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Building a Better Breakfast

What was your favorite childhood breakfast? Tony the Tiger, Sugar Bear and the Trix Rabbit made occasional visits to the breakfast table when I was a kid; little puffs of wheat, flakes of corn and the ubiquitous Cheerios were the regular players in our house, always accompanied by slices of soft white bread, toasted and topped with homemade jelly. My father would sometimes take over the kitchen on a Sunday morning, turning out his special broiled cinnamon toast alongside corned beef hash with eggs or pancakes accompanied by eggs, basted with bacon drippings and served sunny-side up with crispy edges.

Big, colorful boxes of cold cereal have been a mainstay on American breakfast tables for decades. Dr. James Jackson served Granula to his sanitarium patients in New York state in 1863. His breakfast food was comprised of bran nuggets that were so hard and dense they had to be soaked overnight before patients could chew them—by all accounts they weren’t very tasty either. Dr. John Kellogg ran his own sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan. In the 1880s he developed a mixed grain cereal that he also dubbed “Granula;” after threats of legal action by Jackson, Kellogg changed the name of his creation to “Granola.” In 1894, Kellogg and his brother and business partner Will accidentally created the first flaked cereal. “Granose” was so popular that Will Kellogg was soon filling mail order requests for it. In 1906 he bought out his brother’s share of the cereal patents and opened the Kellogg Company, devoted to the commercial production of breakfast cereal.

Charles Post, once a patient at the Kellogg’s’ sanitarium, marketed a coffee substitute he called Postum; by 1897 annual sales of his product were $840,000. He followed this success with his own version of granula, still familiar to us today as

Grape Nuts cereal.
In spite of these nutritious beginnings, many breakfast cereals are little more than crunchy delivery vehicles for sugar. Kellogg’s Sugar Smacks was 56 percent sugar, by weight, when it was introduced in the 1950s; Post has given us Frosted Flakes, General Mills colored our mornings with Trix and Quaker Oats morphed oats into Cap’n Crunch. There are now hundreds of different choices in the cereal aisle of a typical supermarket. The sweetest and most colorful have been commonly advertised in programming for children, especially on television, but cereal manufacturers also targeted children with radio advertising; Cheerios sponsored the Lone Ranger radio program throughout the 1940s. In addition to catchy jingles and cartoon character “spokesmen,” bright packages often featured games and puzzles; best of all were the toys and prizes that tumbled into bowls along with the cereal—and still do.

The good doctors of the nineteenth century hoped to replace heavy, English-style breakfasts that they felt were responsible for causing indigestion, colon problems and weight issues. Eggs, toast and porridge with butter and cream were basics at this meal and were often accompanied by meats including bacon, sausage, steak or chops, fish, and vegetables, especially potatoes, tomatoes, mushrooms and creamed spinach. American inventions like biscuits, hotcakes or cornbread rounded out the menu. Middle and upper class families ate breakfasts like this far more often than did farmers and laborers, making it is easy to understand the concern of doctors of the era.

As we became a nation of commuters—and later, two-income families—quick, easy breakfast foods like cold cereal increased in popularity, but we also discovered the convenience of grabbing a cup of coffee and a donut or other pastry before hitting the road. Krispy Kreme started selling donuts and coffee in 1937, Winchell’s opened in 1948 and Dunkin’ Donuts was founded in 1950. Toaster pastries were introduced in the mid-1960s to fit into this sweet grab-and-go niche.

Fast food
The fast food industry was quick to jump into the breakfast-to-go scene. McDonald’s test marketed the Egg McMuffin in 1971 and it was a menu staple by 1973. Since then fast food chains have offered breakfast eggs with biscuits, bagels, croissants and pancakes, as well as French toast and triangular slabs of hash browns. Many of the breakfast items served in public schools bear a strong resemblance to these fast food menus. Fruit smoothies may be the ultimate breakfast to go. Health food enthusiasts in California adopted this refreshing idea from Latin cultures in the 1970s. At that time smoothies were simple concoctions of fruit, juice and ice blended together. Today smoothies are often loaded with multiple fruits, milk, yogurt or non-dairy milk, protein powders, fiber supplements, herbal enhancements and more. You can easily pack a meal’s worth of nutrition into a smoothie; unfortunately you can also pack in many more calories and grams of sugar than you might suspect if you do not choose ingredients carefully.

