How to Include More Whole Grains in Your and Your Child’s Diet

AndieM.Ed., RD, LDN, CLC, RYT-200

Read time: 6 minutes

What should I know about whole grains?

  • The difference between whole grains and refined grains

  • Why whole grains are a healthy diet staple and how much we need

  • How to tell if a packaged food is made with whole grains

Grains are an important part of a nutritious diet, including during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.1,7

Along with starchy vegetables, fruit, legumes, and dairy, grains are made up primarily of carbohydrates. The body turns carbohydrates into glucose, the form of energy preferred by every type of human cell.2,3

Whole grains provide energy and many of the nutrients needed to grow and nurse a baby, and are also important for your own good health and well-being.3

Read More: Which Nutrients Do I Need During Pregnancy?

What is a Whole Grain?

Whole grains contain the entire (or “whole”) grain seed. A whole grain seed is made up of an endosperm, bran, and germ.4,5

  • Endosperm: The largest part of the grain seed and where most of the starch is found. It is low in vitamins and minerals but contains most of the calories of the grain.

  • Bran: The “outer shell” that protects the grain seed. It is high in fiber, B vitamins, and antioxidants.

  • Germ: The part of the grain seed from which the new grain seed sprouts. It is high in B vitamins and contains some protein, minerals, and healthy fats.5

Whole grains can be eaten in their whole form or after various forms of processing.6

For instance, you can cook and eat wheat berries as a side dish, or you can have bread that is 100% whole wheat made from wheat berries that have been milled into whole wheat flour. The latter is a bit more processed than eating the wheat berries whole.

As with most other categories of food, the less processed a whole grain, the better.

Examples of whole grains:
  • Brown, black, and wild rice

  • Oatmeal (steel-cut oats are the least processed)

  • Quinoa

  • Barley

  • Wheat

  • Wheat berries

  • Corn

  • Millet

  • Teff

  • 100% whole grain flour and the products made from it (whole grain bread, whole grain cereal, and whole grain pasta)6

Read More: Meal Plan to Help Eat More Whole Grains

What is a Refined Grain?

Refined grain seeds have been processed to remove the bran and germ so only the starchy endosperm remains.7 As a result, they are stripped of valuable nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals.7

Most refined grains are enriched, which means that certain B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and folic acid) and iron are added back after processing.8 However, fiber and other vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants are not added back.7,8

Examples of refined grains:
  • White rice

  • White flour and the products made from it, including white bread, regular pasta, most breakfast cereals, and most baked goods such as cookies and muffins.1,7

Read more: What to Eat While Breastfeeding

What are the benefits of whole grains?

You get a slew of health benefits when you eat whole grains. You benefit from the energy provided by the starchy endosperm but also the nourishing effects of the fiber and B vitamins, as well as minerals such as iron that come with the bran and germ.9


High-fiber foods promote the feeling of fullness, help promote bowel movement regularity, and help manage constipation, a common side effect of pregnancy.10

B vitamins

The B vitamins thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin help regulate metabolism and the nervous system, among other functions.11,29,30

Vitamin B9, also known as folate, is needed to form new blood cells.12 Adequate folate or folic acid (the synthetic form of folate found in supplements) is especially important for people who are of childbearing age because this nutrient may help reduce a person’s risk of having a child with brain or spinal cord birth defects.13

Minerals (iron, magnesium, selenium, and others)

The many minerals in whole grains play a multitude of important roles in the body. For instance, iron is needed to help red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body, magnesium is used in building strong bones, and selenium helps support immune functioning.14,15,16

Iron Deficiency Anemia is common in people of child-bearing age, so a diet rich in whole grains may help reduce the risk of iron deficiency.17


Studies repeatedly show that diets rich in whole grain foods and other plant foods (along with low in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol) may help impact our risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.18,19,20

Read more:

What Should I Know about Iron Deficiency Anemia During Pregnancy

Why Does Fiber Matter for Babies, Tots, and Mama?

How to tell if a packaged food is whole grain

Grains in their pure forms such as barley, oats, wheat berries, and brown rice are quite obviously whole grains. But it can be trickier when it comes to packaged, processed foods such as bread and cereal.

Packaged foods may contain whole grains, some combination of whole and refined grains, or just refined grains.

1. Check the front of the package

On the front of the package, it should say: “100% whole grain” if the product is made with whole grains. Foods labeled with the words “multi-grain,” “stone-ground,” “100% wheat,” “cracked wheat,” “seven-grain,” or “bran” are usually not whole-grain products.21

The 100% Whole Grains Council Stamp also indicates a whole grain product.22

2. Check the ingredient list

On the back of the package, review the ingredients and see if any whole grain is listed first. Make sure the word “whole” appears before any grain ingredient.22 If it just reads “wheat flour,” it is mostly refined or white flour with an unknown amount of whole wheat flour added.23

Just as with other foods, the less processed the whole grain and the fewer added ingredients, the better.24

If you have questions about the grains in your diet, our team of registered dietitian nutritionists, fellow moms, and lactation specialists, are available from Monday – Friday 8 am – 6 pm (ET) to answer your nutrition questions. Chat now!

6 Tips to help include more whole grains in your and your family’s diet

1. Try to eat mostly whole grains

The US Dietary Guidelines recommend that at least half of the grains you eat are whole grains.25

Choose brown or wild rice instead of white rice and whole wheat (or rye or oat, etc.) bread instead of white bread.

