Updated: Feb 3, 2022
By Anne Trominski:
If you follow online recipe trends at all—and really who doesn’t—you’ve probably noticed an uptick in bowls. There are breakfast bowls, cauliflower bowls, fajita bowls, Thai bowls . . . Bowls are even finding their way onto more and more restaurant menus. I think Panera exclusively serves in bowls now. There are so many bowls you might be wondering if plate manufacturers are on strike. And whatever happened to Mason jars?
I guess there’s an implied ease with bowls: you just have to throw a whole bunch of ingredients together, no worries about place settings or presentation. Bowls can be used at a table, standing in the kitchen, or Netflixing on the couch. You can also stuff a lot more food in a nice-sized bowl; and, let’s face it, larger portions are one of Americans’ favorite things. A lot of comfort food also comes in bowls: ramen, oatmeal, ice cream, lobster mac ‘n cheese . . . (For those of you paying attention, yes, not all of those can be veganized.) So, yeah, it’s easy to understand how bowls have found themselves a heyday.
But are they healthy?
Let’s be honest, folks, the answer to, “Is it healthy?” is always, “It depends.” Bowl fever started with Buddha bowls, so named because they excluded meat, and you could easily picture a monk-type eating them. A Buddha bowl (a.k.a. a power bowl among the profane) is a go-to vegetarian dish consisting of grains—usually brown rice—with a happy array of vegetables on top. Add a little flavoring and you’ve got yourself a righteous plant-based meal. However, at some point, people started getting creative with their bowls, and I guess the omnivores felt a bit left out. Now a “bowl” can feature anything from any food group prepared in the exact same way that would typically show up on . . . well . . . on a plate. So, no, your mashed potato cheesy chicken bowl with gravy probably isn’t the healthiest option. Nice try, KFC.
But let’s not throw out the bowl with the fast food chains. A bowl is a very simple way to put together a meal and, if you control yourself, can be healthy. It’s also great for meal prepping. No, not the meal prepping where you buy four months of groceries in one day and then chop and assemble until you have 14 different types of slow cooker meals ziploced and on deck in your freezer. (Though, if you are that kind of prepper, go you!) (And why are you reading my blog?) No, I’m talking about the sort of disorganized meal prepping where you take an hour out of your weekend to cook some stuff haphazardly in the hopes that next week will be a little easier. (You know, the sort of meal prepping I do.)
So, let’s break out what makes a good bowl: “Good” meaning it’s easy to make, it’s worth putting in your body, and it’s yummy.
“What?! Grains are carbs! No! Carbs! Death! Ack, uhg!” I know, I know. Carbs are chiefly responsible for weight gain, cloudy days, and the conclusion to Lost, but there are carbs, people, and there are carbs. The carbs that have reached near-antichrist notoriety are the simple, overprocessed sugary ones that are featured at gas station checkout counters and not the complex, natural carbohydrates found in the grain aisle. Doughnuts and fried cheesecake are stepping on your puppy’s toes, not brown rice and quinoa. (And go back to eating strawberries, already!) Complex carbs are not only good for you, they are actually vital for your existence. Did you know that? Did you know that a human body needs carbohydrates? It’s going to be okay. Eat some healthy grains, such as:
Bulgur (is too a thing!)
Grains are ideal for batch cooking because they compliment a variety of cuisines, so you don’t have to worry about what to do with leftovers. If you are walking the path of plant-based eating, I highly recommend a rice cooker of some sort. Once you get past the bad publicity of carbs, grains are the nutritious and filling backbone to most plant-based meals.
File this under “Dur,” but any and every meal you eat should feature some plants. Savory bowls tend to feature vegetables, and sweet bowls tend to feature fruit, but don’t be afraid to experiment. The fun part of a bowl is that you can throw together a bunch of stuff and see how it tastes without committing too much effort or too many ingredients. Blueberries didn’t go with bell peppers as well as you hoped? Leave them out of the next bowl.
This is also where that notion of meal prep can come in. Have you ever, in your enthusiasm to be healthier, bought way more fresh produce at the store than you could possibly use before it rotted? Maybe you bought three shallots when the recipe calls for one-fourth cup chopped and then, whilst chopping, realized that you have no idea what constitutes a fourth of a cup. Suddenly, you have a lot of shallots to spare! Okay, stop feeling personally attacked and get out a cutting board. Rather than feeling helpless and watching produce slowly go bad, start chopping. Cut it up, roast it in your oven on a cookie sheet, pan fry it on the stove top, steam it with one of those basket things, Google how to mass cook veg in an Instant Pot . . . you’d be amazed how many vegetables you can cook when you aren’t worried about how they are going to be assembled into a meal and your primary goal is just keeping them from going bad a little bit longer.
So, what do you do with a bunch of random cooked vegetables? Throw them in a bowl! They go great over grains or in a salad. They also go great in a pita pocket or between slices of whole wheat bread, or just straight into your mouth as a snack. Absolutely any and every veggie are appropriate for batch cooking whenever you realize, oh crap, they’ve been in the fridge a while, haven’t they?
