Breakfast with Mom

Most likely, your mother, too, used to say that breakfast was the most important meal of the day.  While my mom knew that the first meal her kids ate set the tone for the rest of day, I am not sure she really understood the scientific reasons why. 

Experts tell us that eating a well-balanced breakfast kick-starts your metabolism. It also increases your energy and helps to restore your blood glucose to a normal level after your overnight without food.  There are a host of other physiological advantages but the one I like best is that it affects cortisol, your stress hormone. This impacts your mental and physical well-being which can influence your performance throughout the rest of the day.

What you eat makes a difference

Simply eating breakfast is not enough though.  What you choose to start your day with makes a difference.  For example, processed foods, such as pop tarts and cereals loaded with sugars and preservatives are not a good choice. 

So, what is?  In researching this post, I found on the Very Healthy Life website a helpful list.  Here are 20 healthy, nutritious foods to consider for jump-starting your day:   Yoghurt; eggs; oatmeal; fresh berries; nuts; chia seeds; flax seed; green tea; coffee; cottage cheese; protein shakes; granola; quinoa; salmon;  spinach; broccoli; bananas; sweet potatoes; avocado and black beans. Check out this site to find out the health benefits of each item

True confession. Reading this list was a wake-up call for me. Like many New Yorkers, I choose to grab something quickly at a coffee shop after my morning exercise. This means cappuccinos, cheese Danish, toasted bagels with cream cheese, and breakfast sandwiches plus gallons of coffee, apparently one of the few healthy things I regularly consume. It wasn’t always this way as I did start life as a healthy eater.

What’s for breakfast, Mom?

Growing up, the first thing out of my sister and my mouths was “What’s for breakfast, Mom?”  We hounded our poor mother to make something different every morning. She willingly complied with a delicious repertoire which always started with either orange juice or fresh fruit.  Then it might be scrambled eggs with smashed Ritz crackers (a Wasp version of Matzo Brei!); French toast; West Virginia biscuits and ham; cream of wheat with milk and cinnamon; or biscuits and gravy.  My sister Sharon and I adored this dish as it came with a little song our mother made up to amuse us.  But our all-time favorite was pancakes which she lovingly made by hand free-handedly in the shape of Micky Mouse with big, round ears.

I thought most other Americans kids had a similar experience with a wide variety of breakfast dishes until I started to ask around. “What did your mother make for breakfast when you were young?” 

Deborah, a food editor, came from a family like mine where our mothers embraced the role as “breakfast makers” for their children. “My mother would make us waffles from scratch using her heavy-duty Westinghouse electric waffle iron,” Deborah reminisced.  “Mom used the recipe which came with the waffle maker.  She served them with lots of butter so that each hole had some melting into it. We were spoiled as she served her waffles with real maple syrup, not the Aunt Jemima imitation.  I still have the waffle iron, but someone borrowed it once and broke one of the handles. However, it still works.  Now when I bring out the waffle iron, I always make extra to freeze for a later use.”

Quick and easy breakfasts

However, not everyone was as lucky as Deborah and I were to have a breakfast-making mother. Donna from my knitting class volunteered. “My mother was an artist and a coffee addict.  She would give the four of us kids ‘coffee milk’ for breakfast, just a touch of coffee in a glass of milk.  I guess she thought she’d turn us into coffee lovers like her, but I can’t stand it now as an adult.  Even if I go into Starbucks to get something to eat, the smell of their coffee makes me queasy.”

Then, Donna told us her mother would usually give her children a pre-sweetened cereal such as Sugar Pops or Sugar Frosted Flakes in the morning. Donna added with a note of distain, “The same cereals exist today but the manufacturers try to make them appear healthy. Now they’ve gotten rid of the word ‘sugar’ and use instead branded names such as Corn Pops, Fruity Pebbles or Honey Bunches of Oats.”

Lisa, my knitting instructor, explained that her mother hated breakfast, so she left it to her four kids to make their own. “But, at night at least she did set out four glasses with a spoon for each of us along with packets of Carnation Instant Breakfast. All we had to do in the morning was add milk and stir.  At the time, this breakfast was revolutionary.  In my mother’s eyes, she was doing right by us as this new product was marketed as quick and nutritious.  Now, I make myself McCann’s Irish oatmeal every morning as it really is healthy.  For variety I add other things to it such as a chopped dates, nuts or a handful of fresh fruit, such as today when I used blueberries. I change it up every day so that it has a different taste.”

Semolina vs Farina

Lidia, another instructor who was born in the Ukraine, proffered “I hated breakfast growing up.  But when my parents sent me to a boarding school, I was forced to eat it. Normally, it was kasha.  When I had my own daughter, who was very skinny as a young child, I would feed her semolina made with milk.  It was healthy so even if she didn’t like what they were serving for lunch at school, I felt confident that my nutritious breakfast would be enough to keep her going until she got home. When we came to America, we couldn’t find semolina in the normal grocery store.  Maybe you call is something else here, like farina?” she queried. (In fact, semolina is made from durum wheat and is more nutritious than farina which comes from any other hard wheat other than durum.)

As it turns out, quite a few of my friends’ mothers never made them breakfast. Joan from my Italian class said, “My mother never made us breakfast.  She slept through it and had the housekeeper handle this chore.” 

Dads who cook breakfast

On the other hand, I learned that some fathers were not averse to taking on the task. My spinning pal and copyright lawyer, Harvey, told me that his dad used to make the family breakfast on the weekend.  “He specialized in great pancakes.  My favorite was chocolate pancakes with ice cream. One year he upped his game, bought a special pan and started making us Crêpe Suzettes.  We were in heaven.”

