The case of the disappearing breakfast
The traditional first meal of the day is dying a slow death. Julie Van Rosendaal reports on how busy schedules and diminishing kitchen skills are changing how we eat our oatmeal and eggs
When one of your first tasks upon waking is feeding yourself and any dependents you happen to live with, it's easy to fall into a familiar routine – granola and yogurt, a bagel with peanut butter rather than jolt sleepy taste buds with complex ingredients or try out new culinary techniques. No matter how much they love to cook, most people would rather spend a few extra minutes asleep than at the stove – during the work week, anyway.
Long gone are the days of a full breakfast of bacon and eggs with toast and juice, served to a scrubbed and dressed family at the kitchen table before they scrambled off to school and the office – if that ever existed beyond TV sitcoms. Breakfast is becoming something our grandparents wouldn't recognize, and it's increasingly a standby at any time of day.
"We're witnessing the slow death of the meal institution," says Sylvain Charlebois, dean of the Faculty of Management and professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University. "Lunch was the first meal to go because of the work that we do – a lot of people don't eat lunch, others eat on the go. The next meal to disappear is breakfast."
Breakfast isn't disappearing entirely – fewer than 10 per cent admit to skipping breakfast, according to a Dalhousie study led by Charlebois that explores how Canadians eat – it's just the sit-down meal that's languishing. We most often graze alone, and in a rush.
And it's not just about fast and easy – anything that's not portable is losing currency, even a bowl of cereal.
"Milk alone is an issue," Charlebois says. "As a fluid, when mixed with something else, like cereal, the end product becomes less portable and more messy. You see more and more products that are ready to eat – granola bars and other snack solutions are entering the market that offer consumers a convenient way to consume breakfast on the go, without the mess."
The advent of breakfast on-the-go has opened up opportunities for restaurants and cafés to create adventurous new options heavy on whole grains, proteins and even veggies, for people looking to go beyond coffee and a muffin.
Yet, as far as meals go, breakfast tends to be the quickest, most affordable and easiest to prepare. "Breakfast is, from a talent perspective, an approachable meal," Charlebois says. "You don't need a PhD in culinary arts."
Although cold cereal may be losing its lustre, porridge is making a comeback with younger generations embracing a wider variety of whole grains as well as the same steel-cut oatmeal that was a breakfast staple for their parents and grandparents. It can be made quickly at home, or ordered as a mainstream take-out option. Topped with berries, nuts and seeds, it bridges the gap between old-school porridge and the current millennial love of food in bowls (think Buddha bowls, grain bowls, poke bowls and even smoothie bowls).
A customizable oatmeal bowl has been a staple on the menu at Good Earth Coffeehouse for almost a decade, and the Calgary-based chain recently expanded its morning offerings to include savoury bowls with scrambled eggs, hash browns and even roasted vegetables topped with bold hits of house-made pesto and tapenade.
"People are getting more adventurous with what they're looking for," says Kari Ginakos, corporate chef at Good Earth. "They want flavours that aren't necessarily predictable, but they want them in something that's familiar. They're willing to be a little more adventurous, but don't want to go too far."
The most popular menu item at the chain's 40-plus locations is a breakfast panini, a portable egg-based sandwich that customers are buying not only in the morning, but at lunch and dinnertime too. "People still want that big breakfast, but they don't want to have eggs, bacon and toast, separated on a plate, as a sit-down meal," Ginakos says. "They want to get it on the go, to get it when they want it, but also get all the components in one."
Breakfast any time is a trend fast-food chains have picked up on as well: Early last year, McDonald's and A&W made their breakfast menus – or at least a portion of them – available all day long. And on Jan. 9, Starbucks launched a line of "high-protein breakfast-on-the-go" food options that are, as with the rest of the menu, available all day.
Health is still a consideration; we've striven for a balanced breakfast since long before the first box of Corn Flakes hit store shelves. But our idea of what constitutes a healthy breakfast has evolved, shaped by social media, which has also brought an increased desire for aesthetically pleasing food – more Instagram accounts are dedicated to breakfast than any other specific meal.
The starchy flakes and filling but nutritionally bankrupt pastries of mornings past are being ousted by more nutrient-dense combinations of protein, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates.
"People are looking for it all right now when it comes to breakfast," Calgary-based registered dietitian and family nutrition expert Sarah Remmer says. "Fast, convenient, nutritious and minimally processed, made with whole ingredients. Big trends this year are protein-rich, whole grains and simple ingredients – people really want to know what they're eating. Focusing on protein and fibre-rich whole grains at breakfast can help to keep you fuller longer, keep your blood-sugar level stable and give you lasting energy throughout the morning."
Still, the long, lingering breakfast isn't gone for good – while we may seek out the latest fast fuel to launch our workdays, we'll occasionally find time to make bacon and waffles, and brunch will always be around to anchor our weekend mornings (or afternoons). Same as it ever was – as long as there's time.
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