8 Wholesome Grains We Can’t Get Enough Of

Oh, glorious grains! From Saturday morning cartoons with a bowl of cereal to working lunches with loaded salads, what would we do without you? These humble seeds have been supporting civilizations over the course of millennia, and it’s a little too easy to take them for granted.

Grains are an integral part of our lives and a workhorse of everyday nutrition. Most of us know that whole grains, in particular, are good for us, but do we know what exactly constitutes a whole grain, and why it matters? “Whole grain” means you’re eating the entirety of each kernel, from the seed’s skin to starchy endosperm, to get the full range of its natural benefits, such as dietary fiber, iron, B vitamins, and even antioxidants. The benefits of a diet rich in whole grains are truly impressive, including a lowered risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and colorectal cancer.

A food so nutritionally rich and affordably cultivated doesn’t need to be fiddled with. Yet in the 19th century with the advancement of food processing technology, we lost our way. Grain-milling factories across the globe began producing corn and rice faster than ever thought possible — and stripped away all of the healthy goodness in the process! Populations developed life-threatening deficiencies of niacin and thiamine (vitamins B1 and B3), and governments responded by “enriching” grains with isolated forms of some of those lost nutrients.

These days, we are starting to have a better understanding that instead of depending on enriched grains to replace the lost nutrients, how about we just enjoy the grains whole, the way nature intended?

In gratitude to the great grains that have been filling our plates for generations, we’re diving a little deeper to learn more about a few of our favorite grains — and a few gluten-free grain alternatives, too. There are classic “cereal” grains, a category of grass crops like wheat, corn, and oats. And then there are grain-like “pseudocereals” that aren’t grasses, but we eat them in similar ways, so we have come to think of them as part of the grain family. They’re all delicious, uniquely nutritive, and incredibly versatile.

wheatberryWheat berries 

Wheat berries come from the common wheat plant, but the stalk’s bran, germ, and endosperm remain intact and unprocessed — the definition of a whole grain. That means that you’re getting its full nutritional benefits, like dietary fiber, iron, and potassium. Though you may not have heard of wheat berries, you’ve definitely heart of whole wheat flour, which is made by grinding up wheat berries!

Make it grain during lunchtime with our:

  • Leafy Levant Salad
  • Lemon Chicken with Spring Vegetables

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Barley

Barley goes way back…waaaaay back. As one of the earliest known domesticated grains, its history extends 10,000 years to the ancient Fertile Crescent region in the Middle East. Barley seeds then traveled far and wide and popped up in many multicultural classics: think German beer, Irish beef and barley soup, and Korean boribop — barley with rice and vegetables. Look for “hulled” barley to ensure that you’re getting the whole grain, or “pearled” barley to shave off a bit of cooking time. Pearled barley loses a bit of its natural bran during the hulling process so it’s no longer technically a whole grain, but it’s still a nutrient-rich alternative to refined grains.

Make it grain during lunchtime with our:

  • Southwest Salad and Lentil Soup
  • Winter Root Veggies with Chicken
  • Beef Mushroom Ragout & Barley Stew

Freekeh

Freekeh

Freekeh is the same wheat we know and love, but it’s harvested much younger when it’s still green. It’s then fire-roasted and rubbed to reveal a firm, young grain with a hint of smokiness. This unique rubbing process is where it gets its flavor and its name — freekeh is derived from the Arabic word for “rubbed.” This ancient grain lives up to its name, with a history dating back to the 13th century, at least, when it appeared in a Baghdad cookbook. Every serving of freekeh has more protein and fiber than quinoa, making it a superfood worth adding to your repertoire.

Make it grain during lunchtime with our:

  • Roasted Garlic Frenchman
  • Sweet Pea Grain Bowl with Chicken

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Buckwheat 

Despite a misleading name, buckwheat is wheat-free! This pseudocereal grain alternative boasts a delicious nutty bite and some serious nutrients, like manganese, zinc, and potassium. Its history as a cultivated crop traces all the way back to 8,000 B.C., and its worldwide influence can be seen in a vast array of global dishes, like Eastern European kasha and knishes and ground up into Japanese soba noodles.

Make it grain during lunchtime with our:

  • Soy Shiitake Soba Bowl
  • Crab & Spicy Shrimp Soba Bowl
  • Southwest Salad and Lentil Soup

rice

Rice

Beyond its unassuming appearance, rice is a global heavyweight responsible for feeding populations all over the world. Cultivated across six continents, it’s the #1 crop for human food consumption! After being harvested, the outer, indigestible hull of each rice grain is removed, which results in whole-grain brown rice. The grains can then be refined further to remove the germ and bran, which results in white rice (and some lost vitamins and nutrients in the process). It’s hard to overstate the endless dishes across cultures that elevate brown and white rice to an art form: think Japanese sushi, Middle Eastern pilaf, Spanish paella, and Louisiana jambalaya, just to name a few!

Make it grain during lunchtime with our:

  • Sashimi Chirashi Bowl
  • Bo Ssam
  • Mushroom and Edamame Fried Rice Bowl
  • Black Sesame Poke Bowl

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Bulgur

Bulgur is made of cooked and dried whole wheat. That pre-cooking process means it takes just 10 minutes in boiling water to have this whole grain ready to eat! Thanks to its versatility and simple prep, it’s as popular as pasta in the Middle East and especially associated with the mezé staple tabbouleh. What pasta lacks in protein, bulgur has in spades: it has more fiber than buckwheat, quinoa, or oats!

Make it grain during lunchtime with our:

  • Chickpea Fritter Bulgur Bowl
  • Grilled Chicken and Bulgur Salad

farro

Farro

Farro is a type of cereal grain that comes from an ancient strain of wheat known as emmer, one of the earliest known crops domesticated in the Fertile Crescent. Emmer wheat was eventually overshadowed by the higher crop yields of classic durum wheat, but farro is back on the scene in Italy and gaining popularity stateside. With its nutty flavor and slightly chewy texture, it makes a deliciously satisfying base for salads, bowls, and soups. Plus, it contains an impressive amount of B vitamins, magnesium, and zinc! Selecting whole farro at the grocery store will ensure you’re eating the whole grain version, while “pearled” farro will give you a faster cook without the fiber-packed bran layer.

Make it grain during lunchtime with our:

  • Southwest Salad
  • Fresh Nest: Project Green Refresh Farro Salad

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Spelt 

This ancient varietal of wheat has been a domesticated crop since 5000 B.C.! Much like farro, spelt is a tasty, nutty addition to a wide variety of salads and grain bowls. Spelt also loves a happy hour, and you can find it as the chief ingredient in some Bavarian beers and Polish vodka. To ensure you’re getting the most protein possible, look for whole spelt on the grocery shelf — but be prepared to cook it for at least 45 minutes to get to its signature al dente texture.

Make it grain during lunchtime with our:

  • Bombay Chicken and Spelt Bowl