Healthy Breakfasts for Busy Mornings

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Here’s what to eat when your day is rushed, and why skipping breakfast is not an option. 

For as much as we Americans are fabled to eat, there is one meal we are surprisingly likely to skimp on: breakfast. In many households, mornings are so frenzied that we may struggle just to gulp down a few bites of cold cereal on the way out the door. And that’s not the worst of it — when researchers from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) surveyed Americans on their breakfast choices, roughly 20 percent told them they skip the meal altogether.

Joan Salge Blake, MS, RD, professor of health and rehabilitation sciences at Boston University, calls breakfast “the forgotten meal,” and she asserts that it’s an oversight we make at our peril. Skipping breakfast results in a brain that’s slow to fire and a body that clings to calories, grudgingly lowering its energy output because it’s unsure when it might see its next meal.

Forgoing a morning nutrient infusion also gives carb and sugar cravings a head start, which is why, by midmorning, many people who forgo breakfast end up circling the office vending machines like great white sharks.

Some people say they don’t feel hungry enough to eat in the morning, while others say they don’t like breakfast foods. A vast number claim they forget, or simply don’t have time. None of these breakfast-skippers, says Salge Blake, is taking stock of the true costs of their decision, or what they could stand to gain from getting in a decent morning meal. “You will be more productive all day long,” she promises, “if you just invest a few minutes in eating a healthy breakfast.”

But not all breakfasts are created equal, Salge Blake is eager to point out. In the fiery furnace of the belly, foods burn at different speeds. A bowl of sugary cereal goes up fast and hot, like tinder. A food that packs a little fat and protein, such as an egg, acts more like a solid oak log that keeps the furnace stoked until lunch. So instead of shoveling in whatever’s handy, it’s wise to give your body high-quality fuel — the kind that jump-starts the brain, fires up the metabolism and gives your body an energy infusion that lasts well into midday.

So what are some quick and healthy breakfasts both you and your body will like? We asked Salge Blake and other nutritional experts for their recommendations, and also asked some of the most energetic, health-conscious folks we know to share the real-life morning meals that keep them going strong.

Fast and Easy Eggs

No dish evokes a leisurely weekend morning like a fluffy omelet or poached eggs, but eggs can easily be a no-fuss weekday affair, too. “The beauty of the egg is that it makes you feel satisfied for hours,” says Salge Blake.

Her favorite way to shoehorn eggs into busy mornings is to hard-boil a half-dozen eggs on Sunday, peel them and stash them in the fridge. Then, on Monday morning, when she’s tight on time, she grabs one on her way out the door, along with a whole-wheat English muffin. As she says, “Breakfast just doesn’t get any easier than that.”

You can also bake a batch of mini-frittatas over the weekend for a ready-to-go, protein-rich breakfast. Just beat several eggs in a bowl, add a mixture of sautéed veggies, like onions, broccoli, spinach or mushrooms, pour the mixture into a greased muffin tin, and bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes or until the frittatas start to brown on top. Cool and store in the refrigerator for up to a week. To reheat, just toss one or two in a toaster oven. If you’re in a rush, you can even eat them cold.

Cooking eggs in the morning is easy, too. It takes only five minutes to scramble a couple of eggs, says Gary Miller, PhD, professor of health and exercise science at Wake Forest University. While they are cooking, grate a little hard cheese on top for extra flavor, calcium and protein. And don’t forget the veggies. Quickly sauté leftover veggies, such as chopped onion, tomato, even greens or squash, and add them to the eggs.

For extra portability, Miller folds his scramble into a whole-wheat tortilla and calls it a wrap. “That way you’re getting a serving of whole grains along with your protein and veggies.”

Or take the fried-egg route. “My favorite way to eat an egg is to fry it quickly, sunny-side up,” says Sara Snow, green lifestyle expert and author of Sara Snow’s Fresh Living (Bantam, 2009). She’ll also toss on a handful of spinach and let it wilt. “That way you get some green, living food, too. Paired with a side of whole-grain toast or oat bran, it’s the perfect breakfast.”

Dressing Up Cold Cereal

If breakfast foods held a popularity contest, cereal would win hands down. According to the USDA’s survey, 33 percent of breakfast eaters choose cereal — more than any other food. The next-most-popular choice (eaten by 27 percent of the population) was bread in the form of toast, bagels, rolls or English muffins.

Both categories share an obvious appeal — they are fast and easy — but they also share a fleet of drawbacks: They deliver a surplus of sugars and simple carbs, a relatively small amount of available nutrition, and a near-total absence of the healthy proteins and fats that give a good breakfast its staying power.

If you are going to choose one option or the other, most experts would recommend you choose cereal, but they offer some guidelines. First, nix the sugar-coated stuff. Look for a cereal (cold or hot) that contains less than 8 grams of sugar per serving, says Miller.

