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updated: 4/3/2012 11:43 AM

Make room for whole grains on your plate

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If you ate a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast this morning, you started the day off on the right foot. If quinoa salad is in your lunch box and you plan to put wild rice on the dinner menu, you're a whole grain achiever and the Whole Grains Council hopes you will spread the news throughout the day about the delicious benefits of eating whole grains.

The Whole Grains Council and Oldways, a nonprofit food and nutrition education organization, have declared today National Whole Grain Sampling Day and are urging consumers to try whole grains for themselves. You shouldn't have to look very far; a number of supermarkets (like Mariano's Fresh Market), restaurants (McDonald's, Arby's and Auntie Anne's Pretzels), corporations (Verizon) have pledged to provide incentives including free samples, coupons and whole grain gifts to people who try whole grains. You might taste a whole grain pretzel, try quinoa salad at your office cafeteria or get handed a free granola bar while walking to work.

"We invite everyone to taste at least one new whole grain on April 4 or share one with their family at the dinner table," says Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for the Whole Grains Council and Oldways. "Our goal, at the end of the day, is to have people everywhere saying, 'That was great! Whole grains, where have you been all my life?'"

Studies show that switching to whole grains lowers the risk of many chronic diseases. While benefits are most pronounced for those consuming at least three servings daily, some studies show reduced risks from as little as one serving daily.

Whole grains include rolled oats, barley, wheat berries, farro, bulgur and brown rice -- some of which aren't very familiar to suburban palates. Yet whole grain consumption is on the rise, due in part to increased availability and the willingness of food manufacturers to include whole grains in processed foods. According to SPINS, a market research and consulting firm, sales of natural foods and beverages with the Whole Grain Stamp have increased nearly 10 percent in the past year.

If you have a favorite whole grain recipe (like the wild-rice salmon at right) or product, join in the whole grain conversation on Twitter throughout the day by using the hashtag #SampleWholeGrains.

Cheesy celebration: While whole grains get just a day to themselves, grilled cheese gets an entire month. Yes, April is National Grilled Cheese Month and you can bet we'll be celebrating in my house.

My 9-year-old son, Henry, is a self-proclaimed grilled cheese expert and deems the sandwich at Smashburger the best ... "just the right amount of grease without being too mushy."

He's a staunch traditionalist when it comes to grilled cheese, but the rest of us in the family don't mind mixing it up a bit and have been known to add turkey and a smear of fig jam to toasty sandwiches.

The folks at American Roland Food Corp. encourage people to take their grilled cheese sandwich from ordinary to extraordinary and have these suggestions:

• Add a splash of Sriracha chili sauce for a spicy sandwich.

• Pair sharp cheddar cheese, sliced apples and extra strong Dijon mustard for a sophisticated sandwich.

• Combine goat cheese with sliced piquillo peppers and fresh thyme for a tapas-inspired grilled cheese.

• Slip some sun-dried tomatoes into your sandwich for a surprise twist on the grilled cheese and tomato soup classic.

• Try fresh mozzarella, chopped artichoke hearts and sliced tomato for a Mediterranean spin.

If you'd rather leave the sandwich grilling to the experts, stop in to deca RESTAURANT + BAR and try chef Mark Payne's trio of twists on the classic. His wild mushrooms with charred sweet onions and Gruyere on seeded rye bread caught my eye, especially since he pairs it with locally brewed Two Brothers Long Haul.

The special grilled cheese menu will be available April 23 to 30 at deca RESTAURANT + BAR inside The Ritz-Carlton Chicago, 160 E. Pearson St., Chicago. or (312) 573-5160.

• Contact Food Editor Deborah Pankey at or (847) 427-4524. Be her friend at or follow her on Twitter @PankeysPlate.

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