a huge switch for me, overall.  [Tip: when trying whole wheat pasta, start with angel hair; also, brand can matter.]

But there’s a lot more to the grain-scene than wheat, and, while I don’t have a medical reason to avoid wheat, I realized there were health benefits to expanding my grain consumption.

Fortunately, there are now a variety of easily accessible options in this department:

  • Brown rice
  • Quinoa
  • Millet
  • Oats, including oat groats (for risotto)
  • Corn meal (for polenta and cornbread)
  • Potatoes

That list is by no means exhaustive.  Some of the above straddle the line between grain vs. seed or starch vs. vegetable.  For my planning purposes, I tend to treat them all as grain/starch, though the distinctions can be important, nutrient-wise.

Avoiding an all-wheat, all-the-time diet does require a bit of effort, and it’s become part of my [informal] meal planning.  Sometimes it’s tricky, especially with a toddler, who, while a great eater overall, is not always into quinoa or millet.

Here’s what an average day looks like for me, grain-wise:

  • Breakfast: Oatmeal (I use a mix of rolled and steel-cut oats)
  • Breakfast #2/Morning snack: Wheat-based — 100% whole grain pancakes, waffles, toast w/peanut butter or egg, or quick bread
  • Lunch: Alternate grain
  • Afternoon snack: Often wheat-based, though sometimes granola, whole-grain corn chips, or non-wheat leftover
  • Dinner: Wheat-based

Lunch and dinner flip-flop, so if our lunch one day is wheat-based, I try to prioritize an alternate grain for dinner.  If I know we’ll be eating away from home (whether a restaurant or someone’s house), I usually assume the meal will be wheat-based, and plan accordingly throughout the day.

Even with a concerted effort to eat a variety of grains, I end up eating a decent bit of wheat — it’s pretty ubiquitous in the U.S. diet.  Here are some of my thoughts and experiences with the wheat alternatives.

We grow almost all of the potatoes we eat, which is great, because we know they’re not full of chemicals (a problem with conventionally grown potatoes), but not so great in terms of prep time.  Potatoes store best unwashed, so that means meal prep involves not just chopping and cooking the potatoes, but also rinsing and scrubbing off a substantial amount of dirt.  Strike one.

I also feel like, relative to other grains/starches, potatoes require a large amount of both fat (butter, olive oil, cheese, sour cream, etc.) and salt.  Strike two.

But there’s no strike three.  Potatoes are one of the only calorie crops (think grains and legumes) that don’t require special processing like milling or shelling, which make them a great option for the grow-your-own scene.  If you eat the skins, they are a good source of several nutrients and they help increase variety.  I didn’t realize how much the potato option helped with grain/starch variety until we ran out of potatoes in March.

Technically a seed, quinoa is one of the highest protein grains out there.  It also cooks relatively quickly (faster than brown rice) and works in a variety of dishes.

The protein and nutrients come with a price though, as this is one of the more expensive grains you can buy, even if you stick to “white” quinoa (still a whole grain, just a different variety than the more expensive “red”).  Until recently, I found the bulk bins at Local Harvest Grocery to be the best bet, priced a bit under $4/lb (making it cheaper than the WF bulk bins).  Unfortunately, on my most recent LH visit, the price had jumped to over $7/lb!

I was so surprised that I asked the cashier if the price was correct.  He confirmed that it was, though he didn’t know why.  (I haven’t gone back to see if there was a similar price jump at WF.)  I plan to continue eating quinoa, but at that price, I may not increase my consumption (currently averages one dinner plus one lunch [leftover] per week).

Toddler tips
Grain variety is a bit trickier with babies and toddlers.  Wheat-based products, like bread and noodles, lend themselves to little fingers (and are often kid favorites).  While you can buy alternate-grain version of pasta and bread, they tend to be pricey.

Adding peanut butter (or another nut butter) after cooking rice, millet, or quinoa is one trick that worked for us.  The nut butter a) increases tastiness and b) makes the grain easier for a toddler to handle on a spoon or fork (or even with fingers).

Before G was using a spoon, I made him oat clusters instead of oatmeal.  To prepare, I made a really think batch of oatmeal on the stove top, then chilled.  In the morning, I served bite-sized chunks of the oatmeal, dotted with peanut butter.  Perfect for little fingers, if a bit labor intensive.  Now he eats oatmeal with me every morning; I intentionally keep his on the thick side, for ease of spooning and less mess.

Finally, potatoes are a great finger food for babies and toddlers.

Your turn: what is your favorite non-wheat grain, and how do you use it?  Anything I should add to my regular rotation?




  1. Tracy says:

    Brown rice pasta in stirfries increases grain variety and is quick to cook. I recently purchased barley flakes at WF hoping to cook that grain quicker. We love it and it is so Eco friendly. Anyone have tips on cooking grains in crock pot? I love Eco and money saving in this cooking method.

    1. Melissa @ HerGreenLife says:

      I personally don’t have one, and it’s another to to buy (and find a place for in the kitchen), but it seems like a lot of people like rice cookers for preparing grains.

      Barley, pearled (which is partially refined) or flaked, is another good one. I’ve gotten out of the habit, but when I have the flakes on hand, I use them in place of some of the rolled oats when making granola.

  2. Green Girl says:

    I know a lot of people think giving up grains is a crazy, low-carb, fad diet, but in reality, some people have hormonal and/or digestive issues and don’t do well with grains. Many people can stop taking pharmaceuticals just by giving up grains! Since I have given up grains I have pretty much gotten rid of all PMS symptoms, especially the bloating and the cramps, so no more pain pills! I also had some skin conditions that cleared up tremendously, without meds! And I lost 15 pounds, by eating whole, organic food with very little packaging waste! A vegetarian diet can easily become “Paleo” to optimize the eco-friendly aspect and Paleo and Vegan diets (when both done properly) can overlap more than 90%. I think many people are just uninformed with Paleo in general and assume it is Atkins… FAR from Atkins. Veggies, fruit, nuts & seeds make up the base of the diet for many people. Even vegans can benefit by limiting grains… “Eat to Live” is a perfect vegan example of limiting grains (not legumes). I would be curious to get your opinion on this post:

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