Plant science at the dinner table: Oats

Just like animals, we eat plants from the grass family, which include corn, wheat and oats.

Photo by Dixie Sandborn, MSU Extension.

Oats might not seem like an exciting “Plant science at the dinner table” topic compared to the many exotic plants that show up on our dinner tables. So why oats? An office colleague bought several pounds of old-fashion oats instead of quick oats. I assured her she could use the oats in all the same ways, but they just take a little more time to cook. Then I started thinking, I really don’t know much about oats myself.

Several years ago at the Michigan 4-H Children’s Garden we held a program that focused on the Cereal Bowl Garden. I wrote a poem for the program titled “Grass for Breakfast.” I wanted the kids to understand corn, wheat and oats are all grasses. Just like animals, we eat plants from the grass family. I ran across that poem a few weeks ago, and I hope you like it.

Grass for Breakfast
What’s for breakfast? You might ask.
Cows, horses and sheep are having grass.
Corn flakes, pancakes, oatmeal too,
Oh my gosh, so are you.

Here are some fun facts about oats and oatmeal:

  • Oats are in the Poeceae or grass family.
  • The genus and species of the common oat is Avena sativa.
  • Oldest cultivated oats were found in caves in Switzerland and date back to the Bronze Age. 
  • The first oatmeal porridge was known to be prepared by ancient Greeks.
  • Oats are the traditional food of Scotland. Oat groats are whole, minimally processed oats, after the inedible outer husks have been removed.
  • Russia is the top oat producer in the world.
  • Oat groats are whole grains of the hulled kernel of the grain. The grain is intact, and the kernel is composed of three distinct parts: the bran, endosperm and germ.
  • Oats are a good source of protein, providing about 6 grams per serving.
  • Oats are a good source of manganese, which supports bone health.
  • Oats are also a good source of iron, magnesium, zinc and selenium. 
  • Oats are high in fiber and naturally gluten free.

Types of oats we eat:

  • Steel-cut oats are oat groats that have been chopped into pieces with large, steel blades.
  • Steel cut oats have a coarser, chewier texture and nuttier flavor than rolled or quick oats.
  • Rolled oats, or old-fashioned oats, are oat groats that have gone through a steaming and flattening process. The outer bran (or leftover husk) and germ are separated from the endosperm.
  • Rolled oats have a milder flavor and softer texture and take much less time to make than steel-cut oats, as they have been partially cooked. Quick oats or quick-cooking oats are partially cooked by steaming and then rolled even thinner than old-fashioned oats to decrease cooking time.
  • Instant oatmeal is packaged oats that sometimes contain other ingredients like skim milk powder, sugar and flavoring.

Homemade Granola

My favorite way to eat oats is homemade granola. I only use three ingredients: oats, honey and cinnamon.


  • Spray your baking dish with nonstick cooking spray
  • Add 8 cups of old-fashion oats
  • Pour 3/4 cup honey over oats
  • Sprinkle 1-2 tablespoons cinnamon, depending on your taste, over oats and honey.
  • Stir to make sure the oats are generously covered with honey and cinnamon.
  • Bake the oat mixture at 200 degrees Fahrenheit for about 40 minutes, stirring every 10-12 minutes. It will be slightly sticky and moist. Don’t overcook.

After baking, I add dried fruit, pecans or almonds. The granola can be stored in airtight mason jars for up to one month. Sometimes I leave the nuts and fruit out of the granola and add fresh fruit, nuts, dried fruit, chocolate or coconut just before serving. Enjoy!

So, if you too are ever stuck with several pounds of old-fashioned oats, make granola.

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