June
25 - 2009

Dealbusters: Frugal, homemade instant oatmeal

This series checks out whether something that sounds like a good deal — or takes a bit of extra work — is a good deal. We’ll look at cost and benefit — with everything filtered through my individual experience. Please chime in with your take.

As I mentioned two weeks ago, we are gearing up for a camping trip. One of my favorite camping breakfasts is instant oatmeal. Simply add hot water and voila — a nutritious, delicious food, ready to eat.

In preparation for this trip, I wondered if there were a way to make my own instant oatmeal, using wholesome ingredients and possibly saving a bundle over traditional instant oatmeal.

Many of the online recipes sound blah to my taste — some with no sugar, some with no spices. That ain’t gonna cut it in the Cheap household, where we like our cinnamon. (Hey, it tastes good AND it might help lower blood sugar and cholesterol!)

Finally, I found a recipe on the South Bend Tribune (Indiana) Web site that sounded tasty and easy. It took about 5 minutes to whip it up in my food processor:

6 cups rolled oats, divided use

1/2-1 cup light brown sugar (or to taste)

1-2 teaspoons cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon allspice

Generous pinch table salt

1 cup powdered milk (optional)

Process 2 cups oats to a powder, then set aside in a bowl large enough to hold all 6 cups. Combine 4 cups of oats with remaining ingredients except powdered milk and process in two batches with two or three 1-second pulses, just so oats are slightly broken. Add to bowl with powdered oats. Add powdered milk. Stir or shake it up.

To serve, place about 1/2 to 1 cup of oatmeal in a bowl and stir in enough boiling water to get the consistency you desire (it may need a minute to thicken). Add any fruit, nuts, maple syrup or other flavorings you want.

How do you like those ingredients? I had them all in my kitchen already. And they compare very favorably to the ingredients in Quaker Instant Oatmeal, whose maple and brown sugar flavor includes this list:

WHOLE GRAIN ROLLED OATS (WITH OAT BRAN), SUGAR, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVORS, SALT, CALCIUM CARBONATE, GUAR GUM, OAT FLOUR, CARAMEL COLOR, NIACINAMIDE*, VITAMIN A PALMITATE, REDUCED IRON, PYRIDOXINE HYDROCHLORIDE*, RIBOFLAVIN*, THIAMIN MONONITRATE*, FOLIC ACID*.

*ONE OF THE B VITAMINS

I suppose my version is less enriched, but I’m willing to go with that.

The cost breakdown

Here’s where it gets good. First, I’ll mention that we often cook regular oatmeal (just plain rolled oats) for breakfast. If more than one of us is eating them, I cook them on the stove, and it takes about 15 minutes. If only Mlle. Cheap is having them, I will cook them in the microwave, because she likes the texture and it takes just a few minutes.

When we eat instant oatmeal (most recently, because I got some Quaker oatmeal on sale with a coupon for $1.50 a box), we found that the packet produced a serving only about half the size of our regular oatmeal serving, so to avoid being hungry 15 minutes after we finished eating breakfast, we ate two packets each.

The regular price of store-brand instant oatmeal at Kroger is $1.99 a box, or $0.20 per packet ($0.40 for two). The regular price of Quaker Instant Oatmeal is $3.99 per box, or $0.40 for each packet (a whopping $0.80 per two-packet breakfast).

The breakdown for the recipe above is:

Ingredients Cost
Oats, 6 cups $0.34 $5.69/102 cups = $0.056/cup
Brown sugar, 1 cup $0.08 $14.39/25 lbs = 177 cups = 0.08/cup
Dry milk, 1 cup $0.51 13.79/27 cups = .50/cup
cinnamon, 2 tsp. $0.07 $4.79/303 g = 65 tsp
salt $0.01
nutmeg, 1/4 tsp. $0.02 $3.49/20 nutmegs
allspice, 1/4 tsp. $0.05
TOTAL $1.08 approximately 15 servings (3/4 cup each)
$0.07 per serving

That comes to a cost that is 82% cheaper than the store-brand instant oatmeal, and 91% cheaper than Quaker.

To put it another way, if one person ate the homemade version every day for breakfast for a year, it would cost $26. If they ate the store brand instant (two packets a day), it would cost $145; the Quaker brand (again, two packets) would cost $291.

The priceless factors:

  • Can use organic ingredients.
  • Can benefit from bulk purchasing (less waste; better prices).
  • No non-recyclable, single-package envelopes.
  • Fewer additives.
  • Able to tweak the spices, etc., to your own taste. For instance, I added some dehydrated organic raspberries and blackberries that I bought last year on a great sale and dried in the dehydrator I purchased on Craigslist. They plump up just fine with boiling water.

The drawbacks:

None, so far. I even like the taste and texture better than that of purchased instant oatmeal, which doesn’t have enough “tooth” to my taste.

The verdict:

Worth it for camping and for ongoing home use. Now Mlle. Cheap can make her own oatmeal — and she loves it. She keeps exclaiming that the oatmeal is soooo good.

Grade:

A

For another take …

The Simple Dollar last year wrote about making your own instant oatmeal, with a cost analysis. He has a few variations:

  • He puts his packets in individual plastic baggies. To me, this is more work than it’s worth, and his 1/4-cup portions are skimpier than we like, but would cut calories. I put my mixture in a plastic bulk-Parmesan canister that we can dip a measuring cup into.
  • Bulk buying makes a huge difference! His per-packet cost is $0.30, because he went out and purchased all the ingredients at the regular grocery store, without optimizing for price. At that rate, and with a small portion size, making your own might not be more cost effective than buying pre-mixed instant oatmeal packets, although it still might have advantages in terms of control over ingredients and environmental impact.
  • TSD adds Coffee-Mate instead of powdered milk. I prefer plain ol’ milk to Coffee-Mate’s mixture of corn syrup and oils. But TSD mentions that he doesn’t use powdered milk because it could mold. If this is relevant in your climate, do be forewarned. You could always heat up milk and mix the instant powder with your milk if you want the flavor, protein and calcium of milk.

The Simple Dollar post garnered a zillion comments about how much better steel-cut oats are, or oatmeal cooked in the Crock-Pot overnight. I tried steel-cut oats, but they had a texture I didn’t personally enjoy — and the point of instant is that it is instant, and a one-bowl dish, so hopefully we can agree on one principal here — different oats for different folks — and take this Dealbuster for what it is.

What do you put in your oatmeal?

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