Breakfast can seem like the stickiest trap of the day: muffins, croissants, doughnuts, enormous bagels—they’re tantalizingly easy to grab when you’re fast-walking through a commuter train station or punting from the parking garage to the office lobby. And it’s so easy to just hand the kid a Pop Tart before they dash for the school bus. But you can do better.
You know you need to eat breakfast (that phrase, “most important meal of the day,” rings in just about every American’s ears) but how to do it without selling your nutritional soul to the carb side? Healthy options every bit as convenient as the apple fritter have sprung up in the past few years, but who can afford to lay out for a $10 juice, in addition to that $5 almond-milk latte?
Making sure you have a healthy breakfast everyday is a matter of staying resolute—and knowing the best shortcuts and quick-to-make recipes that’ll both fuel the early part of your day and not make you late for the 9 a.m. status meeting.
What Are the Keys to a Healthy Breakfast?
Here’s the elevator pitch: A healthy breakfast gives your body crucial nutrients and the energy you’ll need to get through the morning without looking back.
Most of us wake after being in sleep mode 6 to 8 hours. It’s crucial to feed the furnace to get the machinery pumping again, after a necessary period of mental and biological repair and rejuvenation. Especially since last night’s lasagna is a distant memory for your muscles, heart, and nervous system.
The First and Most Obvious Rule: Eat Breakfast Everyday
For most morning people breakfast is non-negotiable, but others pretty much have to will themselves to eat. Even if food seems like the last thing you want first thing in the morning, breakfast is something you can train your body to crave (or at least accept graciously). Why this is important, is that breakfast kick-starts your metabolism. Skip it, and your metabolism slows way down to conserve energy. The right nutritious, high-fiber foods let your metabolism run at a more elevated pace, giving you lots more energy.
It’s Not Just About Energy
According to scientists, eating food containing slow-burning carbohydrates (also known as low-glycemic-index foods—oatmeal and other porridges or whole-grain bread) instead of quicker-burning, high-glycemic-index foods (sugary cereals, refined-flour pastries and bread) gives you better concentration all morning. Slow-burning carbs also contain essential vitamins and minerals.
Related Reading: The Truth About Carbs
Harvard scientists followed more than 100,000 people for more than 14 years to study the effects of daily consumption of whole grains. The found that a small bowl of porridge every morning could be the key to a long and healthy life. For anyone keyed into the news cycle, it’s no surprise that whole grains reduce your risk of dying from heart disease. People who ate the most whole grains on a daily basis—things like breakfast porridge, brown rice, quinoa, and so on—seem to have protections against a number of common illnesses, particularly heart disease. For each ounce of whole grains you eat per day, according to the report, your risk of death by heart disease goes down by 9 per cent.
What to Eat First Thing in the Morning
We’ll get to specific recipes a little later on, but these are the general categories of food and drink you should consume first thing.
Your body, which is more than 70 percent water, wakes up parched. Choose a morning glass of water—you’re supposed to end up drinking 8 glasses a day, so a tall one in the morning gives you a jump (check out some stylish water bottles that’ll help you stay hydrated throughout the day). What’s more, the human body tends to mistake thirst for hunger, so hydrating properly can keep you from over-eating. Try a glass of warm water with a slice of lemon, or herbal tea. Next to that, unsweetened tea, coffee, and a moderate amount of juice (no more than 6 ounces) are fine—just remember to go easy on the caffeine. Coffee is best with food, helping your metabolism ramp up steadily.
That plain white-flour bagel will leave you hungry an hour later, but protein can help you feel fuller longer. Eaten in moderation, eggs are an ideal option: plenty of protein, plus essential vitamins and minerals (egg whites reduce the fat and cholesterol, though yolks are a source of vitamin D). Pack a healthy shake with low-fat milk and protein powder, or drop a handful of chia seeds on top of your oatmeal.
Fruits and Veggies
Produce in the morning gives you vitamins, minerals and fiber, and gives you an essential jump on that daily recommended-servings race. Try spinach or kale in a smoothie or a serving of scrambled egg whites; munch broccoli, snap peas, or asparagus spears dipped in plain yogurt; or whip up a fruit smoothie or delicious açaí bowl. And dude, hash browns do not count as a veggie.
Oster Pro 1200 Blender with Glass Jar, Smoothie Cup, and Food Processor Attachment, $81.99 on Amazon
Smoothies are a cinch with the right tools (and this one includes a to-go cup you can blend in before you head out).
