I admire people with some level of uniformity in their consumption habits, for reasons like enjoyment, stress reduction, or increased headspace. Steve Jobs, for example, defaulted to a wardrobe of black mock turtlenecks, jeans, and 900-series grey New Balances so he could focus more of his attention on the next iMac. But that was a choice, a voluntary removal of all available options. On an opposite side of this oddly specific spectrum, there are people who have no choice but to limit what they consume, thanks to allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances. This is me. And this is how I came to build my decades-long relationship with Instant Cream of Wheat, an unlavish but ubiquitous food that has been a breakfast staple almost my entire life.
Oatmeal is made from the hulled grains of oats, with a typically chunky texture. Cream of Wheat is farina, which involves further grinding of the wheat, as well as the removal of a majority of the interior bran particles. (Malt-O-Meal and the aptly named Farina are other widely available brands, and the products themselves are very similar.) Unlike oatmeal, farina is a more porridge-like slurry, akin to grits. Instant Cream of Wheat is a bit different: it further processes the already processed wheat to a point where there’s no “cooking” required to prepare the dish, only the addition of boiling water. My body can’t tolerate classic Cream of Wheat. Only Instant.
It wasn’t always this way. In my youth I could tolerate oatmeal in its many forms, but by my teenage years my reactions to the ingredients got more pronounced, typically triggering severe coughing, mouth irritation, and throat inflammation. I’ve tried on and off for decades to incorporate oatmeal into my diet. Please take my word for it. Several years ago, I attended a forum on gastrointestinal diseases, where they served farina (branded then as “allergy-sensitive oatmeal”—ha!). Wanting to fit in with the other cool kids, I went for it, then promptly spent the first 10 minutes of the opening plenary removing said oatmeal from my body orally. Even as I prepared to write this article, I bought a box of Malt-O-Meal to confirm that it would still irritate me, like always. Two bites in, the symptoms came on and I had to stop.
Consequently, Instant Cream of Wheat has been a staple in the breakfast rotation for a long time. Thankfully it’s not the only breakfast option. I love breakfast as much as anyone—my last meal would probably include bacon, hash browns, and a hard boiled egg. But for time, cost, and health reasons, such a beefy spread is not practical to make every day. Setting aside fruit and Greek yogurt, and some dry cereals, Instant Cream of Wheat is what I turn to at least three times a week.
Flavor-wise, the instant options are pretty limited. There used to be several instant varieties, including apples & cinnamon and peaches and cream. Over the last decade the product line has been trimmed to “Cinnabon,” Maple Brown Sugar, and Original. (Maybe they figured people who regularly consume Instant Cream of Wheat aren’t looking for a world of flavor.) I’ve intentionally excluded many nutty varieties, which I cannot eat due to tree nut allergies. I am an Original loyalist, and I fine-tune the sweetness myself.
To quote the coaching axiom, the separation is in the preparation. I’ll either prepare two packages at once, or mix one packet with chia seeds for extra calcium and protein. I make it extra firm, using less water than I should and rendering the hot cereal into something akin to drywall mud. I doctor it up minimally with brown sugar. Dried fruits (blueberries, apricots, or cranberries) often join the party. A recent favorite variation calls for brown sugar, a spoonful of organic peanut butter (I can eat peanuts, just not tree nuts), and a few small dark chocolate pieces. If you can look past the color and the consistency, it’s pretty satisfying.
Nutrition-wise, instant farina packs a wallop. This is important for breakfast. Decent amounts of iron and calcium—amplified if you’re adding in something like chia seeds—result in a breakfast that can hold me over until lunch. And at $4.00 for 12 packets / 6 breakfasts, less than $1 per meal is a better deal than a container of Greek yogurt and fruit.
It’s deflating to know you’re missing out on any food you might enjoy. You’d be amazed how jealous you can get watching someone eat pale, mushy oatmeal, even as you serve yourself your own pale, mushy breakfast cereal alternative. But rather than feel sadness about my lack of options, I try to view it as a challenge to expand a rather static blank canvas.
If you’ve ever been limited in your dietary options, or the “I really hope they never stop selling this” dread about a specific product, I hear you and sympathize with you. There are people who have food predicaments way worse than mine, and at least my hearty cereal can be customized several ways and takes hardly any time to make. The supermarket shrinks down to a comfortingly narrow set of options. I just find the red box, make sure it says “instant,” and go on my way.