The Upside of Whole Grains
My kids are forever groaning about whole grains in my house. “Why can’t we ever have white bread?” they want to know.
It’s a little tiresome, but they haven’t worn me down. It’s one of those things on which I’m not willing to budge. Kind of like my mother and Hostess Ho Hos. It just wasn’t going to happen.
That’s not to say that we don’t indulge in the chewy sourdough baguettes sold at my neighborhood market. But generally speaking, I’m holding my ground on whole grains.
Here’s why: Heavily processed grains (i.e. white foods) are robbed of the germ and bran, and consequently, most nutrients. They also lack fiber, which means when we eat them, they digest faster, blood sugar rises quickly, and our energy level and satiety isn’t sustained.
This is all good to know, but encouraging kids to actually get on board is another story. Here are a few suggestions:
- Be a role model by eating whole grains yourself. Don’t talk about it like it’s a medical prescription, but a satisfying, delicious choice.
- Incorporate grains into familiar dishes. Add barley to minestrone, for example, or toss quinoa into a favorite salad.
- Keep putting it out there. Even if they’ve snubbed a bowl of brown rice, don’t give up. Eventually they will likely give it a go.
- Get them involved. Whether it’s taking them on a bulk bin shopping expedition or having them help you with the cooking, kids are naturally curious and this may up their interest.
Last year packaged wheat bread surpassed its white flour equivalent in sales for the first time ever. This is progress, but it’s just a start. There are myriad options for whole grains beyond the bread aisle, each one offering something different from a nutrition and culinary standpoint.
Since the wealth of options can be overwhelming, here’s a rundown of the ones we use most often in our household to get you started:
:: Quinoa ::
This is a tiny, ancient grain that is a nutrition powerhouse with a particularly high protein content. I cook it most often for breakfast, topped with slivered almonds, diced apples and a drizzle of maple syrup. Give it a good rinse before cooking to minimize any bitterness.
:: Bulgur Wheat ::
Bulgur is the foundation of Middle Eastern dishes such as tabbouleh and falafel. It’s a quick-cooking grain that is an excellent source of fiber, as well as B vitamins and iron. I use it most often as an inexpensive, nutritious way to extend ground beef, lamb and turkey in meatloaf and hamburgers. For example, I make hamburgers using about 2/3 meat and 1/3 cooked bulgur, along with garlic, cumin, and other seasonings. Served in pita with yogurt in lieu of ketchup, it’s more kebab than traditional burger.
:: Oats ::
Oats are an excellent source of cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber. They are also endlessly useful in the kitchen. I toss them into the blender when I’m looking to thicken up a smoothie, add them to myriad baked goods, and, of course, make them for breakfast such as these Overnight Steel-Cut Oats. Choose old-fashioned rolled oats, ideally with the bran intact, instead of quick oats, since they are less processed.
:: Corn Meal ::
Corn products get a pretty bad rap these days, notably the demonized high fructose corn syrup. But good quality cornmeal with the bran and germ intact has much to offer. In our house it’s usually eaten in the form of polenta, which I top with sautéed vegetables and marinara sauce. Polenta with braised greens and eggs makes a wholesome weekend breakfast.
:: Farro ::
Hailing from Italy, I think of this ancient grain as a sort of fancy barley. It has a similar appearance, and that same chewy, earthy quality. Add it to soups, warm or cold salads, or braised such as in this Farro Risotto recipe.
:: Whole Wheat Couscous ::
This is appealing because it cooks so quickly. Add it to boiling water, pop on the lid, turn off the heat, wait a few minutes, and it’s good to go. Toss it with lemon juice and zest, a drizzle of olive oil, chopped parsley, and crumbled feta and you have a hearty side dish or lunchbox grain that’s full of fiber.
You can find most grains in the bulk bin section of the market. Bob’s Red Mill is my preferred brand for packaged grains since they are minimally processed. For a handy pantry staple, there are decent boxed whole grain mixes in organic markets or the organic section of the supermarket. These make for quick side dishes and can be a good way to get your feet wet with whole grain foods. Consider cutting the seasoning mix by a third to a half since they tend to be pretty high in sodium.
Truly, the best thing to do is buy what looks interesting and experiment. Grains are some of the cheapest food in the market, so it’s low risk from a food dollars standpoint. For recipes and ideas check out the books Ancient Grains for Modern Meals by Maria Speck and Good to the Grain by Kim Boyce, or the blog 101 cookbooks.