This time of year, no one wants to be in the kitchen any longer than necessary. A surefire way to short-circuit your meal prep time is to start soaking large batch whole grains for filling, nutritionally balanced meals all week.
Soak Your Grains
First of all: why should I be eating whole grains?
Whole grains (including gluten-free whole grains) provide a host of nutrients we need daily: especially fiber, protein, B vitamins, and iron. Protein and fiber slow down the digestion of the carbohydrates in the grains, providing the brain with steady, consistent levels of blood sugar to maintain alertness, focus, and energy throughout the busiest parts of our day.
Grains are typically the first thing cut when pursuing weight loss, and in reviewing food logs daily I find that fat intake and sugar cravings increase significantly as a result. In actuality, one serving of whole grains contains half the calories of one serving of fat (carbs contain 4 calories per gram as opposed to 9 calories per gram for fats like avocado, coconut oil, nuts, and nut butters).
The protein and fiber in whole grains promotes a feeling of fullness and satiety, B vitamins provide energy by fueling the energy pathways of metabolism, and the consistent supply of blood sugar keeps us from crashing. Adding 1-2 servings of whole grains per meal is a perfect way to maintain healthy eating choices and avoid becoming vulnerable to sugar and snack cravings!
What are some examples of whole grains?
The main examples of whole grains include any bread or cracker product with the first ingredient listed as “whole wheat flour,” “rolled oats,” “whole rye flour,” “brown rice,” and so on. If it starts with “enriched” flour, the grain used to make the flour was stripped of its natural protein, fiber, and nutrients — not a very nutrient dense food!
Other popular examples of whole grains include bulgar, whole wheat pasta or couscous, barley, farro, kamut, bran, soba noodles, and wheat berries.
Gluten-free whole grains, for individuals allergic to the protein in some grain products, include steel cut or rolled oats, brown or wild rice, aramanth, quinoa, sorghum, buckwheat, teff, and popcorn.
Haven’t heard of some of these? Check out Bob’s Red Mill products to try them out – all products come with a starter recipe on the packaging, and their online site has hundreds of whole grain recipes to try!
Aren’t grains inflammatory? Won’t they make me bloat?
There is a popular rhetoric in diet culture that grains are inflammatory and promote inflammation in the body. This may be true for individuals allergic to some grains, such as those with celiac disease. In those individuals, the immune system is triggered because of eating particular grain products, and an inflammatory reaction is the result.
This is not true for people who don’t have that allergy. In actuality, many whole grains (such as steel cut oats and brown rice), when studied to observe their effects in the gut, were found to correlate with anti-inflammatory activity and reduce leaky gut syndrome (which can lead to stomach pain, irritable bowel syndrome, loose stools, and other unpleasant side effects).
As for bloating or discomfort – which many mistake for an allergic or intolerant response – any food high in fiber that you’re not used to eating a lot of can absolutely lead to gastrointestinal symptoms. It may take your system a period of a few weeks to be able to tolerate, digest, and reap the benefits of whole grains. This is perfectly normal and may also happen with other fruits or veggies you may not eat often. Start with adding small amounts of new whole grains at a time – for example, a couple spoonfuls per meal. Your body will, over time, cultivate a population of gut bacteria that will help you digest it.
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How much should I be eating per day?
The average person needs approximately 6-8 servings of whole grains per day to meet their daily recommended nutrition intake. Sound like a lot? One serving is approximately ½ cup cooked, or about what would fit in the palm of one hand. So, 6 servings a day equals out to about 2 servings per meal, or about what would cover the entire hand.
Don’t whole grains take forever to cook?
This is where the soaking comes in! Soaking grains is a longstanding tradition in many cultures, the argument being that it makes grains more digestible. Cover grains with water, add a couple tablespoons of an acid such as apple cider vinegar, lemon, or buttermilk, and leave overnight. One possible theory is that the acid causes a chemical reaction that helps break down some of the structure of the grain.
Science on what’s happening is not quite clear. What is 100% fact, however, is then when you soak grains overnight, they are softer and cook much faster. Strain old water out, rinse them again, and you may even find you enjoy the flavor and texture of these grains without even cooking them –add to top a salad for a satisfying, chewy texture that takes a side dish to a full meal.
Still like them cooked? You’ll find that grains that typically take 40-60+ minutes will cook in 20 or less. Keep an eye and check them often, because they’ll be ready before you know it!
Want to max out your nutritional intake by getting the largest variety in one meal? Try mixing grains of similar size into canisters or gallon-sized bags. Similar-sized grains will cook in roughly the same amount of time.
Small grains: Amaranth, bulgar, quinoa
Medium grains: Barley, kamut, rice, sorghum
Larger grains: Farro, spelt, wheat berries, wild rice
To prep for a work week, use the following general guidelines:
For steel cut breakfast oats:
Cook 1 ¼ cups dry with 5 cups water, milk, or milk substitute (almond, soy, etc.) for 5 servings. This will provide one serving of whole grains per day at breakfast.
For lunch/dinner grains:
Cook 2 ½ cups grain with 3 ¾ cups liquid for 5 servings. This will provide 2 servings of grains for 5 meals that week.