Lunch Special Secret: Grain Salads

Ever since I started sharing pictures of my kids’ lunchboxes and wrote this post about the mechanics behind them, I realized how many people find the topic of lunch-packing as fascinating as I do. Someone asked me recently how long I was taking to pack lunchboxes in the morning. I said that it takes me only about 10 to 15 minutes to pack everyone’s lunchbox including my husband’s. And, when they asked me to share the secret to such efficiency, my answer was: “Plan ahead and use leftovers.”
Creative use of leftovers is one of the most important skills when it comes to healthy eating and meal planning. Being able to create a quick new meal out of the ingredients you already have in the fridge allows not only packing lunchboxes in a flash but also including a variety of foods.
In most cases, the leftovers which best translate into delicious lunches are some combination of a whole grain, protein and vegetable that can be organized into a nutritious and filling grain salad.  Whenever I cook a dinner, I make sure to cook a double batch of everything to use the leftovers in lunches. Besides, I got into a habit of cooking whole grains like brown rice, barley, wheat berry and quinoa and steaming vegetables like broccoli, peas and carrots in large amounts on weekends. They keep well for about a week in refrigerator and for a couple of months in a freezer.
Here is a basic recipe for a grain salad I am using in the lunchboxes:


Lunchbox Grain Salad Recipe Matrix

Recipes by Natalia Stasenko, MS, RD, CDN

Salad Ingredients
Whole grains (such as wheat berries, quinoa, wild rice, buckwheat noodles, whole grain elbow pasta; use this guide from the Whole Grains Council)
Cooked protein(such as grilled or canned salmon, canned tuna, stir-fried or baked tofu, canned cooked beans, pieces of roasted chicken or cooked sausage)
Cooked vegetables (such as steamed edamame, broccoli, green beans, peas, carrots, raw cucumbers or tomatoes).
Lemon Dressing
3 parts of olive oil
1 part of lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
Soy Sauce Dressing
3 parts  canola oil
1 part mirin
1 part of soy sauce
Balsamic Dressing
3 parts olive oil
1 part of balsamic vinegar
1 part of orange juice
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine ingredients and dressings in the following combinations:

  1. Canned black beans, cooked wild rice and steamed green beans with lemon dressing
  2. Cooked barley, steamed carrots and cooked hotdog sliced lengthwise and into small half moons with orange dressing
  3. Cooked quinoa, grilled salmon, steamed carrots and edamame with orange dressing
  4. Buckwheat noodles, stir fried tofu, green beans, broccoli and soy sauce
  5. Whole grain elbow pasta, canned tuna, steamed green peas and carrots with lemon dressing

Any of these combos will also make a quick and light dinner on a hectic week night. The best part about these salads that you will not need a special recipe to put any of them together. Keep experimenting and I am sure you will find your favorite combinations that the whole family will enjoy!

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Natalia Stasenko
Natalia Stasenko, MS, RD, is a U.S.-credentialed pediatric dietitian based in London and New York and the owner of Feeding Bytes. She blogs at Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.