Our bodies need different foods depending on the season and climate in which we live. Here is a little guide to some delicious, nourishing breakfasts good for a cold winter, including recipes. Yet, remember that every person’s body is different. Your own body’s reaction to the foods you eat can tell you more about what’s good for you than any food trend.
For example, after you eat:
- Do you feel tired?
- Do you feel bloated, nauseous or have heart burn?
- Do you feel clear-headed and energetic?
- Do you still feel hungry after certain foods?
Take these recommendations and experiment to see what works for you in these cold winter months. Use it as an excuse to explore your internal landscape. Winter is the season of introspection, hybernation and self reflection.
We have all heard it said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Yet so many patients come to me with the admission that they often skip breakfast all together. Many of us do not feel hungry in the morning, we are in a hurry or we begin with coffee or other caffeinated beverages that kill the appetite.
As a result blood sugar drops and the body is forced to use its stored energy instead of producing more energy for the day. If your stores of energy aren’t good to begin with, that’s when you hit the morning or midday slump. You end up feeling sluggish and ready for a nap instead of ready to take on the day.
Drinking coffee on an empty stomach actually raises stomach acid production at the wrong time, which can cause a decrease in stomach acid at the right time, when you need it to digest food. This means even if you are eating enough nutrients, you might not be absorbing them. It also causes food to pass through the system quickly, affecting proper absorption.
While winter is a time for slowing down, it’s still full of responsibilities. So I’ll share with you some ways to keep in tune with winter while staying clear-headed and awake for the short days we have.
Following the Seasons: Eating (and living) in Harmony with the Winter Season
From a Chinese medical perspective, the hours of 7-11am are when the Spleen and Stomach are the strongest and digestion is optimal. So, yes, eating between those hours is very important. It gives us the energy for the day. It sharpens the mind. But not all breakfast is full of the nutrients to fuel a full day and most of the typical “healthy” American food trends tend to err on the side of a sweet/cold/raw breakfast.
This may be the main problem with the American diet overall. Sugary beverages and carbohydrate snacks take the place of nutrient-rich meals, so Americans find themselves overweight and undernourished, full of “empty calories” which means carbohydrates and sugars that provide a quick burst of energy without actually giving the body many nutrients. The body converts sugar and carbohydrates to fat and calories because it is getting too many of those and not getting the proteins, vitamins, minerals and healthy fats it needs. For more on the roll fat and sugar play in the body, see my article Fat Vs. Sugar: How fat has taken the rap for sugar’s mischief.
As an acupuncturist rooted in the traditions of Chinese medicine, I look at the stomach as a cooking pot that is trying to get food into a digestible consistency before its nutrients can be absorbed. The harder the stomach has to work to warm and “cook” food, the more of those nutrients it has to expend and the less get stored to fuel your day.
The Stomach and Spleen are considered the primary producers of qi and blood. The qi of the body is somewhat equivalent to energy and the blood is the body’s circulating nutritive substance, so feeding the Spleen and Stomach what they like and when they like it assures that you will have strong qi and blood, necessary for function and health in everyday life.
Sweet/cold/raw foods take work on the part of the stomach to break down so nutrients can be absorbed. And that’s if they even contain nutrients! Some studies say that raw foods contain more nutrients than cooked foods. This may be accurate, however those studies are seldom able to measure just exactly how much of those nutrients are absorbed by the body. Other sources say even though cooked food contains less nutrients, what is there is more absorbable, so the benefits to the body are greater. Vitamins, minerals and proteins do you no good if they just pass through you!
All of that said, there is no food trend or idea that is healthy, across the board, for all people. Therefore the ultimate, healthy breakfast will vary person to person. And it will vary season to season. On a nice, hot day in spring or summer, a bowl of fruit and yogurt or a smoothie might be perfect for a hungry morning tummy. But in January? When it’s 20 degrees outside? The same rules do not apply! It is natural for our bodies to emulate the rhythms of the natural world. This means we slow down in the winter. The cozy couch with a book is more appealing than the nightlife. A bowl of soup sounds better than a salad. You may put on a few extra pounds in the winter. Sleep more and exercise less. To an extent, that is a healthy, natural pattern. This is our yin season. It is the time to store up resources, rest, heal and rebuild so when spring unfurls its tendrils we are energized and ready for each warm breeze. Our bodies’ needs are different in the winter and so should our diets be.
The Winter Breakfast
I recommend warm, cooked breakfasts in the wintertime. This may feel hard to achieve for the busy person who rushes through the morning to get to work on time. As important as sitting down and taking time to chew, taste and swallow food is, it’s not always possible.
The crock-pot is one helpful tool, a brilliant breakfast cook, preparing anything from oatmeal to congee to stew to yams while you are still dreaming. Indeed, wash a few small to medioum sized yams and throw them in the crock-pot before bed. Set it on low and in the morning you have soft, delicious yams. You don’t have to add water or anything! Just poke a few holes in the skin with a fork so they don’t explode. Add butter or cook an egg or sausage to go with it.
Here are some guidelines and recipes to help make planning and executing a healthy breakfast easier. Of course I believe the ultimate determining factor to what your body considers a healthy breakfast is how you feel after you eat it.
A breakfast that makes you want to go back to sleep is probably not giving your body what it needs for the day.
If you are hungry again an hour after you eat, you may be needing more protein and carbohydrates.
If caffeine wakes you up for about 2-3 hours and then you need more, perhaps waiting an hour or two before you drink it (or not drinking it at all) will inspire your body to take control of its own energy-building. A real, natural energy that doesn’t push you beyond your capacity.
If You’re an Oatmeal Person….
For some, oatmeal is the perfect breakfast food. It is full of protein, fiber and carbohydrates so it can give both immediate and long-lasting energy. And we are talking whole oats, not instant oats here.
