The Bowl System

I love systems. I’m super attracted to listmaking, organizing, and planning. I get this awesome feeling when I pull together a bunch of disparate pieces into a greater whole, when I create a system that makes life easier than the sum of its parts. (All of which probably explains why creating corporate systems & writing training manuals for them is one of the things I’ve done professionally.)

So let me introduce you to my latest system, The Bowl System. It’s like meal planning broken down into its component parts which can then be fit back together in all kinds of interesting ways. The Bowl System was created to address several issues. The first is my ever-present need for energy management. I have days when I’m too fatigued to be out of bed long enough to cook a meal. I can usually manage to heat a can of soup or put an Amy’s in the toaster oven, but doing that too often starts to make my rest days feel extra punitive. My body needs fresh food, and my soul needs deliciousness.

A birds-eye view of prepared quinoa, squash, bok choy, green onions, azuki beans, and pickled ginger, each in its own dish.

Quinoa, baked squash, steamed baby bok choy, pickled ginger, green onions, and adzuki beans.

The second issue is that, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m kind of a foodie. I cook really elaborate meals. I spend two hours on an average weeknight dinner. I like meals with a wide variety of flavors and textures and colors. My palate also gets bored relatively quickly. Monday’s giant pot of some amazing culinary concoction has been reduced to eat-for-fuel status by the time it becomes Thursday leftovers. But it’s just not realistic for me to prepare a different elaborate meal every night. Not just because I get too tired, but also because I want to have a life. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to choose between going out/social plans and the meal I had planned for that night.

Third, I need a system that can adjust to my ever-shifting financial state. Well, my financial state remains fairly consistently at just above dismal, but the amount of guilt I feel for spending money on food is ever-shifting. This calls for a plan that can be equally at home with local seasonal bounty from the CSA box or farmer’s market and with bargain not-particularly-in-season produce from dirt-cheap FoodsCo.

A bowl of quinoa surrounded by dishes of steamed cauliflower, roasted mushrooms, roasted new potatoes, roasted zucchini with herbs, and tempeh-bean sausage crumbles
Quinoa, roasted mushrooms, steamed cauliflower, roasted potatoes with rosemary, roasted zucchini with herbes de Provence, tempeh-white bean sausage crumbles

My fourth need was one that is fairly unusual for me. Since there’s not much I can eat besides fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, I tend not to worry about fat or calories or stuff like that. But I’ve been going through a lot of olive oil lately. Way more bottles than usual. Where is all that oil going? Into me, that’s where it’s going! A tablespoon for sautéeing garlic, a tablespoon in the marinade for the tofu, more oil for the pan to broil the tofu, a few tablespoons sprinkled over the veggies before they go in to roast, another tablespoon (or more) in the salad dressing. That’s a lot of olive oil. Which is not exactly the devil, but it is more fat than I would prefer to be eating in such a quantity.

So many different pieces to juggle. Enter The Bowl System.

The bare bones of the Bowl System go thusly: Pick a day to be your Cooking Day. Make a large quantity of a grain or two which will serve as the base to your bowl. Get a bunch of produce (preferably in season) and prepare it very simply. Select a few different protein sources. Pick 3-6 different sauces/dressings/marinades that you enjoy and make a single recipe of each one. At mealtime, pull out your grain. Top it or mix it with a selection of your veggies and one of your proteins (if you need big protein in that particular meal). Pick a sauce that fits the flavors you’re looking for, drizzle that over your bowl, and then garnish and eat. Easy peasy to have a fresh, varied, delicious, filling meal every day for a week.

A bowl filled with quinoa, lettuce, sprouts, edamame, and smoked tofu with an orange-colored dressing, sprinkled with nori and sesame seeds.

Quinoa, romaine, broccoli sprouts, edamame, and smoked tofu with carrot-ginger dressing, garnished with shredded nori and sesame seeds

In a little more detail: Your grain could be quinoa, or rice, or buckwheat, or millet, etc.  I like stuff I can make in the rice cooker, since that requires very little participation on my part and can happen in the background while I’m prepping everything else. For the veggies, I like to get an assortment that usually includes a salad green, a dark leafy green, an orange veggie (like sweet potato or squash), a starch (like potatoes) and then whatever else appeals. I experimented with getting my veggies at Trader Joe’s where they’re already washed and cut up; it was a big savings on time and energy but the amount of packaging made me sick to my stomach, so I’m back to chopping my own. “Simply prepared” means leaving your veggies raw, steaming, roasting or baking them, no fancy business. Sprinkle on some herbs before you roast if you like, but no chopping garlic or onions, no sautéeing (which requires standing over the stove for a long period of time), no toasting whole spices and grinding them… you get the drift. Chopping your produce should be the lengthiest part of this whole operation.

