How many Americans eat breakfast in the morning? That depends on how you define breakfast. (No, "the most important meal of the day" isn't going to do it.) For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals (www.barc.usda.gov/bhnrc/ foodsurvey/home.htm) found that about 85 percent of Americans eat breakfast. For the purposes of the survey, the USDA defines the meal simply as an "eating occasion" (a discrete time when someone eats and/or drinks) which is characterized by the respondent as "breakfast." That's casting a fairly wide net, of course. By this definition, breakfast could be eggs Florentine, a half-empty box of Milk Duds, even an accidentally swallowed swig of Listerine.
In its executive summary of the effects of the School Breakfast Program (www.usda.gov/fcs/oae/sbpexsum.htm), the USDA finds no clear, consistent definition of the word across the "literature of breakfast consumption" (which, by the way, is an elective course at many colleges). Properly defining the word is a crucial step in evaluating the success of the federal program, which provides meals in some 70,000 schools nationwide. Nine out of ten students drink or eat something in the course of a morning eating occasion, but only six of ten consume food from "at least two of the main food groups and have breakfast intake of food energy greater than 10 percent of the RDA." That's a big difference- not just in terms of nutrition but in funding, as well.
The focus on getting kids to eat breakfast is understandable. The American Dietetic Association reports that skipping breakfast has an adverse effect on the problem-solving ability of children, particularly their ability to recall and make use of newly acquired information. (This means, I suppose, that even a Cap'n Crunch-ing kid is more likely to solve the riddle on the cereal box after his breakfast than before he pours on the milk.)
Unfortunately, the USDA's continuing survey found that two of the three lowest percentages of breakfast-eaters are females aged 12-19 (74.6 percent) and males in the same age group (78.4 percent)-and this is under the self-reported "eating occasion" definition of breakfast. The lowest percentage among all groups, oddly enough, are males between 20 and 29 (71.7 percent); by contrast, 75.1 percent of females ages 20-to-29 eat breakfast. Why the disparity? Write your own indelicate joke.
However it's defined, what are people eating for breakfast these days? For the most part, just about anything quick and easy. According to "U.S. Agriculture-Linking Consumers and Producers" (www.usda.gov/news/pubs/ fbook97/contents.htm), eggs-those delicate and cholesterol-laden treats-took a clear hit between 1970 and 1989. Although the decline in consumption leveled off during the '90s, as retail prices declined and eggs were discovered to contain less cholesterol than previously believed, they're still labor-intensive.
The NPD Group's 1994 study on in-home breakfasts (www.npd.com/corp/press/breakpr.htm) found that ready-to-eat cereals remain the favorite among breakfast eaters. In fact, the journal Pediatrics reported in 1998 that cereal is the major source of children's nutrients (iron, vitamin A, and folic acid). The NPD study also found that the peel-and-eat banana has supplanted the slice, section, spoon, squirt-in-the-eye grapefruit as America's favorite breakfast fruit.
But the Young Turk of the handy breakfast field, according to U.S. Foodservice magazine (www.usfoodservice. com), is the bagel. Bagel consumption has increased by 150 percent during the past decade, leading the trend toward simpler and more convenient breakfast foods.
Still, there are places where big morning spreads are all the rage and just about everybody eats: bed-and-breakfast inns. According to Pat Hardy, spokesperson for the Professional Association of Innkeepers International (www.virtualcities.com/ons/paii01.htm), most B&Bs make a habit of serving "big breakfasts." That's understandable. How many people would look forward to a romantic weekend at a Cot and Doughnut? And while handy baked goods like doughnuts and muffins are present at 99 percent of all B&Bs, according to a PAII survey, there's usually much more: 83 percent offer pancakes and/or waffles; 82 percent lay out meat, cheese, and eggs; and everyone's home favorite, cereal, shows up in 73 percent of the professionals' breakfast nooks; 36 percent even offer some sort of regional fare (huevos rancheros, grits, eggs Newark).
Obviously, the best way for the USDA to ensure that students regularly eat the right kind of breakfast is to inaugurate the School Bed and Breakfast Program.