American College of Nutrition Certified Nutrition Specialist | Professor of Nutrition

 

How to Build a Great Bowl

Vegetarian Bowl MealBowl meals are trendy here now, and for good reason. People have been making meals out of a bowl full of separate ingredients for thousands of years for good reason. Bowls are quick, easy to personalize and very satisfying. 

The best bowls combine vegetables (raw or cooked or both!) with beans or tofu (if you hate tofu pretend I said chicken) and a whole grain, all topped with a dressing or sauce to balance the flavors and tie them together. Plus, sauces and dressings are delicious and seem indulgent even if they are healthy. 

The great part about bowls is that each person can customize their bowl exactly how they like it, and the cook gets no complaints. 

Let’s break down each of these components:

Vegetables

Greens are a great base for a bowl, and should be included. Everything from leftover cooked greens to flash sautéed spinach to fresh lettuce counts. I love fresh arugula, baby spinach and kale because they don’t wilt quickly and add flavor to the bowl. Cabbage is also great, cooked or raw. 

Onions, cooked or raw, are another important add-in. Onions give a nice counter-punch to more earthy ingredients. Green onions are a great topping for a bit of oniony flavor and great color. Pickled red onions are great for those of us who don’t always love the harshness that can come with raw onions. 

To pickle a red onion, chop or slice it then soak for 20 minutes in lime or lemon juice with a pinch of salt and sugar. They will keep for a week, so make some and use them on salads and sandwiches too. 

Cherry tomatoes add color without needing any prep work at all. If you have some good farmstead tomatoes, dice those up and enjoy. 

Any vegetable that you like works in a bowl. Sweet potato and squashes give a burst of color and creaminess. Mushrooms add some earthy base notes. Broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts all add heft and heartiness. Peppers add brightness and beautiful color, cucumbers add crunch.

Avocado isn’t technically a vegetable, but its a great creamy addition to your bowl. Everything is better with something creamy and rich on top. 

Protein

Beans: Open a can of beans, rinse and drain and you have a wonderful protein-filed addition to your bowl. Any bean works, from lentils to chickpeas to black beans and anything in between. If you buy the “no salt added” beans, salt and put dressing on them first, then make your bowl fixings. They will soak up the dressing and be much more flavorful. 

Tofu is also a great way to add protein. You can bake it, sauté it, or even buy it pre-baked and seasoned. Cubes of tofu provide some creaminess and are a blank canvas for all of the other flavors. If you haven’t tried it yet, give it a go. You may be surprised how much you enjoy this healthy protein. 

Fish or Chicken: poke bowls use raw marinated fish, you can also open a can of tuna or salmon and pop it on your bowl. Chicken is fine too, although beans are healthier.

Grains

Any whole grain is hearty enough to anchor a bowl. Branch out from brown rice and try farro, quinoa, barley, and red or black rice. The easiest way to do this is to buy frozen, plain, cooked grains from the store and heat them in the microwave when you are ready to eat. You can also cook grains in a rice cooker, pressure cooker or Instant Pot and they will be ready when you are.

Dressing/ Sauce

This is the best part! I love a simple lemon juice and olive oil dressing, or one of the creamer sauces below. Any dressing you like on a salad will work, and so will any sauce you like. These are my current two favorites:

Lemon Tahini Sauce (from Cookus Interuptus)

1/3 cup tahini (stir the jar well)

1/4 cup olive oil

Juice of 1 large lemon, add more to taste if your lemon isn’t juicy

1 clove of garlic, smashed

2 tsp soy sauce (low sodium is great)

pinch of cayenne

1/2 – 3/4 cup water

Add all ingredients up to water in a blender and blend until smooth. Add 1/2 cup water and blend. If the sauce is still too thick, add up to 1/4 cup more water and blend until its your desired consistency. 

Cilantro Cream Sauce (also from Cookus Interruptus)

1/2 cup non-fat or low-fat plain yogurt

2 TBS lime juice (from 1-2 limes)

3-4 TBS chopped cilantro (to taste)

1 clove garlic, minced

1/4 tsp cumin

2 TBS water

Whisk or blend all ingredients together until smooth. If the sauce is too thick, add more water until its your desired consistency.  

In the Freezer Case

The frozen bowl  meals from Luvo and Kashi are a great option when you want a bowl and want it quick. They are healthy, with whole grains, vegetables and protein, without a ton of sodium. Its so nice to have a healthy option in the freezer case. You can pick them up at most grocery stores and sometimes even Target. 

A Bowl Bar (like a taco bar) makes a great dinner when you’re feeding picky eaters, or when everyone is eating at different times and you only want to cook once. They are a great use of leftovers, and allow you to cook once and eat several times.

That’s how we make healthy eating possible when we are busy – cook once and repurpose to cover several meals.

I hope you enjoy these bowl as much as I do. Let me know how you like your bowl.

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