How to Make a Bowl (And Why You Should Make Them)

The bowl has been a staple of the vegetarian movement since before I was born, and let’s just say I’ve earned a few laugh lines. Not to seem like a dramatic enthusiast (which I am, ahem), but lately I’ve been thinking that the humble bowl has within its rounded embrace the ability to transform the world.

Mexican-inspired bowls with quinoa, black beans, chopped carrot, raw red cabbage, baby mixed lettuce, homemade salsa, cashew-lime cream, pumpkin seeds, chunky red salt.

Mexican-inspired bowls with quinoa, black beans, chopped carrot, raw red cabbage, baby mixed lettuce, homemade salsa, cashew-lime cream, pumpkin seeds, chunky red salt.

For the uninitiated, the bowl is a way of eating, the vegan response to the meat/vegetable/starch formula. A bowl typically consists of a grain, a legume, some vegetables, a sauce, and toppings of nuts, seeds, and/or herbs. It’s a fundamentally different approach to preparing meals than the one most of us grew up with. They're fast and easy to put together, endlessly versatile, nutritious and delicious. 

Middle Eastern-inspired bowl with brown rice, chickpeas, roasted cauliflower, raw red cabbage, cucumber, baby lettuce mix, creamy garlic sauce, hemp seeds, and fresh cracked pepper. 

Middle Eastern-inspired bowl with brown rice, chickpeas, roasted cauliflower, raw red cabbage, cucumber, baby lettuce mix, creamy garlic sauce, hemp seeds, and fresh cracked pepper. 

So often when I talk to people about animal rights, I hear that the big barrier is not knowing how to change eating habits. People agree that animal cruelty is heartbreaking, nobody is looking forward to not having a hospitable home planet, and it’s undeniable that we’re eating more animal foods than is even healthy by conservative standards (three times more than our decade-old food guide recommends, actually). 

Learning any new habit can take a mental shift and a little guidance; thinking about dinner in a bowl format makes it easier to move towards plant-based eating. Plant-based diets are associated with reduced risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and more. And people who are more skilled at eating plant-based are less likely to put up defensive barriers to considering the ethical and environmental concerns with farming animals.

Vegan Sidekick, you complete me. 

Vegan Sidekick, you complete me. 

I'm genuinely excited to share the bowl formula that is the basis of many of my family's dinners. I hope it can inspire you to create your own bowls, and in turn, save the freakin' world!

Grain:

Start with a base of a whole grain. We like brown rice, quinoa, and soba (buckwheat) noodles, but there are many more options. Try whole grain cous cous, millet, farro, bulgur, polenta (from corn meal) and whole grain (not pearled) barley. Some people even get into savoury oats! White and sweet potatoes can also serve in the role of the grain base—try mashed or baked. Whole grains are a rich source of vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fats, and amino acids (protein). They add bulk and substance to your meal, helping to keep you full.

New potatoes make a yummy bowl base, especially when tossed with fresh herbs. With chickpeas, whole food vegan sausages, avocado, green beans, grated vegan cheese, green onion, toasted almonds, and tahini-lemon sauce.

New potatoes make a yummy bowl base, especially when tossed with fresh herbs. With chickpeas, whole food vegan sausages, avocado, green beans, grated vegan cheese, green onion, toasted almonds, and tahini-lemon sauce.

Legume: 

Throw on a handful of beans, chickpeas, tofu, tempeh, or lentils. We especially love black beans, which I sometimes cook from dry with some spices (cumin, coriander, smoked paprika), partially drain, then purée for a healthy and inexpensive version of refried beans that also does double duty on tacos. Chickpeas and tofu are also family favourites (yes, people, soy is an incredibly nutritious legume—so nutritious and versatile, in fact, that I suspect the meat industry is behind much of the unfounded but pervasive anti-soy propaganda. Anyway, if you’re concerned about estrogen in food, consider avoiding estrogen-rich mammalian breastmilk from cows and goats rather than health-beneficial plant-based phytoestrogens).

I digress. 

