Your guide to healthy breakfasts
Delicious and healthy ingredients can appear on breakfast menus, including berries, oats and eggs, as well as more indulgent treats for a celebration, such as ricotta pancakes, Benedict.
My own breakfast focus probably stems from 15 years as a very serious athlete, when fuelling performance was the key driver, and more recently as a mother of five, tackling the daily challenge of providing (read coaxing) nutrition for my family.
The challenge is to provide a healthy breakfast that you and your family will want to eat.
Breakfast bad guys
Packaged cereals have long been promoted as the breakfast-in-a-box solution, gratefully gobbled by time-poor consumers looking for convenience and “a great source of vitamins, minerals and fibre”. However, the contrivance of manufactured and overly processed cereals is certainly not the way to go at breakfast, for a multitude of reasons.
You will be aware of a cereal marketing strategy, launched way back in 1931 with the invention of “Snap, Crackle, Pop”, to target children with unabashed use of cartoon characters, free toys and gimmicks, promoting those very alluring ingredients, sugar and salt. The sales approach is so successful that, fast food and soft drink brands aside, there is surely no product that more continually bombards the brains of your children, causing them to beg you to buy the brightly coloured boxes of excitement.
Within the first two pages of the autobiography of celebrated and tortured British comic, Steven Fry, The Fry Chronicles, reference is made to a childhood breakfast that feeds the concern around processed cereals. “Sugar Puffs were pellets of wheat that had been puffed up under heat and coated in a syrupy and slightly sticky fructose and glucose glaze,” writes Fry.
“The breakfast table was where the seeds of my sorrow were sown. I am sure that I am right in locating my first addiction here. Sugar Puffs were the starting link in a chain that would shackle me for most of my life. To begin with, as you might imagine, they were a breakfast habit. But soon I was snacking on them at any time of day … Sugar gave me life, but it exacted a price — slavish adherence. Addiction to it and an addiction to addiction in addition.”
When the moment comes and I’m under pressure from the small people to purchase the fun food in aisle three, I steel myself with the torrid experiences of Mr Fry, including “convicted fraudster and thief, an addict, liar, fantasist and failed suicide”, and hold my ground.
The breakfast industry
If you buy your own whole ingredients and make your own cereal, you can have a perfectly nutritious meal and breakfast. There are even some simple techniques to maximise the nutrition in simple recipes, as we shall see later. You will find that the shelf life of these homemade cereals is short, only a few weeks as opposed to the months and months a boxed processed cereal can sit safely on a shelf.
The challenge for the early (circa 1830) pioneers/evangelicals of packaged cereal was preventing the product from becoming rancid, extending shelf life and creating a recipe that would taste better than “horse food”. Naturally, removing the stem and germ of the grain was the first step in improving the stability of the cereal. Unfortunately, that stem and germ contain the most wonderful fatty acids. Later, sugar and then salt (so that it wasn’t too sweet) were added and improved the flavour profile wonderfully, but at what nutritional cost?
Over time, new food technology created better ways of preserving, flavouring and colouring the cereals and, upon the establishment of strong profitability and the powerful links between marketing, consumer perceptions and sales, the industry turned to processes of fortification. Unfortunately, the nutritional qualities of products fortified with iron, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids and probiotics, among others, are not as profound as the balanced nutrition provided by the raw whole ingredient (including the stem). Fortified products, however, are far more marketable, and therefore profitable, to the trained palate of the modern consumer.
The problem with processing
As creators of the sugary-junk-in-a box industry, the Americans have known since a congressional hearing in 1970 that processed cereals in fact deliver “empty calories, a term thus far applied to alcohol and sugar”. President Nixon’s adviser on nutrition, Robert Choate, declared that most breakfast cereals “fatten but do little to prevent malnutrition” after his research where he fed a group of rats on the processed cereal products and another group on a diet of sugar, milk, raisins and ground-up cereal boxes. Choate testified to the senate that the rats on the cardboard box diet were healthier than the rats eating the cereal.
It’s not only the lack of true nutrition or the potential to establish a lifetime of addictions that should motivate your commitment to being the mean parent who doesn’t allow the sugary processed cereals into the shopping trolley. There’s also the global economic and environmental manipulation caused by consumption of these products to consider.
The processing of the grains — steaming, rolling, roasting, pressure cooking and flaking — all use vast amounts of energy before the product is packed into plastic bags, heat-sealed and then put into a highly processed cardboard box containing glues, printing materials and other environmentally unfriendly processes.
The broadacre production of grains by agribusiness (actually, not all this crop is bound for human consumption — it often feeds animals and is increasingly diverted to biofuel production) to deliver a cheap food source appearing inside cereal boxes uses a high level of water and fossil-fuel resources. Frighteningly, it has been predicted by provocative author James E. McWilliams in Just Food that global grain production will expand by almost 40 per cent by 2025 and that, if the use of nitrogen and soil degradation increase at the same rate, the impact on the environment is likely to be devastating.
The distance the raw ingredients and finished product travel, often criss-crossing continents and the world during the assembly and production run of a box of cereal, add woefully to the environmental impact of big-business cereals. While the jury is out on how the world will be capable of feeding itself in the human-heavy future, moving food around long distances in response to the big corporate search for decreasing costs, increased profitability, new market growth and marketing function certainly does not seem to be a good move for our future stability or sustainability.
It’s no coincidence that advertising and marketing budgets of processed cereal brands in Australia are rivalled only by those of fast food and soft-drink brands. The foundation of the powerful breakfast cereal segment of the food sector, usually tenanting a full aisle of a supermarket store, is marketing. It has been reported that JP Morgan analysis determined that 25 per cent of the purchase price of a box of cereal is typically channelled to the marketing function (with around 40–45 per cent gross margin and 17 per cent profit margin) and, looking into the history of breakfast cereals, that has always been the case. Probably because, without the powerful marketing, we would realise that the stuff doesn’t actually taste that good! Remove the thought that processed cereal is a “healthy start to your day” and you will be reaching for what really is good for you at breakfast in a heartbeat.
