Acai bowls recently took over Instagram, as did chia pudding and avocado toast. Their colors, patterns and combinations are certainly eye-catching, but when it comes to teenagers and their sleepy morning digestive tracts, sometimes an elaborate breakfast is more than they can muster. Instead, they need something simple and comforting on their way out the door. This is where the underappreciated, underestimated, oft-dismissed, rarely hashtagged bowl of oatmeal comes in.
Oatmeal is inexpensive, easy to make and loaded with nutrition. You can use it to cater to different children’s wishes simply by changing the toppings. When my ravenous son wants to top his with a fried egg and cheese for a heartier meal, but my daughter wants hers with just a bundle of berries, I can make both happen with minimal fuss.
The chemical- and sugar-enhanced instant oatmeal packets of the 1980s earned oats a bad reputation, when in fact, oats are protein, fiber and mineral-rich. Whole oats are a source of antioxidants shown to prevent heart disease and are higher in protein than any other whole grain. The soluble fiber in oats balances blood sugar and keeps a body feeling full, while the resistant starch is beneficial to the gut. The manganese is good for bones and skin, the phosphorous is beneficial for kidney health, the B vitamins for digestion and the nervous system, the iron helps transfer oxygen in the blood, and the selenium is important for immune and cognitive functions. Hey, chia pudding, oatmeal might actually have you topped.
There are several types of oatmeal that each look, cook, nourish and taste different. All are made from oat groats — the grain without the hull — that are toasted to make them shelf-stable; the difference comes in the amount of processing that follows.
Steel-cut oats, or “Irish oats,” look like a grain of rice that has been chopped into a few pieces. These have been minimally processed and are the most nutritious. A bowl of steel-cut oats tastes chewier than other varieties and takes about 30 minutes to cook on a stove.
Rolled oats, or “old-fashioned oats,” are whole groats that have been steamed, rolled flat and dried. They generally cook in about five minutes and are creamier and silkier than the steel-cut variety.
Quick-cooking oats are rolled even thinner so they cook in about a minute, while instant oats are rolled so thin they cook almost immediately. These two varieties have the lowest nutrient counts.
Oats are inherently gluten-free, although many are processed in factories that prepare other grains with gluten, so if you are avoiding gluten, look for a package that specifies gluten-free.
Tips for the perfect batch of oatmeal
One cup of dry oats generally serves two people. For a little bit of crunch and a little bit of creamy, mix half steel-cut and half rolled oats; adding a little sea salt when cooking will enhance the flavor. These will cook in just 10 minutes. (If you want your oats, especially the steel-cut variety, to cook faster, soak them overnight.)
To make a more richly flavored oatmeal, toast steel-cut oats in a pan with butter, olive oil or coconut oil before cooking, then add water and simmer in that same pan.
You can mix any ingredients you want to add to your oatmeal — such as flavor packages, bags of nuts, dried fruit, coconut flakes or cacao nibs
— ahead of time to streamline the morning routine. Or get creative with your toppings:
• Nuts such as almonds or walnuts, and seeds such as flaxseeds or chia seeds.
• Maple syrup, brown sugar, cinnamon, coconut flakes, jam, local honey or bee pollen.
Other ways to cook and use oats
Rice cooker: Unlike the stove top, the magic of a rice cooker is that you do not need to supervise the cooking process. You can hit start and walk away for a shower to return to the perfect bowl of oatmeal. The rice cooker will keep the oats warm and moist for hours. For one cup of steel-cut oats, add 1¾ cups of liquid, and for one cup of rolled oats, add 2½ cups of liquid. Water, coconut milk or a combination works well. My rice cooker has a porridge setting that cooks it best.
Slow cooker: If you want oats that are ready when you wake, put them in the slow cooker the night before. Add four cups of liquid for every cup of steel-cut oats (rolled oats do not work well in the slow cooker). Save the extra to reheat throughout the week.
Pressure cooker: Use one cup steel-cut oats and three cups liquid and plan for a quick three minutes of cooking time.
No-cook overnight oats: Mix one cup rolled oats with one cup milk of choice, then add any sweeteners, such as honey, jam, maple syrup, vanilla or dried fruit; seeds such as chia or flax; and even nut butter. Stir and put in a jar with a top. Place in fridge overnight. Eat cold, room temperature or warmed with additional toppings of choice.
Besides that steaming bowl of oatmeal, oats make tasty pancakes when mixed in a blender with water, a banana and maple syrup. Oats add texture and nutrition to cookies, muffins, bread and other baked goods. Oats bulk up granola bars. Add rolled oats to a smoothie for some creamy nutrition. Or try baking oatmeal: Combine two cups rolled oats, one large egg, two cups nondairy milk, cinnamon, sea salt and any fresh fruit. Transfer to a greased baking dish and refrigerate overnight. The next morning, bake for 45 minutes at 350 degrees.
With all of these appealing options, perhaps your teen will be inspired to make her morning oatmeal Instagram-worthy. Then this overlooked grain will get its day in the sun — it certainly has earned it.