The most important meal of the day
All these “bad” breakfasts might lead you to believe that you are better off skipping the morning meal, but research over the past few decades would prove you wrong. Studies have shown that people who eat agood, balanced breakfast tend to take in fewer “junk” calories, as well as total calories, throughout the day; 78 percent of obese and overweight people who have successfully lost weight and kept it off eat good breakfasts according to the National Weight Control Registry; better breakfast eaters take in more nutrients, including fiber, vitamins and calcium than those who skip breakfast and tend to have lower cholesterol levels and better insulin response. Children and adults who eat breakfast are more alert and have better concentration and endurance skills throughout the day; kids perform better in school and they also get sick less often than non-breakfast eaters.

Break that fast
Breakfast really does mean “breaking a fast.” For most people, 8 to 15 hours will pass between dinner and the next morning’s meal, with much of that time being spent in sleep. Our bodies are busy during this time repairing and restoring mental and physical processes, and they need refueling in the morning. Your body uses up more than half its stored glucose during this time. Eating soon after waking helps rebalance levels of blood sugar and other hormones, increases alertness and gives a kick-start to the metabolism. Since the human brain requires a steady supply of glucose, it makes sense that skipping breakfast could leave you feeling fuzzyheaded and tired before lunchtime.

Best breakfasts
The best breakfasts contain complex carbohydrates, protein, fiber and alittle bit of a healthy fat. Choose whole grains and whole fruits and vegetables for your carbohydrates—they will give you an energy boost that lasts longer than sugary cereal, along with fiber, vitamins and minerals. A bagel and cream cheese can fit into these parameters, just choose a whole-grain or sprouted bagel, spread it lightly with low-fat cream cheese and have some fruit on the side. You can further improve on that bagel breakfast by changing your schmear to mashed, ripe avocado with a slice of tomato—a sprinkle of lemon is nice too. Studies show that eating some protein, (which usually includes a little fat) at breakfast keeps us satisfied longer, making it easier to skip the empty calories and high fat we might consume in a mid-morning donut. Consuming a little protein or fat with your complex carbohydrates slows down their absorption, preventing blood sugar spikes and the resultant crash that can follow a morning doughnut binge.

Many breakfast eaters report eating the same morning foods every day; whether this is due to convenience or comfort is hard to determine, but few people enjoy surprises first thing in the morning, especially when trying to get out the door to work or school. There is nothing wrong with eating the same breakfast foods every day, as long as they represent a balanced meal and a variety of foods are eaten at other times of the day to ensure a wide mix of nutrients.

Breakfast around the world
While American-style breakfast cereals have become popular elsewhere, a wide range of breakfast foods are eaten around the globe. Whole grain porridges are common in Africa, Asia and parts of South America and Europe; legumes with flatbreads are popular in India, the Middle East and South America; bread is a breakfast staple in Europe, usually accompanied by meat, cheese or fruit preserves. Japanese traditionalists often breakfast on miso soup, or rice, sea vegetables and fish, essentially the same foods eaten throughout the day. In fact, in many places the foods eaten for breakfast are the same as those served at other times of the day—they are often savory, rather than sweet, and include rice or other grains served with vegetables, eggs, fish, leftover meat or chicken. Here in the U.S., leftover pizza is a perennial breakfast favorite. Tea and coffee are universal choices when it comes to morning beverages with fruit juice, milk or hot chocolate being regionally popular.

The good stuff
So, you’ve decided to give the sugar bombs the heave-ho, but what should replace them?
Eggs have been given a bad rap over the past few decades, mostly because they contain saturated fat and dietary cholesterol, but in recent years nutritionists and medical experts have given them a second look and a green light for most consumers. A study in 2000 showed that people who eat eggs tend to have better overall nutrient intake than people who don’t eat eggs; those that ate four or more eggs per week had lower blood cholesterol levels than people who ate three or fewer eggs per week. For ovo-lacto vegetarians, eggs are an important source of protein and vitamin B12. Eggs are a source of vitamin D, especially eggs from pastured chickens, and researchers say that most of us need more vitamin D to prevent osteoporosis, strengthen our immune systems and reduce the risk of several types of cancer. Eggs are relatively inexpensive and quick to prepare; hard-boiled eggs can be cooked in advance and stored in the refrigerator for a quick protein addition to any meal or snack. Scrambled eggs or omelets are fast foods that pair deliciously with almost any vegetable additions.

Cereal, hot and cold
Some dietary experts think all boxed cereals should be avoided, arguing that the heat and high pressure involved in processing destroys nutrients. Others tell us to look for whole grain cereals with at least five grams of dietary fiber per serving, high protein and no, or minimal, added sugar and salt. Plenty of people can’t face the day without a bowl of cold cereal; if you are one of them, pick a good one!

