Archive for Wednesday, January 16, 2008

On cold winter mornings, breakfast needs a little help

January 16, 2008

For at least 30 years I have embraced the adage that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. I'm not sure when the epiphany occurred, because I frequently missed breakfast in college and my early working years, but at some point my body or common sense persuaded me that breakfast was necessary enough that I prepare and eat it every morning before I leave the house.

Apparently, plenty of other people are breakfast fans as well. Many supermarkets devote at least one side of an entire aisle to cold cereals. When you add in the ever-expanding selection of breakfast bars and a smattering of cocoa mixes and hot cereals, instant and otherwise, suddenly we're talking about a significant portion of a store's inventory.

Sales from the breakfast food aisle are and always have been fueled by advertising. When it comes right down to it, a corn flake is a corn flake. In my childhood it was certainly true that without a pitchman like Tony Tiger, consumers would not have gravitated toward a particular cereal on their own. I also clearly remember lobbying my mother to buy a certain cereal because it contained a plastic toy. In the absence of testimonials from cartoon characters, cereal manufacturers sometimes have resorted to bribery.

This winter I decided that cold cereal lacked the substance to fuel me through the morning and began casting about for alternatives. Cold cereal has the disadvantage of being, well, cold in a cold season. What I sought was a bone-warming breakfast that would help me meet the challenges of the winter day.

The second issue was that with the change in metabolism that occurs when the temperature drops, my breakfast was wearing off about 10:30 a.m., leaving my stomach to growl annoyingly until lunch.

The obvious answer appeared to be hot cereal. What I was not prepared for was how hot cereal has changed over the decades. While I was vaguely aware that most hot cereals have an "instant" version that comes in little envelopes and can be cooked in the microwave, I naively believed that this was some minor segment of the cereal market.

I was so wrong. With some amusement I surveyed the array of sugarized hot cereals and recalled the parental suspicion aroused by the TV ads in the 1950s and 1960s for Maypo, which was a fairly primitive maple-flavored oatmeal cereal whose slogan came in the form of a demand: "I want my Maypo!" Many parents worried about Maypo's sugar content, as well as the lack of breakfast table civility it encouraged. They could not have imagined the selection today.

The flavored instant cereals offer convenience and choice but in many cases the nutrition panels are startling for the high content of sugar and sodium. What children and others who eat these cereals taste are the flavorings and other additives, not the grains themselves. This is unfortunate because cereal grains have a natural sweetness that can't be appreciated in a flavored cereal.

I had to search awhile in the hot cereal selection before I found what I was looking for, basic Cream of Wheat. While I would have been ahead nutritionally to go with a whole grain cereal, I like the texture and flavor of creamy farina because I can sprinkle it with raisins and eat it without sugar.

As I had hoped, starting the day with hot food altered the way my entire morning went. My stomach felt pleasantly un-hungry until lunchtime and I started the day feeling warmer, despite the morning chill.

The one downside to Cream of Wheat is the preparation. In the pre-microwave days, farina cereal was cooked in a saucepan and stirred constantly until it reached its desired consistency. It was a labor of love. Nowadays, however, it can be microwaved, but even after four or five tries, I couldn't cook it to the appropriate thickness without it spilling over.

Eventually, I solved the problem by microwaving my single serving in a medium mixing bowl. It seemed like overkill, but the larger bowl gave the cereal room to expand without overflowing and forcing me to clean my microwave - again.

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