current issue button
about TXCC button
back issues button
manuscript guidelines button
resources button
Acquire PDF for full version of this article.
  (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader®)

Whole grains and unusual beans: Simple, nutritious, and tasty

Relieving the much described obesity epidemic is challenging enough in good economic times. And today, with the added pressures of tight dollars and the urge to eat for comfort, we seem to have two choices. Either we put a healthy diet on the back burner and resign ourselves to the pressures and stresses of finances, social, and business demands, or we choose to confront all challenges with physical health and well-being.
Too often parents and child care programs have relied on large servings of highly processed, quick-to-prepare foods. Cheese slices, nut butters, canned beans, and prepared pasta sauces are mainstays of many diets. In (2009), this diet is described as the SAD (Standard American Diet) Lifestyle. Typically the SAD Lifestyle includes
fast food, junk food, or processed food,
screen entertainment (TV, videos, computer games) for several hours a day; and
stress as a regular feature of daily life.
Absent in this lifestyle are high quality natural foods, exercise, and other healthy lifestyle practices like sleep and a consistent routine.
Obesity, diabetes, and hypertension are being diagnosed in children at alarming rates. Without intervention, today’s children will likely have a shorter lifespan than their parents.

Exploring the benefits of whole foods
Whole grains include wheat, corn, rice, oats, barley, and quinoa (pronounced KEEN wah) eaten in their whole or natural form. You are probably already preparing and serving some whole grains like popcorn and steel-cut oatmeal. And you’re probably focusing more on the delicious taste than on the fact that these foods are whole grains.
We know that fruits and vegetables contain disease-fighting chemicals called antioxidants, which help maintain cellular health. Whole grains are often an even better source of these key nutrients. Moreover, whole grains have some valuable antioxidants not found in fruits and vegetables, as well as B vitamins, vitamin E, magnesium, iron, and fiber.
Researchers have offered clear indication that whole grains reduce the risks of heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and obesity. People who eat whole grains have lower risk of obesity and lower cholesterol levels. Other benefits include reduced risk of asthma, healthier arteries, reduced risk of inflammatory disease, lower risk of colorectal cancer, healthier blood pressure levels, and less gum disease and tooth loss.
Like many whole grains, beans are an ancient food, among the first cultivated crops. Beans and grains have a natural nutritious relationship. The amino acids of each complement the other to form a complete protein. Across the world, diverse cultures developed their own nutritious combinations, such as lentils and rice, beans and corn, and chickpeas and couscous.
Recent dietary studies show that beans help reduce cholesterol while providing great nutritional benefits including essential B vitamins, iron, calcium, and fiber. Further, they are low in fat. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (2006) has found that people who eat beans at least once a week have a reduced risk of heart disease and are 22 percent less likely to be obese than those who eat no beans.
Cooking dry beans from scratch is less expensive than serving canned beans. Plus you can control the amount of salt in each serving. They can be difficult to digest, however, because of large sugar molecules that aren’t broken down and absorbed as easily as other sugars. It’s usually safe to introduce lentils and split peas to babies older than 12 months (with parent permission). But it’s best to wait to introduce beans to older toddlers who have a better developed intestinal system.

Discovering new beans and grains
Whole grains, or foods made from them, contain all the essential parts and naturally occurring nutrients of the entire grain seed. Look for the following grains and beans in the bulk bins at your grocery store. Experiment with different combinations. Cooking methods are fairly standard—and simple enough for classroom cooking activities.

Whole grains Beans
amaranth   black
barley   black-eyed peas
corn   cannelloni
buckwheat   great northern
oats   kidney
quinoa   lentils
brown rice   pinto
bulgur wheat   split peas
wild rice   lima
millet   red

Cooking times for grains can vary according to the age of the grain, the variety, and the pans you use. Typically you should add grain to boiling water and simmer gently. If all the water is absorbed before the grain is tender, add more water. If the grain cooks before all the water is absorbed, drain the excess. To cook grains more quickly, soak for a few hours before cooking.
Dried beans have a long shelf life but fresher beans cook more quickly and have better flavor. Avoid beans that are cracked, chipped, or split. Sort beans to remove any small stones and rinse the beans thoroughly. Soak most beans overnight to shorten cooking time and remove some of the complex sugars that cause indigestion. Lentils, split peas, and black-eyed peas cook quickly and do not need to be soaked before cooking.
To cook, pour off the soaking water and cover the beans with fresh water and bring to a rolling boil. Skim off the scum that forms on the surface and gently simmer the beans until tender. Cooking time will vary according to the bean type. In general one cup of dried beans will yield about 4 cups cooked.
Most grains and beans freeze well after cooking, so cook big batches and freeze leftovers.