Hot cereal is a breakfast standby, especially during the cold winter months, and all the different grains in the Bulk aisle provide great variety. Porridge takes a little longer to put on the table than cold cereal, but there are a couple ways to make it easier to fit into your routine. Rolled oats will take you back to your childhood, but also try wheat, rye, barley and quinoa flakes or one of the whole grain cereal blends we carry; most of these take 10-20 minutes to cook—quinoa flakes are ready to eat in 90 seconds. Soaking whole-kernel grains in water overnight reduces the cooking time and can help make them more digestible. In the morning simply add any other ingredients and cook, reducing stove time by about half. While the cereal is cooking just give it a stir now and then. This technique works best with hard grains like wheat, hulled barley, rye, whole corn and whole or steel cut oats.

Quicker cooking grains like quinoa, kasha, millet, polenta and rice are also easy to do in the morning, just get them started and then take care of your morning routine while the grain cooks. A few other techniques can help make hot cereal a regular part of your morning: if you have a slow cooker, put the cereal on to cook when you go to bed and it will be ready for you in the morning; if you have a rice cooker, the manual may have instructions for other grains as well; if you have a pressure cooker, most grains can be ready in less than 30 minutes. Oatmeal can be baked in the oven, while you get ready for the day. The easiest way to ensure a hot whole grain breakfast is to cook it ahead of time. Cook a pot of grain on the weekend, or in the evening—use some for dinner if you like—and at breakfast time, spoon out a portion of cooked grain, stir in a spoonful or two of water or other liquid to loosen it and reheat for a few minutes. Add nuts, fruit or cooked vegetables if you choose, maybe a splash of maple syrup, tamari or hot sauce and you’re all set. Several food blogs have been recommending savory flavorings for breakfast grains in recent months, with nut butters being among the favorites.

Pancakes, waffles, breads
Good grains make breakfast appearances in pancakes, waffles and breads, too.You can substitute whole grain flours for the unbleached flour in your favorite recipes, of course, but experiment with adding leftover cooked grains to griddlecakes and breads for texture and nutrition. Homemade pancakes and waffles can be part of your work week breakfast. Make a big batch on the weekend and enjoy! Freeze the extras on a baking sheet until firm, then package them in a freezer zip-top bag, or other freezer container and stash them away until you need them. Frozen pancakes and waffles reheat nicely in a toaster, oven or microwave. The same strategy can also be applied to muffins or quick breads.

Breakfast sandwiches
Turn whole grain or sprouted grain bread into breakfast sandwiches for a quick meal to go. This can be as simple as nut butter on toast or a knife and fork sandwich that features steamed or sautéed spinach, broccoli and/or mushrooms—top it with an egg or sprinkle on a bit of cheese and slide it into the broiler or toaster oven for a few minutes. It’s easy to make your own egg muffin too. Toast a whole grain or sprouted English muffin or bagel, top it with an egg cooked and seasoned your way and tuck in a slice of aged Cheddar or Gruyere cheese. Add a round of Canadian bacon or a slice of tomato if you really want to gild the lily, and enjoy! Pretty simple, and it only takes about five minutes to make. Remember, any sandwich can be eaten for breakfast as long as it’s one you enjoy.

Breakfast burritos
Breakfast burritosare an easy favorite that can go out the door with you if you don’t have time to sit and eat. These can be as simple as scrambled eggs seasoned and rolled up in a whole-wheat tortilla, but some additions will make it tastier and more substantial. A big spoonful of cooked beans, a little onion and garlic, some diced cooked potatoes, a sprinkle of cheese and some salsa are all good additions. Other vegetables work well here too; try chopped mushrooms, diced tomatoes or zucchini, or cooked greens; even a handful of corn kernels can be tossed into a breakfast burrito. To really save time in the morning, spend a little time on a weekend. Cook up enough filling for several breakfast burritos, fill tortillas and roll them up, place on a baking sheet and freeze. Once the burritos are frozen transfer them to a freezer container or heavy-duty freezer bag. They will reheat quickly in the microwave or toaster oven. If you plan to eat your burrito on the go, simply wrap it in foil or even a paper towel after heating.

