The Steel-(Cut Oats) Trap

I made a wonderful, hearty breakfast yesterday morning: steel-cut oats, cooked slowly overnight in a bain marie, served with milk and pancake syrup on the side. Ah, the joys of waking up to a warm, nourishing meal and sending everybody off with full stomachs and happy hearts!

Amateur food porn

Actually…the youngest had a bagel because he doesn’t like the oats; the oldest had a few bites, and threw the rest away; the middle boy will eat anything, so he doesn’t count; and I was soon hungry for a bagel and cream cheese. So what gives? Why doesn’t our reality conform to the narrative I find so prominent on the whole-foodie blogs?

The easy answer is our chronic non-conformity, even among non-conformists: “too crunchy for the Christians, too Christian for the crunchies.” We’ve been plagued for years by this failure to find any sort of niche in one community or another. It’s a convenient, compelling narrative. “Poor us; we just don’t belong in cool-natural-world; we’ll just go shop at Big Box.” I’m not entirely convinced of this, though. For one thing, while I believe in “typical,” I’m not so sure about “normal.” Two other possibilities spring to mind: first, that we’re missing part of the picture; second, that the picture itself is wrong.

As to the first: how much real information can one get from reading a few blog posts? People filter, both by habit and by necessity; we notice those who don’t, and often wish that they would. What’s missing, then, is the necessary context for evaluating the information. Nutrition is especially contextual: a person’s age, body type, exercise and stress level, and lifestyle patterns all bear on the matter. Shopping and cooking habits can vary as widely, for as many reasons. I think, then, that a grain of salt is due with each tidbit of interweb info we receive.

Regarding the second, which is but a logical extension of the first: who are these culinistas, anyway? I must confess to a suspicion of bloggers, especially food bloggers, as irrational and ironic as that may be. The elitism of food as a hobby comes across hard to those of us just trying to make the budget last for the month, and the obscurity of some of it really seems to come from the far ends of the bell curve. I understand that the cutting edge is where progress takes place, whether in fashion, food, or real research, but tying it to the “anyone can do this!” donkey just adds insult to injury. Put all that into the interweb echo chamber and it’s hard to hear one’s own self think.

If this incomplete picture is incorrect, three things logically follow: one, I’m free to view or ignore it as I see fit; two, if I choose to look into it, I need to remember that grain of salt. As my dad would say: “Don’t believe everything you read, and only half of what you hear.” Third, since I am a part of this mosaic yet decry its distortions, I have a responsibility to make my own contributions as honest and clear as possible.

As for breakfast, then, I  need to revise my point of view to reflect what’s really happening. First of all, the grain-based breakfast seems unbalanced: heavy on the carbohydrates, short on the protein. Although the numbers may say otherwise, our experience is that oat-based breakfasts leave us high and dry in a few short hours. Why is that? Is the protein/carb/fat balance wrong? Are the portions too small?  Of course, serving a good portion won’t guarantee that it will be eaten, and two of my sons are willing to endure great hardship to avoid eating food they don’t like. Nor can I assume that they’ll like something because I do: I think the steel-cut oats are delicious, and they obviously disagree.

On the other side of the coin are some constraints I face in making breakfast. For one thing, there is the time factor. The older boys need to leave the house by 7:45, so they should have finished breakfast by 7:30, so I should have it ready by 7:15, so I should be up and at it by 7:00. Easy enough in theory, but when I get to bed between midnight and 1 a.m., not-so-much-fun-to-do.  I might not get to bed so late if the boys would turn in before 10 p.m. or so, but that shows no sign of changing, so here we are.  Breakfast, then, must be a streamlined, no-frills affair.  Special requests and separate items are discouraged, at best.

Another factor is cost. Whole grains and such are wonderfully inexpensive; the steel-cut oats, for instance, cost me $1 per pound, and half a pound makes enough for four to five people, assuming they all have some. That’s half the price of a dozen eggs when I can get them cheaply, let alone bacon ($7 per pound!) or sausage to go with. On the other hand, is it a bargain if I need a second breakfast, especially if it’s a coffee-stand bagel for $2? Or if the oats wind up in the garbage? Cold cereal is fairly cheap and very popular, but carries what the economists call “externalities” in nutrition and footprint. Also, it’s mighty hard to reduce the family’s food-miles when breakfast is trucked in from Battle Creek, Michigan.

