I've always been a fan of oatmeal, even from a young age, when most children are supposed to prefer Count Chocula and Fruity Pebbles for breakfast. I was raised on a steady diet of warm, mushy cereal grains for breakfast -- oatmeal, grits, Cream of Wheat, Malt-o-Meal -- and love them all to this day.
My preference for oatmeal was recently pushed into hyperdrive when I decided to eat on only $20 for a week (more on that later) and decided that oatmeal was going to be my main breakfast staple during that time, with fruit and eggs on the side as I was able to do so. The primary factor in this decision was cost, yes, but also flexibility.
Unlike the case with those other warm breakfast cereals, the options for dressing up oatmeal are nearly limitless. This is Texas; we don't add sugar to our grits here. And you can't really top Malt-o-Meal with berries or cinnamon. Not wanting to be in a breakfast rut all week, I bought a large can of Quaker Oats for $1.79 at Fiesta and set off.
I did use a few of the recipes below during my week of eating on $20, but not all of them -- I wasn't able to afford fresh berries, unfortunately. But they're not very expensive, especially in season, and are a great way to jazz up a breakfast food that's already very good for you.
And one last tip: Salt your oatmeal, but not too heavily. During cooking and after. Use kosher salt, if possible. Your tastebuds will appreciate the fullness and balance of flavors. Oatmeal that hasn't been salted is like a cake that's been baked without any salt; it falls flat and will taste overly sweet the second you add anything like brown sugar.
1. Orange and cardamom: If you're buying and eating oranges anyway, then use the orange zest as a treat in anything from baked goods to marinades. Why throw away a perfectly good rind without using it to its fullest extent? Zest that orange (not too deeply, mind you) and mix it into your oatmeal along with a pinch of cardamom. Cardamom is thought to aid digestion and settle the stomach, so this not-very-sweet breakfast might also help you battle that hangover.
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2. Brown sugar and cinnamon: This is a no-brainer. Almost anyone who keeps even a halfway well-stocked pantry has these two items, which will perk up even the gloomiest oatmeal eater. Just a teaspoon of cinnamon -- which has myriad health benefits -- is chock full of calcium, fiber, iron and vitamin C.
3. Peaches and cream: Just a tiny dollop of fresh cream -- whether it's heavy whipping cream or some slightly salty creme fraiche -- on top of your oatmeal will make it palatably creamy for those who don't like the rougher oat texture. With syrupy-sweet fresh peaches (this is more of a summer oatmeal dish, obviously), you won't even need to add even a teaspoon of sugar.
4. Maple syrup and blueberries: Pretend your bowl of oatmeal is actually a stack of blueberry pancakes and pour some [real, please] maple syrup on top instead of sugar to sweeten it. Maples syrup is full of zinc and manganese, both of which are great antioxidants and good for your immune system. Add healthy blueberries that pack even more of an antioxidant punch for a huge nutrition boost.
5. Pumpkin and allspice: Perfect for the fall, this oatmeal tastes just like a pumpkin pie, sans the whipped cream and crust. Canned pumpkin is filled with fiber, iron, vitamin C and more vitamin A than you can possible believe. A tiny dash of allspice (or nutmeg) should be all you need to warm this dish up, spice-wise, but you can also use pumpkin pie spice if you have it on hand. Bonus: No canned pumpkin shortage is expected this year!