Fried rice
Fried rice is another breakfast classic, whether you’re cooking from scratch or eating leftovers. This is another good vehicle for morning vegetables, too. Leftover cooked rice can also go other directions in the morning. Reheat rice in your choice of dairy or non-dairy milk with a little sweetener, cinnamon and raisins or other dried fruit; add it to a few cups of broth or water along with a little minced ginger, green onion and tamari and let it simmer 30 minutes or so or you can make “eggy rice.” Lightly beat two or three eggs and then stir in two cups of cooked rice, season with salt, pepper and your choice of herbs. Heat a skillet and quickly wilt a few handfuls of rinsed, chopped spinach or chard; stir in the rice-egg mixture and stir-fry until the egg is set. You can bolster this with sautéed onion, mushrooms or other vegetables if you have time; top it off with a bit of freshly grated Parmesan or Asiago cheese.

Potatoes have long been a breakfast favorite, though we have probably all been served greasy potatoes that added nothing good to our day. Morning potatoes can be improved in several ways: instead of frying potatoes, try roasting them in a hot oven; cut into small pieces and tossed with a bit of olive oil, they will cook quickly while you are getting ready for the day. Season roasted potatoes to tastewith salt and pepper and add other flavors if you like—smoked Spanish paprika is my favorite, but onion, garlic, herb, curry, and chili flavors all work well with potatoes. Roasted potatoes can be tossed with steamed greens or other vegetables, leftover meat, fish or cheese or top them with eggs. If you really want your spuds fried, save time by starting with cold, cooked potatoes; a hot cast-iron skillet will allow you to use a minimal amount of oil and still end up with crisp, brown potatoes whether you like hash browns or American fries. For more nutritious potatoes of any style include sweet potatoes in the mix or use them on their own.

Hash, frittatas, egg pies
Potatoes can find their way into entrees like hash, frittatas and egg pies. The classic American hash that includes diced roast beef or corned beef was a dish treasured by thrifty cooks trying to use every bit of Sunday’s roast. Potatoes and other vegetables, especially onions and sometimes beets, were added so that a little meat could feed a family. These ingredients would be cooked together in a little fat or oil until the onions became tender, then a bit of leftover gravy or some cream were added to moisten and bind the other ingredients. Hash is comfort food for many people and popular breakfast spots often offer it topped with poached eggs. It is an easy dish to make at home; the meat does not need to be leftover, you can cook it fresh; it does not need to be beef—chicken, pork or fish will work as well. You can use broth, tomato sauce or even barbeque sauce for the liquid. Hash does not even have to include meat—substitute crumbled tofu, soy sausage, beans, cooked grain or more vegetables. A tasty vegetarian hash can be made using black beans, onions, garlic and cooked sweet potatoes tossed with chili powder and cumin. You can make a pan of hash and portion it out for a few days, just be aware that it will get softer—“hashier”—after some time in your fridge.

Spanish tortilla
Potatoes go Mediterranean in the classic Spanish tortilla—a dish more closely related to a frittata than a flatbread. This dish traditionally calls for very thinly sliced potatoes to be cooked in an abundance of olive oil—up to four cups! Good, if less traditional, results can be achieved with about one-third cup of oil; the potatoes are cooked until tender, but not browned and then added to lightly beaten eggs. The whole works goes back into the skillet for cooking. Spanish cooks flip the tortilla in the pan, but it might be safer to turn it out onto a plate and then reverse it back into the pan, avoiding the possible landing on the floor; the tortilla can also be slipped under the broiler or covered for a few minutes to cook the top. Well-cooked onions are a common addition, and you can add peppers, chorizo, ham or peas if you like, or any vegetable that you enjoy. Like frittatas, tortillas can be served at any temperature and are usually firm enough to be eaten out of hand if you don’t have time for a sit-down breakfast.

Veggies for breakfast
Most of us probably think we don’t have the time to cook vegetables for breakfast, but again, doing a bit of advance work can make it easy. Take an hour on the weekend or during the evening to prep raw vegetables so they are ready to use. You can also cook vegetables in advance to speed things even more; blanch vegetables like potatoes, broccoli, green beans and chopped greens, shock in ice water to cool them quickly, drain them very well, pat dry and store in airtight containers in the refrigerator for up to three days. Mushrooms, onions, garlic and greens can be flash-sautéed, cooled and stored the same way you would the blanched vegetables.

Soup and salad
Experiment with having soup or salad for breakfast; these foods are satisfying, but usually light enough for morning appetites. Fish cakes havebeen part of breakfast menus for generations in many places; they can be made in advance and reheated, but they are surprisingly good cold, as well.

Almost anything good can be part of a healthy breakfast. Check the recipe page in this issue of the Reader for some breakfast recipes that will jumpstart your mornings. As Tony the Tiger would say, “Breakfast is gggrrreat!”