Ask Mickey: Navigating the Oatmeal Shelf

12-3790_bamco_askmickey_web-157x300There are so many types of oatmeal available! I’m not sure if one is better for me than the others. Is there a nutritional difference between steel-cut oats and rolled oats?

With its comforting aroma and nutritional benefits — such as energy that will keep you powered all morning — it’s no wonder that a bowl of warm oatmeal is a world-wide breakfast favorite.  And no matter what type you choose, oatmeal is almost always a healthful option. Here are a few tips that can help you decide which one to go for when you’re standing in the cereal aisle.

First off, the plain, unflavored oatmeal in any of these packages is nutritionally equivalent. A cup to a cup and a half of cooked oatmeal offers fiber, protein, and slow-releasing carbohydrates for long-lasting energy, and beneficial micronutrients like calcium and iron. It is naturally low in fat and sugars, and it’s also a gluten-free choice — but only if the packaging states that it is gluten-free, having been harvested, processed, and packaged with procedures that guarantee the product is safe for those with gluten sensitivities.

The primary differences between plain, unflavored oatmeals lie in how the grain itself was processed, which then determines how long it will take to cook. Instant oatmeal, either in bulk or in individual packets, is a fast and convenient choice. These products only take a couple of minutes in the microwave to prepare. However, beware: the flavored versions are often loaded with sugar, salt, and other ingredients that are not be the optimal way to start your day! A similarly quick-cooking option is rolled oats, a.k.a. old-fashioned oats, which are often available in bulk packaging. This oatmeal has been steamed and rolled or pressed flat in advance. They re-absorb water easily, allowing them to cook up quickly once you get them home.  This type of oatmeal is often the preferred kind for baking, for use in recipes such as fruit crumbles and oatmeal cookies. Both instant and rolled oats look like flakes when they are raw, and they transform quickly to a smooth, almost creamy consistency.

If you’re prepared to spend a little bit more time, steel-cut oatmeal is a terrific option.  Steel-cut oats come from the whole oat grain or “groat,” which has been mechanically cut into small, chunky pieces.  Cooked, this results in a chewy, satisfying texture and robust, nutty taste that some diners prefer, but it takes longer to get there — approximately 30 minutes simmering for a pot of oatmeal. There are some shortcuts that can make it quicker to get breakfast served, such as using a slow cooker or beginning your pot of steel-cut oats the night before, which leaves nothing to do in the morning but heat them up. Another time-saver is purchasing a par-cooked or “quick and easy” style of steel-cut oats. These have been partially cooked during processing, so you can finish the job at home in 5 to 10 minutes.

Whichever type of oatmeal you choose, it’s best to go with unflavored varieties, so you can control what else you’re consuming along with that healthful bowl of hot grains. Once you get the oatmeal cooking, spend a few minutes chopping up healthy toppings such as fresh fruit and nuts for personalized taste, or even dried fruit or coconut. You’ll end up with a naturally delicious and comforting bowl of oatmeal that will keep you fueled and full of energy throughout the morning!


About Ask Mickey: At Bon Appétit Management Company, we know there’s a lot on your plate that you worry about. Making good food choices helps you avoid unwanted pounds, work or study (and sleep!) better, and form long-lasting healthy eating habits. In the Ask Mickey column, a team of our dietitians and chefs offers tips on “chewing the right thing” and answers your nutrition questions. (Mickey, aka Michelina, is a particular feisty Italian grandmother who continues to inspire us.) Email your questions and feedback to [email protected].