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When it comes to our most beloved breakfast dishes, oatmeal ranks right up there with pancakes and scrambled eggs. Its so simple to make and endlessly customizable — you can stir in and pile on whatever suits your fancy.
And that hearty, humble breakfast staple can be a great addition to a healthy diet. As a widely available whole grain, oats contain a range of essential nutrients, including magnesium and potassium along with notable amounts of fiber. Start your day with 1 cup of oats, and you’ve already consumed about 8 grams of fiber.
Better yet, oats boast beta-glucan — a special type of soluble fiber associated with improved LDL (“bad”) cholesterol numbers for better heart health and improved immune functioning. A study in the journal Nutrition & Metabolism found that oatmeal can have positive effects on your microbiome, which could be a function of its healthy fiber content. And…who knew?… affordable oats contain an arsenal of antioxidants including avenanthramides, which can help reduce inflammation, according to one systematic review. The other great thing about this satisfying breakfast staple is that it’s consumed as a wet grain, meaning it’s cooked with water. A hearty wet grain is going to be more filling than any sort of dry cereal floating in milk.
But a bowl of oatmeal can fall a little flat, especially when relying on the same soggy oats with toppings on repeat morning after morning. That gives some people the impression that it’s a plain and boring meal full of a lot more carbs than exciting tastes. Make it right, however, and you can have a better-balanced breakfast that will keep you feeling satisfied throughout your morning and also eager to eat it again.
Here’s how to breathe new life into your oatmeal in ways that follow the nutritional rules and taste great, too. Time to grab a spoon!
1. Toast and soak
You can do better than spooning up a bowl of lifeless, soggy oat flakes. To get the most out of your oatmeal, it’s worth trading in the rolled and instant variety for heartier steel-cut.
All oatmeal originates from oat groats, which are the harvested whole kernels that have been stripped of their inedible hulls. Then they can get chopped with steel blades and become steel cut, which is a longer cooking grain because it’s still dense. Rolled oats are made when oat groats are steamed and then rolled into flat flakes. Quick oats, or instant oats, are just rolled oats that have gone through additional processing to allow them to cook even faster.
From a satiety and metabolic health perspective, the steel-cut variety is the way to go. A research review published in the Journal of Nutrition showed that blood sugar and insulin responses are better after eating intact oat kernels than after consuming more processed rolled or instant oat flakes. It seems the time it takes to digest oats varies based on how much their structural integrity has been affected by processing, with steel-cut oats potentially making you feel more full after eating possibly keeping blood sugar numbers in the healthy range more of the time.
But who has the time to hover over a pot of simmering steel-cut oats in the morning? That’s the beauty of thinking ahead and soaking your oats overnight. This is a huge time-saving hack for yielding porridge with perfect chewy texture in mere moments. And go one better by quickly toasting the oats before adding your soaking water. This will add a nice nutty, toasty flavor to your final porridge. Here’s how to do the whole simple process.
Quick and toasted steel-cut oats
Over medium heat, heat 2 teaspoons coconut oil or unsalted butter (a cooking oil like pure avocado will work, too) in a medium-sized heavy-bottom saucepan. Add 2/3 cup dry steel-cut oats and heat, stirring occasionally, until a few shades darker and fragrant, around 2 minutes. Pour in 1 3/4 cups water and a pinch of salt; be careful as there could be some splatter. Turn off the heat, cover the pot and let the oats soak overnight. This makes enough oats for 2 servings.
In the morning, stir in a couple of splashes of milk or dairy-free milk and any desired add-ins and then heat over medium-low for 5 minutes, stirring a couple of times. To reheat leftovers, place cooked oatmeal (minus the toppings) in a saucepan with a touch of additional water or milk and heat over medium-low heat until warmed through.
2. Top with a berry good sauce
There are so many ways to sweeten up a bowl of oatmeal, from maple syrup to brown sugar to honey. But, nutritionally, fruit is the better bet.
Sure, you could go minimalist and simply toss a handful of berries on your oats. But for a topping that bursts with sweetness, whip up an easy berry sauce. Not only will the heat bring out even more of the natural sweetness from berries, it also lets you make good use of frozen fruit straight from the freezer. Frozen berries are much cheaper than their fresh counterparts when they are out-of-season locally and are frozen quickly after harvesting to help lock in their micronutrients and disease-fighting antioxidants. And heating berries does not seem to significantly impact their levels of important antioxidants, such as anthoycanins in blueberries.
Easy berry sauce
Making a quick sauce is as easy as tossing your frozen berries of choice in a small saucepan along with any desired flavorings like citrus zest, spices or vanilla and simmering for a few minutes until the fruit have softened and begun to break down. For a thicker sauce, you can stir in a teaspoon of cornstarch and continue simmering until thickened. Any sauce can be prepared in advance and reheated in the morning.
