Did you know that there are some places where they actually sit down for breakfast? Where it’s not eaten on the run, on the go, or on anything but the table? And that some countries’ breakfasts are based on centuries of fine-tuning the grains, fruits, dairy, and yes, even meat, that are readily available on ample farmland and not on what marketers and advertisers have told them to eat? It’s true. These places exist!
In my quest to discover alternatives to the standard American breakfast, I asked questions of five people who spent the majority of their lives elsewhere–Bosnia, China, the Dominican Republic, Hong Kong, and Sweden–before moving to the States. My small study reinforced some of what I already suspected: other countries pace their meals, use less sugar than we do (especially at breakfast), and, for the most part, prioritize lunch.
Some of what I learned surprised me: there’s no fear of bread or dairy or meat or even sugar, as long as it comes naturally from fruit. Eggs seem a-okay, too, though I suspect they were from local farms, not massive operations. Some of what I learned harked back to things I’ve heard along the way: breakfast and lunch, not dinner, should be the bigger meals so your body has time to digest before going to sleep. There’s also a general antipathy toward cold water. (I had first heard this from my host mother during my study abroad in Spain, who told me that a king returned home from war, drank cold water, and dropped dead. Apparently, the country stopped drinking cold water after that.)
Overall, the international approach to breakfast seemed to be exactly what many American marketers and processed food companies have long been hawking but not necessarily delivering: balance. The traditional breakfasts can knock out several food groups in the pyramid without overdoing any of them. They trend toward savory or, at the very least, not sweet. They are designed to be savored at a table and not in the car or walking to work. They certainly aren’t meant to be ignored altogether.
How can we bring a little bit of the balance and tradition home? Read on.
FIRST: Commit to the idea.
Right now, I sleep as late as possible, cram everything I can into the smallest time period possible, and then, five days a week, I eat breakfast (and lunch, ugh) at my desk . Writing that actually made me gag.
I’m going to need to wake up earlier. (Which, by the way, means going to sleep earlier.)
SECOND: Know what you’re making.
Prep for your morning meal like you would for dinner. Think about what you like in the morning. What would make you feel satisfied but not stuffed? Happy but not so happy that you’ll be angry about having to go to work?
These dishes shouldn’t be complex or overwhelming or require twenty steps. They certainly do not have to be Insta-worthy. They just have to make you feel good.
You’ll find some international inspiration below.
THIRD: Make the time.
As Jessie Spano once said, “There’s no time! There’s never any time!” I know that as Americans, we have no time for anything and that we’re always on the go. We eat while running to work, multitasking, and even while cooking other meals (guilty!). But how about if we just slow down a little bit and, instead of being proud of how many things we get done, find satisfaction in how we feel doing those things?
After all, the point of extending mealtimes isn’t solely about the food. It’s also about the simple act of slowing down, sitting down, and gathering with loved ones or a good read. That’s nourishing in itself.
In Bosnia, breakfast was truly the most important meal of the day. It was also the biggest. The spread included eggs, homemade bacon, a Bosnian coffee mixed with milk, and homemade bread with butter and jam. Everything they ate was grown in their garden, including the fruit for jam.
In summer, there were more fruits and vegetables on the table as the family had a bounty from the growing season. Winter breakfasts included more pickled items preserved from earlier in the year to “coat your bones.”
Do It Where You Are:
Visit your local farmers’ market on the weekend to prep for the week. What’s in season? What would make a nice accompaniment to toast? Any fresh jam for sale?
Try a weekly bake: If you’re feeling mildly ambitious (seriously, it’s not a whole lot of work), try out this No-Knead Whole Wheat Bread recipe from The Kitchn. You will never need to buy bread again.
If you’re feeling very ambitious and have ripe sourdough starter at the ready, try King Arthur Flour’s Extra Tangy Sourdough. It takes a heck of a lot of time (it’s spread out over two days) and a couple of rounds to master but it’s really very good.
If baking’s just not your thing, hit your neighborhood bakery early in the morning and grab a still-warm loaf. If dawn errands are also not your thing, grab a whole loaf (not sliced) on Sunday and make it last through the week. Do not store your bread in the fridge. Storing it at room temperature with the cut side down on the counter should keep it fresh throughout the week. If you need to, wrap in plastic wrap and leave on the counter.
Slice and toast your bread and sit down to enjoy it with jam and fruit. Take a deep breath.
My Chinese interviewee grew up in Beijing long before American influences took hold. Breakfast included soy milk, youtiao (savory fried dough), congee (a rice porridge), and baozi (a bun filled with meat or red bean). In China, too, the goal was to eat a bigger lunch and a smaller dinner so you’re not heading to bed on a full stomach. My interviewee is most certainly against cold water and was taught not to eat raw vegetables due to food safety concerns.