If you’re not a big fan of these whole grains, try mixing them with the refined version: Half wild rice plus half white rice, or half white rice with half quinoa. Slowly continue to increase the amount of whole grains in the mix.

2. Fill about a quarter of your plate or bowl with whole grains

Other than the quarter of your plate being whole grains, about half of the remaining space on your plate should be filled with non-starchy vegetables and/or fruit, and the remaining quarter should be lean protein.27

3. Make sure you are getting enough folic acid/folate to support the healthy development of your baby

Chat with your health care provider about taking a prenatal multivitamin if you are trying to get pregnant, are pregnant, or are breastfeeding, and eat whole grains rather than relying on enriched grains.28

Read more: Why Does Folate Matter for Babies, Tots, and Mama?

4. Enjoy a variety of whole grains and whole grain products

One whole grain is not necessarily better for you than another. They each have unique nutritional profiles, and you’ll get a wide array of vitamins and minerals by eating a variety.

5. Experiment with less-processed versions of whole grains

Try steel-cut oatmeal and quinoa instead of oat bread and quinoa pasta.

Learn about: How to Minimize Processed Foods in your Diet

6. Cook ahead so you always have some on hand

Batch cook one big pot of whole grains at the beginning of the week and then use it for a variety of dishes.

Dip into the stash when you want to add some chew, flavor, and fiber to your meal. Add it to soups, salads, egg dishes, or as the base to a grain bowl.

Once you feel comfortable using one kind of whole grain, try another!

Learn about: 8 Tips for Simple, Quick, Healthy Cooking

Here are some ways to incorporate whole grains into your daily meals

Grain bowls: Think of grains as a basic building block, and weeknight meals become effortless! Customize your healthful bowl with raw and/or cooked vegetables, herbs and crunchy nuts or seeds, and toss with a vinaigrette. Add a poached egg, canned or fresh salmon, beans, or some sliced chicken to make it extra satisfying and to help meet your protein needs.

Salads: Scoop whole grains into salads to add fiber, a nutty flavor, and a nice chew.

Soups: Cooked wheat berries, farro, or barley can be added to a finished soup to add texture or served more generously under stew to sop up all the good soupy flavor.

Baked goods: All cooked whole grains can be added to pancake or waffle batters, quick breads, muffins, and even vegetable fritters.

Stir-fries: Rice is obvious here but spelt’s shiny outer layer that stays intact when cooked also makes it ideal for sautéed dishes.

Breakfast cereal, porridge, and granola: Think outside of just oatmeal. Every whole grain can be cooked plain and then loaded up with add-ins (cinnamon, yogurt, fresh fruit, and toasted nuts) for a hearty breakfast. Many uncooked grains, such as quinoa or millet, are also great additions to homemade granola. Start every day with a whole grain to guarantee you are getting at least one serving daily. Try these suggestions:

  • ½ to 1 cup cooked steel-cut oats, quinoa, or farro (warm or cold) + ¾ cup plain Greek yogurt + 1 cup berries

  • 1 to 2 slices 100% whole grain toast + 2 tablespoons nut butter + sliced banana

Snacks: Try 3 cups of air-popped popcorn sprinkled with a little salt, garlic powder, rosemary, or other favorite seasonings (alone or mixed with a few tablespoons of nuts for extra staying power). For another nutrient-packed whole grain snack, try 1-2 brown rice cakes spread with a thin layer of hummus and topped with sliced tomato, avocado, and cucumber or other vegetables.

Baking: Depending on your palate and the occasion, you can substitute all or some of the refined flour in a recipe for 100% whole grain flour. Some whole grain flours are lighter than others and those whole grain flours intended for pastry are the lightest of all.

Read more:

Meal Plan: Key Nutrients of Pregnancy

Nutritious Snack Ideas during Pregnancy

Meal Plan: Getting the Right Nutrition while Breastfeeding

Recipes to help increase whole grains in your child’s diet

Figuring out how to add in whole grains to your little one’s diet is sometimes more difficult.

Here are some recipe ideas to help integrate more nutrition into your baby and toddler’s diet:

Banana & Yogurt Muffins

Blueberry Banana Blender Muffins

Berry Muesli

Oat Breakfast Bites

Broccoli & Cheese Nuggets

Banana Bread

Whole Grain Pumpkin Waffle Dippers

Whole Grain Blueberry Sheet Pan Pancakes

Cheesy Broccoli Quinoa Bites

Mild Curry Chicken & Veggies with Brown Rice

Easy Baked Cheese Crackers

Note: Make sure you offer the above recipes in a texture, consistency, and size your little one can handle.

Let's Chat!

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Our Happy Experts are a team of lactation consultants and registered dietitian nutritionists certified in infant and maternal nutrition – and they’re all moms, too, which means they’ve been there and seen that. They’re here to help on our free, live chat platform Monday - Friday 8am - 6pm (ET).Chat Now!

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For more on this topic, check out the following articles:

Tips for Staying Hydrated while Pregnant and Breastfeeding

How Much Should I Eat While Pregnant?

Strategies for Creating a Healthy Kitchen for Your Family

Maximizing Healthy Taste Development while Pregnant and Breastfeeding