Remember when we thought fats of any kind were bad, and loaded up with high-carb, high-calorie alternatives? Those were misguided times. Today we know that healthy fats in moderation are fantastic. Breakfast options include ripe avocado sliced and slightly mashed onto a slice of whole-grain toast, sliced avocado with eggs or egg whites scrambled with olive oil, and low-salt/low-sugar peanut or other nut butter smeared on whole-grain crackers.
Don’t Eat These for Breakfast!
A lot of money is spent on ads for so-called healthy breakfast foods, but don’t believe the hype. Breakfast cereals can contain shocking amounts of sugar (eat those, and you get that old familiar let-down: a quick energy high, followed by a slump right in the middle of your morning); ditto many granola bars, and sugary yogurts (more on that below). Scarf a standard muffin or a slice of banana bread and you’re basically eating cake—sugar, fat, and a ton of calories. The average slice of banana bread contains 400 calories, with precious little nutrition to show for it. (Our Healthy Banana Muffins recipe is a better alternative for breakfast.)
Related Reading: 5 Healthy Foods That Aren’t Actually Good for You
Tips on Getting Started
Ways to ensure you can make your healthy habit stick.
1. Timing Is Everything
It’s best to eat breakfast as soon as possible after waking up (this optimizes your body’s metabolism). A good rule of thumb is to eat by 8 a.m.—by 9 or 10, it’s usually too late. Keep a supply of hard boiled eggs, tins of baked beans, or Greek yogurt on hand to grab as you leave the house.
2. Make It Routine
Who says you have to switch it up every morning? You have enough to deal with figuring out what to make for dinner every night, a healthy breakfast should be something you have to sweat. Eat the same breakfast most days of the week, something healthy, something you love, that’s easy to shop for and assemble in 20 minutes or less.
3. Prep It Before Bed
If it takes time for you to rev up in the morning, pick something you can prep the night before, part of your bedtime routine, like flossing. Make a batch of hard-cooked eggs you can store in the fridge, soak muesli overnight, prep a few days’ worth of smoothie fruits and veggies and store, and so on.
Related Reading: 7 Instant Pot Meal Prep Tips to Streamline Your Week
If you still struggle—and you have the cash to make outside help a habit—you can subscribe to a meal delivery service like Sakara, which provides healthy, ready-made breakfast options that are super-balanced and actually delicious. Read our Sakara review for more info.
4. Lean on Your Freezer
My little trick is to make up bags of frozen fruit ahead of time (another great way to use up fruit that is going off or looking a bit sorry for itself), and then whizz them up in the morning with a bit of natural yogurt, fruit juice, milk and a handful of oats to give it a bit more sustenance as a breakfast alternative.
5. Be Intentional
Your state of mind can affect your ability to digest—stress and anxiety can totally influence how your body absorbs nutrition. Try and eat breakfast in a calm place, with a chill frame of mind (avoid clicking on the TV—maybe look at the day’s headlines after you eat?) Truly enjoy.
6. Slow Down
Rope off enough time to eat breakfast every day without rushing. It takes 20 minutes for your body to send the signal to your brain that you’re full. Keep it laid back and allow your body to register that it’s satisfied.
What About Yogurt?
Yogurt’s good, right? Full of protein and probiotics, plus it’s effortless, just peel of the top and dig in. What could go wrong?
The answer: flavored yogurts (according to nutrition expert Marion Nestle, author of “What to Eat.” There could be some health benefits to yogurt’s friendly bacteria (Lactobacillus acidophilus), which may replace some of the bad bacteria in your body. But research shows that there is a lack of scientific evidence to completely support this claim, so it’s more of an idea than a fact. Nestle calls flavored yogurt “a fast-selling dairy dessert with the aura of health food.” Low-fat or not, most contain sugar, fructose, corn syrup, aspartame, or other sweeteners. And although these yogurts come in fruit flavors, very few of them contain actual fruit, but high-calorie fruit-juice concentrates. Your best bet is plain, unsweetened yogurt topped with actual fruit (fresh or frozen). See our Comprehensive Guide to Yogurt for more info.
What About Chia Seeds? (And How About Açaí?)
These two healthy ingredients are in breakfast everywhere these days. What’s the deal?
