Instant oats are an ideal breakfast for hectic mornings. They’re easy to make, portable, delicious, and (usually) pretty healthy. Sure, you could make your own overnight oats or homemade instant oatmeal jars, but there’s something convenient about a grab-and-go packet that you can stash in your bag and eat at your desk.
But, here’s the thing: it’s overwhelming to head to the store and pick out a pack of oatmeal that’s healthy and will also taste great. When I went to Target and Fresh Market, I counted over 50 varieties of instant oatmeal!
And, even though oatmeal seems like a “healthy” choice, not all brands made our health cut. Certain types were way too high in calories and sugar—we were looking for oatmeal that had less than 250 calories and 12 grams of sugar per serving. Surprisingly, even brands with a health halo—like Bob’s Red Mill—didn’t fit the bill. Their Apple Cinnamon Instant Oats had 270 calories and packed 13 grams of sugar in a single-serve packet. Similarly, Kodiak Cakes Wild Blueberry Instant Oatmeal had 270 calories and 16 grams of sugar in a 1-cup serving.
To even the playing field and limit the massive in-store selection, we opted for oatmeal in the same flavor profile (I went with brown sugar and cinnamon-esque flavors), prepared them according to the package directions, and then compared the texture, quality, and balance of sweet and salty in each. Here’s what we tried, and what we thought. Warning: we were ruthless.
Note: While all of these meet our nutritionist’s guidelines for added sugar and calories, some options have artificial colors and/or flavors. We’re not huge fans of anything artificial, here, so we can’t quite call these picks Cooking Light nutritionist-approved. To help you make the best choice, we’ve noted which brands have these in each section—though if you want to steer completely clear of anything artificial, it’s best (and cheapest) to simply make your own instant oatmeal packets (more on that, below).
Quaker Maple and Brown Sugar
Our tasters agreed that this tastes like a “classic bowl of oatmeal.” It’s not too sweet, or overpowering, but it’s decidedly an upgrade from plain-Jane oats.
Final verdict: This oatmeal is yummy, and it’s easy to find at most grocery stores. Plus, it’s inexpensive ($2.59 for 10 packets). We declared this breakfast staple our runner-up.
Quaker Brown Sugar and Cinnamon Steel Cut Oats
Steel cut oats have a reputation for being hearty and healthy, but tasters remarked that this tasted like a “cobbler topping” and “cake batter.” Others said that this was way too sweet, and “more like dessert than breakfast.”
Final verdict: If you have a major sweet tooth, but you’re trying to cut back on sugar, this is going to be your jam.
Nature’s Path Brown Sugar and Maple
Our tasters did not care for this brand. Some savage comments?
“I don’t know if these are steel cut oats, but it has none of the ‘tooth’ of homemade. It’s way too mushy.”
“Gluey, gummy and gross.”
This was our clear winner! Everyone seemed to love the sweet, but balanced, flavor, and each pouch has just 100 calories, 210 mg of sodium, 1 gram of sugar, and 3 grams of fiber thanks to the flaxseed.