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Whole Grain Salads: A Quick & Easy Meal Idea

Looking for a quick meal that’s also balanced and healthy? A simple grain salad can serve as a quick, one-dish meal. Most grain salads will keep for several days, so you can save leftovers for later. You can also get creative with this type of dish. Try different combinations of grains, veggies, and lean protein based on what you have in your fridge. Depending on the taste you’re going for, you can also add healthy fats, herbs, and fruit.

How To Make a Basic Grain Salad

1.    To start, choose a whole grain for the base of your salad.

Keep your pantry stocked with your favorite whole grains. Some ideas are brown rice, barley, quinoa, bulgur, whole grain cous cous, and farro. Many dried grains come in quick-cooking varieties, which can be ready in 10-15 minutes. These are a great option for people with limited time to cook. Prepare dried grains with water, and omit any added salt or fat.

You could also use a combination of whole grains and beans or whole grains with starchy vegetables. For example, you could try:

  • Brown rice + black beans
  • Quinoa + roasted butternut squash 
  • Bulgur + lentils

2.    Add non-starchy vegetables. 

A good goal is to fill half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables. Make sure you add plenty of these to your grain salad. Think shredded carrots, diced celery, tomatoes, diced red onion, sauteed spinach, and the like. You can add fresh or cooked veggies to your salad. Feel free to get creative! If cooking, prepare your vegetables with salt-free herbs or spices to add extra flavor. For a list of non-starchy vegetables, check out Non-Starchy Vegetables on diabetes.org. Adding to the examples from above, here are just a few ideas:

  • Brown rice + black beans + pico de gallo, shredded romaine lettuce, and fresh bell pepper slices 
  • Quinoa + roasted butternut squash + roasted Brussels sprouts and onions
  • Bulgur + lentils + steamed green beans and cauliflower

3.    Choose a source of lean protein to round out your meal.

If you already chose to add beans or lentils to your dish, they will provide some protein. You could also try some tuna, grilled chicken, hard-boiled egg, sautéed tofu, or another nutritious protien option. Adding to the examples above, here are some ideas:

  • Brown rice + black beans + fresh pico de gallo, shredded romaine lettuce, and bell pepper slices + grilled chicken seasoned with cumin and chili powder
  • Quinoa + roasted butternut squash + roasted Brussels sprouts and onions + lean turkey bacon, chopped
  • Bulgur + lentils + steamed green beans and cauliflower + sautéed tofu

4.    Add some healthy extras for more flavor.

There’s nothing wrong with making some healthy additions to your grain salad! If adding nuts, seeds, avocado, dressings, or another source of healthy fat, keep portions small. Just a tablespoon or two will do most of the time. Other ways to add extra flavor are to add fresh herbs, citrus juices, or a sprinkle of cheese. Some ideas are shown below:

  • Brown rice + black beans + fresh pico de gallo, shredded romaine lettuce, and bell pepper slices + grilled chicken seasoned with cumin and chili powder + guacamole and chopped cilantro
  • Quinoa + roasted butternut squash + roasted Brussels sprouts and onions + lean turkey bacon + small drizzle homemade balsamic vinaigrette
  • Bulgur + lentils + steamed green beans and cauliflower + sautéed tofu + chopped cashews


Here are a few recipes to try for inspiration!

Quinoa Tabbouleh – Make this a complete meal instead of a side dish by adding chicken or another protein food.

Farotto with Roasted Vegetables and Tilapia – Farro is a whole grain and serves as the base of this dish. 

Tuna Pasta Salad – This recipe uses quinoa pasta, but you could also try making it with regular whole grain pasta.

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