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Finding a healthy hot cereal starts out simple: Look for whole grains. Most hot cereals are. (Exceptions: grits, Cream of Rice, and Cream of Wheat typically are refined.)
Minimizing sugar can get tricky, though. You can start with plain and add fruit, or go with one of the few lower-sugar instants that don’t add risky sweeteners. We’ve rounded up the best of both.
Prefer eggs, pancakes, or sausage to start your day? Click here to jump to our picks.
Steel cut shortcuts
There’s nothing like steel cut oats. While ordinary oats are rolled flat, steel cuts are chopped into nice and chewy chunks that some people prefer (though they’re no more nutritious).
The downside: Steel cut oats need to simmer for 20 minutes. To save time, you can make a big batch, then refrigerate. To eat, just reheat a bowlful (plus mix-ins) in the microwave.
Or take a shortcut to hearty oats:
- Quick cooking steel cut oats. Bob’s Red Mill, Quaker, McCann’s, and others serve up oats that have been steel cut into smaller pieces, so they cook in just 3 to 7 minutes.
- Extra thick. Rolled (aka old fashioned) oats with names like Extra Thick (Bob’s Red Mill) or Thick & Rough (The Silver Palate) are nice and chewy. They cook in about 10 minutes.
Oats & more
Ready to branch out beyond oats? Woodstock 5 Grain Cereal adds whole-grain rye, triticale (a wheat-rye hybrid), barley, and flax.
The result: a deliciously varied texture, plus as much fiber (5 grams) as a serving of oatmeal. And six minutes of simmering on the stovetop is all it takes to cook.
Another good bet: Hodgson Mill Hearty Multi Grain Hot Cereal (oats, wheat bran, quinoa flakes, milled flax seed, wheat germ, and cracked whole wheat).
In the market for mix-ins? Nuts and fruit aren’t the whole ballgame. Seeds also add a satisfying crunch...plus a dose of good fats, fiber, zinc, iron, magnesium, and more.
Maybe that’s why Purely Elizabeth adds flax and chia seeds to its unsweetened Original Superfood Oatmeal (oats plus quinoa and amaranth). Trader Joe’s Unsweetened Instant Oatmeal packets are similar. Or add your own flax or chia seeds to turn any oats into a super-seedy hot cereal.
For some extra plant protein (about 3 grams in every tablespoon), go with nutty-tasting shelled hemp seeds (aka hemp hearts) or pumpkin seeds.
Muesli has plenty going for it.
- It’s usually made of whole grains like oats, rye, or buckwheat and little or no added sugar.
- It’s great hot or cold. Heat like oatmeal, or serve with milk or yogurt right out of the bag or after soaking overnight in the fridge.
- It comes with built-in nuts, seeds, and fruit. Take Seven Sundays Farmers Market Mix, with its naturally sweet dates and currants plus almonds, sunflower seeds, and flax. Or Seven Sundays Wild & Free Mix (blueberries, chia, and pumpkin seeds plus just 1 tsp. of added sugar per ½ cup).
Other winners include three from Bob’s Red Mill: Old Country Style, Fruit & Seed, and Gluten Free Muesli.
Give bran a chance
It’s not just that oat’s bran—its outer layer—has extra fiber (7 grams per serving, versus oatmeal’s 4 grams). Oat bran also cooks up surprisingly creamy. Love Cream of Wheat or grits? Think of oat bran as an upgrade.
What’s more, all 7 grams of fiber (25 percent of a day’s worth) are intact fiber, not the processed fibers that food companies love to toss in—like the chicory root extract in Quaker High Fiber or Fiber & Protein Instant Oatmeal—and that may not help keep you regular.
In search of a sweetened, flavored packet of instant oats? Your best bets have less than 5 grams (about a teaspoon) of added sugar:
- Quaker Lower Sugar Instant Oatmeal. Quaker offers standbys like Apples & Cinnamon and Maple & Brown Sugar, but slashes the added sugar in half, thanks to sweet-tasting monk fruit extract.
- KIND Apple Cinnamon Almond Oatmeal. It has thicker-cut oats and bigger apple chunks than Quaker does. Yum. If you’re looking for only a little sweetness, this one’s for you. KIND goes light on the added sugar (4 grams) and doesn’t toss in any low-cal sweeteners. Too bad the company’s other oatmeal varieties add more sugar (7 to 9 grams).
A protein pick
Quaker Protein, KIND Protein Oatmeal, Kodiak Protein-Packed Oatmeal. It seems like every company now makes oats with enough extra protein to double the protein—from 4 or 5 grams per packet to 10-plus grams.
That can help turn oatmeal into a meal, especially if you aren’t adding milk or yogurt. The problem: Most protein oats also toss in plenty of sugar: 7 to 11 grams (1½ to 2½ teaspoons) per packet. Sheesh.
Exception: Kodiak Classic Rolled Protein Oats. With its pea and whey proteins, Kodiak’s oats cook up super creamy. They’re unsweetened, so you can add your own fruit, spices, etc. Even if you throw in a teaspoon of brown sugar (4 grams), you’ll do better than the sugary packets.
Single-serving cups of instant oats are easy peasy: Remove the lid, add boiling water, let sit for a few minutes, dig in.