Jenn, my trainer, echoed the story of the absent mother and present weekend father. “There were four kids in our family, so my mother left it to us to make our own breakfast once we were old enough.  As we didn’t know how to cook, we ate mostly cereal.  My mother would buy us generic brands as the good stuff was too expensive. But periodically, she would break down and buy us one special box. As the four of us ate several bowls at a time, that one box didn’t last long. But I do remember on Sundays, after church, my father would make us breakfast.  He would put on polka music and all the kids would help him in the kitchen dancing and twirling around to the music.”

International breakfast foods

The subject of breakfast has always fascinated me. As I enjoy traveling, I’ve discovered there is a wide variety of different things people eat around the world for their first meal of the day. The full English breakfast of beans, sausages, bacon, eggs, mushrooms, hash browns and toast is the closest thing to what we eat in America. Of course, we inherited this cholesterol-laden meal from the English.

On a wine trip to South Africa years ago, my late husband Ed and I learned that locals in rural areas eat porridge either splashed with milk, cream, or amasi (curdled milk) sweetened with honey. In India, we tasted dosas (thin crepes made of lentils) served with a fruit chutney along with spiced potatoes. In Germany visiting Ed’s wine-making family on the Rhine River, we breakfasted on boiled eggs, dense, dark bread served with sweet butter, mild cheeses, and smoky ham and sausages.

Mexicans enjoy hot chocolate and fried churros, often purchased at an outdoor vendor which I did recently for pennies while visiting Oxaca.  On special occasions, they also eat huevos rancheros for breakfast, a tasty dish of eggs, black beans, salsa and flour tortillas.

For Italians, prima colazione is the least important meal of the day.  Normally, they jump out of bed and head straight to work. They might grab a quick espresso along the way or maybe a cappuccino but always standing up in a bar.  If they are hungry, they sometimes pick up a cornetto, a pastry filled with orange marmalade. Their children might have a yogurt or a biscotto plus a fruit juice and sometimes even milk with a hint of coffee added.  (So, was Donna’s mother part Italian???)

The French pay a little more attention to breakfast than the Italians.  For them, it is likely to be a café crème at home with a slice of baguette slathered with sweet butter and jam. Being true gourmands, the French think nothing of standing in line at the crack of dawn at their favorite pâtisserie to have a breakfast treat right out of the oven: flaky croissants, pain aux raisins, pain au chocolat, or my favorite and remarkably fattening, Kouign Amann, a specialty from Brittany.

Corn Flakes to the rescue

During my junior year abroad in Tours, France, our host family religiously served us the same thing for breakfast. Before we went to bed, Madame laid out the cups and saucers, rusk toast and orange marmalade.  The next morning, she would trundle down the stairs in her bathrobe and put out the butter then make us tea. With barely a “Bonjour,” she would slowly remount the stairs and go back to bed. 

The monotony eventually got to me and my fellow American roommate. Somehow, we located a box of Corn Flakes (cereals were not readily available in France in the late 60’s) and announced that we were making breakfast for everyone the next morning.  We bought milk and oranges for making juice.  The grand-mère who ate breakfast with us in the morning, exclaimed, “What a copious breakfast Americans eat!”  We couldn’t imagine what she would have said had we served the family one of the Howard Johnson Big Boy breakfasts of eggs, bacon and a stack of hotcakes?

Closer to home, New Yorkers enjoy noshing on Jewish breakfast foods, especially while reading our New York Times on Sundays.  Give us a good bagel with a schmir of cream cheese, topped with lox (or smoked salmon), and we’re in heaven.

The trendiness of foods

Americans also follow trends at breakfast time just like they follow the length of skirts.  Think back to the 60’s and 70’s when our mothers were keen to serve the newest convenience foods such as the highly processed Pop Tarts and frozen breakfasts.  Tang—the orange-flavored, powdered drink everyone thinks was invented for NASA and wasn’t—was the ultimate convenience food. Fast forward, and now we are smack in the middle of the popular Smoothie era.  Vitamix is the toy piece of kitchen equipment to covet for making the fastest, healthiest combination of nutritional goodies.  In lieu of making bacon and eggs for breakfast mothers are now trying to get their kids to drink high energy drinks. They use Kombucha, Flax, Chia or Goji berries with fresh fruit and a liquid such as almond milk or yoghurt, most likely with mixed results from their kids.

Breakfast haters

As breakfast trends come and go in American, there will always be a subculture of breakfast haters, some of whom we’ve already met in this post.  While some of these people elect to sleep through it, others will forage through the refrigerator to see which leftovers can be salvaged before heading off to school or the office.  My older sister Sharon’s favorite was leftover spaghetti.  Not me. I’m a card-carrying breakfast chick.

While I still wake up each morning planning my first meal in my head, I wonder if I should reconsider my rather unhealthy routine. Maybe I should try out my Vitamix, a recent raffle prize from a food conference raffle. I could make one of those “quick, easy, whole food” recipes from its Simply Blending cookbook. Alternatively, perhaps I could kick-start my metabolism with something easier such as a container of Greek yoghurt with a few cherries? 

What I do know, however, is that I won’t duplicate Nancy Pelosi’s breakfast choice.  She eats chocolate flavored Häagen-Dazs ice cream, not exactly your gateway to goodness and health! But somehow, her mind manages to function better than mine ever could, even with a healthy breakfast.

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