Know Your Grain Bowl Bases

Start with the good stuff when you’re putting together this popular one-dish meal for yourself. The pros teach you what’s what.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

1. Cauliflower rice

If you want low-carb, this is pretty much it – cauliflower florets are pulsed in a food processor until they’ve broken down into tiny granules resembling “rice”. This is an excellent source of vitamin C (which is thought to protect against immune system deficiencies), vitamin K (which regulates normal blood clotting), and folate (which helps in the process of red blood cell formation). “Cauliflower rice contains a high level of antioxidant phytochemicals, which are said to protect against the development of cancer in its early stages,” adds Yishun Community Hospital’s principal dietitian Chan Sue Mei. Plus, cauliflower helps reduce the body’s oxidative stress (that means stress as a result of exposure to toxins like cigarette smoke and too much alcohol).

2. Red and brown rice

You should always choose one of these two options over white rice. Bonnie Lau, lead dietitian at digital health company Holmusk, says that’s because they contain almost five times more fibre as well as way more vitamins and minerals – which usually get stripped away in the processing of white rice.

Red rice also has antioxidants called anthocyanins – found in some fruits and vegetables – that are thought to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline and cancer, says Sue Mei. Brown rice, she adds, has niacin (more commonly known as vitamin B3), which is often used to treat anxiety.

3. Barley

Eating healthy goes down a lot easier when you’re eating stuff you enjoy. Most people like barley for its softer texture and malty taste – and when added to a soupier dish, it gives it a velvety and silky feel, with some bite. Barley has more fibre than brown rice and quinoa, and is also a good source of iron, niacin and vitamin B6.

4. Soba

Soba is made from a mix of buckwheat flour and white flour. Buckwheat is touted as a good source of manganese and magnesium, says Bonnie. Manganese is for better bone health, glucose metabolism and wound healing, while magnesium maintains muscle and nerve functions and keeps the heart’s rhythm steady.

5. Quinoa

A gluten-free staple, quinoa is more of a seed than an actual grain. The selling point? Being high in protein and a great source of zinc, copper and magnesium – all of which are great for bone health. “Quinoa also contains relatively high levels of flavonoids, a type of antioxidant which can protect against chronic diseases,” says Sue Mei.


Don’t let your lunch bowl tip you over your daily calorie count.

> Portion control

While most of the ingredients in grain bowls are pretty wholesome, generous portions can mean higher calories. For example, Bonnie points out that a bowl with two cups of brown rice, a piece of chicken, and half a large avocado has more than 700 calories. “Go for a smaller bowl or split up your big bowl into two meals. If it isn’t enough, eat a piece of fruit or add supermarket salad leaves,” suggests Bonnie.

> Watch your dressing

Ask to have the dressing on the side. Then go for healthier options like vinaigrette, hummus, tzatziki, salsa, or low-fat honey mustard. Bonnie says you should include a small amount of fat (think: nuts, olive oil, egg yolk or avocado) in your meal – it’ll help you better absorb fat-soluble phytonutrients like carotenoids (found in carrots and pumpkin).

> With meat, less is more

It’s tempting to get the wagyu beef or Iberico pork. Instead, choose lean proteins like chicken and fish, says Bonnie.

> Stick to the 50-50 rule

That means making sure half your plate is filled with veggies (go for grilled or marinated if you don’t like them raw), while the other half is divided between carbs and protein.