The downsides? Each cup costs $1 to $3, versus roughly 30 cents a serving for the same amount from a canister of an instant like plain Quaker Quick 1-Minute Oats.
Then there’s the excess packaging. And many single-serve cups use plastic that may not get recycled.
Solution: Grab a few reusable containers with lids. Toss ½ cup plain instant oats into each, then sprinkle in some dried fruit, nuts, etc. When it’s time to eat, simply add boiling water (or cold water, then microwave). Ta-da!
A savory start
If you like hot cereal, why stop at oats? And why keep it sweet?
Make a batch of a quick-cooking whole-grain like quinoa or bulgur (cracked whole-grain wheat). Then, whenever you’re looking for a quick meal, remove from the fridge, reheat a bowlful, then pile on the savories.
Try a fried or hard-boiled egg, a few slices of avocado, and a vegetable or two (like cherry tomatoes, baby kale or spinach, or scallions), plus a dash of hot sauce or a sprinkle of everything bagel seasoning...you name it.
Or go beyond grain bowls. Why not beans for breakfast? Try The Healthy Cook’s British-style baked beans on toast, in a whole-grain tortilla, or alongside a scramble.
Mix it up
Need to jazz up plain oats? Try these combos.
- Raisins, walnuts, pumpkin spice
- Apricots, toasted almonds
- Chopped apple or pear, cinnamon
- Blueberries (fresh or frozen), chia
- Strawberries, vanilla yogurt
Got celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity?
Oats are naturally gluten-free, but they can be contaminated with gluten if they’ve been grown in the same fields—or processed on the same equipment—as wheat or other grains that naturally contain gluten. So if you need to avoid gluten, only buy oats labeled “gluten-free.” Look here for a list of which hot cereals in this article fit the bill.
Think outside the bowl
Want a hot, not-cereal breakfast? We’ve got you covered.
For most people, the American Heart Association recommends no more than one egg yolk a day.
Want more egg than that? Grab some egg whites—all protein, no cholesterol.
Cartons make it easy. No egg to crack, you get whites without wasting yolks, and they come pasteurized (so there’s no worry about cross-contamination or under-cooking).
Go with all whites or mix equal parts whole egg and egg whites. The results are light yet eggy-tasting.
For a deliciously veggie-rich scramble or omelet, add:
- Broccoli, scallions, and a sprinkle of sharp cheddar, or
- Bell pepper, mushrooms, and onions, or
- Tomatoes or pico de gallo (fresh salsa), scallions, and feta.
The whole package
Just-add-water pancake mix? Nice and easy.
Just-add-water pancake mix made with 100 percent whole-grain flours (wheat and oat) plus protein? Even better.
Kodiak Buttermilk Power Cakes Flapjack & Waffle Mix has it all...and only 2 grams of added sugar in a 190-calorie serving. Bonus: Each serving supplies 14 grams of protein, thanks to added wheat and milk proteins. Kodiak also offers a Carb-Conscious version packed with healthy fats from almond flour (the main ingredient) and with no added sugar.
For even easier waffles, grab a box of frozen 100 percent whole-grain ones like Kodiak Power Waffles or Kashi GO Protein Waffles.
And before you reach for sugary syrup, try a buttery spread or nut butter. Or, for a warm fruit topping, simmer frozen berries or cherries or chopped apple, cinnamon, and a little water.
Easy eggs...from plants
Dropping animal foods for plants? Now, even eggs have an easy sub.
A 100-calorie frozen JUST Egg Folded Plant Egg gets its protein (7 grams) from mung beans and its eggy color from carrot and turmeric. Its taste? Convincing.
Take note: The sodium (300 mg apiece) and price ($4 for 4 “eggs”) aren’t low. So if you’ve got a few minutes to spare, try scrambled tofu. Check out The Healthy Cook’s Southwest Tofu Scramble.
Hold the pork
There are plenty of reasons to replace fatty bacon and breakfast sausage—their link to colorectal cancer, for one.
And no one does veggie breakfast sausage better than Morningstar Farms. Its Original Sausage Patties hit all the right savory notes. They take less than a minute to microwave, and each has just 80 calories, no saturated fat, and 230 milligrams of sodium, plus a hefty 9 grams of protein from wheat and soy.
Muffins in the rough
Want a homemade whole-grain egg McMuffin? Or a toasted English muffin slathered with peanut butter? Finding the best muffin to start with isn’t as easy as you might think.
Dave’s Killer Bread Rockin’ Grains English Muffins? A mix of whole wheat and “organic wheat” (refined) flour.
Thomas’ 100% Whole Wheat English Muffins? They’re whole grain, but they add sucralose, which we rate as “avoid” (go to chemicalcuisine.org). Sigh.
Check for a store brand that fits the bill, or head to the freezer case for Food for Life Ezekiel 4:9 Sprouted Grain (or 7-Sprouted Grains) English Muffins. They’ve got a satisfying, hearty chew that just might keep you full until lunch.
Every gorgeous photo in the Good Foods 2023 calendar will whet your appetite for delicious, healthy food. And the simple recipe below each photo, from Healthy Cook Kate Sherwood, will help you turn that month’s star into the star of your dinner table.