There’s a myth that it’s hard to get protein in a plant-based diet. That really isn’t true. Protein comes in so many forms that you have a lot of options, and most of them aren’t tofu. Some of my favorite pantry staples include:
Frozen, shelled edamame
All of these require minimal prep to toss into a meal and bump up the protein factor. Most Americans are eating way more protein than they need to survive and have this idea that it can only come from one central source. In reality, a lot of the things you are eating already have protein in them, such as potatoes (I know, mind blown), so the protein starts to add up pretty quickly in a meal with a lot of parts and pieces. But if you are concerned or are trying to get more protein for training or something, just stop and make sure you’ve got some legumes in your meal and you should be good to go. If you want get a little fancier, look for seitan or tempeh in the vegetarian section of your grocery store. Cook it while you’re roasting some veg and some rice is going in its cooker and you’re already on your way to a meal in a bowl.
The draw of bowls is the promise of a low-effort meal, so look for flavor enhancers that are already good to go. A dob of hummus or harissa is often all you need. Vegan pesto, salsa, guacamole, a vinaigrette, or a go-to spice blend (such as an everything bagel mix) can give your bowl of rice and veggies just the extra zing it needs to turn it into a meal. In a pinch (pun intended), salt, pepper, and lemon juice are transformative objects (and also a great low-cal alternative to restaurant salad dressings). The point is, don’t overthink it. Just toss something in there and see how it plays with the other ingredients.
Mix it Up
Remember, none of these elements are exclusive. Quinoa, in addition to carbing it up, is a great source of protein. As are mushrooms and peas and, oh yeah, hummus! Nuts or chia seeds can also provide a little crunch, flavor, and protein all in one package. Add in flavor at the grain stage by cooking with vegetable stock or stir in some garlic or curry. Or leave your grains naked but use one like jasmine rice for a fragrant flavor addition. Toss your veg in vinegar before roasting and you have a nice acid to balance out your bowl. Have some fresh basil or dill leftover from that fancy recipe you made the other day? Tear it up and toss it in there, too.
Again, experimentation is key. A bowl isn’t meant to impress your friends at a dinner party, it’s meant to be that last-minute thing you whip up when you get home from the gym. The worst that happens is the random stuff you put together is too weird. In which case, dump the bowl and try again. As Buddha totally must have said at least once, surely, “It’s cool. We’ve got more bowls.”
Annetastic Plantastic Bowl
Here’s one of my favorite ways to make a quickie meal.
Grains: Brown rice for the win!
On the weekend, while I’m doing stuff around the house, I use one cup brown rice to two cups water in my Instant Pot. I set it to pressure cook for four minutes, but the warming feature means I can completely forget about the rice while I fold laundry and what-not and still find it perfectly cooked once I get around to remembering I was cooking it.
Veggies: Mushrooms, butternut squash, and cauliflower
Really, I love to combine mushrooms with any member of the squash family, but my supermarket sells pre-cut raw butternut cubes, so they get picked up a lot. I line a cookie sheet with parchment paper and roast the squash dry in my oven. Its natural flavor is enough for me and adds a nice sweetness to any bowl.
I always have mushrooms and cauliflower in my kitchen because they are the star ingredients in so many vegan dishes, and I think they are rather tasty. The mushrooms I pan fry with a spritz of olive oil and some salt to give them a buttery flavor. It takes me, maybe, two minutes to cook up mushrooms that I can use throughout the week in a variety of ways. I use frozen cauliflower steamer bags that I can nuke in my microwave. If I’m throwing them in a bowl, I leave the steamed cauliflower florets naked. If I’m eating them as a snack, I squeeze some lemon juice over them.
If I’ve got some leafy greens about, like spinach, I’ll tear it into pieces and throw it in the bowl, too.
Frozen shelled edamame is so easy! It also adds a nice green crispness to any meal. No flavoring needed in prep. If I’m out of edamame, there’s almost always a can of chickpeas in my pantry.
Flavor: Sesame Soy Sauce
I was reading an interview with Jonathan Waxman on TastingTable.com where he referred to this sauce as the holy trinity. It was so straightforward, I had to give it a try. He is right, this three-ingredient combo packs in a lot of flavor than can be used in a lot of ways.
Here’s the original recipe from the man himself.
I have actually played with it to accommodate my own tastes (and my goal to use less oil) and my version is one part sesame oil, two parts rice vinegar, and three parts soy sauce. You can adjust to your taste if you don’t think he nor I nailed it. The great thing about this sauce is a little goes a long way. I use less than a tablespoon for big bowl of rice and veggies, but it still gives everything a nice zing that melds it all together. Another alternative comes from one of my favorite sushi restaurants: soy sauce and orange juice (eliminates the oil but adds in some sugar). Again, you don’t need a lot to get a big dose of flavor.
I like to throw all these ingredients in a reusable container and take them to work as my lunch. A quick zap in the microwave and I’ve got myself a bowl of goodness ready to go.