3. Spice things up
There is no better way to ramp up the flavor, and make your oatmeal feel more comforting, than to spike it with a generous amount of spices. Cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger powder, allspice, cardamom and cloves are all great candidates for making a bowl of oatmeal elicit a chorus of oohs and ahhs from your taste buds. You should also remember that the various guises of spices are chock full of bioactive compounds that can benefit your health.
For instance, eating more spices may help lower inflammation and blood pressure numbers. Spike your porridge with cinnamon, and healthy compounds in this popular spice can improve the blood sugar response that comes with eating carbs like oats. Plus, spices like cinnamon and nutmeg can lend oatmeal a sweet taste, making it less tempting to add sweeteners.
For the most flavor nuances, go ahead and use two or more different spices.
4. Add mega-healthy fat
To balance out the nutrition of oatmeal, it’s a good idea to include some healthy fats. Go one better by making sure those fats are the omega-3 ones from plants. An analysis of data from 41 studies published in The BMJ linked a high intake of alpha-linolenic acid, the omega-3 fatty acid found in certain plant foods, to a 10 percent lower risk of all-cause mortality, an 8 percent lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease and an 11 percent reduced risk of death from coronary heart disease, compared with lower consumption levels.
If you don’t eat any seafood, our bodies can convert alpha-linolenic acid into the type of heart-benefiting omega-3 fat found in fish. However, a few factors including genetics and other components of your diet, including high omega-6 fat intake, can impact this conversion rate.
Oatmeal-worthy sources of omega alpha-linolenic acid include walnuts, flax, chia and hemp seeds. Chia and flax, in particular, are also good sources of soluble fiber for better digestive and metabolic health. Meanwhile, hemp seeds are a great source of plant-based protein. It’s as easy as sprinkling these fatty — in a good way — items onto your oatmeal just before serving.
5. Sneak in some veggies
Only 1 out of 10 Americans are meeting the daily recommended servings of vegetables — not good! So why not look to your favorite breakfast dish as a way to work a little more of these nutritional overachieves into your daily menu. Who ever said oatmeal should be topped only with fruit?
While you may not be keen on spiking your oatmeal with kale or eggplant, sweeter options like grated carrot, canned pumpkin, mashed sweet potato or pureed butternut squash are all nutritious options that pair well with oats. That’s because they have their very own inherent sweetness. And sweet potato, pumpkin and their orange-hued veggie counterparts are all stand-out sources of beta-carotene, which our bodies can convert into vitamin A to help support the proper functioning of several organs including heart, lungs and kidneys.
6. Add some protein powder
For improved morning satiety, to better balance blood sugar, and to once again kickstart lean body mass growth after an overnight fast, your breakfast repast mustn’t be too light in protein. Most people would be well-served by making sure the amount of protein they eat at breakfast is on par with dinner. But a bowl of oatmeal topped with fruit is certainly not a protein heavyweight.
The easy solution is stirring in some protein powder. Just a single scoop can infuse your morning meal with upwards of 20 grams of protein. Plus, there are more excellent options than ever, both from animals and plants. The two most common flavors, chocolate and vanilla, both go well with oatmeal. Just make sure that whichever powder you favor, it’s not sullied with high amounts of added sugar.
Note: Depending on what type of protein powder you’re stirring in, you may need to add a few extra tablespoons of liquid when heating your soaked oats.
Try it: Sweet potato pie oatmeal with blueberry sauce
This recipe puts all of our oatmeal improving strategies into play.
Makes 2 Servings
- 2 teaspoons unsalted butter or coconut oil
- 2/3 cup steel-cut oats
- 1/4 cup milk or dairy-free milk of choice
- 1/2 cup mashed sweet potato
- 1/3 cup vanilla protein powder
- 2 tablespoons ground flaxseed
- 2 tsp maple syrup (optional)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ginger powder
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
- 2 cups frozen blueberries
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest or orange zest
- 2 tablespoons chopped walnuts (optional)
- Over medium heat, heat butter or coconut oil in a medium-sized heavy-bottom saucepan. Add oats and heat, stirring occasionally, until a few shades darker and fragrant, around 2 minutes. Pour in 1 3/4 cups water and a pinch of salt; be careful as there could be some splatter. Turn off heat, cover pot and let soak overnight.
- In the morning, stir in milk and heat over medium-low for 5 minutes, stirring a couple of times. Stir in sweet potato, protein powder, flax, maple syrup if using, vanilla, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg; heat for another two minutes.
- To make blueberry sauce, place blueberries, lemon or orange zest and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon in a medium-sized saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes.
- Serve oatmeal topped with a desired amount of blueberry sauce and walnuts if using.
*Pure canned pumpkin puree is a good swap for sweet potato
*Extras of the blueberry sauce can be used for more oatmeal or as a topping for yogurt