However, for years now my usual breakfasts have been something that is cheaper, can be taken on the go without getting soggy, doesn't have to come with crappy packaging, and is very healthy. Oatmeal. It's the frugal person's secret weapon. Or, well, one of them.
First, the packaging. We go through a lot of oats. The Munchkin and I eat them for breakfast, and HusbandX doesn't always eat breakfast but generally has some mixed up with a protein shake later in the day. I put them in cookies. I put them in bread. We go through so. many. oats. By far the cheapest source of oats that we've found in our area are from the bulk bins at the grocery store. I even have reusable cloth bags so we don't have to use the plastic bags from the store. (When we remember the cloth bags, that is. Ahem.) This gets rid of all that ridiculous packaging and, because we're not paying for a brand name and cardboard or plastic, they're far cheaper than what you can find pre-packaged. (Don't even get me started on those silly individual servings that are both terrible nutritionally and horribly over-packaged.)
How cheap are the bulk oats? They're usually in the area of $.99/lb. I calculated it out once and discovered that the serving of oats I generally eat costs somewhere in the sub-ten cents range. Not bad at all, particularly for something so yummy, filling, and good for me. When I can, I tend to buy the organic oats, however, and those are slightly more pricey at a totally-not-going-to-break-the-bank level. Even when I "splurge" (or rather, when the organic oats are available in bulk) I can get a week's worth of oats for my family for about $3.
And, wait, did I say that it could be taken on the go? Easily? Yep! I don't generally eat breakfast at home on work days. I'm not a morning person so getting myself up and out the door while looking semi-presentable (or with the tools to make myself presentable in the office bathroom) is enough of a challenge. I set everything up the night before, including everyone's lunches and having my clothes for the next day picked out and easily accessible. So, naturally, my breakfast is prepared before and I take it to work with me to consume there.
Now, there is one caveat to how cheap oatmeal is. I mentioned HusbandX's protein shakes earlier. Well, he's not the only one who prefers his oats made with something other than plain water. I pretty much never eat just oats, because that's bland and it gets really, really boring day after day. I also like variety in what I eat. Sure, I can eat leftovers for days on end, but once the leftovers are gone I'm ready to move onto something else. We have a wide range of meals we cook so that we almost never make any single meal more than once a month. We might have it for anywhere from 2-4 meals in a row, but then it won't repeat for a while. I like to do the same with my breakfasts. I'll get on a kick where I make a certain kind for the entire week but then I move on to something else. Cinnamon raisin? That was last week's flavor. Should I do chocolate cherry walnut, or blueberry vanilla almond? So many choices!
So here's how I keep eating oats every day without being bored:
Instant Oatmeal in a Mason Jar
I've seen people make little baggies of their own "instant oatmeal packets" and, while that's a great way to do it, I still don't like the waste of all those little baggies that generally get used once and then thrown away. Instead, I make mine in a mason jar. This becomes an extra win because then I don't have to rely on a bowl, I just add hot water and shake. Mason jar lids aren't reusable for canning, but they can be reused pretty much infinitely for storage or in place of cheap plastic lunch containers. (I do throw them out when they show signs of damage.) You can also buy some reusable caps, of which we have a few and really like them. (We own both those types.)
In a half pint mason jar, half a cup of oats is pretty much the perfect serving. Even with some add-ins it generally leaves enough space for the necessary amount of hot water. Just fill to full, cap, and shake. You'll still need to stir when you open it but it should be pretty much good to go.
For a larger portion of oats, which is what I need these days, or if you have more add-ins than can reasonably fit in a half-pint, a pint-size mason jar is obviously better. However, the amount of water needed will have to be eyeballed and figured out through trial and error.
Some of my favorite ways to make oatmeal in a jar:
-About a tbsp of butter and a tsp of honey (eyeballed)
-Cinnamon and raisins (because it's a classic for a reason)
-Dark chocolate chips and almonds
-A bit of jam
-Fresh fruit and either coconut oil, butter, or milk (depending on the fruit) -- think peaches 'n cream
-Any dried fruit plus a variety of nut that matches (dates and walnuts, peaches and almonds, etc.)
-Strawberries with honey (a favorite of the Munchkin's)
-Dried tropical fruit and coconut oil
-Peanut butter to taste (for me, lots) and for those that like them, bananas would go well
-Savory salt, butter, and topped with a fried egg (less workable on work mornings, but still doable if I have enough time to cook an egg right then)
-More savory recipes (some of which could totally be dinner instead of breakfast, or in addition to!)
You can see how it would be easy to keep this from getting old. I can make one jar or several jars at a time and just grab them in the morning before I go. When I get to work I add hot water and voila: instant breakfast. Super simple.
This is one I've been experimenting with a lot more lately. The first recipe I tried was rather uninspiring. I kept intending to experiment with other recipes, but I also didn't like the idea of having an entire pan of this in the fridge. Portioning it out just seemed like such a hassle.
