The women of my family were legendary cooks.
They were bakers, whipping up homemade bread and tiered cakes.
They canned produce from their gardens. They picked berries for jam. They cooked enormous roasts.
So when my girlfriend from college asked if she could bring her family to visit my family over spring break, I jumped at the chance to show off my heritage.
My girlfriend’s family was Taiwanese. They were visiting from overseas. They’d never been on an American ranch before. It was going to be something of a culture shock for them, I knew.
But I didn’t realize how much.
My mother was the queen of hospitality. She made up bedrooms. She planned meals. The morning after we arrived, we came downstairs to a huge spread in the dining room.
There were bacon and eggs. Fresh fruit and homemade cinnamon rolls.
“You have to try these!” I exclaimed as I leaned over the table to grab a cinnamon roll. There was nothing on earth like these cinnamon rolls. Gooey, soft, coated with a white swirl of buttercream frosting.
But my girlfriend and her family didn’t jump in. They surveyed the table with something akin to unease. They waited politely until everyone had sat down. Then they took a little bit of food. Just a little.
The enormous cinnamon roll tray was untouched, except for the gap I’d created. So I got myself another. I had to fill up. There was no way I was going to get food like this back at college.
That weekend was a mystery to me for the longest time. Why hadn’t our guests dug into our all-American breakfast with the same gusto I felt? How could anyone resist homemade cinnamon rolls?
Two decades later, I know the answer.
Because I can’t eat them anymore, either.
Breakfast is the Most Important Meal of the Day
We know we’re supposed to eat breakfast.
We know it’s supposed to be a HEALTHY breakfast.
But it’s hard to break the habit of pancakes, waffles, doughnuts, and Frosted Flakes.
The average American breakfast is high on carbs and super-sweet.
And it’s not just us.
A study found that the breakfasts of British children contained over half the recommended daily allowance of sugar. Most of the parents feeding their children those sugary breakfasts thought the meal was, in fact, healthy.
That’s a problem.
It’s not just a problem because eating all our sweets at breakfast leaves us no room for dessert.
It’s a problem because our taste buds are super-sensitive to sweets early in the morning.
Sweet things taste sweeter when our taste buds “wake up” after a long night fasting.
So we could actually get away with foods that are not very sweet for breakfast. They’d still taste good.
There’s another reason we could get away with making breakfast a lot healthier than it is.
Breakfast isn’t a meal you normally spend a lot of time anticipating.
You wake up, you shovel some food in your mouth, and you’re out the door.
If you’re going to be eating on autopilot, then it’s just as easy to eat something savory and nutritious as it is to eat something sweet and creamy.
You’ve just got to have those healthy foods on hand. To make them a habit. To forget that you ever thought a muffin could be a square meal.
So what should we be eating instead?
Dumplings, natto, saltfish, rice, noodle soup, fried plantain…
Not foods we Westerners would pick for the breakfast table, certainly.
But satisfying breakfast foods come in all shapes and sizes.
Before the invention of breakfast cereals, it was common to eat leftovers from the night before. Ever grabbed a slice of cold pizza to stave off your hunger on your way to work? Then you know how delicious it is.
The advantage of eating dinner for breakfast is that you’re more likely to consume higher-quality calories than if you ate a bowl of cereal or grabbed a bagel.
Takeout aside, we take time and care in preparing dinner. We include protein, good fats, and vegetables if we’re on a roll.
All of which gives you a great foundation to start your day.
The inventors of breakfast cereal—Sylvester Graham, John Harvey Kellogg, C.W. Post—would disagree. They believed that eating a heavy meal at breakfast led to health problems like indigestion. They believed the morning meal should be bland, light, and vegetarian—just like their cereals.
We live in the world they created…
And from the look of our waistlines, it’s not working.
Dinner for Breakfast
One summer when I was a teen, my family doctor diagnosed me with low iron levels. He instructed my mother to feed me dinner for breakfast.
No more half-slices of toast with the thinnest smear of peanut butter.
No more pots of yogurt.
I needed to eat heartily when I woke up. Manicotti. Chicken burgers. Mashed potatoes.
I HATED it.
I hated it because I was on a diet. I wasn’t eating much in the morning for a REASON. I wanted to lose weight. This wasn’t going to help.
And I hated it because dinner was my least favorite meal of the day. Dinner had the fewest sweet foods. When I could get away with it, I ate salad and rolls and bided my time until dessert.
So I suffered through that summer, glad when my doctor’s checkup pronounced me free to go back to my old ways of eating.
Today, however, my doctor would be probably quite pleased with me.
I can’t do sweets for breakfast anymore.
Most often my breakfast is a bowl of vegetable soup. Sometimes it’s stir fry and rice.
I don’t want anything sweet that early in the morning. Even fruit is too much.
I get it now.
I get how someone from a different culture could come to an American breakfast table and not feel the slightest bit tempted to try the cinnamon rolls.
Sugar is just sugar. Something nice to finish off a meal, but not a main course. Not something to start your day with.
I do still eat my mother’s cinnamon rolls.
But I eat them at night. After dinner. When it’s the right time for something sweet.