By Steve Peters
When it comes to making a decent breakfast on weekday mornings, I do a terrible job. Part of the reason is I don’t have much of an appetite when I wake up. Even if I did, I rarely leave myself enough time to prepare anything decent. Lately I’ve just kept a box of instant oatmeal at the office and heat up a packet when I finally get hungry later on. I’m not proud, but at least I’m eating something.
Instant oatmeal may not be the worst option, yet it’s far from the best. Those packets are typically not very good. Even the organic brand results in a bland bowl of mush. Or worse, a sugary bowl of mush. Not to mention, the portion size is better suited for a kid than an adult. One will carry me though to lunch when I eat it late in the morning, but otherwise, I won’t last long. I can’t be the only thirty-year-old eating these things. Am I?
Clearly, instant oatmeal needs an intervention. Those packets need more flavor, a realistic adult portion size and less sugar. Might as well ditch the added colors and preservatives while we’re at it.
The thing with convenience foods like instant oatmeal is that we already have everything we need to replicate and drastically improve the product ourselves. Why, then, do we pay more for something inferior? Take frozen waffles or pancake mix. If you keep just the most basic of baking supplies on hand (think flour, baking powder, milk, eggs and salt), you can prepare your own in just slightly more time than a mix can offer. Then you can freeze portions for busy weekdays.
The same goes for instant oatmeal. There are no magical ingredients in those packets that allow the oats to cook quicker. You just run regular old-fashioned rolled oats in your food processor to break them into smaller pieces. Add in a little sugar and salt and you’ve got the instant base ready to go. The game changer is how you flavor it up. That’s when it’s time to get creative.
Dried fruit, nuts and spices are my key to creating delicious flavored instant oatmeal. I already keep these ingredients in my pantry and likely you have some as well. If not, the Co-op has a great selection of spices and reasonably priced bags of dried fruits in their bulk department, such as apples, mangos, raisins, currants, apricots, pineapple and figs. I’ve also found good-quality nuts at Aldi, in addition to a few other dried and freeze-dried fruit options. Surprisingly, TJ Maxx is also a good source of more unique dried fruits and seeds, such as dried hibiscus flowers, that taste a lot like dried cranberries.
The flavor combinations you can create are infinite. And unlike store-bought, you can actually see and taste the flavor. Just make the oat base and add whatever flavoring ingredients you like to each portion. Here are a few I came up with this past weekend: Apple, cinnamon and walnut; raisin, nutmeg and cashew; strawberry, hemp and white chocolate; blueberry, ginger and flax; golden berry, hibiscus and chia; pineapple, coconut and cardamom; and fig, anise and walnut.
Although the packets you can make at home are of a much higher quality than store-bought, you’ll want to go easy on the dried fruit. Dried fruit is concentrated, and just a small amount will contain more sugar than you think. Keep an eye out for dried fruit with added sugar, which is totally unnecessary. Using the recipe below, the oat mix contains one teaspoon of brown sugar per serving. Alone, it’s not overly sweet. You can always increase the sugar, but keep that in mind as you add fruit.
I made each packet with ½ cup of the oat mix and up to ¼ cup of flavor add-ins. I like to balance half of that with dried fruit and the other half with nuts or seeds. In other words, about 1/8 of a cup of each per packet. For most of the packets, I used about ¼ teaspoon of spice. This is double, or more, the size of the standard instant oatmeal packet you can buy in a store.
You can portion each serving into small plastic bags, reusable containers or mason jars. I used small paper snack bags that are similar to how store-bought packets are sold. I folded them over, taped them up and they’re ready to go with me in my bag to work.
Makes 12 servings
6 cups rolled oats
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
nuts and seeds
Add one cup of oats to a food processor. Pulse until you have a fine, powdery texture that looks more like crumbs than oats. Pour this out into a large bowl then add the remaining five cups oats to the processor. Pulse these just a few times until they’re broken up and no longer whole, but don’t go overboard as too small of oats will result in a mushy oatmeal. Add these to the bowl and stir in the sugar and salt until well combined.
Use a ½ cup measuring cup to portion out each serving of the oat mix. You should have enough for 12 servings.
Choose your add-in ingredients, chop them up into small pieces, if necessary, and measure out a combination of ¼ cup per serving. Do this for each serving. Seal each bag or jar and label accordingly.
Boiling water method: In a bowl, combine the packet with ¾ cup boiling water. Let sit for two minutes, add milk if you like, and serve.
Microwave method: Add ¾ cup water with the contents of the packet in a microwave-safe bowl. Cook for two minutes, add milk if you like, and serve.
Note: If you like your oatmeal creamier, prepare it with 1 cup water instead.