My daughter recently celebrated her ninth birthday with a sleepover party. As part of the preparation, we went to Kroger to buy food for breakfast. Naturally, she headed straight to the cereal aisle, and like any American entering the supermarket, was confronted with thousands of boxes of refined flour and white sugar that had been molded into various attractive shapes and whose boxes had been decorated with lively colors and characters. She went the extra mile and selected two that also featured chocolate. I bit my lip, let her put them in the cart, and we kept walking. You only turn nine once.
The minute her guests left Sunday morning, the still half-full boxes of cereal mysteriously found their way to the trash bin in our garage. (Actually they had to make two trips there, due to my fourteen-year-old’s shenanigans—see photo.) But not before I sneaked a closer peak at their labels. The box for Kellogg’s chocolate Krave announces across a verdant green stripe that it’s a “good source of fiber & made with whole grain.” Even the ampersand is decorated with a leafy frond. What a healthy, plant-based food chocolate Krave must be.
Hopefully you realize that food labels list ingredients in descending order of their amounts; let’s consider Krave’s. For all the whole-grain hoopla on the box, its first two ingredients are white sugar and soybean oil (i.e., the refined, inflammatory kind). About halfway down the list, you come to “whole grain oat flour” and “whole grain wheat flour,” but these are followed by rice flour, more sugar, four different food dyes, and preservatives. You get 11g of sugar per 3/4 cup—that’s almost three spoons, and that’s assuming you only eat 3/4 cup, which is unlikely. The fiber content is 3g due to some bran being mixed in, and the protein 2g—not much to keep you sated and plan to crash and burn after the sugar spike wears off. Speaking of which, I felt almost criminal after I watched my daughter and her friends start maniacally racing around the house immediately after eating, all revved up on fructose.
The myth that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” has by now been debunked. There’s no nutritional law that requires you to eat if you have no appetite—I would argue that you’re better off listening to your body. However, two things. If you are going to eat, try to think outside the cereal box. I have some suggestions below. On the other hand, if like my husband you are rarely hungry first thing, know yourself well enough to recognize when those first hunger pangs will likely strike and plan for it. Before heading out, pack a banana and fill a small baggie with almonds or walnuts. Toast a couple of slices of whole grain bread and top them with some PB or a slice of cheese. Don’t rely on thinking clearly or having access to real food when you’re starving and busy with your workday.
Since even many of the cereals in the health food aisle are no nutritional bargain, consider ditching cold cereal entirely some mornings.
1. Pair a couple of eggs—with yolks!—with a slice or two of whole‑grain toast. Perhaps some berries or sliced orange on the side. Or sauté half a chopped onion with a big handful of baby spinach, scramble in a couple of eggs, and top with a tablespoon of crumbled feta cheese.
2. Top a scoop of low-fat plain Greek yogurt with fresh fruit, a small heap of nuts, and dried unsweetened coconut.
3. The night before, soak some true whole grains in a small pot—oats, millet, teff, or anything you like—and drain and cook them with a little salt in the morning. Rather than drowning them in brown sugar or honey, try sliced strawberries or banana.
4. Make a smoothie with half a banana, berries, PB or almond butter, a handful of baby spinach, any kind of milk, and ice. I also add lemon. (If you’re lucky enough to own a Vitamix, they make the smoothest smoothies.)
I could go on and on, but the idea is to really nourish yourself if you’re going to eat in the morning: stay away from sugar, amp up the protein, dodge refined carbs and oils, and avoid chemical additives like food coloring.
My daughter noticed me examining the Krave box closely after her friends had left, before it had made its final march to the garage. “What do you see, Mom?” When I explained, she had a look of horror: “Why didn’t you tell me that at the store?! I would never have eaten that garbage or served it to my friends!” I explained that I was trying to not be “that mom” and make a nutrition ordeal out of her birthday breakfast. She was disappointed that I didn’t trust her enough to share my worries and give her the chance to make a better choice. I promised that I would do better next year.