Did you hear the one about the shrinking cereal boxes? Unfortunately, it's not a joke. After Kellogg's cut the size (but not the price) of cereal boxes a couple of months ago, we got to thinking about oatmeal. With a new school year starting up and grocery prices obviously still climbing, today's recipe for Ultimate Microwave Oatmeal is a great alternative to cold cereal.

Whether you're the breakfast-only cereal sort or if you do it for dinner in the classic "Seinfeld" mode, oatmeal fills you up fast. Alicia's girls sometimes ask for the comfort of a big bowl of oatmeal loaded with fresh fruit for dinner after a grueling day. And by now we've all heard about the cholesterol-lowering bonus.

This oatmeal is adapted from our latest cookbook, "Cheap. Fast. Good!" It tastes terrific, is extremely healthy, microwaves in minutes, and is very cheap to make — especially in comparison to shrinking boxes of cereal. If the only oatmeal you've ever experienced is the "instant" kind from paper packets, you're in for a real treat! Our oatmeal is still a tiny bit chewy, and you can control the amount of sugar or cut it back gradually.

Here are a few tricks for microwaved oatmeal success:

It's best to make one bowl at a time, using no more than 1/3 cup uncooked oats. But since it takes just a couple of minutes, you can quickly microwave enough for the whole family. Plus, it's easy enough for older children to make themselves.

Use a microwave-safe cereal bowl with a capacity of at least 2 cups. (Using a cereal bowl means you won't have to wash anything else.) The oatmeal will bubble up as it microwaves, and if your bowl is too small, the oatmeal can spill over the sides before it is done. Stopping in the middle of microwaving to stir helps prevent this. The shape of the bowl (how deep or shallow) doesn't seem to matter.

The exact cooking time depends on the power of your microwave. In general, it should be done from 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 minutes. The oatmeal is ready when almost all of the water is absorbed. If you overcook it, just stir in a tablespoon or so more water to reach the desired consistency. If it's too wet, either microwave for a few seconds longer or let it stand until the water is absorbed.

Topped with raisins, brown sugar and perhaps a sprinkle of nuts, a steaming bowl of oatmeal sends everyone off for the day (or night!) happier and healthier.

Menu: Ultimate Microwave Oatmeal

Apple slices

Orange juice

ULTIMATE MICROWAVE OATMEAL

Start to finish: fewer than 4 minutes

1/3 cup old-fashioned uncooked oats (see cook's note)

2/3 cup water

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon light brown sugar, honey or maple syrup

2 tablespoons raisins (see cook's note)

1 tablespoon toasted, chopped walnuts, optional

Cook's note: We prefer the slightly chewy texture of "old-fashioned" oats. Quick-cooking oats become mushy. If the oatmeal is still very watery after 1 1/2 minutes, continue to microwave for 30-second intervals, stopping between intervals to stir, until almost all of the water is absorbed. Microwaving for longer than 2 1/2 minutes nonstop tends to cause the oatmeal to bubble over.

Other dried fruits can be added or substituted. We especially like dried cranberries and dried cherries. Seasonal fresh fruits such as blueberries or sliced bananas are also terrific.

Place the oats and water in a microwave-safe cereal bowl that has a capacity of at least 2 cups. Microwave, uncovered, on high, until the oatmeal is thick and almost all of the water is absorbed, about 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 minutes (depending on the power of your microwave). Remove the bowl from the microwave and stir in the cinnamon. Let the oatmeal stand until all of the water is absorbed, about 30 seconds to 1 minute.

Sprinkle the brown sugar, raisins and walnuts, if using, evenly over the oatmeal. (Stir in or leave on top as desired.) Serve at once.

Serves 1.

Approximate values per serving: 207 calories (9 percent from fat), 2 g fat (0 saturated), 0 mg cholesterol, 4 g protein, 46 g carbohydrates, 4 g dietary fiber, 11 mg sodium.


Beverly Mills and Alicia Ross are co-authors of "Desperation Dinners!" (Workman, 1997), "Desperation Entertaining!" (Workman, 2002) and "Cheap.Fast.Good!" (Workman, 2006). Contact them at Desperation Dinners, c/o United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016. Or visit the Desperation Dinners Web site at www.desperationdinners.com. © United Feature Syndicate Inc.