Creating your best breakfast
For a BEST breakfast, how can you go past baked beans (home-made) and poached eggs with a bit of wholegrain sourdough toast? If you can make the beans yourself (a good big batch of beans can last around a week in the fridge) you can control the amount of sugar and salt, incorporate your personal favourite flavours (chilli?) and replace some ingredients with better alternatives (rapadura or agave in place of refined sugar). You can mix up the beans, play around with herbs and seasonings and have the perfect bed for a couple of poached eggs.
This breakfast is singing with protein and the number one reason for protein at breakfast is to keep you feeling satisfied (fuller) for longer. It’s a great low-glycaemic-index option that will level out any sugar spikes or dips and provide your brain with a stable start that will help to avoid emotionally or physically driven unhealthy snacking choices.
“Incorporating a healthy breakfast containing protein-rich foods can be a simple strategy for people to stay satisfied longer and, therefore, be less prone to snacking,” said Heather Leidy, assistant professor in the University of Missouri Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology.
“People reach for convenient snack foods to satisfy their hunger between meals, but these foods are almost always high in sugar and fat and add a substantial amount of calories to the diet. These findings suggest that a protein-rich breakfast might be an effective strategy to improve appetite control and prevent overeating.”
Once you have decided you want to make breakfast a wonderful start to the day for your body and mind, you need to find some recipes to make the foods you need so you don’t rely on over-processed, non-organic options. Here are some recipes to get you started.
Home-made baked beans
300g dried cannellini beans (or your favourite of haricot, navy, borlotti
1 whole onion
1 sprig thyme
2 tsp olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1–2 garlic cloves, crushed
800g fresh tomatoes, blanched, peeled and roughly chopped (use canned tomatoes if you are tight for time)
2 tsp rapadura (or raw sugar)
1 tbsp pure maple syrup
2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 small chopped chilli (or ½ tsp dried)
Cover the beans with cold water and soak overnight (or a minimum of three hours). Drain.
Place the beans in a saucepan with whole onion, sprig of thyme and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 30 minutes. Drain and keep around half a cup of the cooking water. Throw away the onion and thyme.
Use the same saucepan to gently heat the olive oil and cook the chopped onion and garlic until clear, but don’t let it brown.
Add all the remaining ingredients and reserved cooking water. Bring to the boil, reduce temperature and simmer for a further 30 minutes until beans are soft.
Season with a little salt and pepper (to taste). I like to stir through a big handful of chopped fresh herbs (parsley, basil, coriander), too.
Enjoy on their own, with wholegrain sourdough toast or, for the best protein breakfast, with a couple of poached eggs on top.
Tips for the perfect poached eggs
- Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil and then back the temperature off to just under boiling. Splash a good two tablespoons of white vinegar into the water to help the egg whites to set.
- Using a long handled spoon, stir the water vigorously to create a spinning whirlpool in your saucepan. Carefully crack your egg, hold as close to the surface of the water as possible (don’t burn your fingertips) and drop the whole egg into the centre of the whirlpool.
- Don’t attempt more than four eggs at a time in a large pot, as they don’t like to be overcrowded!
- Leave the eggs for around two minutes before bringing out of the water with a slotted spoon to check. They should be white, and still soft when lightly pressed (if you like them runny, otherwise cook them for longer to your liking).
Even the biggest fan of beans can get tired of the same breakfast every day so, of course, you need a range of packaged/processed cereal-free breakfasts that will deliver on protein. Here are a few.
Simple yoghurt & berries
Often you will be encouraged to eat low-/no-fat yoghurts but beware of the need for manufacturers to add sugar to make up for the removed fat in these products. Much of the nutrient value of dairy is contained in the fat, so choose the whole-fat option (especially with dairy) and eat a little less of it, and add berries for sweetness, fibre and an antioxidant hit. A handful of chopped raw nuts (almonds, brazil and macadamias) and seeds (pepitas and sunflower seeds) pack in more of a protein punch and add fantastic crunchy texture.
It may seem like an unnecessary and unusual step to separate the egg, but this is the secret to really light and delicious pancakes! Experiment with flours for this recipe, of course looking for the best wholegrain option.
150g self-raising flour (about 1 cup)
1 tsp bicarb soda
125g ricotta (creamy is best)
250ml skim milk (1 cup)
1 egg, separated
25g butter, melted
Zest & juice of ½ lemon
A little vegetable oil
Use a whisk to combine the flour, bicarb soda and salt into a bowl, breaking up any lumps, then add the sugar.
In a separate bowl, combine the ricotta, milk, egg yolk, melted butter, lemon rind and juice, beating well until smooth.
Gradually combine the wet and dry ingredients to form a smooth batter.
Whisk the egg white until it forms soft peaks. Fold gently through the batter, keeping as much air in the mixture as possible.
Bring a non-stick frying pan to temperature on a medium heat. Brush with a little oil and pour in a 10cm round blob of batter. Cook 2 pancakes at a time over medium heat for around 2 minutes until bubbles appear all over the surface. Flip over and cook for 1–2 minutes on the other side.
Keep warm while you cook the remaining pancakes. Serve hot with your favourite toppings, depending on what’s available seasonally — these are great with banana, berries or mango, yoghurt and honey. In winter, try gently spiced and marinated oranges.
Nici Andronicus is Managing Director of Organicus Kitchen and Pantry. www.organicus.com.au
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