Protein sources can include smoked tofu, lentils, all different kinds of beans (black, pinto, adzuki, cannellini, black eyed peas, butter beans, kidney beans, edamame…), and seeds like pumpkin and sunflower. Nuts are also a great source of protein, but I tend to use them in smaller quantities as a garnish. I got super fancy one time and made tempeh-white bean sausage crumbles, but I don’t think it was worth the extra effort in the end.

Six jars filled with different colored sauces and dressings, viewed from above.

Okay, so you’ve stocked your fridge with grains, prepped veggies, and have your packets of marinated tofu and your cans of beans at the ready. You mix them all up in a bowl and… it’s not exactly a meal yet, is it? That’s where the sauces come in. The sauces are key. For example, I dislike beans straight out of the can. And cold beans out of the can? Absurd! But taco salad, with black beans and rice and lettuce and tomato and corn, all mushed together with some yummy salsa and a squeeze of lime? That’s delicious.

Because I’m trying to pay attention to my oil consumption, I’ve been loving making sauces and dressings from Isa Chandra-Moscowitz’s fabulous low-fat vegan cookbook Appetite for Reduction. I am particularly partial to her Green Goddess, Peanut-Lime, and Caesar Chavez. These are all easy to make, and mostly just involve the blender. I’ve also used the dressing from my Cafe Gratitude-style ricebowl hack, kale sauce, baba ganoush, goma miso dressing, delicious tahini sauce, and of course salsa straight from the jar. I’m sure there are many other fantastic options; if you have any go-to sauces or dressings that are relatively quick and easy to put together, let me know in the comments!

The sauce makes a bowl of stuff into a meal, but it’s the garnishes that make it into a fancy meal! I like to go wild with the garnishes, which is easy to do because usually they take the least effort to prepare (if any prep is needed at all). Garnish ideas: Avocado, sprouts, green onions, pickled ginger, olives, fresh herbs like parsley, cilantro, and mint, seeds (sesame, pumpkin, sunflower, chia), nuts (cashew, almond, pistachio, walnut – though I would toast walnuts first), shredded nori, a drizzle of toasted sesame oil or flax oil.

A bowl stuffed with artfully arranged sweet potato, avocado, broccoli, radishes, and broiled tofu, sprinkled with cashews, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds.

So what was so revolutionary for me about The Bowl System, you may be asking yourself? Vegans and hippies and all kinds of people have been eating the “bowl” style meal for ages. It’s true, and I love bowls. I was always putting them on my menu plans, but I rarely actually made them. Take a look at the bowl above. I made it before the Bowl System. The idea at that time was that on the night I wanted to eat the bowl, I would cook a grain. Then I would top it with whatever wonderful leftover veggies and proteins I had in the fridge, then garnish it with nuts and seeds and so on, then whip up a dressing and pour it on. Only trouble was, I almost never have leftover veggies. I’m an eat-the-whole-head-of-broccoli-because-why-not? kind of girl. The night I made this bowl the broiled tofu was left over from another meal, but I had to make the rice, steam the sweet potatoes, steam the broccoli, then prep the garnishes, and then finally make a dressing. That’s a lot of work for something that worked out to be, the way I was doing it with my meal plan, one or two meals at most. With The Bowl System I spend maybe twice as much time on my Cooking Day as I did preparing this bowl, but when I’m done I have the makings of delicious and varied meals for a week.

This is a long post and it took a long time to write, and now I’m tired. So, I hope you enjoyed it and [insert snappy ending here!]

8 comments on “The Bowl System

  1. Tammy says:

    I LOVE this! Thank you! It’s so perfect also for a mom where a couple of kids want to eat vegetarian and one wants meat.

  2. Appetite for Reduction is one of my favorite cookbooks–I love it! The bowls you photographed here look so filling and fresh. (Not to mention delicious.) I may have to try this out for my lunches, which I am in such a rut with.

  3. This looks awesome and healthy! Especially for those weeknight meals when you’re not feeling so creative. I will have to give this a try. Beautiful photos, too.

  4. Great idea! We get bored over here quickly too. But lately, just plain roasted veggies have been hitting the mark. I made an Indian Spiced Cauliflower the other night that was lovely, and would be great as part of a ‘bowl’…now to think up a dressing…hmmmm…you’ve got me thinking.

    Glad to have you back in da’ (blog) hood! Hope everything is okay with you.

  5. Sandra says:

    So glad to see you are back! Now that I am only cooking for two, your Bowl Method would be great for us. It fits in well with my cookathon style and offers a lot of variety during the week. Thanks for the idea!

  6. jillianmckee says:


    I have a quick question about your blog, do you think you could email me?


  7. Very similar to the idea of a Macro bowl, or Bibimbap. I try to practice a similar method for my lunches, only I use a resealable container of any geometric shape :).

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