May 2009: Glorious Grains

What are whole grains?  What different types are there?  What do they taste like?  Why are they important and how can they be easily incorporated into family meals?  This month I’d like to explore these questions as we build a case to support adding whole grains to the family menu.  Whole grains provide a base to the wonderful seasonal vegetables that we can enjoy in the spring and summer.  They can be added to hearty soups or incorporated into healthy casseroles in the fall and winter.  They are also very economical, which is always a plus.  So let’s learn more about them!

What are Whole Grains? A grain is a seed made up of three parts – the germ, bran and endosperm.   You might remember these terms from high school biology.  J  The germ will, upon germination and sprouting, give rise to the first tiny leaves and rootlets; the endosperm provides the starchy bulk of the grain which nourishes the seedling during its early growth;  and the bran is the tough outer coating that protects the grain.  Each part contains different vitamins, minerals, oils and nutrients.  So when grains are processed, removing parts of the original grain such as the bran and the germ, the nutrients that are associated with these parts are lost.  Because of the loss in nutrients during the milling and refining process, flours are “enriched”  by manufacturers.   The “enrichment” process usually involves adding back in thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and iron.  However, refined grains still don’t have as  many nutrients as whole grains do.  White flour contains, for example, less than 1/3 of the pyridoxine and folic acid contained in whole wheat flour.  Another example is vitamin E, which is destroyed by bleaching;  white flour contains as little as 14% of the vitamin E in whole wheat flour. (1)  So it is important to look for whole grains instead of processed grains to ensure maximum nutritional value from your grain intake.

What are Some Different Types of Whole Grains? Throughout the world, there is a wide variety of grains cultivated.  Each culture and climate has its favorites.  In the US some of the most popular grains include rice, wheat, corn, and oats.  My own personal favorites are quinoa, barley and millet.  Some more exotic options include amaranth, faro, hominy, kamut, rye, sorghum, spelt, teff, triticale, and wheat berries. 

What do Various Whole Grains Taste Like? Here is a chart based on the palette of Lorna Sass, author of Whole Grains Every Day, Every Way. I’ve included only some examples to get you started:

Grain Description
Oats (steel cut) Chewier than rolled oats; wholesome texture
Bulgur Chewy, popular in Middle Eastern dishes
Millet Very mild, firm but not tough
Quinoa Slightly sweet, herbal taste
Long grain brown rice Light and fluffy;  less chewy than short grain
Barley Hearty, chewy

Why Should Grains Be Incorporated Into the Family Menu? Besides being extremely economical, grains have a great nutrition profile.  Here is a chart created by Heather Sullivan, R.D. (2).

(½ cup dry)
Calories Fat Sat Fat Carbs. Fiber Protein Vitamins Minerals Comments
Brown rice 374 2.5 0.5 72 3.2 7.1 B vitamins Magnesium Zinc, Iron Higher in protein and 3x the fiber of white rice
Rolled oats 150 3 0.5 27 4 5.5 B vitamins Magnesium Iron 2 grams cholesterol lowering soluble fiber
Barley 320 1 0 74 10 10 B vitamins Magnesium Top 3 in Fiber and protein
Bulgur 240 1 0 53 13 9 B vitamins Iron, Magnesium Tops in Fiber
Steel cut oats 300 4 0 52 8 8 B vitamins More Calcium than rolled oats More flavor than rolled oats
Millet 360 4 0 64 12 9.6 B vitamins Magnesium Iron Fiber and protein top 3
Quinoa 340 5 0 60 6 14 B vitamins Iron, Zinc, Magnesium Tops in protein, great source of iron

How Can Grains Be Easily Incorporated Into Family Meals? When I want to plan a meal quickly and simply, I avoid cookbooks, complex recipes and long shopping lists and instead think about a meal in terms of a recipe framework. Recipe frameworks give you a basic understanding of what elements you might like to combine (a grain with a protein source, some vegetables, a healthy fat and seasonings, for example).  They allow you to make the decisions about what goes into your dish based on your families’ own food preferences and tastes as well as what you have on hand in your fridge, freezer, and pantry.  Recipe frameworks make meal planning flexible, simple and easy.

Here is the Grain Recipe Framework for Breakfasts.
Here is the Grain Recipe Framework for Lunches/ Dinners.

Note:  You’ll notice that we’ve suggested using a rice cooker to cook your grains, because it is so easy to prepare them this way.  You can also cook grains the conventional way using a pan on the stovetop.  If you don’t have a rice cooker, there are some inexpensive options in the Nurture store.

At Nurture, through our work with resource-limited families, we have developed a set of example recipes developed from each framework.  These recipes incorporate low-cost ingredients but still render an incredibly delicious meal.  Here are some examples for breakfasts.

Grain Recipe Framework example:  Muesli
Grain Recipe Framework example:  Tropical Breakfast Bowl

For lunches and dinners, I developed Fiesta Casserole years back and often served it at play-date gatherings.  I have found this recipe to a be a hit with all ages.  My family (and extended family) consistently ask for this meal.  I often make large batches and freeze them.  Tabouli requires more of an acquired taste in a child or an adventurous eater.  My husband and I love Tabouli (especially drizzed with a bit of balsamic vinegar).

