Oftentimes, investment success is all about expectation. You don't need crazy growth to get ahead in the market so long as you're a reliable cash flow generator. After all, cash flow is the ultimate arbiter of winners and losers.

As long as your expectations weren't too wild, General Mills (NYSE:GIS) had a decent quarter. Sales were up about 3% and did manage to just beat the average analyst estimate. Margins were no great shakes, though, as the company spent more on advertising, and total selling, general, and administrative expenses rose about 10%. At the bottom line, earnings were up about 1%, and earnings per share were up about 5% (in large part because of the benefits of share buybacks).

There was good news and bad news within the operating units. The meals and snacks businesses were solid, while a decision to raise cereal prices has led to some market share loss and lower revenue. Overseas, the growth picture continues to be brighter, but that business is a relatively small piece of the pie.

Cash flow and returns on capital are also important aspects of the story here. This company has generally managed to grow cash flow a little faster than sales, and free cash flow production this quarter was once again very solid. That in turn has enabled the company to recently increase its dividend again.

On the subject of returns on capital, the company continues to generate a solid low-teens number -- a level not on par with Kellogg (NYSE:K) or Unilever (NYSE:UL), but still superior to the likes of Heinz (NYSE:HNZ), ConAgra (NYSE:CAG), or Kraft (NYSE:KFT) and comfortably above the cost of capital.

Much to my own surprise, I find that when I run the numbers through my cash flow valuation model, these shares actually look pretty appealing. In fact, even if you assume that the company can't grow its cash flow much faster than GDP growth, you still end up no worse than "fairly valued."

And that, in a nutshell, is the virtue of a consistent cash flow generator with solid returns on capital and reasonably solid brands. It may not be exciting and there may be worries about energy prices, grain prices, and freight costs from time to time (to say nothing of nutrition fads), but conservative-minded investors might want to take a closer look here.

For more Foolishness on the food sector:

Unilever, Heinz, and Kraft are all Motley Fool Income Investor recommendations.

Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).