Breakfast. They say it’s the most important meal of the day and tell us we should consume at least 20 grams of protein each morning to fire up our metabolisms. They promise us this will give us the energy and brainpower we need to rock our day. That’s what they say and who am I to argue with the likes of Dr Oz and Dr Mark Hyman, who proclaim that eating the right foods at breakfast can help us lose weight or keep cancer at bay?
Truth is, I’ve had a long love-hate relationship with breakfast. While my mum raised us well and cooked us breakfast every day, by the time I was 15 I had fallen into the trap so many girls do: I started to skip breakfast believing I’d drop a few of my teen “fat” pounds. And I kept up this terrible habit until about a year ago.
Back in London in the ‘90s, I’d leave my Clapham flat for work without so much as a glass of water inside me. Then I’d take the Northern Line, squeezing myself into a couple of free inches in a packed carriage on the tube for 25 minutes, before proudly running up numerous escalators to exit at Leicester Square. Having expended a bit of energy, I’d stop at the local Italian deli to grab a really badly made cappuccino (all milk and no froth) complete with Sweet ‘n Low, before heading to the office. Clutching my polystyrene cup, I’d ride the elevator, walk straight through the rows of open-plan desks and out onto the 7th floor fire escape where I’d spark up a fag (cigarette to you) and sip my lukewarm caffeine. And this, my friends, was the breakfast of PR champions. Note: don’t do this at home.
Twenty years later, I have managed to resist the snaky charms of the all-American breakfast and thankfully never fallen for the sweet and savory combination of pancakes with bacon and maple syrup. Most Brits find that combo really quite weird. Yet, because Monkey is American through and through, I have learned how to make some killer oatmeal pancakes which are reasonably healthy for an occasional treat.
On my travels around the world, I’m fascinated to see that many cultures eat lots of protein for breakfast. In Asia, breakfast is often congee or “jook” – a steamy rice-based, porridge-style soup which typically includes meat or fish. Yes, it does smell a little unappetizing to Western nostrils, but perhaps it’s what powers that Asian work ethic. In Germany and other European countries, meat and cheese is a staple. A proper English breakfast spread will feature eggs and meat such as sausage or bacon, or maybe even kedgeree if you’re lucky: typically smoked haddock, served with hard boiled eggs and curried rice.
I still find the idea of actually eating breakfast to be a stomach-turner. I am simply not hungry at 7.30am in the morning, although at weekends I’m a sucker for a good old English breakfast: eggs and bacon, every time. However, it’s not all doom and gloom for me on the breakfast front. Thanks to the diligence of a couple of great nutritionists I have learned that imbibing those 20 grams of protein each morning is crucial to having a good day. Turns out, it’s even more important for kids to get their protein in the morning, so all you parents out there, listen up.
As l try to maintain a gluten-free life (my digestion and my waistline thank me for it), I avoid breakfast cereals, and really, so should everyone. They tend to be full of sugar, packed with gluten and feature a whole cast of ingredients you won’t find on your pantry shelf unless they’re printed on a label. What’s more, they typically contain teeny amounts of protein, if any.
Over recent years there’s been a big trend towards eating oatmeal. From microwaving a pre-packaged plastic bowl in mere seconds, to slow-cooking organic, steel-cut oats overnight, and even Starbucks has jumped on the bandwagon. The thing is, all that brown sugar and dried fruit on top, along with the oats themselves, are mostly carbohydrate and if you’re not leading a very active life, this little meal will quickly turn to belly fat. What’s more, it contains no protein unless you add milk. Not what the doctor ordered.
So here’s where I’ve landed on the breakfast issue. I have become happily wed to my morning protein smoothie. It’s palatable, variable and packed with goodness, assuming you use the right ingredients. No, this is not your Jamba juice varietal which is full of high-sugar juices and high glycemic tropical fruits. These smoothies are satisfying and healthy and really easy to take on your morning commute or drink at your desk. They’re also a great way to sneakily get kids to eat a nutritious meal.
I start with a good brand of protein powder. If you like the creaminess of dairy, choose a high quality whey protein like Tera’s Grass-fed Whey. If you aren’t doing dairy, then Vega is a great vegetable protein powder. Yes, it does taste a bit nasty if you simply add water, but if you add fat, fiber and flavor, and follow this simple recipe your smoothies will quickly become pretty tasty.
Monkey gets a smoothie too. For his, I typically use Strauss whole milk as a base, with perhaps an organic banana, a dash of vanilla extract, cinnamon and some ice. He thinks he’s getting a “real” milkshake and I know he’s getting something healthy, so it’s a win-win. He does like cereal, but as he’s now 10 and capable of grasping such things, we play a little game where I challenge him to tell me where the protein is in his breakfast. Sometimes he’ll grab some cheese, or I’ll make him an egg or two, and occasionally a chicken sausage or some bacon makes it on to his plate. It’s all good stuff and sending him to school on a healthy breakfast makes me feel like I’m being a better mom.
My last tip is to avoid trying to grab breakfast on the run. These days it’s rare that I leave the house breakfast-less, as it turns out old dogs can learn new tricks, but when I do, finding something healthy to eat turns into a scavenger hunt. Just look at what’s on display at Peet’s or Starbucks: 90% of it is packed with gluten and sugar in the form of pastries and bagels; and the other 10% comprises yoghurts brimming with artificial flavors and more sugar, and if you’re lucky, overly processed oatmeal. So don’t get caught short and remember, eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper – it’s the smartest way to go.