2.18.2010

Why You Should Not Just Eat, But Cook, Breakfast

It started as a sweet gesture for my wife one morning a month and a half ago.

I woke up nearly two hours before we usually get up ... One of those sudden, startling straight-from-sleep-to-awake moments. I couldn't get back to sleep, so I figured I'd get up and get a few things done. While I was doing dishes, I saw a skillet I'd used a few days before, and a small happy glimmer of a thought entered my mind: the look on my wife's face when I woke her with breakfast in bed.

So I set upon the task of preparing breakfast. And yeah, I'd made breakfast before that day - about once a month or so, and whenever we were on trips with a kitchenette in the hotel room. But for some reason that particular morning, something incredible happened. Not all at once, mind you: there was no flash of brilliance or sudden awareness that I'd stumbled onto a pretty amazing thing. But I did decide to do it again the next day, and the day after... And that's where I discovered the secret to getting my head screwed on right each and every morning. I cook breakfast.

Now, I've had breakfast as a steady part of my diet for a few years now. But it's been things like balance bars, or cereal, or a bagel. It got food into me first thing in the morning, and that's great - miles ahead of where I was when I was overweight and unhealthy (for reasons I outline below).

But it's only after I started getting up and cooking breakfast that I stumbled upon a beautiful secret that's made my daily life better by an order of magnitude - and that's not hyperbole, my life is literally improved by ten times. I work harder every day. I get much more done. I smile more. I'm overall much happier -  and I was pretty happy before I started cooking breakfast.

So, why?

1) First and foremost: it's freakin' yummy. Breakfast kicks ass. It doesn't matter if you're a ham-n-egger, a potato person, a sweet-tooth fanatic... There's something for every pallete in the breakfast family. And if it's not a published fact, it should be: eating something utterly delicious first thing in the morning will make your entire day better. In fact, I now go to bed almost eager to get up, craving whatever I have on the menu for the next morning.

2) It forces your brain to engage. Recipies - whether you follow them rigidly or use them as guides for your own creations - are essentially math you do with your hands. They require measurement, motor skills, and situational awareness. Too much salt? Taste ick poo. Not paying attention to the skillet? Smoke alarm goes off. Not paying attention to your movements? You could burn your hand.

You are rewarded in so many ways as you procedurally increase your patience, attention to detail and knowledge. On the pretty basic end of the scale, food won't burn, your house won't burn, and you won't burn. And the more attention you pay and concern you put into it, the better the food tastes, the prettier it looks, and the overall level of satisfaction of doing a good job on something first thing in the morning goes up.

3) Work begets work. Ever notice how it takes you forever to begin cleaning the house, but once you get started, the momentum kicks in and you get remarkably productive, and the next thing you know, the place is spotless? No? Well, you're rich enough to afford a housekeeper... Or, your mom's nice enough to keep cleaning your room. But the rest of us know this feeling, and it has been hitting me every single morning.

As lame as it is to turn off the alarm and get out of bed, once I get that breakfast machine rolling, I'm a productive force. I move from cooking to processing email to writing what needs to be written, designing what needs to be designed, and otherwise getting crap done. My house is cleaner the past month and a half than it's been in years, because I now clean a little every day instead of waiting until things are so bad I have no choice but to carve a path to the front door with the vaccum.

4) It's a dedicated time for you to focus on something for yourself. Trust me - I am not and have never been a "morning person," and if you need proof, just go back and look at the timestamps on my journal entries, stories on Mentally Incontinent, posts on Facebook and Twitter, or simply ask my wife. I stay up all night, and I HATE MORNINGS. But once I made the committment to getting up an hour earlier (or, rather, resigned myself to losing an hour of sleep in the morning), I found it practically enjoyable to stand down in my kitchen, working with my tools, making something delicious for my wife and I (or, sometimes, just me) to eat. And starting the day that way... How can it NOT make the rest of the day great?

5) It leads to extra time together with someone you care about - even if it's yourself. Outside of the actual act of cooking, you have time you have to set aside to eat the meal. On the days my wife goes into work, I fix up her breakfast, kiss her goodbye, and sit down with my laptop and go through email and RSS feeds and take my time enjoying my breakfast. On her days off, we spend upwards of two hours just conversing. Sure, we talk all the time. We're remarkably in-tune with each others' days and projects. But now, we actually converse over our breakfasts. Politics, world events, the Olympics, suggestions of books to read... Just idle, fun conversation.

6) It's healthy. Believe it or not, if you are like I was a few years back - skipping breakfast, focusing on lunch and dinner with some snacks here and there - the simple act of eating breakfast first thing every morning will result in weight loss. Yes, all by itself.

Now, before you accuse me of saying that sausage and bacon will make you lose weight, hear me out.

Your metabolism is a tricky thing. When it's going and maintained regularly through proper diet (which, by the way, has just as much to do with WHEN you eat as WHAT you eat), you burn more fat on a 24 hour basis than when it's stagnated and processing in bursts. Assuming an 8 hour sleep cycle and a 6:00 PM dinner, if you skip breakfast and wait for lunch at noon... You're going 18 hours without food, then processing two large (800+ calorie) meals within 6 hours of each other. Your body goes "HOLY CRAP FOOD! Store as much of it as you can, cause who knows if we'll eat again anytime soon?"

Additionally, the second you begin putting food in for the day, the metabolism "furnace" fires up. Doing this within an hour of waking up means that you're now churning calories roughly 14 hours instead of just 6-8. Now, if you want to take this one step further, break up your daily caloric intake across 6 meals, so that your body is only processing small chucks at a time instead of trying to plow through large masses of calories per meal. But that's a whole other topic. The basic fact is eating breakfast = a more active metabolism.

7) It's a great challenge (if you want it to be). But you shouldn't make it easy. You can make breakfast as simple or as complicated if you want. If you're a little more crunched for time, throw a few slices of bread into some whipped eggs with a little cinnamon and a touch of cream (or 2% milk if you're being healthy) and eat some french toast. If you want to really push the envelope, make mini quiches or work on a layered breakfast casserole. But to reap the benefits I've found (greater mental clarity starting much earlier in the day), don't just pour some cereal in a bowl and wolf it down, or butter a bagel. Involve the stove in some way. Introduce the need to pay attention.


If you find yourself saying "Yeah, but I don't have time!": Just like the gym, this is one of those things that rewards you in two ways once you carve out the time and make it happen: first, the actual act is a reward, because, like, yummy breakfast and stuff. But a side benefit is that you discover that you actually DO have the time, and you've just filled it with other things that actually waste time. You'll be amazed just how much more you'll be inclinded to carve out of your life to make room for more rewarding things (I fully believe I wouldn't have committed to this if I hadn't already discovered how much better setting aside gym time for myself has made my life).

If you find yourself saying "Yeah, but I don't know how to cook!": AllRecipies.com, Alton Brown, Reluctant Gourmet

Give it a try. Let me know how it works.