Eating Well While Sheltering in Place: Meal Prepping for Grain Bowls!

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While you’re sheltering in place, it’s a great idea to keep your pantry stocked with foods that you can transform into a variety of meals. While the impulse might be to eat comfort foods like mac and cheese, what your body needs to stay healthy and strong in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic is what is needs all the time: whole grains, a variety of vegetables, and lean protein.  You can eat healthy and still eat deliciously! For many people, working from home doesn’t leave you with much free time, especially if you’re simultaneously home schooling some kids.  So I thought I would share with you a strategy for batch cooking using mainly pantry ingredients that will allow you to mix and match throughout the week and have enough variety in flavors to please the whole family.  The answer? Grain bowls!

I made this as an additional resource for students enrolled at Edible Education 101 at UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, but it will be useful for all of us who are now shopping infrequently and cooking from our pantries.  So eat well, wash your hands, practice social distancing (but stay connected virtually), rest, exercise, meditate and stay well!  For a video recording of this class and many other excellent classes, please visit


The most flexible way to compose a grain bowl is to use my Grain Bowl Template®:

grain + sauce + roasted vegetables + protein + nuts/seeds + leafy greens + something creamy

To make this easy as 1-2-3 (OK, actually 1 to 7), batch cook the different components once per week.  Use an efficiency tip from the professional kitchen and start steps 1 and 2 first, then work on the remaining steps while those are cooking.  And don’t forget your mise-en-place: get all of your ingredients ready so that you don’t realize last minute that something needed to be prepared in advance (soaking cashews, soaking beans).

  1. Cook 3 batches of whole grains. Some of my favorites include brown rice blends, farro and quinoa. Make these in the amount that’s right for the size of your household, either on the stove or if you’ve got one, in a rice cooker. (Or make more; cooked and cooled whole grains freeze well.) Whole grains have fiber, B vitamins, iron and other minerals that refined grains like white rice lack.
  2. Make a sheet pan or two of roasted vegetables. This can be done at the same time you’re prepping your grains. Root vegetables, which keep for a long time, are particularly good for this. Some ideas: sweet potatoes, parsnips, carrots, turnips, along with wedges of red onion. Cut into equal size chunks (about 2 inches) so they cook evenly, toss with olive oil, salt and pepper, and perhaps a favorite spice, and cook in a hot oven (400-425 degrees F) and you’ll be all set in about 20 minutes.
  3. Prepare your proteins– most plant-based proteins are pantry staples—think beans, either dried, canned (look for no/low sodium in Tetra-Paks or cans labelled BPA free), or frozen; tempeh, tofu, and seitan. Cooking a pot of beans once a week will allow you to use them not only in grain bowls, but as a base for chili, soup, and more. You can also marinade and then pan-fry or bake tempeh or tofu in advance for added flavor and texture. Other healthy, non-plant based proteins that work well in grain bowls include roasted salmon and grilled or baked chicken.
  4. Nuts and seeds– these little powerhouses of crunch and nutrition (minerals including immune-boosting zinc and healthy fats) don’t really need to be prepared, but toasting in a pan over medium heat or in a 350 F oven for 5-10 minutes will bring out their crunch and flavor. Worth the extra step!
  5. Leafy greens– whether you eat them raw or cooked, leafy greens are a great way to add fiber, B vitamins, iron and many minerals including potassium and calcium. Microgreens or baby greens are prewashed and require no extra prep. You can also stir fry or braise heartier greens like kale or collards if you prefer your greens cooked.
  6. Something creamy– this can be cashew cream or sliced avocado, a tahini or peanut based dressing, or cheese if you eat dairy. We need some fat in our diets to absorb vitamins A, D, E and K. A little dollop, stirred in when you eat, brings it all together.
  7. Get Saucy, never forget flavor! This is where the sauces come in. Make these once a week and keep in the fridge, and just like that, you have the finishing touch on your grain bowl.
  8. Bonus: Eat the Rainbow– add whatever fresh vegetables you have for color and flavor. Did you know, different colors correspond to different nutrients? So keep it colorful, and cover your bases! Great additions include julienned or grated carrots, sliced cherry or grape tomatoes, or you can add a touch of sweetness with whatever fruit is in season.  Pickled red onions keep indefinitely in the refrigerator and add a nice pop of color and tanginess to perk up your grain bowl.


