Oatmeal used to have a dry reputation.
Once thought of as flavorless and boring, it was like a house guest who showed up at breakfast in a dull tweed jacket. We shoved it aside for the thrill of more exciting conversations with such items as bacon and eggs, pancakes or pastries.
Then, many studies began to show that eating oatmeal could help lower cholesterol and reduce some risks for heart disease.
So, in our quest to be healthier, we began to welcome oatmeal's sweet - or sometimes, savory - presence to the table. As a result, the food once relegated to horses troughs has become a staple in many diets.
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MrBreakfast.com, a site about all things breakfast, reports that 80 percent of U.S. households have oats on hand in their kitchens.
And several restaurants list oatmeal on their menus. Examples include Starbucks with Perfect Oatmeal and Milwaukee's Hotel Metro with Oatmeal Brulee, a mixture of oatmeal with caramelized sugar and fresh berries.
Now, oatmeal is, well, hot.
"Oatmeal is a grain and it's a carbohydrate and there's been a lot of bad rap about carbs in the past," said Suzanne Moore, a food coach and owner of Real Life Food, a Milwaukee-based nutrition and wellness company. "But once the whole thing came out about oatmeal lowering cholesterol and people started to become more health-conscious, it became what people were looking for as a healthy breakfast option."
Oatmeal is an example of a whole back-to-basics attitude that is sweeping society, said Camille Chatterjee, health editor for Redbook magazine.
"There was a while in the '90s when we were supersizing everything, but in the past couple of years, it's dawning on us that obesity is an epidemic," Chatterjee said. "Healthy is in, so oatmeal has gained some star power."
Add to that a tough, budget-conscious economy and oatmeal's affordability boosts its rock star status.
"Oatmeal is my life," wrote Richard Laermer, author of "2011: Trendspotting for the Next Decade" and a contributor to American Public Media's Marketplace, in an e-mail. "I could go a week and eat nothing else."
There is something scientists call the Proustian Moment, Laermer said, when you remember something from your childhood as soon as you get a hint of it.
"Oatmeal is that," he added. "We need to be reminded of simpler times."
Some of oatmeal's appeal also comes from its ability to comfort us, said Tina Ruggiero of GourmetNutritionist.com.
"You eat it and your brain tells your body that it's full," said Ruggiero, a registered dietitian who works in New York and Florida. "It's satisfying and you chew it and you feel like you've eaten something."
Other high points of oatmeal: It's low-fat and low in calories, averaging about 100 to 120 per serving, and it's a strong source of energy.
And that whole thought of oatmeal as boring? Gone.
Oatmeal lovers have discovered that it's really the blank canvas of foods waiting to be painted anyway you choose.
"Adding stuff into oatmeal is kind of an art," Laermer said.
Laermer, for example, recently had his morning oatmeal with golden raisins, granola, brown sugar, peanuts, a bit of chocolate milk and a few raspberries. Ruggiero said she has had it with pumpkin puree. And Chatterjee said she adds a packet of hot cocoa mix to her oatmeal.
Each also mentioned the idea of eating oatmeal for meals other than breakfast.
"Sometimes, you don't want to cook when you get home," Ruggiero said. "So, think breakfast for dinner, and oatmeal is a low-fat, nutrient-rich source for that."
But Moore cautions people to be careful eating oatmeal late in the day, because it is a carbohydrate that boosts your energy and you don't need that too close to bedtime.
She also said the better oatmeal for you is that which takes the longest to cook vs. quick-cook or instant, just-add-water varieties. The processing used to make oatmeal more convenient to prepare strips some of its nutritional value, Moore said.
But any way you roll it, oatmeal is a good source of fiber that is a nice alternative to fatty foods and snacks, the experts said.
"With a little brown sugar and raisins and nuts, you have something good and tasty," Ruggiero said. "It's really a divine way to start the day."
KNOW YOUR OATS
The term oatmeal usually refers to rolled oats, made with the whole oat groat (the hulled grain) or with what's called steel-cut oats (the inner portion of the oat, cut into pieces). Here are four types:
Thick rolled oats are made from steamed groats and rolled into flakes, and take the longest to cook because of their thickness.
Old-fashioned oats are steamed groats rolled into a thinner flake. Cooking time is shorter and the texture is mushier than thick rolled oats.
Quick oats are made from steel-cut oats and are in smaller pieces, which cuts the cooking time even more.
Instant oats, such as those in the just-add-water instant packets, are quick oats that have gone through one more processing step and are steamed to the point of being pre-cooked.
- Use a rice cooker to ease preparation of slow-cooking varieties.
- Add cinnamon to get a dose of antioxidants and sweetness.
- Avoid adding large amounts of sugar in the form of maple syrup or honey.
- Use natural sweeteners such as fruit. Apples, bananas, apricots, peaches, dried cranberries or raisins are good options.
- For a creamy texture, use low-fat yogurt or unsweetened applesauce instead of half-and-half or another high-fat cream.
THE CHOLESTEROL THING
Oatmeal helps to lower your cholesterol like this: Think of the soluble fiber (soft, gelatinous fiber that absorbs water) in oatmeal as a broom and a faucet of running water working in tandem. As the fiber sweeps through your body, the water washes through your colon and takes bad cholesterol with it.
Apple juice oatmeal
Makes 1 serving
1 cup 100 percent apple juice (bottled or canned)
1/2 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
- In small saucepan, bring apple juice to a rolling boil. Add oats and reduce heat. Simmer uncovered 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cover, remove from heat and let cool slightly.
- For added flavor, add a dollop of unsweetened chunky applesauce.
- For a bit more sweetness, stir in 1/2 tablespoon honey.
For a little creaminess, add a dollop of low-fat yogurt.
BLD (breakfast, lunch or dinner) oatmeal
Makes 1 serving
1 packet Quaker Original instant oatmeal
2/3 cup water
Dash of salt
1/3 to 1/2 cup any kind of sausage, cooked and diced or crumbled (depending on type)
- Empty packet of oatmeal into microwave-safe bowl. Add water and salt. Microwave on high (100 percent power) 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in sausage.
Option: Eliminate salt or substitute a dash of brown sugar.
Grainy apple oatmeal
Makes 1 serving
3/4 cup skim milk
1/3 cup The Silver Palate Thick & Rough oatmeal
1/2 tablespoon Grape Nuts cereal
1/2 medium apple, peeled and julienne-cut
1 teaspoon honey
- In small saucepan over medium-low heat, slowly bring milk to a low boil. Stir frequently so milk doesn't burn or stick. Gradually add oats, continuing to stir. Reduce heat to low and cook 8 to 10 minutes, stirring frequently.
- Turn heat off and immediately add Grape Nuts, apples and honey. Let stand 1 to 2 minutes.
- Eliminate honey to cut some of the sweetness.
- Add or substitute slices of banana.
Substitute soy milk for skim.
Note: Silver Palate oatmeal is available at some supermarkets.
Makes 1 serving
1 cup vanilla soy milk
1/2 cup old fashioned rolled oats
1 tablespoon good-quality white chocolate morsels
- In small saucepan over medium-low heat, slowly bring milk to a low boil. Stir frequently so milk doesn't burn or stick. Gradually add oats, continuing to stir. Reduce heat to low and cook 3 to 5 minutes, stirring and paying close attention so mixture doesn't stick.
- Remove from heat, add white chocolate morsels, cover and let sit 1 to 2 minutes.
- Use skim milk or a mixture of half milk and half water.
- Substitute 1/2 a packet of regular or sugar-free hot cocoa mix for white chocolate.
- Add dried cranberries.
- Cut the recipe in half for a snack.