During the pandemic, particularly if you’re in lockdown mode, there may be little harm in wearing the same clothes every day or watching the same shows, but if you’re also eating the same foods, the odds are, your energy level or mood could become less predictable.
Whether you’re getting bored of the same on-the-shelf options, craving the tastes of café breakfasts you once sought or just starting to drag despite professing to your friends that you’re doing fine amidst the worst public health crisis in America in roughly 100 years, it’s time to try a new approach to eating – at least in the mornings.
Nutritious and delicious breakfast choices can make you feel more upbeat, cut the snack cravings, increase concentration, and become an important health investment long-term – mentally and physically. And as we cut down on the places around town we frequent, tossing our old expansive commutes for the safety of our homes and neighborhoods, our food choices are more critical than ever.
The trick to getting a necessary energy boost from food is to plan flavorful dishes with energy-rich ingredients ahead of time, so that you’re not just grabbing for that piece of plain toast with butter while downing a coffee – and to know what ingredients to avoid or include with any dish you choose.
Some quick tips to boost your mood with food:
AVOID: Energy-robbing ingredients – Say goodbye to heavy carbohydrates, sugars, lots of salt and sweeteners.
INSTEAD CHOOSE: Energy-producing ingredients — wholegrains, fiber, seeds, proteins (eggs, nuts or seed butter, avocado, yogurt). A quick note about protein:
- While cafes and restaurants tend to overload us with more protein than needed for some meals, the breakfast you make should be protein-rich to help keep you feel satiated throughout the morning, while keeping those unhealthy snacks where they belong – in a bag.
- As your body breaks protein down into amino acids, one of the amino acids jumpstarts an increase in the gut hormone peptide YY and typically tells the brain, “good news, you’re… full!”
Before we jump into a few easy recipe options, keep in mind: routinely skimping on breakfast has some long-term consequences, including weight gain (from all of that snacking that can result!), sour moods, constipation or at worst, increased risk of heart disease.
- A study published in 2017 by the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that people who ditched breakfast or ate low-energy breakfasts (think: your favorite sweets, such as doughnuts, or other carbohydrates, such as a bagel) became more at risk for atherosclerosis — a hardening or narrowing of arteries.
Now, let’s consider a few recipes to try out. These three dishes below get me doing yoga before I even taste a coffee or tackle paperwork. After choosing something new, you might just be convinced to put on a different pair of leggings or sweats.
- Light and Hearty Wraps: Whether you crave avocado and cream cheese or bacon with egg and cheese, wraps can, and should, be your friend. You can even make them a day or two before. But be careful which kind you buy if you want to keep them nutritious… and consider packing them with more veggies.
- The Veg-Out Breakfast Burrito – Toss the white flour tortilla for one that’s whole or multigrain, or try an alternative to grains, such as cashew flour. Go for the option with the fewest ingredients. My personal favorite: handmade corn tortillas.
- Great ingredients that go with grains: scrambled eggs, salsa, black beans (or canned refried beans), avocado, more veggies (my preferences: corn, pepper and mushroom but if you crave a sweet flavor, try adding some diced sweet potato or add some very ripe sweet banana—yes, banana—to the scrambled eggs!) and then toss in some herbs to accent the flavor further (parsley or dill are both great).
- Rookie mistake to avoid: Trashing your egg yolk. When including any type of egg, make sure to use the whole egg, which includes high-quality protein, omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin A, iron and choline. Most of the protein is housed in the white, but the yolk contains more nutrients overall.
- Fresh and Filling Smoothies – You won’t be mourning the sugar with these morning shakes.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, not every smoothie is a healthy energy-triggering smoothie. Again, the nutritious smoothie depends mainly on your choice of ingredients. Toss any pre-made potions and go for fresh fruit-filled drinks, mixed with greens and your favorite plant milk, or your favorite nut butter. Some of my own favorite types:
- Going Green With Avocado: 1 cup plant-based milk or coconut water, one avocado, ½ frozen banana, 1/3 cup fresh fruit, 1 cup packed greens (if you like a little twist, add fresh herbs, such as basil).
- The Date Shake: 1 cup almond milk, 1 frozen banana, 2 dates (medjool dates are especially sweet and soft), 1-2 tbsp peanut butter, 1 tbsp walnuts or pecans, ½ tsp cardamom, ½ tsp cinnamon (Vietnamese cinnamon is my favorite for flavor).
- Quick tip: To save yourself from buying fresh ingredients every few days, try freezing your favorite fruits in advance: bananas in a freezer bag can last for weeks while retaining their sweetness.
- Breakfast Sundaes – Bring those delicious parfaits you would grab at cafes en route to work back home. All you really need to make your own breakfast sundae, as I call them, are oats, quinoa or muesli, plus seeds and fruit. And for creaminess, add plain or Greek yogurt, a splash of almond milk or other milk of choice, kefir or cashew cream.
- Layer the bottom of a mason jar with oatmeal you make in the morning (or overnight oats), or toss in some pre-made quinoa.
- Sprinkle on a layer of seeds and/or nuts.
- I like chopped walnuts and flax or chia seeds (both keep you from being constipated), pumpkin seeds or even fennel seeds (good for digestion).
- Top it off with fruit next (blueberries, raspberries or gogi berries go well).
- Add a layer of creaminess. If you go for the cashew cream example above, you’ll truly feel like you’re eating dessert but plan ahead:
- My recipe – Soak 2 cups of whole raw cashews in a covered bowl of cold water overnight or for at least 4 hours. Drain. In a powerful blender, place the drained cashews and add enough fresh cold water to just underneath the cashews. Blend on high until ultra-creamy. This makes about 2 1/4 cups of thick cream. For a sweeter version, add a tablespoon of maple syrup or 2 medjool dates. Refrigerate to use for 3-5 days or freeze for 6 months.
- After filling your jar with a few layers, sprinkle on the sweetness.
- Instead of brown sugar, choose cinnamon or shredded coconut. Still craving a sweeter taste? Try maple syrup or honey. For a different taste, add cocoa powder (full of polyphenols to help with brain function and lift your mood!) while cooking your oats. And please, give yourself a break later and make a couple of more for the week.
- Shortcut: Since steel cut oats are a scrumptious choice but take long to cook, soak them the night before to cut cooking time in half. Make extra for leftovers. If you’re heating water for tea, use that hot water to pour over some quick cooking oats and let it sit for a couple of minutes and you’re good to go. Start getting those mason jar ingredients together!
Here’s to some brighter, more energizing days!
About Marie Lovenheim
Marie Lovenheim is a Cornell-trained nutritionist with specialized training in the use of food as medicine. She has taught nutrition at the college level and also operated a health club café and juice bar. Currently she has a private practice in Washington, DC, where she offers personalized nutrition counseling by office, phone or online consultations – well, when she’s not in downward dog mode or walking on open park trails. You can follow her on Twitter, or LinkedIn.