I love oatmeal. I eat it for breakfast probably five days a week. It's a very healthy fuel to get your motor running for the day, plus it can be very tasty if it's made well.
Whenever I find myself using something almost every day, I begin to wonder if I can't reduce the cost of it somehow. This led me down the path of making my own instant oatmeal packets. Could I make them as well as (or even better than) the instant Quaker Oats packets for a cheaper price?
The answer is ... sort of. For me (and for anyone else who consistently eats oatmeal for breakfast), the answer is emphatically yes - you can make packets significantly cheaper and far tastier over the long haul. For people who might eat oatmeal once a week or less, though, you're likely better off buying the Quaker Oats packets.
Here's the plan.
The Basic Recipe
All you really need to make your own basic oatmeal packets at home are instant (ready to eat in one minute) oatmeal, salt, and sealable baggies to store them in - you might also want sugar or another sweetener if you wish to pre-sweeten the oatmeal.
The procedure is really easy. Just add 1/4 of a cup of the oats and a pinch of salt (1/8 of a teaspoon if you must measure it) to each baggie. Out of that container there, you'd get about 48 bags. I also like to pre-add a bit of sugar to it - about 1/2 of a teaspoon. You can choose to add none at all or add another sweetener like Splenda at your own discretion.
These will result in basic oatmeal packets very similar to the "regular" oatmeal packets sold by Quaker Oats. If you like the basic oatmeal with no changes, this is a very cheap route to go - since you can re-use the baggies, the only recurring cost over a realistic timeframe is the oatmeal itself - a bag of sugar and a canister of salt will last you effectively forever with this recipe.
Flavoring It Up
Of course, I like to flavor it up.
On the left are the ingredients for cinnamon-raisin packets. On the right are ingredients for blueberries & cream packets - dried blueberries and fat-free non-dairy creamer. Why not powdered milk? It tends to potentially mold and have other bad effects if left in baggies for too long - Coffee Mate is an excellent substitute.
For my cinnamon-raisin packets, I just add about 1/4 of a teaspoon of cinnamon and about two dozen raisins to each bag. For the blueberry packets, I add a tablespoon of the creamer and about a dozen and a half blueberries. Perfect.
Here's a finished blueberries and cream packet:
The nice part is you can basically make anything you want if you're making your own packets. You can experiment as your heart desires - any dried fruit pieces, any seasonings you can find - anything. I've actually made batches of cranberry oatmeal using dried cranberries in the past - I love it, but it's not something you see sold on store shelves.
Adding the ingredients yourself make for tastier packets. The pre-mixed packets that Quaker sells seem to use low-quality versions of the added ingredients. For example, the dried blueberries in this packet are way better than the blueberries used in the Quaker Oats packets, resulting in a much tastier blueberry oatmeal.
Storing the packets is easy, too. Just stuff the baggies into the oat canister. That'll hold 80% of the baggies - just sit the rest next to them and eat those first. Problem solved.
I Like It Thicker
One thing I don't like about the Quaker Oats packet in the stores is that the oatmeal is almost always too thin. Personally, I like thick oatmeal, the kind that reminds me of the stuff my great grandma used to make at her house.
Since you're making your own baggies, you can make it nice and thick, too. All you have to do is puree some of the dry oatmeal in your handy-dandy blender.
Put in about a quarter of a cup at a time and put it on puree for about ten seconds. You end up with oatmeal powder.
Then, just add a tablespoon of this powder to each baggie to make it thicker. I actually add two tablespoons to each baggie - that makes it really, really thick - just how I like it!
Here's the bowl of thick blueberries and cream oatmeal I had for breakfast this morning:
I just dumped the baggie into the bowl (saving the baggie for reuse, of course), added about a quarter of a cup of skim milk, and microwaved it for about sixty seconds. Nice and thick and warm and delicious.
I wound up making 42 baggies with this batch. Normally, one would make 48 baggies out of a normal-sized canister of instant oatmeal, but I pureed enough of the oatmeal to make only 42.
15 of the baggies were blueberries and cream and 27 were cinnamon-raisin.
Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of ingredients left over:
I used all of the oatmeal and all of the blueberries, but I still had almost a full container of salt, an almost full container of cinnamon, an almost full container of sugar, a 2/3 full container of Coffee Mate, half a box of raisins, and 58 Glad baggies.
This means that if I were to make a second batch, I'd only need to replace the oatmeal and the blueberries. Since I can reuse the baggies and I have enough salt and sugar to last effectively forever, those are sunk startup costs - after that, you just need to replace oatmeal and the flavorings when you need to - and most of the flavorings will last for multiple batches.
Batch 1 - More Expensive
Of course, the first batch was a bit more expensive per packet than just buying the Quaker Oats packet. Here's my receipt from Fareway for the stuff for 42 homemade packets:
The cost per homemade packet during the first run is $0.46 per packet. The cost would have been $0.43 per packet had I not ground up some of the packets to thicken some of the others. We'll figure up costs for future runs in a minute.
What about the time cost? It took me about thirty minutes of mindless work to make these packets. I spent the entire time making them on the phone with my mother - I just conversed with her while my hands were busy with... well, busywork. Thus, I don't consider the time sink to be significant.
How about the Quaker Oats packet? To control for location and store differences, I bought a box of packets at Fareway to compare the price:
The cost per packet for Quaker Oats is $0.30 per packet. Yep, the prepackaged ones are cheaper at first. But let's keep looking.
Batch 2 and Future Batches - Less Expensive
The kicker with making your own packets is that they get cheaper on future runs. You don't have to buy the sugar, the salt, or the baggies any more. Let's say I made another identical batch to the one above - 42 packets. Using what I have on hand, I only have to repurchase the oats - $2.99 - and the blueberries - $3.29. The second homemade batch has a cost per packet of $0.15 - way cheaper than the prepared packets. In fact, averaging the two costs ends up with an average cost per homemade packet after two runs being almost identical to the cost of buying prepared packets - $0.30. If I had not ground up some of the oatmeal to make thicker packets, it would have been cheaper - $0.28 per packet.
Runs beyond the second further reduce the cost. And when you consider the flexibility of your homemade packets - and the fact that they taste far better - it becomes a pretty clear bargain after a while.
Reducing the Costs
Even more important, I didn't optimize my ingredient purchases very well. A bit of optimization shaves off a lot of the cost.
The biggest way to save more money is to buy a giant canister of the oatmeal rather than a fairly small canister. Buying the oatmeal in bulk cuts down on the cost per packet significantly. Similar logic applies to some of the ingredients - if you particularly like blueberries in your oatmeal, for instance, buying them in bulk cuts down on costs, too.
Also, re-use the baggies. There's no reason not to here - you're only storing dry ingredients in them. Use them again.
Another tip - buy snack-sized baggies instead of sandwich baggies. I bought sandwich baggies in the example above because the store's baggie selection was small - snack baggies are cheaper, easier to store, and hold an oatmeal packet easily.
All of these tips can trim the cost significantly, particularly on future batches.
If you or your family eat a lot of oatmeal, making your own packets is a cost-saver over the long haul - plus they make for tastier packets. In our house, I eat oatmeal four to five times a week, plus my son eats it twice a week and my wife perhaps once a week. That makes eight packets a week. In ten weeks, homemade packets become cheaper per packet. In twenty weeks, we're now saving, on average, a dime for every packet we've eaten - $16. After that, it's just gravy - another $1 or so each week saved while eating better oatmeal packets.
The key, though, is that your family eats a lot of oatmeal. If they don't, then making your own packets probably won't be cost-effective for you.