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Winter comfort with a flare (but check those ingredient labels carefully)

by Maureen Tilley, PDt.

As the seasons change so do our eating habits. In the colder months, we’re drawn to heartier hot meals. At breakfast, we seek out hot cereals and warm toast to provide our bodies with the warmth and energy to step out into the elements.

The traditional ways of preparing oats with sugar and toast with jam can lack variety in taste and in nutrition, but hold the potential to be so much more. Regardless of the season, a healthy breakfast provides an array of benefits by decreasing disease risk (heart disease, diabetes), helps control cravings and portions throughout the day, and kick starts your energy and your brain function. Skipping this meal also makes it difficult to meet your daily nutrient (fibre, vitamins/minerals) needs. Let’s discuss how to upgrade your oats and toast to keep your interest and your body nourished throughout the chilly months.

Loaded and satisfying hot cereal:

Call it gruel, oats, porridge, hot cereal, there’s a reason why this breakfast has been eaten forever. It’s affordable, hearty and healthy. Oats have been shown to decrease cholesterol, help manage diabetes, improve digestion and leave you feeling full longer. Many of its health benefits, especially related to lowering cholesterol, are due to a fibre called beta-glucan.

Oatmeal is your canvas with many options to make a tasty balanced breakfast. When we think of a balanced meal, aim for three food groups: oats is the grain; fruit/vegetable; and protein. As for proportions, aim for more than a decorative sprinkle of fruit on a large bowl of cereal. The ideal ratio would be more fruit than oats, but even equal amounts is good.

Start with your base—your oats. Traditionally we think rolled oats, but there are more options with varying texture and taste. Nutritionally, oats in all forms make a healthy choice as they provide similar calories (per weight, not volume), fibre and protein although the difference is the degree of processing. Less processed has its benefits including keeping you full longer and typically a lower glycemic index meaning a slower increase in blood sugars and insulin.

Here are your oat options from least to most processed.

Whole oat groats is the kernel hulled from the cereal grain. It looks similar to rice and can be eaten as cereal or in grain salads, soups or as a side. Cook it on the stove for 40-50 minutes and enjoy the nutty flavour with a chewy, firmer texture. 

Steel cut oats (Irish) are the groats chopped with a steel blade into small pieces to reduce cooking time to about 15-20 minutes. The texture is creamy yet chewier than flakes.

Large flaked rolled oats (old fashioned) are steamed and flattened groats. This keeps them fresh longer by decreasing the moisture, and reduces cooking time. You can prepare over a stovetop, by microwaving or just add boiling water (if you enjoy a firmer texture).

Quick oats (instant) are steamed and flattened even longer to reduce cooking time. They take mere minutes to prepare by simply adding boiling water or milk.

Other cereals:

Oat bran is the extracted bran from the outer part of the kernel. This cereal is highest in fibre. It’s similar in texture and taste to cream of wheat but has much higher in fibre as the bran and part of wheat germ are retained.

Quinoa and quinoa flakes make a great cereal and provide a complete protein too. Quinoa flakes are similar to oats where they are steamed and rolled to reduce cooking time. This is a great option to use up leftover cooked quinoa.    

Flavoured packages (usually quick oats) are convenient but also come with a fair amount of sugar and salt. Making oatmeal from scratch can be also quick, cheaper and you control what goes in it. For convenience, cook up a large portion in advance, flavour it, refrigerate/freeze and reheat in the morning. Mason jars are perfect for individual servings for storage, transportation and re-heating. Many oats can also be prepared in the microwave, slow cooker/pressure cooker or soak overnight. Have your favourite topper mixture prepared in a shaker or container such as cinnamon, crushed nuts, flax seed.

Cook oats by preferred method in milk or water. Add some cinnamon, nutmeg, and/or cocoa. Boost the fibre without altering the taste by adding two or more tablespoons wheat bran per serving. Optional: To enhance the flavour of oats, try toasting dry oats in a skillet over medium heat, while turning them often (they can burn quickly) until slightly browned with a nutty fragrance, about two minutes. Then cook in regular manner.

Fruit options:

Add in healthy fat, fibre, protein (and crunch): seeds, nuts, peanut butter and/or granola. Top it with Greek yogurt for protein and creaminess.

Add sweetness (if needed). White or brown sugar, honey, maple syrup are all sugar, regardless of the form. If it needs a little more, taste it first so you know just how much is needed.

