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Whole-Grain Shortcuts

Tamara Duker Freuman

Study after study validates the health benefits of a diet featuring higher intake of whole-grain foods compared to refined-grain foods for everything from reduced risk of diabetes to improved weight management.

Recommended intake of whole grains is 48 grams per day, which translates into three standard servings of a 100 percent whole-grain product. Examples of a standard serving would include half a cup of cooked brown rice or plain oatmeal; a 1-ounce slice of 100 percent whole-grain bread; or 1 cup of 100 percent whole-grain cereal (e.g., Shredded Wheat). Research shows that the average American only eats about a third of the recommended whole-grain intake, and that a full 90 percent of us don't meet recommended intake levels.

[See Top-Rated Diets Overall.]

I get it. It's easy enough to choose whole-grain bread for sandwiches, but when it comes to incorporating whole grains into home meals or snacks, convenience takes precedence. You arrive home late from work - famished and crunched to get dinner on the table - and dinner prep needs to happen fast. Whole grains like brown rice or whole-wheat pastas are deemed to take too long and often lose out to faster, starchier options like white rice, pasta or white bread.

Nowadays, however, adding more whole grains to your family's diet need not be prohibitively time consuming. There are lots of whole-grain shortcuts available to help speed up prep time and add variety (and fiber!) to a starchy menu rotation. Here are some tricks of the trade:

-- Seek out naturally quicker cooking whole grains: While standard brown rice may take 45 to 50 minutes to cook, there are plenty of whole-grain options that cook in the same 15 minutes or less as white rice. Whole-wheat couscous is about as fast as they come - 5 minutes unattended. Lundberg Farms makes a (gluten-free) brown rice "couscous" that cooks up in 15 minutes.

[See What is Gluten, Anyway?]

Quinoa, another gluten-free staple, takes only about 15 minutes to cook. Similarly, pearled or semi-pearled farro is an heirloom grain related to wheat that cooks up in about 15 minutes; it resembles brown rice in appearance and has a pleasant chewy texture. (Although pearled farro technically has some or all of its outer bran layer polished off, it still has more fiber and protein than an equivalent portion of brown rice, making it an honorary whole grain.)

[See Quinoa 101: What It Is and How to Cook It.]

-- Pick parboiled whole-grain products: Parboiling is a process in which a grain is soaked, steamed and dried out, essentially "pre-cooking" it to reduce the amount of cooking needed to finish it off on the stove. Generally, parboiled whole grains can cook in as little as 10 minutes.

Nutritional differences between parboiled and regular whole grains are negligible, and both contain equivalent amounts of fiber. Nationally available products include Uncle Ben's Instant Brown Rice, Minute Rice Brown Rice and Multi-Grain Medley and Trader Joe's line of "10 Minute" grains in farro, bulgur (a cereal grain made from wheat groats) and barley varieties (in addition to its Quick-Cook Organic Brown Basmati Rice). I recommend avoiding pre-seasoned and flavored instant grain and pilaf mixes, even if they are whole grain, as these are almost uniformly high in sodium.

[See The Missing Piece From Your Low-Sodium Diet.]

-- Multitask at night: If cooking grains from scratch is too time consuming during the weeknight dinner crush, later evenings may be a more relaxed time to let a pot of whole-grain goodness simmer.

Once my kids are in bed, and I've eaten my own dinner, I'll often toss together a cup of wild rice with some water, olive oil and a pinch of salt, and let it simmer leisurely for its 50-minute cooking time while I see what surprises await me on the DVR. Around the same time my episode of Breaking Bad is finished, the kitchen timer is chirping and my rice is done. Voila! I've got cooked whole grains for tomorrow's lunch or dinner, ready to go.

Alternatively, you could do the same with steel-cut oats for tomorrow's breakfast. "Overnight oatmeal" (or "refrigerator oatmeal") is an effortless way to prep whole grains while you sleep. Combine rolled oats, liquid (milk, kefir or non-dairy milk alternatives), fruit and desired seasonings, then soak overnight in the fridge so that it's ready to eat the next morning.

[See Is Dairy Healthy or Not?]

For variation, you can use any rolled whole grain - like rolled quinoa flakes, rolled spelt flakes, rolled kamut flakes or rolled rye flakes - in place of rolled oats in an overnight oatmeal recipe. (Brands like Bob's Red Mill and Eden Food market a variety of such rolled-grain products.) Another overnight option is to prepare steel-cut oats in your slow cooker so that a warm bowl of whole-grain goodness greets you on waking.

-- Pop popcorn ... from the kernel. Popcorn can be a totally unprocessed whole-grain snack?if you make it yourself so as to avoid the chemical additives, preservatives and sodium in most microwave and ready-to-eat versions.

From kernel to mouth, making popcorn takes no more than five minutes. My old-fashioned, hand-cranked Whirly Pop apparatus occupies a permanent residence on the stovetop. Just 2 tablespoons of canola oil and half a cup of corn kernels pop up a giant, family-sized bowl of high fiber, additive-free popcorn that we season to our liking. Air poppers preclude even the need for this modest amount of oil. My favorite topping for freshly-popped corn is nutritional yeast - a vitamin-rich powder that has a nutty, cheesy flavor.

[See How to Become a Healthy Snacker.]

-- Break out the pressure cooker: While pressure cookers may be intimidating for the uninitiated, the new versions are safe and easy to use. Pressure cookers are tightly sealed devices that, when filled with some liquid, enable steam to reach a hotter temperature than possible through stovetop cooking. This extra-hot, trapped steam penetrates food effectively and therefore cooks it faster.

Many whole grains and beans can be pressure cooked in 15 to 20 minutes or less. Your pressure cooker's manual likely contains some basic instructions for cooking grains, but if you want a more extensive education in pressure cooking and recipe inspiration, check out one of Lorna Sass' authoritative cookbooks, like "Pressure Perfect."

If you're still unsure about how to prepare whole grains, there is plenty of expert guidance available. Integrative medicine expert Andrew Weil offers an excellent online tutorial all about how to cook various types of whole grains; similarly, Eating Well magazine offers a guide to whole-grain cooking on its website.

[See Budget-Friendly Foods That Pack a Punch.]

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN, is a NYC-based registered dietitian whose clinical practice specializes in digestive disorders, Celiac Disease, and food intolerances. Her personal blog, www.tamaraduker.com, focuses on healthy eating and gluten-free living.

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