Start Your Day Warm and Healthy

By Karen Albright Lin

I am a huge fan of breakfast. I coach my busy husband on the importance of squeezing in that first meal of the day and insist on sending our kids off to school after a substantial and healthy meal. After all, a brain needs fuel to function, including glucose, vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients. Lacking a full complement of such nutrients can prevent neurotransmitter production, essential for controlling electrical signals in the brain. That means a potential lack of dopamine, which is important for movement and memory; norepinephrine, a stress hormone that controls attention and impulsivity; and serotonin, which aids emotional regulation. According to the Department of Agriculture, a healthy breakfast improves academic performance, alertness and attention. More tangible to most of us, a nutritional start to the day means more time before the belly cries out for lunch.

Say good-bye to carbo-loaded breakfasts that can leave you sluggish in a fast-paced, demanding world. Now that cooler months have rolled around, it’s a perfect time to enjoy hearty and healthy warm breakfasts. My husband is Chinese, and in his culture consuming warm foods and drinks, especially in the morning, is considered essential for good health. It is believed that eating cold foods can shock the body by contracting blood vessels and muscles, blocking blood flow and negatively influencing digestion. In the early hours of the day, this is especially troublesome because morning air temperatures are still low and our bodies are already in a contracted state. India’s tradition of Ayurveda suggests eating a light, warm morning meal to jump-start your digestive fires.

If you’re still not convinced of the value in treating yourself to a warming breakfast, there’s yet another reason. While working as a weight-loss counselor, it became apparent to me that people who skipped breakfast overate later in the day and, thus, easily put on extra pounds. Instead of fearing the early morning calories, it’s best to embrace them and avoid large lunches and dinners and those notorious calorie-filled late-night snacks.

In our house a favorite winter breakfast is rice soup—congi. It’s as easy as simmering leftover rice (brown rice is recommended) with water until it’s as soupy as you like it. We then choose from a smorgasbord of fun toppings you can find at your local Asian grocer: dried pork, spicy matchstick bamboo shoots, Chinese pickles and braised eel. More common choices include nuts, a braised vegetarian meat substitute such as seitan or eggs. For a particularly appetizing egg blend, whip an egg or egg substitute with a little salt or soy sauce and sugar or stevia (Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni); then cook it without stirring in a flat-bottomed pan sprayed with Canola oil, flipping it once. Cut it into strips, and then add it to your congi with a sprinkling of green onions. You’ll end up with so many flavors and textures in your bowl that you can’t help but leave the table satisfied.

In the grain department, your choices of hot cereal don’t end with rice and oatmeal. Experiment with couscous—small grains of semolina pasta—and quinoa, an ancient super source of protein, lysine and numerous vitamins and minerals. Additives can make the meal healthier than ever. Try including beneficial seeds such as millet, which is nutritious, warming, easily digested and one of the least allergenic grains; ground flax to aid with lowering cholesterol; and amaranth, high in numerous nutrients and packed with an impressive three times the fiber and five times the iron of wheat. If your cereal cooks up thin, thicken it with a tiny bit of psyllium, which lowers cholesterol and helps with constipation. And if you’re looking for more protein, sprinkle on some protein-packed whey once your cereal has cooled (to avoid heat damaging the protein).

The more inventive you are when choosing nutritious toppings, the more fun and enticing your breakfast will be. Add fruit such as guava, a good source of lycopene and vitamin C; and blueberries, often ranked as one of the top-10 healthiest foods. Drizzle on a bit of buttermilk and molasses or honey (from a local source if you’re troubled by allergies), or go savory with crumbled goat cheese and chopped nuts.

You can also try tofu cubes alongside shreds of ginger root and green onions. Want a dollop of yogurt? Choose varieties containing live cultures.

A warm breakfast may take a few more minutes of your time, but it’s worth it. So do a favor for your taste buds and nutritional health–not to mention that your body will thank you for a warm transition between crawling out of the cozy bed and facing the cool outdoors. 

RECIPES

South-of-the-Border Warm-Start Porridge

This tasty, warm breakfast takes the “mush” out of cornmeal mush and makes it much more interesting. With a nudge of fiber to start your day and no saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium or sugar, cornmeal leaves healthy room for savory additions. Substituting farmer’s cheese limits the higher amounts of nutritional culprits found in Mexican queso. Enjoy this quick and satisfying porridge with a side of in-season fruit or homemade applesauce.