Try these comfort combos: Banana plus a dollop of peanut butter and jam; Blueberries plus cranberries plus yogurt plus slivered almonds; puréed pumpkin plus pecans plus dash of pumpkin pie spice; apple plus dash of cinnamon and granola; strawberries plus chopped dried apricots and pumpkin seed.

Toasty toast:

From fancy breads to the endless toppings, everything about toast has been upgraded. Call it a hip version of an open-faced sandwich. This not only adds variety but also potential for an all-in-one balanced meal on toast. Whether you get on the hip toast train or keep it traditional, choosing the healthiest toppings and especially breads can be a confusing undertaking. 

Dress your toast with whatever you enjoy for protein, including eggs, meat and other proteins.

Choosing a bread:

Choose whole grain—this means the grain is less processed, containing all three parts of the kernel—bran, germ, endosperm. Look for breads that state “100 per cent whole grain” or the first ingredient states “whole” followed by the type of grain i.e. whole grain corn, as well as, amaranth, spelt, barley, wheat germ, buckwheat, quinoa, millet, bulgur, cracked wheat, brown rice.

Whole wheat bread is a healthy choice but it’s healthiest when it states “whole grain whole wheat” otherwise, just “whole wheat” means it may only contain two parts of the grain. “Enriched” or “wheat” flours are the most refined (with white flour) as the bran and germ are removed, leaving little to no fibre, as well as a decrease in vitamins and minerals.

Keep in mind, products that state “made with whole grains” do not receive an automatic health pass, as the amount of whole grain can vary from 1 to 100 per cent. Many products have a helpful whole grain stamp from the Whole Grain Council stating the amount of whole grain found in the product by percentage or grams. Visit for more information. In addition to the whole grain content, it’s important to look at products as a whole for the sugar, sodium, and fat content—after all many sugary cereals are made with whole grains. Check your ingredient list and nutritional label to get the facts.

Watch for added salt and sugar: these sneaky ingredients can be surprisingly high in breads. Believe it or not, most of the salt in our diet comes from bread! Many processed foods contain more salt per item but combine breads moderate salt content with the abundance we eat throughout a day, and it adds up. Check the nutrition label and choose the bread with the least amount of sugar and salt. Make sure to check the serving size—it can be listed per 1 or 2 slices.

Fibre: In addition to “whole grains”, check the fibre content for the highest amount per slice. As a general target, aim for at least two grams of fibre per slice.

Bread varieties:

Sourdough bread uses a bacterial culture “starter” in place of yeast as the rising agent and gives it that distinct sour taste. This fermentation process can make it easier to digest for those with bread sensitivities and has a low glycemic index for better blood sugar and insulin control. Nutritionally, these breads are often made with refined flours, so look for one with whole grain flour.

Rye is a tricky one—this dark bread looks whole grain but this could be due to added caramel colouring. Many rye breads contain (refined) rye flour and/or white flour as the top ingredients. Although most rye breads will have some refined flour, choose one with whole grain pumpernickel, whole grain rye flour or rye meal/kernel/flakes as the first ingredient. 

Multigrain “multiple” grains just means it contains multiples of any sort. The added seeds give it the perception of a whole grain loaf so check the ingredient list.

Sprout grains is made with whole grain flours but the seed is sprouted prior to making bread. Sprouting provides higher amount of nutrients including vitamin C, protein, zinc, magnesium, folate. This process makes the nutrients easier for our bodies to absorb. For those who are sensitive to certain grains, sprouted grains can be easier to digest. Again, “sprouted grain” should be the first ingredient as products stating “made with sprouted grains” may contain very little. 

Dressing your toast:

Traditional toast with peanut butter and banana makes a balanced meal. If you prefer toast with butter and/or jam then pair it up with a side of fruit and egg or yogurt. If you’re looking for toast with a flare try these delicious combinations:

Spread options—hummus, guacamole, mashed avocado, tzatziki or cottage cheese.

Vegetables—sliced cucumber, radishes, beets, tomatoes, arugula, spinach, sprouts, sliced avocado, cooked sliced/diced sweet potato. 

Protein—egg (sliced/mashed hard boiled sliced, fried, egg salad), salmon (smoked/canned/fresh), tuna or chickpeas.

Bringing it together (options are endless!)—Hummus plus sliced radishes plus cucumber plus sliced beet; Mashed avocado plus smoked salmon plus cucumber; Guacamole plus sliced tomato plus fried egg; Cottage cheese plus sliced avocado plus dash pepper plus arugula; Egg salad plus radishes plus sliced avocado.

Stay warm, stay nourished over the winter—after all, if we can’t fight it, might as well embrace it.

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