Editor’s Note: Anne Byrn was food editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from 1978 to 1993. A cookbook author, she lives with her family in Nashville, Tennessee. You can find more of her writing in Between the Layers on Substack. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
When my son was a senior in high school he would sleep as late as possible on school mornings. I discovered that one way to help him get out the door on time was to have a breakfast sandwich ready. He didn’t have time to spend in a drive-through lane or the extra cash to spend.
As a mom who spent nearly three decades feeding little people who grew up to be adults, I considered the sandwich the least I could do to help keep him on schedule. Those breakfast bundles took very little of my time: They were just scrambled eggs and a little cheese, or a slice of Canadian bacon if I was feeling generous, sandwiched between toast or an English muffin.
I wrapped it all up in a paper towel square that not only served to keep the sandwich warm until he’d inhaled it, but gave him something to wipe his hands with afterwards.
To switch things up, I’d sometimes substitute corn or flour tortillas for the bread, and toss on a dollop of salsa, transforming it into a breakfast burrito. I know my son enjoyed them because I looked into his car once and spotted little balls of wadded up paper towels in the cup holders and on the back floorboard — reminders that my last-born had indeed eaten his breakfast.
All three of my kids are grown now and out of the house, but fall still feels like a reset, and a return to breakfast is part of that. Summer breakfast is a different matter. Who can resist ripe peaches or blueberries on yogurt or granola, or a leisurely brunch of frittata with family in the backyard?
Fall breakfast, on the other hand, means business: Mom’s scrambled eggs. Dad’s oatmeal. A protein bar, a bagel with a schmear. At this time of the year, breakfast is back, whether you always feel you have time for it or not.
What I’m saying is that back to school can be a reset, not just for returning school kids, but for anyone interested in fueling your body first thing. The arrival of fall is a return to regular order. No more sleeping in on lazy mornings, and that summer vacation is now a hazy memory. A proper breakfast is back on the schedule as well.
What’s surprising, though, is that so much of what’s on the menu for breakfast, which we know to be the most important meal of the day, isn’t good for us. Foods that are seen as the highest expression of America’s morning cuisine — pancakes, waffles, blueberry muffins, French toast — could also be a path to early onset diabetes if consumed too often. And what about the savory, keto-friendly bacon and eggs? Are they not artery-clogging, and therefore best avoided?
Just last week, I checked out at Costco (where you can’t help but notice the items in other people’s carts) and I spotted a jumbo box of what appeared to be a month’s worth of frozen sausages and biscuits.
I bought some once: Have you ever glanced at the sodium and fat on pre-packaged breakfast biscuits? I did, and I don’t think we finished the box once I looked. It goes against my grain to begin the day — breaking your fast, as the name of the meal implies — with such highly processed foods.
My mother was a child of the Great Depression and she fed us a continuous rotation of school morning breakfast that, thinking back, worked for everyone. Scrambled eggs and toast on Monday, oatmeal on Tuesday, eggs returned on Wednesday, oatmeal was back on Thursday.
On Fridays, it was cereal — she didn’t care, even if it was Cheerios, Fruit Loops or Cinnamon Toast Crunch, a house favorite. But that was before Americans began questioning sugar in morning cereal. I wonder if she’d have allowed it today.
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We can eat breakfast healthier. And we can make it healthier by keeping things homemade simple. Sweetened, store-bought cereal came before many of us realized that we could make healthier versions of the store-bought breakfast sandwiches at home. It was before we realized we can smear a ripe avocado onto a slice of toast, or some diced avocado on top of scrambled eggs. It was before protein bars, fresh bagels and granola. It was before a lot of things!
By simplifying the meal and making it ourselves, we don’t have to accept the “bad” in breakfast — not even cholesterol. It’s possible, for example, to use just egg whites, or remove a yolk or two as my husband does when it’s his turn to scramble eggs, since he’s watching his cholesterol. Not necessarily egg-yolk-free, mind you. Just fewer of them.
Then again, I am not going to argue with him if he skips breakfast. Lots of adults do, looking to lose weight with intermittent fasting or or taking certain meds without food in the morning. If you’ve made it to adulthood, breakfast can be up to you. (Personally, I have to eat something in the morning, or I get terribly crabby by noon.)