Grain Recipe Framework example:  Fiesta Casserole
Grain Recipe Framework example: Tabouli

To further test the concept of the Grain Recipe Framework,  I enlisted the help of Nurture board members Beth Busch and Colleen Scopacasa.  They each took the Grain Recipe Frameworks and invented various meals for their families.  I also tried some of my own variations on Fiesta Casserole (which has a southwestern or Mexican flare) and tried some other versions based on different international flavorings and ingredients.  See below for charts of our explorations at the meal table–  and have fun with your own grain adventures!

Thanks Beth and Colleen for your great work on these “whole grain meal adventures” with your families!


Breakfast Adventures

Invented by Recipe Name Grain Fruit/Veggie Seasoning Protein Comments
Beth Banana Oats Steel cut oats Bananas/ Golden Raisins Cinnamon Strawberry yogurt “I think vanilla yogurt or a bit of vanilla would have given it even a better flavor.  Easy to make ahead and then warm up.”
Beth Inca eggs* Quinoa Sauteed spinach Yellow mustard, salt, pepper Scrambled eggs “The kids were not crazy about the spinach, but my husband and I liked it.  Medium results.”
Colleen Chop Steel cut oats Pears Honey/ Cinnamon Ground pecans “Ground pecans are a great way to sneak in protein. My 3 year old didn’t know they were there!”
Colleen Barley corn bananas Barley Bananas Honey Almonds “Anything with honey was a hit!”
Colleen Yotes and Berries Steel cut oats Strawberries None needed Vanilla yogurt
Colleen Peary Sweet Barley Pears Honey Pecans
Kathryn Blue Oats Steel cut oats Blueberries Honey Blueberry yogurt “My husband now eats this every morning”
Kathryn Blue Barley Barley Blueberries Honey/ vanilla Blueberry yogurt “This is second best to Blue Oats”

* Quinoa was called “the mother grain” by the ancient Incas.

Lunch/Dinner Adventures

Invented by Recipe Name Grain Fruit/Veggie Seasoning Protein Comments
Beth Spicy Chicken and Barley Barley Steamed broccoli, sauteed mix of garlic, red pepper and canned fired roasted tomatoes Dijon mustard, balsamic vinegar Shredded cooked chicken “No precise measurements, just to taste.  Thumbs up with the kids.  I have to say it was tasty!!!”
Beth Spring Peas with Chicken and Rice Brown rice Frozen peas Ginger, fresh mint, balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard Cooked chicken “My family said too much mint (I put 4 Tbsp in) and a bit dry.  I would add a bit of orange juice.  I would also shred the chicken—my kids find shredded chicken not as dry and easier to chew.  It was such a refreshing spring taste!”
Colleen Kitchen Sink Millet
Peas, green onion, tomato Salt pepper Cheddar cheese, ham “We used the framework as a leftover system.  Anything I cooked for the week was added, except the grains, and just mixed together and baked – it really stretched our pantry!”
Colleen Black, Yellow, Brown Brown RiceBarley Black beans, corn, chickpeas Cilantro, salsa, salt Chicken, cheese
Kathryn Italian Casserole Brown Rice
Tomatoes Fresh basil/ Italian seasoning White beans and ricotta cheese in casserole, shredded mozzarella on top “Not as good as Fiesta Casserole, but my daughter and husband were big fans.”

Disclaimer: This column is for information only, and no part of its contents should be construed as medical advice, diagnosis, recommendation or endorsement by the author. You should always ask your physician for his or her recommendation before starting any new health-related activity.


  1. Kathryn - HKIE says:

    What about gluten and celiac disease? Has wheat changed biologically since our grandparents were kids?
    Wheat became wheat no longer when big agriculture stepped in decades ago to develop a higher-yielding crop. Intense crossbreeding efforts with the wheat products sold to you today are nothing like the wheat products of even our grandmother’s age, very different from the wheat of the early 20th century, and completely transformed from the wheat of the Bible and earlier.

    Plant breeders changed wheat in dramatic ways. Once more than four feet tall, the type grown in 99 percent of wheat fields around the world is now a stocky two-foot-tall plant with an unusually large seed head.

    One of the most common varieties was created in a geneticist’s lab by exposing wheat seeds and embryos to the mutation-inducing industrial toxin sodium azide, a substance poisonous to humans and known for exploding when mishandled. This hybridized wheat doesn’t survive in the wild, and most farmers rely on chemical fertilizers and pesticides to keep it alive when growing it as a crop.

    Intense crossbreeding created significant changes in the amino acids in wheat’s gluten proteins, a potential cause for the 400-percent increase in celiac disease over the past 40 years.

    Wheat’s gliadin protein has also undergone changes. Compared to its pre-1960s predecessor, modern gliadin is a potent appetite stimulant. Hence, the new gliadin proteins may have a hand in our overeating habits.

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