Second, choose a whole-grain option over a refined one, but keep in mind that very few cereals sporting a  “contains whole grains” label are actually composed primarily of whole grains, and even most of those include finely processed flours that are digested very quickly. Don’t be fooled by promises that a cereal contains “100 percent of the RDA” of various nutrients if the ingredient label suggests most of them have been added to “enrich” an otherwise lackluster product. Also, beware of misleading seals and stamps of approval, such as the industry-backed (and recently suspended) “Smart Choices” food-labeling campaign, which counted sugar-loaded cereals like Froot Loops and Cocoa Krispies as healthy choices.

What about granola? If it contains primarily nuts, seeds and minimally processed grains, and if the dried fruits are unsweetened, it will probably deliver a good, steady supply of energy. But sweetened fruit or added sugars, including honey, molasses and rice syrups, can ratchet up the cereal’s blood-sugar-spiking potential. Plus, many granolas are made with less-than-desirable vegetable oils to help keep them shelf-stable. And the combination of all those sugars and fats can create a surprisingly calorie-dense result. That’s why recommended serving sizes for granola tend to be small — as little as a quarter cup.

You’ll want to gauge your personal serving size to your projected energy needs and activity level, but Miller’s advice is to go easy: “If you want to eat granola for breakfast, sprinkle it, don’t pour it,” he advises. Granola can be the ideal topping for a bowl of berries or sliced fruit and plain yogurt. You can even slice and dice fruit the night before — just mix in a little lemon juice to thwart browning.

Experiment with mixing and matching cereals for the flavor, texture and nutritional profile you prefer, advises Barbara Rolls, PhD, professor of nutritional sciences at Pennsylvania State University and author of The Volumetrics Eating Plan (Harper, 2007). She combines a high-fiber cereal with her favorite (but less fiber-rich) brand: “Since most of us are not eating anything near our recommended daily fiber levels,” she figures, “why not sneak some in at breakfast?”

Rather than settling for straight-up cereal and milk, look for opportunities to mix in other more nutritionally advantageous ingredients: berries or half a chopped fruit, ground flaxseed, shelled hemp seed, crumbled nuts, dried coconut, and perhaps a teaspoon of a bottled, light-tasting essential fatty-acid oil supplement.

Along with milk, Rolls also adds a dollop of plain yogurt to her cereal bowl, which makes the meal seem more substantial. She says her recipe choice is supported by a number of studies showing that the thicker the food, the more sensory satisfaction it delivers. “Cognitively, the calories feel more satisfying,” she explains, “and, in the end, how much you eat all boils down to how satisfied you feel.”

Hot Cereal Gets Heartier

In cold weather, nothing is cozier than a bowl of hot oatmeal. And the best nutritional bang for your bowl is steel-cut oats. This old-style oatmeal gets a bad rap for its 20-minute cooking time, but don’t be deterred — there are several shortcuts. One is to buy quicker-cooking versions of steel-cut oats that cook in five minutes or so. The results are still far superior, both nutritionally and in terms of taste, texture and satisfaction, to those finely milled instant-oatmeal products that produce a pastelike result and rapidly turn to sugar in your bloodstream.

To conserve costs and packaging, buy steel-cut oats in the bulk section of your local natural grocery or food co-op. To save time, make a big batch over the weekend that you can reheat on the stove, serving by serving, all week long. As your oats warm in a saucepan (add extra water as needed), toss in some raisins or currants, or add sliced apples or pears (in summer, try peaches and apricots). Don’t forget warming spices, like cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and cardamom, to pump up the final dish’s flavor and micronutrients. Adding a dab of butter or splash of milk or cream provides satisfaction and helps deliver a steady supply of energy.

You can also premake quick-cooking oatmeal or other types of hot cereal and then store it, prestudded with chopped fruit, in single-serving microwavable containers. Pour a little milk, soymilk or rice milk over the top of one, pop it in the microwave, and — voilà! — breakfast in 30 seconds. Reheating your precooked hot cereal in a small pan on the stovetop will give you more even heat and help spare the fruit’s antioxidants, but if it’s microwaving or nothing, choose microwaving. And if it’s instant or bust, go for instant. Just watch out for added sugar (a popular brand of apple and cinnamon oatmeal contains 12 grams).

Either way, when the warming or cooking is done, add heat-sensitive flourishes, such as a teaspoon of nutty-tasting flaxseed oil, nut butter, or a scattering of crunchy walnuts. Snow likes to dress up her hot cereal with a drizzle of honey and a handful of goji berries, an antioxidant-rich fruit that’s native to Asia.

No matter how you ornament your oatmeal, though, it’s still oatmeal. So if boredom ensues at the breakfast table (or if gluten is a concern), consider experimenting with other hot multigrain cereals. Flaxseed, brown rice and amaranth are nutritional powerhouses, and their texture and taste can offer a pleasing change of pace.

Breakfast in a Blender

Given the proliferation of smoothie joints, it’s clear that folks love drinking their fruit. The good news is that smoothies are push-button fast and can be a nutrient bonanza. The bad news is that some store-bought smoothies can be chock-full of excess calories and sugars, devoid of protein, and may even contain unhealthy flavorings and additives. So make your own smoothies whenever possible, and ask for a complete ingredient rundown on any blended drinks you buy.