For someone with an active job, the carbs in oatmeal might be necessary fuel. Someone with a desk job might feel comatose after a bowl of oatmeal. Let your body decide.
If oatmeal is your chosen morning meal, consider adding nuts, seeds and a little dried fruit for a sweetener. Or mix in some nut butter or yogurt once it’s cooked.
Oat and buckwheat groats are a good protein-rich alternative to quick oats. If your mornings are busy, throw all your ingredients with plenty of water into a crock-pot at night, set it for low and wake up to delicious hot breakfast.
Cinnamon and ginger are excellent winter spices to keep your immune system strong and your blood circulating in the winter months.
Winter Breakfast Recipes:
In China, congee is a common breakfast food. Congee is a rice porridge that can be sweet or savory depending on what is added. Congee is a staple food in Chinese medicine and can be cooked with Chinese herbs and proteins and eaten by the infirm and the healthy alike.
- Combine 1 part rice (or other grain) with 7 parts water in a pot on the stove or in the crock-pot. I advise soaking the rice for 1-4 hours before cooking for maximum digestibility. Rinse the rice and add to the pot.
- Either simmer on low, checking frequently, or set the crock-pot to low and leave all day or overnight. You will know the congee is done when the individual grains of rice melt into a porridge. On the stove congee cooks in 4-7 hours.
Savory Chicken Congee
Add to rice and water:
- Slices of chicken, cooked or raw
- Chopped carrot
- Black pepper
Sweet Breakfast Congee
Add to rice and water:
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 3 slices of fresh ginger root
- A handful of Chinese dates or slices of medjool date
- Small slices of apple
Protein + Vegetables= The Perfect Breakfast (for many!)
Starting the day off with sausages and kale or spinach and an egg, baked tofu slices and collard greens or leftover chicken and Chinese broccoli gives you protein, vitamins and minerals needed for a healthy day. With minimal carbohydrates and sugar, there should be no “crash” after this meal.
Apples and Sausage
A comfort food favorite of mine, we ate this delicious winter meal for dinner when I was growing up, but it makes a perfect breakfast food as well! You can use whatever type of sausage you prefer: chicken, pork or lamb.
- Slice sausages into bite-sized pieces. Slice apple.
- Preheat oven to 375.
- Mix the apples and sausage together in a baking dish with a lid or lay tinfoil across the top. Bake for 25 minutes or until the apples are very tender.
- Uncover the dish and let cook another 5-10 minutes until they sausage is golden brown.
The apples melt into a sweet and delicious sauce for the sausages and I find the two foods together are so delicious and complementary they need nothing more.
Squash pancakes have become one of my favorite breakfasts. Fast and simple, full of goodness, you can dress them up any way you like.
Mix well into a bowl:
- 1-2 coarsely grated summer squash (depending on size).
- 1 large or 2 small egg(s)
- A healthy scoop of nut butter (I prefer almond butter)
- Salt and pepper to taste
The ingredients should form a consistent “batter” after mixing. Then:
- Heat a skillet on medium on the stovetop. Add 1-2 Tablespoons of coconut or avocado oil
- Once the oil is hot, scoop the batter onto the skillet and form pancakes about 3-4 inches in diameter. Let the pancakes cook until the edges look crispy before flipping. The pancakes should be a golden brown, light and fluffy. They may be a little crumbly.
These delicious and simple snacks can be eaten at any time of day. You can wrap one up to take with you on the go or sit down to a whole stack.
I enjoy adding walnuts and kimchi to my batter before I cook it, but you can play around with the recipe, adding anything you like. Onions, grated carrot, garlic, apple slices.
Mung Bean Pancakes
If you haven’t noticed, I recommend simple, fresh, delicious food. Cooking doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive (of course it certainly can be!) and for those intimidated by the idea of straying from packaged foods, I have tried to include recipes that are forgiving for the new cook.
- Soak 1 cup of mung beans in 3 cups of water overnight. You might wake to find the mung beans have absorbed all the water! This is good. It makes the beans more digestible and softens them for the next step.
- Rinse the mung beans well. Put them in a blender with a pinch of salt. Add just a quarter cup of water to start. Turn on the blender and observe the consistency. You want the batter to be thick but pourable, like regular pancake batter. Keep slowly adding water until it has reach the proper consistency and then blend on high until the batter is smooth and even.
- Heat a skillet on medium and add 1 Tablespoon of coconut or avocado oil (I recommend these oils because they are full of good fat and can cook at a high temperature without burning). Once the oil is heated, pour the batter into pancakes 3 inches in diameter. Let the pancakes cook until the edges are crisp and lifting off the skillet. Flip the pancakes and cook until golden.
These light and chewy pancakes have a distinctly bean-y flavor and are delicious with butter and real maple syrup, yogurt and jam or savory with curry or sated vegetables.
Worldly Wisdom on Breakfast
Gallo Pinto is a common breakfast in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, combining rice and beans with a colorful array of vegetables.
In Egypt Ful Medames is made for breakfast by slow cooking fava beans and drizzling them with olive oil, lemon and garlic.
In Uganda it’s green bananas in beef stew.
In the Cundinamarca region of Colombia they eat changua, a milk soup with cheese and scallions.
In Burma, there’s rice vermicelli in fish broth and in Pakistan, spicy potato and chickpea curry.
This gives you an idea of a variety of breakfasts eaten worldwide that are well-cooked and protein rich. And some of these hot, spicy breakfasts are eaten even in hot climates! So perhaps we need to change the way we think about breakfast. How do we want to wake our bodies up? What do we use to fuel our day? And in the winter, how to we honor the season instead of resisting it?