What do you think of first when you hear “whole grains”? Brown rice? Wheat bread? Birdseed? There is so much more to the world of whole grains! But first, let’s clarify what exactly a whole grain is.

There are Three Parts:

Bran, germ, and endosperm. The bran is the fibrous outer layer that protects the seed and includes B vitamins and trace minerals. The germ is the smallest part that is located inside the seed and is rich in antioxidants, vitamin E, B vitamins, and healthy fats. The largest part of the seed, the endosperm, contains carbohydrates and protein. Refined foods such as white pasta, rice, and bread, have had the bran and germ removed and what’s left is that starchy endosperm. This is how refined foods products are produced.

Whole grains are a pretty big food group. It’s not just whole wheat, corn, oats, rice, barley, and rye. It also includes seeds like quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat (I know, I know – but it’s a seed!), teft, and sorghum! A good way to understand the difference between grains and seeds is grains are from grasses that grow edible seeds and seeds come from plants.

Think whole grains are just carbs? Think again! They have plenty of protein as well. Just 1 cup of cooked farro (a grain) has 6 ½ grams of protein and 1 cup of cooked quinoa (a seed) packs in 6 grams of protein.

Now, let’s talk versatility.

The beauty of these kernels of goodness is they can be interchanged in any recipe. For example, instead of using brown rice in your soup, try farro, barley, bulgur, or freekeh. Instead of having oatmeal for breakfast, try amaranth, quinoa, kamut, millet, or buckwheat. Whatever you use in your morning oatmeal can be added to these grains – fruits, nuts, spices such as cinnamon, seeds, or a swirl of peanut butter for extra protein.

Here are a few recipes to get you started!

Millet Breakfast Porridge


  • ⅓ C millet, rinsed and drained in a fine mesh strainer 
  • ½ C milk of choice (almond, oat, macadamia, 1% or skim milk) 
  • ¾ C water 
  • ¼ tsp cinnamon 
  • ½ tsp vanilla 
  • ⅛ tsp salt 
  • 1 Tbsp raisins (optional) 
  • Optional toppings: Pure maple syrup, honey, fruit, nuts, seeds, or unsweetened shredded coconut


  1. In a small saucepan, combine the millet and raisins (if using) and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook at a very low simmer for 20-25 minutes, without stirring. Cook until the liquid is absorbed and the millet is the consistency of oatmeal or cream of wheat. 
  2. Remove from heat, drizzle with desired sweetener, and add toppings of choice.

Recipe adapted from Fountain Avenue Kitchen

Spicy Grain Soup


  • ½ C pearl barley 
  • Water 
  • ½ C short-grain brown rice 
  • ½ C bulgur 
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil 
  • 3 ancho or dried mulato chiles—stemmed, seeded and broken into 2-inch pieces (for less heat, try 1 tsp chile powder or paprika) 
  • 1 large onion, thinly sliced 
  • 2 garlic cloves, halved 
  • 2 quarts vegetable broth 
  • 1 ½ C canned diced tomatoes 
  • 6 cilantro sprigs, plus ¼ C chopped cilantro 
  • 1 tsp ground allspice 
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper 
  • ½ pound shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded, caps thinly sliced 
  • One 15-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed 
  • 1 medium carrot, finely diced 
  • 1 medium zucchini, finely diced 
  • 1 medium parsnip, finely diced 
  • ½ C salted roasted pumpkin seeds


  1. In a medium saucepan, cover the barley with 4 cups of water and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat until tender, about 35 minutes; drain. Return the barley to the pan and cover. In another medium saucepan, cover the brown rice with 2 cups of water and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat until tender, about 35 minutes. Drain the brown rice and add to the barley. 
  2. In a medium bowl, cover the bulgur with 1 cup of hot water. Cover and let stand until the water is absorbed, 10 minutes. 
  3. In a large, heavy pot, heat the olive oil. Add the chiles, onion and garlic and cook over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until the onion is lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add the broth, tomatoes, cilantro sprigs, allspice, and season with salt and a pinch of pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer over low heat for 45 minutes. Let cool slightly. Puree the soup in a blender and return to the pan. 
  4. Add the mushrooms, black beans, carrot, zucchini and parsnip to the pureed soup and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes. Add the barley, rice, bulgur, and season with salt and pepper. Ladle the soup into bowls, sprinkle with the pumpkin seeds and chopped cilantro and serve.

Recipe adapted from Food & Wine

Check out this recipe for the kiddos!

Breakfast Bulgur with Fruits and Nuts courtesy of EatRight.org

Michele DiCristofaro MS, RD, LDN