Then a lightbulb went on. No one says you have to make baked oatmeal in a big pan. Would baking it in a muffin tin work? So I experimented. Lo and behold, success! It's been wonderful. Not only do they work for breakfast, it's also a super easy and healthy snack to give to the Munchkin, or to pack in her lunchbox for preschool. Her school is entirely nut-free, so we sometimes have a hard time figuring out healthy ways to get enough calories into her. These work.
My favorite recipes so far have all come from Budget Bytes. The pumpkin recipe...my goodness, could anything taste more like autumn? Yum! I've also experimented a couple of times with my own flavor combo by using the applesauce base (used here) and putting in my own flavors. Cherries, walnuts or almonds, and (a few) dark chocolate chips is always a winning combination for me.
These can also be frozen. Make a giant batch, or several different batches, and freeze some for later. I take them out the night before so they have plenty of time to thaw, then pop them in the toaster oven or microwave at work to warm them up. Or, if I'm really ravenous, eating them cold isn't much of a hardship.
Oatmeal Banana Bread
I don't actually like bananas. Even the thought of eating a banana has me making faces. However, for some reason I can tolerate them in banana bread. This works out really well because the Munchkin loves bananas, begs for bananas at the store, but really only wants 1-2 in a week. HusbandX will eat them sometimes but doesn't always notice we have them, so we generally have at least one banana quietly going bad each week. I rescue them in a bag in the freezer (hint: peel them first, if at all possible) until I have enough and the inclination to make something out of them.
I already posted my banana bread recipe, and I'm here to say once again that it works well in muffin form as well. It also freezes beautifully, especially when baked as muffins, so you can make it well ahead of when you actually want or need it. Freezing it in muffin form also allows you to pull out just the number you need, rather than an entire loaf of banana bread.
Leftover oatmeal pancakes
On weekends, when I have time, I generally go the super easy route of just cooking up oatmeal the regular way in a big pot for myself and the kiddo. (That is, on mornings when I'm the parent getting up. HusbandX does his own thing.) However, sometimes we eat it all and sometimes we end up with leftovers. Since I find reheated oatmeal rather odd, even with a bit of water or milk to help the texture, it generally doesn't get eaten in our house.
|Cinnamon raisin pancakes.|
Most of the time I make our oatmeal on the weekend plain, and add in the flavorings/toppings that we want individually. Sometimes, though, it's just easier or more convenient to add those things while cooking. Dried fruit, for one thing, will plump up and I prefer the slightly-re-hydrated texture better than the super chewy one it has if you don't add any moisture back. I just take that into account when I'm making the pancakes. If I added dried blueberries to the oatmeal, I add more to the pancake batter (or fresh or frozen blueberries) and, ta da, blueberry pancakes.
Pancakes are yet another item that freeze well. If, in some alternate dimension, my child were to decide that she was sick of eating pancakes it would be super easy to freeze them for the next time she asked for pancakes. It's also helpful to keep a few stashed in the freezer in case I forget to make breakfast ahead of time. (It's happened.) Or if I get sick and just can't do life. (That has also happened.) Just please do yourself a favor and freeze them individually. Having to thaw a giant stack of pancakes is a pain in the butt. You don't need to learn that lesson the hard way because I have done it for you. You're welcome.
I know a lot of people who, for very valid reasons, are avoiding bread. Even my spouse does not particularly care for bread. (Poor man, he clearly has dysfunctional taste buds.) I, on the other hand, love bread. LOVE IT. Sometimes nothing quite hits the spot like a great slice of toast. And since I learned many, many, many years ago how to make bread (thanks, Mom!) it's easy to have a fantastic slice of bread with only a small amount of effort. The learning curve on bread can be rather steep--my own bread-making history is littered with under-risen, under-cooked, over-salted, and yeast-murdered loaves--but short. Well worth the (minimal) time and effort, at least to me. And, yes, it can be frozen for later consumption. Are you noticing a pattern here?
I really like oats in bread because they add a lot to the flavor without taking away from the texture, and they add more nutrition as well. Yummy + healthy is hard to beat. For a really good, basic recipe that's hard to mess up try this one.
Smoothies and Shakes
The first time I heard about adding oats to a smoothie I thought, gross. It did not sound appealing. Why would you want grains in a smoothie? But I've done it occasionally and, actually, it can be pretty good. I often find that a smoothie alone for breakfast just doesn't keep me full. Fruits and veggies are all very well, but it needs something else or my stomach is grumbling at me within an hour. I also need something to round it out or I end up with stomach pains. (From all the acid in the fruit? Maybe?) Adding oats or oat flour and a bit of yogurt helps tremendously, and the texture ends up being still good. (To me. YMMV, and I won't blame you if you hate it.)
