Healthy Brunch Decisions

We’ve all heard it:  Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.  It’s been repeated to us so many times throughout our lives that I don’t think we even take it seriously anymore.

Scientifically, breakfast is defined by the American Heart Association (AHA) as the first meal of the day eaten within two hours of waking up (Summit Medical Group, 2017).  If you continue reading, you will find that it can be so much more! Eating breakfast has been connected to having a lower BMI (body weight to height ratio), consuming less fat throughout the day and better mental performance (Rush University Medical Center).  The thought process here is that by consuming a well-balanced meal bright and early in the morning, you are setting yourself up for success throughout the day. This jump starts your body’s metabolism and allows it to start burning calories, rather than immediately going into conservation mode, which would make you feel tired and groggy (and for a lot of us, hangry).  It has also been shown that people who skip breakfast are almost five times more likely to become obese (Piedmont Healthcare). This may be due to the fact that if we do not take the time to eat breakfast while we can, we will simply graze on unhealthy foods until we can finally take the time to sit down and eat lunch. In addition, if you skip out on breakfast you may find it harder to take in all of the desired macronutrients and micronutrients throughout the day which, depending on what your goals are, could make them harder to achieve.  So we get it. There’s a lot of pressure on breakfast to be awesome.

For most of us during the week, there’s just plain everyday breakfast.  Simpler, easier and more efficient. According to an ABC poll, in America, that means a bowl of cold cereal or, only marginally more exciting, a plate of bacon and eggs (Langer, 2005).  It’s no wonder the American staple in almost any diner is two eggs your way, bacon, sausage or ham and your choice of toast. While this may seem like a well-rounded breakfast (albeit lacking in any fruits and vegetables whatever), it is certainly not receiving any creativity points.  On the flipside, however, it IS much easier to control what you are eating when things are kept simple. For some, if you’re counting your macronutrients and/or calories, this means weighing out every aspect of your breakfast. For others, it can mean choosing a healthier portion of fresh fruit and low-fat yogurt.  Either way, there is certainly an argument to be made for simplicity.

Somewhere in between breakfast and dinner, there’s a random meal.  Lunch is usually pretty unexciting, just there to help us survive until we can get home and have the dinner we’ve been waiting for all day.  This can vary from person to person and culture to culture. Some people place more emphasis on lunch than dinner, and some simply eat it as a large snack while working away at their desks.

The classic American Breakfast

Then on the weekends, something magical happens.  Breakfast and lunch unite forces and become something almost unrecognizable.  Brunch. Brunch manages to defy the stereotypes of both breakfast and lunch. Throwing caution out the window, becoming at once wildly more creative and, dare I say, fun.  It is also one of my favorite meals. I would eat “brunch” foods for breakfast every day of the week if I had the time. Despite its questionable health qualities, or lack thereof, brunch has the potential to offer the most savory, comforting foods of any meal.  So where did brunch come from anyway?

As with anything supernatural, there are multiple stories of origin.  The first combination of breakfast and lunch started with the upper class in Great Britain, where after an early morning hunt a decadent spread of breakfast and lunch foods would be laid out to be feast upon (Butler, 2014).  While the actual content of this meal may not have been what we identify as brunch today, the idea was the same. An array of comfort foods to provide an abundance of calories for the rest of the day, and perhaps some relief from the previous night’s debauchery.  The term brunch was first used in 1895 in an article by British author Guy Beringer titled “Brunch: A Plea”. In it, he states, “In the first place, [brunch] renders early rising not only unnecessary but ridiculous… You are, therefore, able to prolong your Saturday nights, [and] the fear of the next morning’s reaction.” and that, “brunch is cheerful, sociable and inciting.  It is talk-compelling. It puts you in a good temper…” (Beringer, 1895).  Who knew the Sunday Scaries, and their apparent cure, dated all the way back to the 1890s.

