Photo: Jaime Ritter

After scanning more than 50 different varieties we found a winner that tastes great, too.

Jaime Milan
April 18, 2018

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. (Nutritionist's note: This brand has both artificial flavor and color in the ingredient's list).

Think Thin Madagascar Vanilla with Almonds and Pecans

Ok. Pretty much no one liked this brand. Here are some of my favorite savage comments:

“Gritty, powdery texture. So soupy!”

“Weird gritty texture, kind of cloudy and not very sweet.”

“This tastes like sadness. Just gross and bland and flavorless.”

“This is mushy and gross...and also tastes like flour?”

Final verdict: An all around "hell no" from our tasters.

Control: Plain quick-cooking oats with 1 teaspoon of brown sugar and a pinch of salt

To even the playing field (and see if it was really more delicious to make your own oats at home), I threw a homemade “control” version into our taste test. I added just one teaspoon of brown sugar and the tiniest pinch of salt. Unfortunately, that probably wasn't enough. Everyone said it was “too bland” and “not super flavored or sweet.”

Final verdict: Quick-cooking oats are incredibly versatile (and cheap!). Plus you can control how much sweetener and toppings you want to add. If you have the time to prep breakfast at home, (and it's not difficult) this could be a big winner. But for this test, we were going for convenience and taste, and these got beat out in a major way.

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Quaker Dinosaur Eggs

Ok, first of all, I have no idea how this has only 12 grams of sugar. Everyone agreed that this oatmeal tasted like childhood in the best way (read: Saturday morning cartoons and a sugar bomb breakfast).

Tasters remarked: “This is super sweet. Like a dessert!”, “Candy for breakfast?”, and “Very sweet and buttery tasting.” Others said the pink-colored dissolving dinosaur eggs and crunchy bits were a little bit off-putting.

Final verdict: If you’re a kid at heart, go for it. Otherwise, pass the grownup oats, please! (Nutritionist's note: This brand has both artificial coloring and sweeteners).

Bob’s Red Mill Brown Sugar and Maple with Flax and Chia

Some of our tasters noted that this brand tasted “saltier” and “heartier” than the other brands, and remarked that it would be delicious as a savory oatmeal topped with an egg (which is a little odd considering this is supposed to have a brown sugar and maple flavor).

It’s also worth noting that one of our testers, who is a self-proclaimed oatmeal hater, loved this so much she asked for a box to take home.

Final verdict: Good, but not exactly the sweet oatmeal we were looking for. This earned a solid third-place trophy. (Nutritionist's note: This brand is our nutritionist's pick!).

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?

“Bland.”

“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.”

Final verdict: Skip this brand unless you never got over eating paste as a kid.

Market Pantry Maple and Brown Sugar

Target’s generic brand of instant oats got some mixed reviews from our tasters. Supporters said they would eat it as a snack with a banana, and they liked the vanilla-honey undertones. Haters said that it tasted like “Play-Doh” and “maple cardboard.” So, there’s that.

Final verdict: It’s really a mixed bag. Try at your own risk. (Nutritionist's note: This brand has artificial color).

Better Oats 100-Calorie Maple and Brown Sugar

Our tasters almost unanimously agreed that this brand was sweet—but not too sweet—and reminded them of salted caramel. One comment summed up everyone’s feelings: “This is a nice cross between sweet and salty. It feels like a treat.”

Final verdict: 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. (Nutritionist's note: This brand has both artificial flavor and sweetener in the ingredients).

This article has been updated from the original.