Do It Where You Are:
Congee is a rice porridge that, without additional flavors (or a really good stock), can be quite bland. But! Toppings! It’s up to you to flavor your congee as you see fit, just remember to think savory. Typical plant-based options include sauteed mushrooms, edamame, scallions, tofu, pickled carrots, sesame seeds, and soy sauce. It’s really up to you. The one pictured here has sweet potatoes, scallions, sesame seeds, and a touch of low-sodium soy sauce.
There are plenty of recipes out there but many (if not most) take quite a bit of time to prep. Though I used this one from The Kitchn as my base for the one pictured here, I also stumbled upon this one from Food52 that suggests using frozen already-cooked rice to get a head start on your congee prep.
In the Dominican Republic, one ingredient ruled the breakfast table: the plantain. Most often, it’s boiled and mashed in a dish called mangú. Though it’s traditionally served with salami or eggs, I’m going to suggest a nice side of avocado since my goal is to get you to eat fewer animal products.
Just like the other countries described here, lunch in the Dominican Republic is a big deal. Shops close from 12 pm-2 pm and the locals actually break midday. Can you imagine? Focus is pulled from dinnertime, when the meal is more like a snack or quick graze on leftovers from lunch.
My favorite tidbit gleaned from the survey is that many Dominicans don’t count something as a meal unless it includes rice. Even if the meal is lasagna, my interviewee told me, they’ll serve it with a side of rice!
Do It Where You Are:
Make mangú. The recipe is fairly straightforward: boil the plantains and reserve some of the boiling water. Mash the plantains with some of the water, a bit of salt, and some olive oil or butter. (To be honest, I probably could have done without the olive oil.) Serve with red onions that have been sauteed with a bit of olive oil and apple cider vinegar. Full recipes can be found here and here.
Hong Kong’s traditional breakfast doesn’t stray too far from its neighbors’. Savory dishes like congee with pickled vegetables, fried pastry, dim sum, or Chinese-style buns with sweet fillings all count for a hearty morning meal. Like my interviewee from China, my Hong Konger respondent hadn’t had raw vegetables or salad before coming to the States, as food safety concerns and lack of refrigeration during her childhood made them taboo.
Unlike our other respondents, dinner was the biggest and most important meal for our subject in Hong Kong. It was the only time of day when the whole family could get together and share a meal. Other fun tidbits? Soup is always served after the main dish and fruit closes out a meal, not desserts.
To this day, our respondent doesn’t eat or drink anything cold in the morning, opting instead for oatmeal or wheat toast and coffee.
Do It Where You Are:
See congee recipes above.
Sweden holds a special place in our hearts. It was our first international trip the Vegend and I took together and we tried to immerse ourselves in as much of the local culture as possible. That included lots of time in the outdoors and every cardamom bun imaginable.
In Sweden, a typical breakfast is soured milk (filmjölk) with unsweetened cereal or muesli and a side of fruit. If there’s breakfast bread, it’s mostly whole wheat or the cracker-like Wasa with butter, a slice of cheese, and ham. My interviewee was treated to freshly-squeezed orange juice each morning; it was never store-bought.
Muesli is what granola should be–oaty, fruity, and naturally sweet from dried fruits–and not loaded up with tons of sugar (not even honey, maple syrup, or agave). It’s a more balanced (and reasonable) start to the day.
Do It Where You Are:
Muesli: Many grocery stores now carry muesli but it’s just as easy to make your own. Our muesli often includes rolled oats (toasted or not), dried apricots, golden raisins, chopped raw almonds, raw pistachios, hemp seeds, ground flaxseeds, and a touch of cinnamon. I’m looking forward to going full Swede with cardamom.
There are definitely more specific recipes out there but I say go with your gut. The word “muesli” has its roots in Alemannic (German-ish) word that means “mash-up,” so have at it. You could go with traditional filmjölk, of course, or you could plant-based with almond milk, soy milk, or the so-new-to-America-that-it’s-hard-to-find oat milk, from Swedish company Oatly. If you’re short on time, throw the whole mixture in a Mason jar and pour in your milk of choice. By the time you get to work, the oats will have softened a bit.
If you feel compelled to go dairy, try Siggi’s Icelandic-Style Yogurt, which is sold at Whole Foods. According to the book How Not to Die by Dr. Michael Greger, soured milk and yogurt is a better option than regular dairy, whose galactose (a type of sugar found in milk) can wreak havoc on our bones and our life spans. (Dr. Greger advocates an entirely plant-based diet filled with antioxidants.) The bacteria in soured milk and yogurt can ferment away some of the lactose, leaving less of it to react in our bodies.
Wasa crackers are available in most grocery stores these days. Sure, you could top with butter, cheese, and ham as my interviewee did, but since this is a wannabe plant-based blog, I’d love it if you’d choose avocado with red pepper flakes, hummus, jam, peanut butter, or almond butter and banana instead.
So there you have it. Plenty of alternatives to the standard American breakfast that should leave you satisfied and ready to start your day.
What are the breakfast options where your family is from?
*My subjects’ diets have changed somewhat since they moved to the States but all four seem to maintain a balanced (and not too sweet) approach to the morning meal.