Smoothies are one of Snow’s favorite fast breakfasts. She starts with a banana, adds a handful of berries, a scoop or two of protein powder, a drizzle of flaxseed oil, and a little supergreen powder, like spirulina, for good  measure. Then she thins the mixture with a little rice milk or water. “Start to finish in 30 seconds,” she says.

The easiest way to speed up smoothies is to use frozen fruit, especially when your favorite fruits are out of season. “Frozen berries are a phenomenal choice for quick and easy smoothies,” says Salge Blake. “You don’t have to clean them or cook them; just take them out of the freezer and you’re ready to go.”

Adding a handful of dried fruit, such as currants or chopped apricots or figs, can deliver chewy texture and can stand in for fresh fruit when none is available. But if your smoothie is mostly fruit of one kind or another, you’ll want to take steps to avoid a blood-sugar surge: Add a source of protein and some healthy fats to it. For lasting power and nutritional balance, a handful of nuts, shelled hemp seeds, ground flaxseeds, a chunk of tofu, half an avocado, or a scoop of a supergreens or protein powder are all great ways to go.

You might also consider throwing in a handful of spinach, mixed greens, a small cucumber or half a zucchini. While they may sound like odd smoothie prospects, these additions offer lots of phytonutrients and fiber without throwing off flavor or texture, and they give you an easy way to front-load a serving or two of veggies before your day gets started.

Nontraditional Breakfasts

In other countries, you might confuse breakfast with lunch or dinner. For instance, in China, the day may start with a tofu and cellophane noodle soup. In India, breakfast may look like curried vegetables. And in Japan, miso soup, rice and grilled fish are regulars on the morning menu. Thinking outside typical American cuisine can catapult you out of a breakfast rut.

For a speedy and different take on breakfast, Snow likes either sushi or brown rice nori rolls. “I buy the prepackaged rolls at the store the night before, and in the morning they are a quick and portable breakfast.”

But breakfast doesn’t need to be exotic to rekindle your excitement for the meal. Indeed, you may just need to broaden your horizons and look to lunch or dinner for inspiration. Miller likes to eat dinner leftovers for breakfast. Specifically, beans and rice reheated in the microwave or even leftover veggies sautéed in a frying pan with a few cubes of tofu. A bowl of hot soup, either leftovers from the night before or a high-quality canned version, can also make a nourishing and filling morning meal. Snow is the first to admit that cold pizza is her favorite nontraditional breakfast pick, especially if it has a whole-grain crust, light cheese and some veggies.

And, of course, there is always the sandwich. Choose your favorite delicious and healthy ingredients, and make two sandwiches — one for a quick breakfast and one for lunch later in the day.

“It’s a delusion that breakfast takes a lot of time,” says Salge Blake. “You know what takes time? Hunting for food midmorning when you’re starving.” Because healthy options can be hard to find on the fly, your nutritional chances suffer with this approach.
Salge Blake is convinced that if everyone just spent a little more time thinking about breakfast, we’d all be better off — more energized and clear headed, less moody, and less likely to get depleted or reactive as the day wears on. “A healthy breakfast sets the tone for the rest of the day,” she says. So if you want your days to be less harried, more consistently productive and rewarding, launching them with a nourishing meal is the right thing to do.

Catherine Guthrie is a Bloomington, Ind.–based writer.

Model Breakfasts

We asked a few of our past cover subjects (healthy eaters all) to describe their favorite breakfasts. If you’re still stumped about how to start your morning right, look to them for inspiration.

Ellie Krieger, author of the New York Times bestseller The Food You Crave: muesli parfait. In a small bowl, layer rolled oats, yogurt, milk, honey and almonds. Refrigerate. In the morning, top it off with fresh berries. “A scrumptious, healthy, portable breakfast.”

Nathan Lyon, chef and host of A Lyon in the Kitchen on Discovery Health and FitTV: oatmeal made with milk, toasted pecans, a dash of cinnamon and a handful of blueberries (fresh or frozen). Top with a heaping spoonful of vanilla yogurt and a teaspoon of real maple syrup. “Filling and tastes great!”

Rory Freedman, coauthor of the Skinny Bitch series: a fruit smoothie with fresh strawberries, blueberries, banana, hemp-seed milk and ground flaxseeds.

Dan Buettner, extreme adventurer, educator and New York Times best-selling author of The Blue Zones: sprouted wheat-bread toast with apple butter and a blueberry smoothie made with soymilk, Greek honey, a splash of vanilla extract and a dash of cinnamon.

Simran Sethi, environmental journalist and cohost of the Sundance Channel’s series The Green: seasonal veggies scrambled with eggs and a little bit of hormone-free bacon or sausage — all from nearby farms. “The energy local farmers put into my food is what gets me through the day.”

Heather Stephenson, cofounder of Ideal Bite, a green-living Web resource now part of Disney’s Family.com: organic, whole-milk yogurt, topped with flaxseed oil, berries, Kashi 7 Whole Grain Nuggets cereal, and organic, grade-B maple syrup.

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