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Rethinking Breakfast

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A rooster crows its morning call. The sun rises up over softly lit, green hills. A farmhouse, still moist from dew, stands strong in the swaying grass. Through the window you can see an old, round wooden table in a shaft of dusty sunlight. It’s morning in America.

Then the familiar logo of a well-known breakfast cereal splashes across the screen. Eating this cereal, the advertisement implies, will bring just this kind of morning into your home. Or will it?

Nowhere do American food myths and reality collide more sharply than over the meal we call breakfast. We may love the idea of breakfast—of eating home-baked muffins on beautiful, sun-drenched mornings—but the truth is most Americans eat breakfast from a box or a bag, on the way to somewhere else. And no wonder. Not only are we a nation of hurried people, but corporations spend millions of advertising dollars trying to convince us that eating convenience foods—cereals full of empty calories or sugared breakfast treats—is the right way to start up our day. Last year, for example, the Kellogg Company—the world’s leading producer of cereal and convenience foods—spent $40 million alone advertising Frosted Flakes, one of their leading breakfast brands. In comparison, the National Cancer Institute spent about $1 million promoting the health benefits of fruits and vegetables. We are a nation hungry for real, nourishing food, true satisfaction, and the steadiness of home these advertising images imply. But we rarely get it.

“Breakfast marks the transition from rest to work,” says Anne Scott, author of Serving Fire: Food for Thought, Body, and Soul. “It is the meal that moves us from our inner world to our participation in life. What you eat for breakfast and how you eat it may seem banal for some people, but it isn’t. It’s the start of our day, and that in itself is sacred. We need to nourish ourselves before addressing the business of living.”

It’s the business of living and the pace of our lives that can interfere with how deeply pleasurable a good breakfast can be: a piece of toasted bread with nut butter and apricot jam, a bowl of crisp apples and tangy oranges swathed in creamy yogurt, or a steaming cup of tea with a dollop of honey on a winter morning.

“Breakfast is the first time we nourish the body, so we need to choose our food carefully,” says Jesse Cool, author of five cookbooks, including Breakfast in Bed. “It sets the tone for the rest of the day. We’ve all heard the old adage that you are what you eat. Well, it’s true. Food is the fuel that makes us run.” And you’re doing yourself a favor if what you eat has nutritional content.

This content should include protein and essential fats. “Protein is very important in the morning,” says Linda Prout, a nutrition therapist at the Claremont Resort and Spa in Berkeley, California, and the author of Live in the Balance: The Groundbreaking East-West Nutrition Program. “Essential fats, particularly omega-3 fats found in foods such as flaxseeds, oats, certain nuts and seeds, and coldwater fish like salmon, are anti-inflammatory and reduce the risk of both heart disease and cancer.” Prout says eating foods rich in protein and high-quality fats helps stabilize blood sugar, mood swings, depression, PMS, anxiety, and irritability. “If you eat a savory breakfast containing high-quality fats and protein, you’ll feel more grounded and centered and have much less of a desire to reach for sweets later on in the day.”

From a nutritional standpoint, Prout’s ideal breakfast includes complex carbohydrates along with proteins and high-quality fats: Salmon with miso, rice and vegetables, a handful of nuts with avocado on whole grain toast, or an omelet made with omega-3-rich eggs, filled with sautéed spinach, mushrooms, and onions.

Breakfast feeds not only our bodies but our souls and spirits as well. “I started my first restaurant, which specialized in making breakfast, some 27 years ago,” says Cool, “because I felt it was important to nourish people in the morning, to make them feel like they had been well taken care of in the world. Whether it was a big bowl of strawberries or that perfect cup of tea with milk and honey, people knew they were experiencing something important, necessary, and powerful.”

This is precisely why marketing images of well-worn kitchen tables, red barns, and dewy mornings are so effective: They are fabricated constructs that tap into what Anne Scott calls the “ancient hearth wisdom” or “the longing to be nourished by what is real.” And in uncertain times, when we find ourselves living in a world that can seem unfamiliar and out of our control, a good breakfast provides us with the grounding and strength to go forth.

“Feeding yourself, your family, or your community is so basic. It’s the right thing to do,” advises Cool. “But keep it simple. Life is full and people are busy. It’s great to make food from scratch, but we can’t always do this, so just do what you can to serve the most nutritious, most real food possible. Allow yourself the grace not to overextend who you are and what you can do for others. Breakfast is important, but it doesn’t need to be a grand production.

“Really ask yourself, What will make me or the person I’m cooking for truly happy? What will nourish us in all ways? That is breakfast.”