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Grain Bowls with Global Themes: Here are some starting points to inspire you, but the skies the limit! Add the other ingredients from the template to customize your bowl.

Mediterranean I: farro (or bulgur), chickpeas, tahini dressing

Mediterranean II: quinoa, white beans, pesto

Asian: brown rice, edamame, soy-sesame vinaigrette

Thai: mixed brown rice, grilled or pan-fried tofu, peanut sauce


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Sauce Recipes All of these will store well in a covered jar or container in the refrigerator for a week.

Tahini dressing: whisk all ingredients together

Makes: 1 cup

¼ cup tahini

1 teaspoon maple syrup

Juice of 1 large lemon (about 3 tablespoons juice)

½ tsp salt

½ tsp garlic powder

1/8 tsp cayenne

Water as needed to thin 


Kale-Walnut Pesto Process all together in a food processor

Makes:  about 1 cup

1 cup packed kale leaves, stems removed

1/2 cup packed fresh basil leaves

2 T toasted walnuts

1/2 tsp salt

2 T extra virgin olive oil, more if needed for desired consistency

optional 2T grated Parmesan cheese or nutritional yeast


Soy-Sesame Vinaigrette: whisk all ingredients together

Makes: about 1/2 cup

1 clove garlic, minced

1 chopped green onion

1 teaspoon gochugaru (Korean red pepper powder) or crushed red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon sugar

2 tablespoons low sodium soy sauce

2 tsp toasted sesame oil

1 tsp rice vinegar

1 tsp toasted white sesame seeds


 Peanut sauce: whisk all ingredients together

Makes: ¾-1 cup

4 tablespoons creamy natural peanut butter

juice of two limes

2 T low sodium soy sauce

2 tsp sugar

2-4 T water, to thin out the sauce, if necessary

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 T chili garlic sauce (sambal oelek), or desired amount red pepper flakes (adjust to taste)


Cashew cream: blend together in a high speed blender until like whipped cream

Makes: 1 cup

1 cup raw cashews, soaked for at least two hours, rinsed and drained

½ to 1 c water (start with ½ cup, just enough to almost cover cashews)


Classic vinaigrette: shake together in a jar; adjust flavors to taste in a 3:1 ratio of oil to vinegar/acid

Makes: 3/4 cup

3 T vinegar or citrus juice

½ cup olive oil

1 tsp Dijon mustard

salt and pepper to taste

Optional Additions: fresh or dried herbs, spices, minced garlic or shallots, citrus zest


Beyond the Grain Bowl– Other Ideas for Using These Meal Prep Ingredients

Carla Lalli Music @lallimusic has a great guide to meal prep in Bon Appétit.

I’ve shared her ideas below and added some of my own.

From Carla:

  • Grains + lentils/beans + any crunchy veg you have in the fridge + grated cheese + more vinaigrette/sauce/pesto = grain salad
  • Stir-fried grains with shredded protein and greens tossed through = all-in-one crispy grain bowl.  Add the soy-sesame vinaigrette and you have fried rice.
  • Reheated greens + any cooked pasta + cooked beans + pasta cooking liquid + drizzle of olive oil + optional grated parmesan = vegetarian pasta dinner
  • Grains + broth + lentils/beans + diced vegetables of any kind from the fridge = quick soup. Serve with a dollop of yogurt if you have it!
  • Make tacos! Tortillas + leftover beans or other protein + roasted sweet potatoes+ cashew cream (add lime juice to sour) or sour cream + pickled red onion + chili sauce or salsa. Add rice and roll it into a burrito.
  • Reheat greens (and optional meat) + fried egg + toast = power breakfast (or breakfast for dinner)
  • Reheated greens + garlic-rubbed toast + slab of feta = Carla’s favorite stand-up-at-the-kitchen-counter lunch; cannellini (white) beans also work well here, with a drizzle of olive oil and some flaky salt

A few more ideas:

  • Make a hearty salad with massaged kale or baby greens, dress with vinaigrette or any of your other prepared sauces (thin out with water or lemon juice if needed), and top with roasted sweet potatoes, toasted seeds and whatever proteins or vegetables you like
  • Start with a whole sweet potato, bake or microwave it til tender, split the top, and fill it with any of your prepared ingredients, and top it with cashew cream or tahini dressing
  • Pesto plus pasta, cherry tomatoes and cannellini beans makes a quick pasta meal
  • Use the peanut sauce or soy-sesame vinaigrette to dress whatever Asian noodles you have, including instant ramen, to make sesame noodles, and add in veggies
  • Make Vietnamese fresh spring rolls- use rice paper wrappers, rice vermicelli if you have it, and whatever leftover meal prep ingredients you have, add in some fresh mint, and serve with peanut sauce.
  • Make potstickers- chop up leftover greens with edamame or tofu, wrap in dumpling wrappers, serve with soy-sesame vinaigrette
  • Move over, oatmeal! Other wholegrains also make excellent porridge, and by using precooked grains, you’re halfway there! Add water and/or milk, simmer and stir until you have a creamy bowl of hot cereal.  Top with seeds, nuts and some berries for a delicious breakfast.

Grocery List These quantities are meant for a family of 4 for one week, but if your household is smaller, still stick to these amounts to minimize trips to the grocery store, and you’ll be able to stretch this for more than a week. I’ve also included pantry basics to keep stocked.

  • 1 lb. dried lentils or other bean/legume, or 3-4 cans
  • 1-2 blocks of firm tofu and/or tempeh.  If you eat meat or fish, 2-3 pounds of a large piece (e.g. whole chicken, salmon fillet)
  • 1 lb. whole grains, such as brown rice, farro, bulgur, quinoa, barley
  • 3–4 bunches leafy greens, such as kale, Swiss chard, collards, and/or mature spinach—these can take up a lot of fridge space, so prep and blanch them to save space and greens ready to eat all week! You can also freeze them after blanching
  • 5-10 oz baby greens such as arugula, baby spinach or baby kale
  • 1 container of cherry or grape tomatoes
  • Fresh herbs: basil, Italian parsley, cilantro and mint are some of my favorites (store properly to avoid waste)
  • Sweet potatoes or other root vegetables
  • Garlic, shallots, red onions (to roast and/or pickle), ginger
  • Olive oil, grapeseed or canola oil, sesame oil, vinegar, limes or lemons (even better, from your own or a friend or neighbor’s tree!)
  • Flavor basics: salt, pepper, low sodium soy sauce or tamari, miso, chili sauce
  • Spices: chili flakes, cumin, smoked paprika, cayenne, garlic powder, the skies the limit!
  • Sweeteners: sugar and honey and/or maple syrup
  • Healthy fats: tamari, peanut or other butter, raw cashews, walnuts, almonds, pepitas, sesame seeds
  • Pasta, other dried noodles
  • Tortillas
  • 1 loaf of crusty bread (tip: slice and freeze if you can’t finish it in a few days; slices can be toasted or grilled directly from the freezer)

Tips to Keep Produce Fresh– pantry goods are shelf-stable, but you don’t want to waste any of your fresh produce.  Here’s a comprehensive guide to make your produce last as long as possible:

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Foods to Boost Immunity

  • Vegetables and fruits in general are anti-inflammatory
  • Zinc and Vitamin C both boost immunity

Zinc Sources:

  • Meat, eggs, dairy and shellfish, especially oysters
  • Plantbased: legumes, seeds (hemp, pumpkin and sesame) and nuts (pine nuts, peanuts, almonds and cashews), whole grains
  • Treat: dark chocolate

Vitamin C Sources:

  • Vegetables: broccoli, cauliflower, kale, red, green or yellow pepper, tomatoes, sweet potato
  • Fruits: kiwi, orange, papaya, cantaloupe, strawberries


Thanks for coming by! I hope you found this helpful.  Please stay in touch for more healthy home cooking tips and recipes.

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Cookbook coming soon! Spicebox Kitchen, Da Capo Press, 2021