The key to keeping those mid-morning growls at bay is to start the day with a smart breakfast, one that will sustain you until lunchtime. Many breakfast cereals, especially those that are sweetened or made with puffed grains like rice or corn, simply aren’t filling enough to get you through the first half of your day.
And if you skip breakfast? Forget it. You’ll be running on fumes way before lunchtime. Not only that, but you’ll miss out on a key source of fiber and vitamins that are commonly found in breakfast foods. According to the International Food Information Council, eating breakfast may boost alertness and concentration, and help reduce cholesterol. The IFIC also notes that eating whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk to start the day can help regulate insulin and digestion.
Want to maximize the benefits of that morning meal? Think oatmeal. Here’s the deal: Oats have plenty of fiber (about four grams in each 1/2 cup uncooked serving) plus about six grams of protein. Not only will oatmeal help you feel fuller longer, but it has heart-health benefits as well. According to the Mayo Clinic, three grams of soluble fiber per day, the amount found in one bowl of oatmeal, can reduce the absorption of cholesterol in the bloodstream.
Know Your Oats
There are four different kinds of oatmeal, which each undergoes different levels of processing:
Instant oatmeal is typically packaged in envelopes with sweeteners, flavorings and other additives. It takes almost no cook time, just the addition of hot water. This is the most processed oatmeal and tends to have more calories (due to added sugars) per serving than unprocessed oatmeal. It also tends to be lower in fiber.
Quick oats are processed to remove the outer bran for faster cooking. Less processed than instant oatmeal, these take minimal cook time (between one and five minutes).
Old-fashioned or "thick" oats are steamed and rolled flat. These oats take about 10-12 minutes to cook on the stovetop. They're higher in fiber and slightly less processed than quick oats.
Steel-cut or "Irish" oats are minimally processed and retain all the inherent fiber and vitamins of whole oats, but take longer (about 25 minutes) to cook. Unlike the flat oats or instant oats you're probably used to seeing, steel-cut oats are round in shape.
Whenever possible, stick to the old-fashioned or steel-cut oats for nutrition’s sake—and know that old-fashioned oats require little to no more cooking time than the quick variety. Quick, old-fashioned and steel-cut oats all allow you to create your own flavor combinations and control what goes into your bowl.
If you're used to opening a packet to "make" your oatmeal, you'll need to learn the basics of cooking oats. But don't worry. It's easy!
Prep Basics for Oatmeal
Cooking oatmeal is simple: Cook oats in water at a ratio of 1:2 (1/2 cup of old-fashioned oats, one cup of water). Add a tiny pinch of salt (unless you’re on a low-sodium diet) to enhance oatmeal’s toasty flavor. Put everything in a small saucepan, bring to a boil and cook for four minutes, or until the consistency suits you (less time for "soupier" oatmeal, more time for firmer). If you have an extra minute, try this to enhance the flavor: Place 1/2 cup oats into a dry saucepan and toast the oats over medium heat., then add the water and salt.
Steel-cut oats take longer to cook because they’re not rolled thin and they retain their intact hulls. But they have a wonderful nutty flavor and toothy texture that makes for an especially hearty breakfast. You can reduce cooking time by soaking the oats in water (in the refrigerator) overnight. Some people prefer using the microwave to prepare Irish oatmeal. As a time-saver, you can prepare a big batch on the weekend and refrigerate the oatmeal to use during the week.
No time to cook in the morning? Oatmeal is the perfect slow cooker food. And what better way to wake up than to the smell of cinnamon and brown sugar? Simply dump all the ingredients in the pot before bedtime, and you’ll wake to a hearty breakfast.
Europeans have made oats a centerpiece of their morning meal for generations, notably in the fruit-oat-milk mix called muesli. The idea is simple: Stir together oats and milk, add a bit of sugar, cinnamon and fruit, let sit overnight in the refrigerator, and you'll have a hearty, delicious (and no-cook!) starter. Feel free to add chopped apple, fresh or frozen blueberries, sliced banana or dried fruit.
If you like cold cereal and milk, consider adding oatmeal’s healthy benefits to your bowl: Swap 1/4 cup of your regular breakfast cereal for an equal amount of old-fashioned oats. You’ll gain a bit of filling fiber, which just may help you make it through your morning.
Creative Oatmeal Combinations
A bowl of oatmeal, warm and hearty though it is, isn’t all that exciting by itself. But added fruit, nuts and other toppings make it delicious. Make your morning easy by having the add-ins ready to go the night before. Try one of the combinations below to add pizzazz—and nutrients—to a single serving of oatmeal.
One serving of cooked oatmeal (about one cup cooked) contains 150 calories, three grams of fat, 27 grams of carbs, around six grams of protein and four grams of fiber.
- 2 Tbsp dried cranberries, 1 Tbsp toasted pistachios, 1 tsp sugar (115 calories)
- 2 Tbsp raisins, 1 Tbsp chopped pecans, 1 tsp sugar (125 calories)
- 2 Tbsp dried cherries, 1 Tbsp chopped almonds, 1 tsp sugar (115 calories)
- 1/4 cup blueberries, 1 Tbsp chopped walnuts, dash of cinnamon (70 calories)
- 1/2 cup diced apple, 2 Tbsp dried cranberries (90 calories)
- 1/2 cup diced pears and 2 Tbsp dried cherries (100 calories)
- 1 Tbsp Nutella (chocolate-hazelnut spread), 1/2 a banana, sliced (150 calories)
- 1 cup diced apple, 2 Tbsp raisins, sprinkle of cinnamon (140 calories)
- 1/2 cup fresh or frozen blueberries, 1 Tbsp maple syrup,1 Tbsp chopped toasted walnuts (140 calories)
- 1/2 cup diced apple, 1 Tbsp raisins, 1 Tbsp peanut butter (165 calories)
- 1 Tbsp honey, 2 Tbsp raisins, 1 Tbsp chopped walnuts (175 calories)
- 1 Tbsp honey, 1 Tbsp peanut butter (160 calories)
- 1/2 sliced banana, 1 Tbsp peanut butter (145 calories)
- 1/2 cup sliced peaches, 1.5 tsp. brown sugar, 1 Tbsp sliced almonds, dash of vanilla extract (120 calories)
- 1/3 cup unsweetened applesauce, dash of cinnamon (35 Calories)
- 1/4 cup apple butter, dash of cinnamon and allspice (or pumpkin-pie spice), 1 Tbsp dried cranberries or cherries (170 calories)
- 1/2 cup sliced fresh or frozen strawberries, 1 Tbsp sliced almonds, dash of almond extract (75 calories)
- 3 Tbsp of your favorite fruit spread or preserves (80 Calories)
- 1 Tbsp dry-roasted peanuts, 1 Tbsp raisins, 1 Tbsp mini chocolate chips (150 calories)
- 1 Tbsp chopped dried banana chips, 1 Tbsp dry-roasted peanuts, 1 Tbsp raisins (120 calories)
- 1 Tbsp dried cranberries, 1 Tbsp raisins, 1 Tbsp chopped pecans (130 calories)
- Italian oatmeal: 1/3 cup part-skim ricotta cheese, 1/2 cup diced tomatoes (125 calories)