“Yes,” you say, “but wouldn’t these issues perish in the face of monotony uniformity? Just find the Magic Meal and have it every day forever!” Thank you for bringing me to Point Number Three: Variety. I’m sorry to say that I’m not the sort of person who can have, or make, the same thing every day, nor is the family up for that either. Even when I worked in restaurants where I got to eat during my shift, I wouldn’t get stuck on one item, but rotated among several favorites depending on my budget, mood, and available time. For instance, fish tacos go down much faster than a Cobb salad. So, regardless of recent urban restaurant trends, the family menu is not going monochrome any time soon.

Clearly, I have some work to do on the breakfast menu. however, I noticed something else this morning, while I was writing this very essay, that made me look at this from another angle. We had scrambled eggs, sausage, and toast this morning at about 7:15; by 10:15, having done nothing more strenuous than open a browser window, I was feeling peckish and toasting a bagel. Are the boys hungry again after three hours anyway? Maybe our demands on this meal are unreasonable at the specified portions. If so, I will need to re-think portion size as well as item selection, while keeping it both under budget and as local as possible.

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About poorlocavore

Welcome to one family's journey towards a smaller food-mile footprint on a small food budget. How do our choices affect the environment, and what influences our choices? Read on and find out what I'm learning.
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15 Responses to The Steel-(Cut Oats) Trap

  1. Momof5 says:

    Argh, the breakfast dilemma! One of our breakfast-refusers is out of the house (at college, where he’s skipping breakfast), and the other leaves by 6:30 for early high school classes. Of the three remaining, one requires full hot breakfast plus a backpack full of high-protein snacks just to make it through the day, one will happily take anything for breakfast . . . but will leave it on the fencepost on his way to carpool if he doesn’t like it, and one – too young for school – just grazes all morning long. Then there are the grown-ups; my husband needs something that will balance on a coffee cup, and I feel like I’m the flexible one of the bunch, but I suspect it isn’t true.

    We’ve tried the oats, tried cold cereal (expensive, non-nutritious, and disgusting when you find it congealed later in the day), tried a short-order-style offer of eggs and/or bacon/sausage (found on sale in the past-its-date bin; lots of work and the first one to the kitchen eats all the bacon, leaving nothing but greasy smell for the siblings), tried English muffins (no peanut butter allowed because of classmate allergies), you name it.

    The only real success has been . . . bagels. The expensive ones from Costco. Those are really not on our regular shopping list.

    I’ve pretty much given up, figuring they must not be starving because oatmeal would look good to them if they were. I did, though, cook up a batch of meatballs this morning and freeze them once they were cooled. I figured that since breakfast-for-dinner is one of our end-of-month favorites, maybe dinner for breakfast? No idea if they’ll be edible once microwaved and stuffed between pieces of toast, but I thought it was worth a try.

    Your oatmeal looks awesome, by the way. Sorry it wasn’t a hit.

    • poorlocavore says:

      Yes, bagels are good friends. I like the Safeway bagels, and 5th Avenue brand, which are made in Oregon. No HFCS in either. I don’t think we could have too many. Dinner for breakfast sounds interesting. The morning after Thanksgiving I had re-heated apple crisp a la mode for breakfast, and it was as good as it sounds. I got due-dated sausage for 99 cents per pack at Safeway, which is gone now… The oats…simple to make (1 cup oats, 3 cups water in a heat-safe container; container in the crock pot, fill crock with water to level of oat mix; turn on low, cover crock pot, go to bed), nutritious, and tasty…so of course, they don’t like it. I’ve got to offer yogurt more often, too. Maybe with the apple crisp? That might be very good.

  2. Margaret says:

    Why not try playing with the oats to ramp up their nutritional content? Chopped dried fruit thrown in with them while they cook adds wonderful flavor and texture, and topping with a few nuts (walnuts or hazelnuts are my favorite) is an easy way to add protein and contrast; try topping with almond milk, too. You can also cook them in milk to get more protein if you have nut-adverse or allergic eaters. All of these things are fairly inexpensive add-ons, too, since you only use limited quantities or cheap ingredients (like raisins and walnut pieces instead of dried cherries and pecans, for instance).

    I find myself hungry about every three hours or so, no matter what I’ve eaten. Okay, Thanksgiving was maybe an exception…but I think it’s pretty normal to go through that cycle even if you’ve eaten very nourishing sustaining food at your last meal. I think it’s great you’re giving this a try–and maybe your kids will appreciate oatmeal more on a cold, lazy weekend morning. Homemade oatmeal bars are pretty easy to make and might be more appealing to kids running out the door.