I rely on peanut butter or half a smashed avocado on toast, or a scoop of Greek yogurt topped with berries. I make hard-boiled eggs even more delicious by bringing them to a boil, removing the pan from the heat, and letting them sit in the cooking water for exactly 18 minutes so they gently cook until the yolks are bright orangey yellow and jammy in texture — more appealing, I think, than rock-solid. Then I sprinkle on good sea salt and cracked black pepper.
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One day, before you know it, the kids will be gone and you’ll miss having someone to hand a breakfast sandwich to as they dash out the door. Below, I’ve shared my overnight oats recipe, as well as an easy skillet frittata to make ahead and serve straight from the fridge, pack into a lunch box or zap in the microwave until warm.
There’s one more realization I’ve made about breakfast after all these years.
If you’re not hungry for it, that is indeed a privilege. Many schoolchildren go without breakfast and not by choice. So as school begins — and making breakfast is once again on the schedule — embrace it.
Easy Overnight Oats
Soak thick-cut oats overnight with dried fruits in yogurt and water or milk. The soaking process overnight in the fridge “cooks” the oats and preserves the real flavor. Serve in the morning with fresh fruit.
Makes about 4 cups, about 4 servings
Prep: 5 minutes
Chill: At least 6 hours, or up to 3 days
1 cup rolled (old-fashioned) oats
1/2 cup raisins, dried cranberries or other dried fruit of choice, if desired
1 cup yogurt
1 cup milk, or non-dairy milk like oat or almond milk, or water
Pinch of salt, if desired
Sweetener of your choice — maple syrup, honey or brown sugar
1 cup fresh fruit — blueberries, raspberries, orange sections, sliced bananas or grated apple
2 tablespoons chopped toasted pecans, almonds or pumpkin seeds, if desired
1. Mix the oats, dried fruit (if desired), yogurt, milk and salt (if desired) in a 4-cup container or bowl. Cover with a lid or plastic wrap, and place in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours or up to 3 days.
2. Remove the container from the fridge, uncover, and stir well. If desired, sweeten to taste with maple syrup, honey or brown sugar.
3. To serve cold, sprinkle the top with the fruit and toasted nuts before serving. To serve warm, place in the microwave for less than 1 minute, then top with sweetener, fruit and toasted nuts.
To make individual jars: Divide the mixture into four 8-ounce jelly jars, and stir to combine. Cover each jar with a lid. Chill overnight, then remove the lid, and garnish with fresh fruit and nuts, if desired.
Fresh Veggie Frittata
I make this frittata recipe, adapted from my cookbook “Skillet Love,” in a cast iron frying pan. It’s a blueprint for a year-round frittata, which is like a quiche but without the crust. Add the veggies you love — or that your kids will eat. If they don’t do veggies, then omit them, but do saute a little onion in olive oil first to add flavor. And for meat-eaters, add a handful of chopped ham or turkey if you like.
Makes 6 servings
Prep: 15 to 20 minutes
Cook: 19 to 23 minutes
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup finely chopped onion
2 cups thinly sliced fresh vegetables such as mushrooms, squash, asparagus tips or spinach leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil or 1 teaspoon dried basil leaves
8 large eggs
1/4 cup milk or heavy cream
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese or 1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese, divided use
1. Preheat the oven to 450ºF.
2. Place the oil in a 12-inch cast iron skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onion and sauté until the onions are soft and translucent, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the veggies and cook until they soften, about 2 to 3 minutes. Turn off the heat. Season with salt, pepper and basil, and set aside.
3. Place the eggs, milk or cream, and half of the cheese in a large bowl and whisk to combine.
4. Turn the heat under the skillet to medium-low, and pour the egg mixture into the skillet on top of the veggies. Let the mixture cook until it begins to puff up around the edges, about 8 to 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, and sprinkle the top with the remaining cheese. Place the skillet in the oven.
5. Bake the frittata until it puffs up across the entire surface and is lightly browned, about 5 minutes. If you want the frittata to brown more, turn on the broiler, and place the skillet under the broiler for less than a minute, until golden.
6. Run a knife around the sides of the skillet to loosen it. Shake the pan, and slide the frittata onto a serving board or plate. You may need to slide a large metal spatula under the frittata to get it moving.
7. Slice warm into serving pieces or let cool, refrigerate and serve the next day. When it’s not school morning, garnish with greens, pesto, tomatoes and a drizzle of olive oil, for a fancier presentation.