There's also the super lazy way that HusbandX takes. Protein powder in a mason jar with a serving of oats, or oats ground into flour. Add water, mix, and drink.
This one is last on my list because, frankly, I don't do it that often. It's not that it's not just as healthy and delicious as the other options, it just doesn't seem to work as well for our family. We don't always have the ingredients on hand, and sometimes when I have made them they've been pushed to the back of the fridge and forgotten until they've gone bad. Worse, the kiddo likes them sometimes, but not always, and she can't generally eat an entire one so a lot goes to waste. So I don't make these as much, but I would be remiss if I didn't include them in a master list of ways to make oatmeal ahead of time for easy, frugal breakfasts that can be taken on the go.
These are generally made in mason jars, same as my instant oatmeal. Having some half-pint mason jars around, even if they're only used for making breakfast**, is really handy. They last longer than plastic, have a greater diversity of uses, don't have any claims about toxicity or nasty chemicals, and they're far less likely to leak than any plastic container I've ever tried.
If you're wondering what's with all the stuff about food lately, there are several reasons. First, I'm pregnant. Food is on my mind a lot, and not only because I'm hungry. (I'm not that extra hungry.) Getting good nutrition is important both right now and after the baby's born, so it's something my mind is extra focused on. Oatmeal also helped me out an unbelievable amount last time, because it helped with breastfeeding when I struggled with it. I'm keeping that in mind as I figure out what to eat to support myself and the bebe-to-be.
Pregnancy also means that I'm extra tired. I am, quite frankly, all about convenience right now. We've been busy, life has been hard, and I just don't have the reserves to deal with even more. But I also don't want to sacrifice our real goals in the name of short-term convenience, so I've put a lot of thought into how to do more with a bit less energy. Batch cooking breakfasts when I have the time and energy has been, without a doubt, one of the best things I've done recently. I transitioned to a new work schedule at the same time the Munchkin started preschool, both of which things could have really thrown me for a loop. In some ways they have, and we still have a bit of adjusting to do, but knowing that I have breakfast nailed down has helped me feel overall more ready and able to take on the new challenges. If nothing else, I can point to that as a self-reminder that I haven't dropped the ball on everything.
Eating well on the cheap is also on my mind because babies, in case you didn't know, can be rather pricey. They don't have to be as expensive as society claims they are (more on that later) but since we have crappy and expensive healthcare in the U.S., the medical bills alone can be staggering. So many appointments leading up to birth, the big hospital stay--possibly with surgery to pay for--and then a bunch of appointments for both me and baby after birth. Yeah, that's a lot of money spent on medical bills. It's well worth it to me/us, or we wouldn't be doing this again. However, it is the sort of thing that makes me take a look at the ins and outs of our money once more to make sure we're spending in line with our goals. We like food, but we don't need to spend thousands of dollars each month to eat well.
Last, I'm focusing on food because it's fall. In the spring my mind turns to salads and fruits and all the yummy things I didn't eat all winter because they weren't in season (and therefore just plain sucked in both quality and price). Now it's autumn and my mind is turning to comfort foods. Oatmeal, warm and filling, is high on the list. Baking is a great way to pass rainy days indoors with the Munchkin (not that we've had too many of those around here yet) and having breakfasts pre-made for weekdays really does make life less stressful. That seems like something worth passing on, right?
Food can be one of the easiest ways for people to start saving money. And it's crazy, because you absolutely don't have to give up eating out entirely to realize the savings. I know quite a few people who buy breakfast along with their coffees each morning. Depending on what they get that can be $10+ every single day, just for breakfast. $50 a week, a little more than $200 per month. For breakfast. That sure makes my $3 in oats for my entire family for the week seem like a crazy deal. Even with all the extra stuff we add to our oatmeal we couldn't spend $10 a day each if we tried. I'm pretty sure there are times when we don't even break $10 on breakfast for the week. That, to me, is well worth the minimal effort we put into making this meal.
*This has been my first 'real' pregnancy craving. I've had a few others that were prompted by something else. A coworker had a bagel at work one day and I thought, "Ooh, bagels!" I was able to put that off for a few days, though, and one bagel sufficed. However, breakfast cereal became something I HAD TO HAVE. I had multiple days of eating 3+ bowls of cereal and wanted it for pretty much every meal. I was even hiding away from my kid to eat cereal in private, so she wouldn't ask me to share!
**We also use them for canning, obviously, and freezing, and as dry goods storage. When they're not being used in any food storage capacity, we use them as drinking glasses. The half-pint size makes a perfect drinking glass for the Munchkin. She feels like a grownup with the real glass but it's not likely to break if she accidentally drops it. In fact, we've never had one break that way and they get dropped or knocked over plenty. However, if you don't can and don't have kids then obviously the utility of them will go down. I still maintain, though, that they are excellent for all kinds of food storage and transportation.