Small brown-black seeds of the South American native plant Salvia hispanica (it’s in the large and varied mint family). The Aztecs and Maya consumed chia seeds (“chia” is an old Mayan word for “strength”)—they were said to give you vigor. Modern science tells us they’re packed with protein—1 ounce contains 4 grams of protein, 11 grams of fiber, and 9 grams of fat (more than half of which are Omega-3s).
Related Reading: 5 Ways to Boost Your Energy Without Caffeine
Açaí berries are reddish-purple fruits measuring about an inch long, reddish-purple fruit. They grow on the açaí palm tree, native to Central and South America. They’re incredibly rich in antioxidants, even more than cranberries and blueberries. Some studies have claimed that açaí promotes weight loss, though there’s no conclusive study substantiating that.
The Best Healthy Breakfast Recipes
Some of our favorite ways to start the day.
When it comes to effortlessness, the Crock-Pot is every cook’s go-to. In this easy recipe, you dump steel-cut oats, water, milk or coconut milk, brown sugar, salt, and vanilla in the slow cooker. Plug in, cover, stir, and hit the sack. Seven to eight hours later (i.e., when the alarm goes off), you’re ready to breakfast right. Get our Slow Cooker Steel-Cut Oatmeal recipe.
Throw this together in a matter of minutes, the night before bed, and by morning it will have thickened up. You can add whatever fruit you like. Get Oh She Glows’ Basic Chia Seed Pudding recipe.
Similar to chia pudding, overnight oats (as the name implies) can be mixed up the night before and enjoyed first thing in the morning. These three fruity variations are all vegan too. Get the Overnight Oats recipe.
Boil up a batch of hard-cooked eggs and you can eat an easy, protein-packed breakfast for days! The hard-cooked egg is one of those things that seems incredibly easy, and is equally easy to screw up. No need to stress, though: Making eggs the right way is a breeze, once you know a few tricks. Watch How to Make the Perfect Hard Boiled Egg, by Sunset magazine editor Margo True, and get our Perfect Hard-Boiled Egg recipe.
Quinoa may be better known as a lunch and dinner dish, but it’s a great morning alternative to oats too. Simmered with dried figs, maple syrup, cinnamon, and nutmeg, it makes for a comforting but nourishing grain bowl. A little low-fat milk (non-dairy if you want), the plumped-up figs, and a sprinkling of toasted pecans save it from austerity. Get our Healthy Quinoa Breakfast Porridge with Figs recipe.
If you’ve got some leftover whole wheat pita bread, turn it into a super-fast, super-tasty breakfast by turning it into a quick pizza. Just pile on mozzarella and spinach, crack an egg overtop, and pop into a hot oven to set and melt. Get our Breakfast Pita-Pizza recipe.
Grits are an easy porridge to throw together—here, we combine them with a little cheese, diced ham, and a bit of hot sauce, for something satisfying and comforting on cold mornings. Change it up—make a savory porridge from different grains to up the fiber and nutrition. Get our Fast Hammy Grits recipe.
A whole-grain English muffin is a fantastic (and healthy) base for unsweetened peanut butter and some sliced, ripe banana caramelized with a bit of sugar. It’s comforting and familiar, and a stepped-up version of an open-faced PBJ. Get our English Muffin with Bruléed Banana and Peanut Butter recipe.
A classic: Bread with an egg-size hole cookie-cuttered out, replaced with an actual egg, toasted until crispy-edged, cooked, runny-yolked, and luscious. Keep this recipe as is, or swap in more fiber-rich whole-grain bread, add a side of wilted spinach or a broiled tomato—Egg in a Nest is a thing worth savoring. Get our Egg in a Nest recipe.
Naturally packed with antioxidants, açaí berries can be the basis of a healthy, fiber-rich, and delicious breakfast bowl. Just make a smoothie in the blender with frozen açaí purée, a banana, an apple, frozen peaches, milk, and a little almond butter for body and protein. Serve in a bowl, topped with fruit, seeds, and nuts. Get our Açaí Bowl recipe.
If you must have baked goods for breakfast, try something a little healthier, like these vegan muffins that are sweetened with maple syrup and ripe bananas, and are easily made gluten-free. The cocoa powder adds deep chocolate flavor without extra sugar or fat. Get our Chocolate Banana Crunch Muffins recipe.
Header image courtesy of Natalia Klenova/Shutterstock.