As for what we can expect on the brunch table today, any number of waffle and pancake flavors from pumpkin to lemon-ricotta.  Benedicts doused in creamy hollandaise sauce with the traditional ham or even fresh crab. Biscuits in savory sausage gravy, or perhaps some fried chicken between them or accompanied by more waffles and drizzled with maple syrup.  Avocado toast. And don’t forget the eggs– frittatas, quiches, omelettes. The list goes on, and the beauty is, each dish has infinite variations per the chef’s’ whim. And of course, we can’t forget the bloody marys and mimosas!

A fresh take on breakfast

Just how healthy are most brunch dishes at your average restaurant?  Not very. All that flavor is derived from adding extra butter, oil and sugar to those delectable dishes.  Believe me, I’ve spent years serving brunch to the masses. Aside from eggs and meat, most brunch plates contain little to no protein and if there is a protein present it is usually in the form of a fatty cut of meat.  This, combined with a lack of fiber, can skyrocket blood sugar. For example, one single waffle could come in at up to 500 calories or even more if it is drowned in syrup. While eggs benedict may seem like a classy choice, it typically contains around 1,000 calories.  Biscuits and gravy? Upwards of 1,200 with two biscuits (Smith). While these are of course ballpark estimates, it should be pretty obvious that to enjoy brunch guilt-free, we need to find some healthier options that are still flavorful.

That’s where we come in.  As someone who loves brunch, and who also tries to maintain a healthy diet, I’m always looking for ways to cut calories while navigating the menu.  One easy go to–eggs. The simpler the better. Most restaurants allow you to build your own omelette with your choice of veggies, protein and cheese.  You could even do two plain eggs with toast and a side order of potatoes. If you’re craving a benedict, have the hollandaise on the side so YOU can control how much you add.  Are pancakes your guilty pleasure? Look for whole grain or buckwheat options that will contain more fiber, protein and micronutrients. As for the guest starring drinks, alcohol is always going to add on empty calories.  A bloody mary could easily add up to 200+ calories. A mimosa may be a little less, however, with around 100 calories.

A spread with shakshuka and common condiments

Cutting calories at a restaurant is always going to be tough, and seeing what your friends are ordering only makes it harder.  Even though the kitchen strives to send out each dish the same every time, the truth is you never know exactly how much butter or oil is going into a pan to fry a couple of eggs.  When cooking at home, however, you have complete control over everything that goes into a dish. A brunch at home can be even more fun (and more affordable, both financially and nutritionally) than going out.  My top pick for a healthy brunch? Shakshuka. Shaka-what? Shakshuka is a  Mediterranean dish I have recently fallen in love with for its bold flavor and versatility. It is also very easy to make! From a base of garlic, onions and tomato sauce a spicy and savory breakfast meal can be made.  Once you have the flavor of the sauce to your liking with a mix of cumin, cayenne and chili powder, you can add almost anything. For example, spinach can be cooked in for added nutrients. Whole eggs are then dropped into the tomato sauce and slowly poached to perfection. A dish for one, with two eggs and about a cup worth of tomato sauce is only around 250 calories and can be easily scaled for bigger groups if you have a large enough pan!  I like to accompany this dish with a few small pieces of toasted crusty bread to make it a little more filling and to soak up the delicious sauce of course.

Another crowd-pleasing dish is a frittata.  Think quiche without the buttery flaky crust.  Frittatas are also very customizable, easily utilizing any vegetables you have left in the fridge. Once you have it mastered, prepare to amaze your friends.  A little butter or fat-free cooking spray, about 6 eggs and some milk and cream and you’re on your way to fluffy frittata perfection. I personally like to start with a base of garlic and onions for flavor.  Then, any number of fresh vegetables can be added and sauteed until just wilted (after a few tries, you will be able to easily eyeball how much vegetables to add per amount of egg) before the eggs are added, stirred together and then baked until just set and slightly browned.  Cut into 6 pieces and depending on the vegetables added, each slice comes in at around 105 calories. This leaves a room for a mimosa after all!

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