Cooking with children
A surefire way to help children discover new foods is to involve them in meal preparation. For some, getting buy-in will be a challenge, but few children can resist tasting what their friends are declaring “yummy.” Don’t force new foods, but faithfully offer them.
Modify the following recipes for classroom cooking activities. Remember to review the recipe, gather equipment and ingredients, and prepare step-by-step rebus charts before starting. Also see “Cooking with kids” in the fall 2000 issue of for background information on the benefits of classroom teaching activities.

1 cup steel cut oats
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
1/2 cup nuts
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon oil
1/2 cup coconut
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup dried apricots
1/2 cup dried cranberries

Toss oats, seeds, and nuts together with oil and brown sugar. Spread on baking sheet and roast in 325 degree oven for 1 hour or until oats are browned. Turn off oven and add fruit. Leave in oven until cool. Store in a sealed jar or bag. Use as a topping on yogurt for snack or with breakfast.

Whole grain pilaf
1 onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1 cup mushrooms, sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons olive oil
whole grain
2 cups stock

Sauté onions, carrots, and mushrooms in a little oil in a saucepan. Add crushed garlic and grain and cook briefly. Add broth (chicken, beef, or vegetable) and simmer until all of the liquid is absorbed.

Hummus or chickpea dip
2 cups cooked chickpeas
juice from 1 lemon
1 garlic clove
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon olive oil

Precook the chickpeas. Use a blender to puree the chickpeas, lemon juice, and garlic. Add water to make a smooth paste. Pour into serving bowl and sprinkle with olive oil. Serve with carrots, bell pepper sticks, or other vegetables.

Lentil and squash soup
1 large onion
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cups butternut squash, peeled
12 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup lentils
seasonings such as cumin, bay leaf, or ginger powder, as desired
1/2 cup bulgur
1 cup orange juice

Chop onion and sauté in olive oil. Cube squash and add to onion. Add broth, juice, lentils, and any desired seasonings. Bring to a boil and simmer for about 15 minutes. Add bulgur, and cook for another 30 minutes.

Apple and grain salad
2 cups cooked wheat berries, barley, or quinoa
1 green apple
1 red apple
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup orange juice
pinch of salt
fresh or dried mint leaves

Prepare the grain and put in a serving bowl. Core and chop the apples (do not peel), and toss with the grain. Make the salad dressing by combining the oil, juice, and salt in a small bowl. Pour the dressing over the grain and apple mixture, and mix well. Sprinkle chopped mint leaves on top before serving.

Brown rice tabbouleh
3 cups cooked brown rice
3/4 cup chopped cucumber
3/4 cup chopped tomato
1/2 cup fresh parsley
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons lemon juice
pinch of salt

Toss all ingredients together and chill well. Serve with hummus and whole wheat pita for a variation on the traditional Middle Eastern meal.

Quinoa and orange salad
1 cup cooked quinoa
1 small cucumber, diced
3 green onions, chopped
1/4 cup chopped parsley
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon or orange juice
pinch of salt

Remember to rinse the quinoa before cooking. Combine the cooked quinoa with the other ingredients. Serve this complete protein salad either warm or cold with cornbread or whole wheat tortillas.

Lentil minestrone with greens
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1 14-ounce can tomatoes
1 pound lentils
2 quarts water or stock
seasonings such as parsley, bay leaf, and thyme, as desired
1/2 pound Swiss chard or kale
1/2 cup elbow pasta (optional)

Sauté the onion and carrots in oil. Add the tomatoes with liquid to the sauté. Rinse the lentils and add to the vegetables with the water or stock. Add seasonings. Bring to a boil and simmer for about 30 minutes. Wash the greens thoroughly and chop. Add to soup with a pinch of salt. If desired, add elbow pasta and continue cooking until pasta is tender.

Breakfast grain—sweet or savory
All the grains mentioned above are excellent breakfast foods. Hot cereal is versatile, satisfying, and nutritious. Use a slow cooker to prepare grains the night before.
Some sweet and savory combinations to try:
corn grits or polenta with cheese
steel cut oats cooked in apple cider with cinnamon
any grain with dried or fresh fruit
brown rice with chopped fresh vegetables and a few drops of soy sauce
millet with cinnamon and butter
amaranth with milk and berries

Bessinger, Jeannette and Tracee Yablon-Brenner. 2009. Berkeley: Celestial Arts Press.
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. April 2006. “Eat beans, weigh less.”
Wells, Troth. 1993. Freedom, Calif.: The Crossing Press.