Canned legumes are a good option—keep them in your pantry and rinse under warm water to heat them up, if you like. I also make chickpeas and black beans (because we eat so much of them) from dry, then freeze portions in their own cooking liquid so they’re ready to go when I need them. Smoked tofu can be cubed and eaten right from the package, and regular tofu needs little more than tamari or soy sauce and a little browning in a thin layer of cooking oil. If you’re new to tofu and not sure if you like it, slice it thinly so it absorbs more of the marinade (or is coated more by the sauce because there's more surface area). Eventually you’ll be chowing down on raw tofu like the rest of us. 

Tofu is your friend! Bed of leaf lettuce with smoked tofu, quinoa, roasted yams (organic, skin-on), raw red cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, sunflower seeds, hemp seeds, slivered almonds, hummus, beet dip, and a big ol drizzle of balsamic vinegar. This was tossed together then served up. When does a salad become a bowl? It's not clear. 

Tofu is your friend! Bed of leaf lettuce with smoked tofu, quinoa, roasted yams (organic, skin-on), raw red cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, sunflower seeds, hemp seeds, slivered almonds, hummus, beet dip, and a big ol drizzle of balsamic vinegar. This was tossed together then served up. When does a salad become a bowl? It's not clear. 

Vegetables:

Add in a few of your favourite raw and cooked vegetables, making sure to include powerhouse leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables if you’re not already eating them at other meals. We like raw red cabbage, lettuces of all kinds, bok choy, cucumber, carrot, Chinese eggplant (the skin is edible = easier), broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, peas, corn, tomatoes, avocado, white and sweet potato, spring onion, red onion, beets, spinach, mushrooms, and bell peppers (raw and cooked). Wow! That’s a lot of veggies we’re rotating through—I can see why we’re never getting sick of the food we eat, since it’s always changing.

Sauce:

This is the important part! Drown that beauty in a killer sauce to add flavour and moisture. There are infinite sauce options. If you’re overwhelmed, start with commercial salad dressings and sauces. I’m partial to simple nut and seed butter sauces that I whisk together in just minutes. A basic sauce formula is: nut/seed base, acid (citrus or vinegar), water to thin, and herbs and spices or other seasonings (garlic, miso, etc) if you like—blended until smooth.

A long-time favourite of ours is tahini sauce: tahini (sesame seed butter) whisked with fresh lemon juice to taste and water to thin. You can level up by breaking out the blender and adding a few cloves of garlic and a few teaspoons of miso. We also like peanut sauce: peanut butter whisked with tamari or soy sauce, rice vinegar, and water to thin. Make extra and have it with noodles another day. I especially like cashew-cream sauces for Mexican-inspired bowls—blend together a handful of cashews with fresh lime juice, cilantro, maybe some cumin, and water. If you don’t have a high-powered blender, you may need to soak your cashews for a few hours to soften them up. 

Peanutty bowls for the whole family. We love peanut sauce, which is also great on noodles! Make extra so you can pour it on bowls one day and noodles the next.

Peanutty bowls for the whole family. We love peanut sauce, which is also great on noodles! Make extra so you can pour it on bowls one day and noodles the next.

Toppings:

For texture, flavour, nutrition, and variety, you can add toppings. I keep a nut and seed bar on my counter and rotate through some favourites. Nuts and seeds are nutritional powerhouses and add healthy unsaturated fats, which help keep you satiated. If you're feeling ambitious, nuts can be toasted for added flavour and variety. In the summer, we have mint, basil, chives, etc from the garden; in the winter, dried basil, oregano, and smoked paprika are favourite add-ons. But there really is no limit here—add whatever you like to eat!

L-R: brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, almonds, hemp seeds, cashews, flax seeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, pistachios, goji berries.

L-R: brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, almonds, hemp seeds, cashews, flax seeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, pistachios, goji berries.

For more bowl inspiration and plenty of other vegan meal ideas, you can follow my food-focussed Instagram here. I often cook dinner in my stories, so tag along for ideas.

Just remember: grain, legume, veggies, sauce, toppings. I hope you will join the bowl revolution and help transform our world, one delicious meal at a time!