Cold winter nights beg for comfort food, but so many of those meals are low-nutrient calorie bombs, loaded with saturated fats and processed carbs. Luckily, by making a few simple substitutions you can still satisfy your cravings while fueling your body in a much healthier way. Enter whole grains.
Whole grains are pretty much what they sound like – minimally processed complex carbohydrates that still look like they did when they were growing on a stalk. Of course, they’ve all been husked and many have been cut, crushed, roasted or sprouted in order to make them easier to cook and digest, but these grains are about as close to nature as you can get. Nutritionally, they are high in complex carbohydrates and fiber, low in fat and they derive 15% to 20% of their calories from protein. Perhaps more importantly, however, are the culinary benefits of whole grains. Often described as nutty or toothy, whole grains offer a much higher level of satisfaction than even whole grain versions of processed foods like whole grain bread or pasta. Their high fiber content fills you up, while their slow rate of digestion supplies you with a well-regulated supply of energy and makes you feel full longer. So what are some of these magical foods? A few of my favorites include quinoa (technically a seed, but one that acts like a grain), bulgar, wild/brown/red rice, barley and steel cut oats.
If you don’t have much experience cooking with whole grains, you might not know where to start. Cooking times can vary depending on which grain you’re using and what form you buy it in. Barley, for example, can be bought hulled (the closest to the stalk), semi-pearled (lightly processed) or pearled (technically not a whole grain, but still healthier than other processed grains). Pearled barley can cook in about 10 minutes, while hulled barley can take closer to an hour. The same is true of oats. Steel cut oats have been cut, but contain the entire kernel, while rolled oats have been steamed and flattened, losing some of the kernel in the processing. If you buy your whole grains in bulk (not in a bag with cooking instructions) you can find out how to cook them to a nice, chewy consistency at the Whole Grains Council web site. There you’ll find a handy table with amounts and cooking times and a much more extensive list of grains than I’ve mentioned here.
Cooking whole grains is actually easy and doesn’t take that long, but may of us still opt for processed carbs because that’s what we’re used to. So in order to introduce you to cooking with more whole grains, I thought it might be a good time for a challenge. If you took the Rainbow Challenge the week after Thanksgiving, then you know a little bit about how this works, but with the Whole Grain Challenge, instead of trying to cram a bunch of whole grains into one week, I thought it might work better to spread it out over a month and only concentrate on a few whole grains.
February lends itself nicely to a challenge like this because it is exactly four weeks long. So, beginning tomorrow, pick one whole grain for each week in February and try to incorporate it into your meals for that week. There are unlimited recipe resources for whole grain recipes on the web. There are healthy sites like OhSheGlows and ForksOverKinves, which pair whole grains primarily with other whole foods and limit the use of oils and saturated fats, or you can just go to your favorite cooking site (like Epicurious.com) or the Whole Grains Council recipe resource and search for recipes that incorporate whole grains into virtually anything you want to make.
You can actually save a lot of time during the week if you choose a grain and cook up a big batch of it on Sunday, then incorporate it into different meals throughout the week. Most cooked grains will keep in the refrigerator for at least 4 days.
By the numbers the Whole Grain Challenge is this:
4 Different Whole Grains
__ How many different meals will you make?