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7 Easy Ways to Sneak Whole Grains Into Your Meals

Barley, brown rice and quinoa are tastier and simpler to include in your diet than you might think.

Medically reviewed in November 2020

Updated on September 15, 2021

A healthy bowl of oats, blueberries, and peaches.
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Whole grains are a key part of a healthy diet. Not only are they a good source of B vitamins, fiber and iron, but regular consumption is linked to a lower risk of heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes.

The amount of grains your body needs depends on your age, sex and activity level. But as a general rule, men should aim for 6 to 8 ounces a day, while the target for women is 5 to 6 daily ounces. At least half of these grains should be whole grains, like oats, quinoa, brown and wild rice, barley and bulgur. And while it’s true that most Americans get enough grains in their diets, they’re often processed grains found in foods like white bread and cereal. Whole grains are frequently overlooked.

For effortless and delicious ways to eat more whole grains, we spoke with Amy Buchanan, a registered dietitian with Trident Medical Center in Charleston, South Carolina.

quinoa salad with avocado
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Sprinkle quinoa on salads

Looking to add texture and flavor—not to mention a kick of nutrition—to your leafy greens? Simply add a heaping spoonful of cooked quinoa to your bed of kale, spinach, or romaine. It takes just 10 to 15 minutes to make a batch of quinoa on the stovetop, so you can cook it once and enjoy throughout the week.

Quinoa is loaded with fiber (5 grams per cup), which helps keep you feeling full, and protein (8 grams per cup). “As far as protein goes, grains like quinoa and amaranth are considered complete proteins,” Buchanan says. “They have all the amino acids that we need,” she adds.

Quinoa also contains manganese, which helps the body form tissue, and magnesium, essential for blood and bone health.

Pro tip: Give your quinoa a good rinse before cooking. This removes the bitter, but harmless, coating naturally found on the grain.

plate of brownies
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Swap whole wheat flour into baked goods

The next time you whip up a batch of brownies or bake a birthday cake, replace some of the refined white flour with an equal amount of whole grain wheat flour. This simple substitution saves you a few calories and ups the fiber content by more than 10 grams per cup.

lentil soup
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Stir wild rice into soups

Instead of noodles, try incorporating wild rice into your next soup or stew. Egg noodles may be tasty, but their nutrition is lackluster. One cooked cup contains more fat and calories than the same serving of wild rice, with fewer grams of fiber.

Brown rice is another great addition to your favorite soup. Like some other grains, it contains loads of digestion- and heart-friendly fiber, protein, and manganese. It's also low in artery-clogging fats. Many supermarkets sell brown rice precooked and frozen, which makes adding it to your meals, like a steaming pot of veggie soup, effortless.

Pro tip: “Buying in bulk is a good way to make whole grains a little less expensive,” Buchanan says.

quinoa burger
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Pack whole oats into hamburger patties

Hamburgers are a quick and easy weeknight dinner option and grilling them at home is cheaper than eating out. But there’s another benefit to building your own burgers: You can add anything you’d like!

Stick to the traditional ground beef base or opt for lower-fat ground turkey, which can save you up to 50 calories and 4 grams of fat per 4-ounce serving. Pad out the patty and add valuable nutrients by including fresh veggies or whole grains in the mix.

“You can add whole grains like barley, bulgur or oats to things like meatloaf or hamburgers,” Buchanan says. “They can be used as a binding agent and it increases whole grain intake,” she adds. In general, oats can usually be added raw, but other grains should be cooked beforehand.

vegetable lasagna
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Bake barley into casseroles

Filling and endlessly customizable, casseroles make great side dishes or main courses any night of the week. But before you pop your pan into the oven, consider tossing some cooked whole grains into the mix. Barley, for example, is loaded with fiber, protein, and minerals like iron, manganese, and selenium.

Iron is an essential component of hemoglobin, the substance in blood cells responsible for carrying oxygen throughout the body. Manganese promotes the health of our connective tissue, bones and sex hormones. Selenium is no slacker either; it’s important for fertility and thyroid function.

Pro tip: Save time by prepping your grains in large quantities. “You can freeze cooked whole grains for up to six months, and they’ll keep in the refrigerator for three to five days,” Buchanan says.

bananas in oatmeal
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Add grains to your morning oats

Though oatmeal makes a quick and filling morning meal, you can add even more whole grains to your bowl by substituting a few tablespoons of traditional oats with dry quinoa before cooking. Then, simmer your grain mixture in a liquid of your choice until tender, like almond milk or water.

You’ll punch up your protein content, since 1 dry cup of quinoa has more than twice the protein of oats. You’ll also vary the texture of your breakfast. Add even more flavor and nutrients by topping your bowl with fruits, nuts, seeds, and cinnamon.

To ensure you're giving your body the nutrients it needs, try tracking your meals. Use a handy notebook or download an app, like Sharecare, available for iOS and Android, and let the tracker do the work for you.

quinoa salad
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Craft spiced-up sides

Whole grains make a great addition to a wide variety of entrees, side dishes, and even desserts, but a sprinkle of spices or a dash of herbs can turn grains into the star of the show. Before you toss in your grains, season your cooking water with black pepper, cumin, curry, or a bouillon cube.

Buchanan shares her favorite way to cook grains: “Usually when I'm cooking with whole grains like brown rice or quinoa, I like to do it in vegetable or chicken broth to add some flavor,” she says. Most supermarkets carry a variety of broths; just reach for the low-fat and low-sodium varieties.

Once you’ve cooked your whole grain base, fold in ripe veggies, fresh herbs, dried fruits, and chopped nuts to create recipes like our bulgur bowl or whole grain salad.

Slideshow sources open slideshow sources

MedicalNewsToday.com. “Why do we need magnesium?” January 6, 2020. Accessed June 4, 2021.
National Institute of Health. “Iron.” March 30, 2021. Accessed June 4, 2021.
MedicalNewsToday.com. “Selenium: What it does and how much you need.” January 12, 2018. Accessed June 4, 2021.

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