3 cups water, divided
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup farmer’s cheese, grated
1/4 cup small onion, minced
1/4 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 sprigs cilantro
1 sweet red piquant pepper, cut into 
4 ringlets
4 teaspoons non-fat plain yogurt

1. In a medium saucepan, bring 2 cups of water to boil. Meanwhile stir cornmeal into remaining 1 cup of cold water. 
2. Pour cornmeal mixture into boiling water, stirring constantly. 
3. Add cheese, onion and oregano. Cover and cook over low heat for 5 minutes. 
4. Pour evenly into each of four 1-cup bowls. As garnish, top each serving with a sprig of cilantro, a pepper ringlet and a teaspoon dollop of yogurt. 
Yield: 4 servings (1 cup)

Nutrition information per serving: calories 109; protein 5 g; carbohydrates 15.75 g; total fat 4.6 g; saturated fat 2.5 g; cholesterol 7.5 mg; sodium 98 mg; fiber 1.7 g

• You may choose to use a lower-sodium cheese from your local healthy grocer.

Hot Cereal Mélange

Hot cereal doesn’t have to be the goopy oatmeal topped with brown sugar you remember from your childhood. Here is a warm start to your day that is fiber-packed and has so many flavors and textures, you will head out the door with a smile on your face.

2 cups nonfat milk
1 cup water
1/2 cup, old-fashioned, thick-rolled oats
1/8 cup amaranth
1/4 cup quinoa 
1/4 cup bulgur, rinsed 
8 tablespoons reduced-fat peach kefir
4 tablespoons sliced raw almonds
4 teaspoons 100 percent pomegranate juice or juice concentrate
4 heaping tablespoons blueberries

1. Bring milk and water to boil. Add oats, amaranth, quinoa and bulgur. 
2. Cook over low heat 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. 
3. Pour hot cereal evenly into four bowls. Add kefir, almonds, pomegranate concentrate and blueberries. Garnish with a slice of in-season fruit.

Yield: 4 servings (about 1 cup)

Nutrition information per serving: calories 329; protein 15 g; carbohydrates 51 g; total fat 9.6 g; saturated fat 7.9 g; cholesterol 4.25 mg; sodium 76 mg; fiber 12 g

• In a hurry? Substitute a multigrain cereal for the four grains above. Follow cooking direction on the label.

• Gluten sensitive? Exchange bulgur with an equal amount of oats.

Five-Star Baked Eggs

There are many healthy surprises in this breakfast. Although this is an egg dish, the cholesterol is cut significantly by using a ratio of 3 egg whites to 1 egg yolk. Asparagus is one of the richest sources of rutin, which strengthens capillary walls. The morel’s rich, nut-like flavor is especially good with eggs. Cooking intensifies the morels’ umami effect (stimulating amino acid receptors) and, along with tasting delicious, they are low in calories while delivering both fiber and protein. Fresh shitake or Portobello mushrooms may be substituted.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
4 ramekins (oven-proof, single serving bowls)
Canola oil spray 
12 eggs (8 yolks will be discarded)
4 tablespoons crumbled goat cheese
6 medium-sized morels, 4 chopped and 
2 sliced once down length
16 spears asparagus, rinsed
dash paprika

1. Spray Canola oil in each ramekin. Cut and use the upper 3 inches of the asparagus spears and lean four into each ramekin, point up and side by side.
2. Into each ramekin, break two eggs, adding only the whites (discarding the yolks). Sprinkle one-fourth of the chopped morels into each cup. Break an egg (include yolk) into each. 
3. Sprinkle 4 teaspoons crumbled goat cheese into each cup. Top each with the remaining morel pieces. 
4. Bake in preheated oven 25 minutes or until eggs have set. 
5. Sprinkle each with paprika. Serve hot with a side of fresh fruit.

• If you’re an asparagus aficionado and want to use more of the stalk, cut off only the lower ends, steam the rest of the asparagus separately and serve on the side.

Yield: 4 servings (1 cup)
Nutrition information per serving: calories 81; protein 16 g; carbo-hydrates 5.3 g; total fat 5.5 g; saturated fat 2.3 g; cholesterol 60 mg; sodium
56 mg; fiber 2 g

• Do as the Chinese do. Boil the remaining asparagus ends in water sweetened with sugar (or a substitute that can be heated) for 15 minutes. Throw away the stalks and drink down all those yummy nutrients. Waste not, want not!

• If you don’t like mushrooms, enhance your Five-Star Baked Eggs with a teaspoon of Cavi-Art (a delicious, inexpensive, low-salt vegetarian caviar substitute made primarily of seaweed). It comes in many organic varieties and only costs about $10 for 100 g—that beats the price of real caviar and avoids the over-fishing of endangered sturgeon. See www.caviart.us.