    • poorlocavore says:

      I’ve actually been thinking about doing this-the oats do seem like a great template for add-ons. Maybe apple-cinnamon, or raisin-maple. I’ll need to make sure I have a backup plan (i.e. bagels) for those experimental days. Another use for powdered milk!

      I want to be sure the boys are OK, since they don’t have as many chances as I do to snack at those 3-hour marks. I’m going to write a proper post about my plans, as that 3-hour interval seems like something we need to accept and work with.

  3. Afton says:

    I recently participated in a life change game called The Game On Diet. One of the rules was that you had to eat 5 meals a day and each meal had to consist of a fist sized portion of carb, a palm sized portion of protein and a thumb sized portion of healthy fat. An egg and hot grain cereal fit the bill for breakfast. Then within 3 hours, I’d have a nice slice of home made wheat bread, a few pieces of cheese and some almonds. Then there was lunch, an afternoon snack and dinner. We were also supposed to add 2 fistfuls of leafy greens each day and while I got sick of the rigidity after 4 weeks, I have to admit, I was never hungry.

    • poorlocavore says:

      That’s an interesting approach. I like the portion sizes. I’ve had previous success with a more spread-out eating plan. Also, being hypoglycemic, I shouldn’t go too long between meals anyway. We had a bigger breakfast this morning (oatmeal *and *bagels), and I’m just now starting to feel hungry.

  4. Jen says:

    I think you hit the nail on the head when mentioned being hungry again in 3 hours. I seem to remember reading that more smaller meals is better for us than fewer, larger ones. Since my kids are home, they really do eat all day long. I doubt either of them could make it from 7:30 until lunchtime without a pick-me-up.

    I guess I am lucky because my kids clamor for oatmeal; I give it to them 3-4 times a week, and they doctor it up w/ butter, cinnamon, and maple syrup (honey would be a more practical, local choice.) The other days, they either have local granola & milk/yogurt, peanut butter on whole grain toast, eggs, or pancakes if I am feeling ambitious (which I am generally not this quarter.) Cream cheese on toast works too.

    One idea w/ the pancakes is making a lot extra, and freezing them. Then the kids can heat them up in the toaster & spread nut butter on them. You can do a lot to make the pancakes more nutritionally dense, too.

    • poorlocavore says:

      I don’t know how the kids are supposed to stay focused at school with just the one meal break, and they’re famished when they get home at 3:30, so there’s a snack break; then dinner, then a little something at bedtime. That’s five “meals” right there. Freezing extra pancakes for the toaster is interesting; I’ll have to try that next time.

      BTW, that was my 100th comment! You’re the lucky winner! Here’s your prize: a Free Recipe!

      Cocoa Mix
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  5. Cassie says:

    100% whole wheat bagels with natural peanut butter and a sliced apple

    1/2 cup old fashioned oats cooked with 1 c water and 1/2 c unsweetened applesauce (frozen from fall!), with some brown sugar stirred in

    whole wheat waffles, made on the weekend, frozen, and popped in the toaster, with seasonal fruit and maple syrup on top

    None of us are ever hungry till lunchtime. But I’m not sure if that’s because we have never eaten a morning snack or because of the fillingness of the breakfast. In other words, is the snacking habit or hunger?

    • poorlocavore says:

      All good ideas. I wonder about the lunchtime gap; it’s been an issue here as long as I can remember. Plus, I’m a bit hypoglycemic, so i shouldn’t go too long between refills.

  6. Kathy says:

    I’ve been lurking for a while and really enjoy your blog (found it via your wife on the Simple Living discussion boards). I thought I’d throw our 2c in on breakfast. We’ve developed a basic routine, but are still able to keep some variety to it. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays we have smoothies and homemade muffins – varieties vary by season and what’s on hand. The smoothies aren’t cheap, but they’re nutritious and I balance the cost out with other meals. On other mornings we have oatmeal with fruit or toast (depending on who’s eating) and hard-boiled eggs are available. I make my own bread (using the dough cycle on my bread machine), so the toast varies as well. Non-scheduled Saturday mornings are a special treat. That is when we break routine and have something like pancakes, eggs, meat, potato pancakes, etc. All that to say, you can have a basic breakfast menu and still have variety – much like the dinner menu you mentioned earlier.

    • poorlocavore says:

      I think that’s what I’m after: a framework with some wiggle room for improvisation. The Saturday pancakes are pretty standard now, as that’s the one morning we’re not in a hurry to get somewhere. Thanks for stopping by and chipping in!

  7. Pingback: Cracking the Pancake Code | The Poor Locavore

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