Breakfast gaining steam; fast-food places adding new items

Don't skip breakfast! That's what the nutrition experts have been telling us for years, and it seems we've finally gotten the message. At the drive-through, at the coffee bar, in the supermarket — breakfast is big business.

Although the vast majority of us still eat breakfast at home, about 11 percent of morning meals are eaten out and 6 percent are eaten on the go — double the rate of a decade ago.

For the $140 billion quick-service restaurant business, this has been a wake-up call to take advantage of the growing morning market.

Starbucks is introducing breakfast sandwiches nationwide. Chains like Subway, Chick-Fil-A and Dunkin' Donuts have been expanding their morning menus this year with items such as breakfast burritos and wraps, while Burger King in March introduced the Enormous Omelet Sandwich. The monster meal of sausage, two eggs, two slices of cheese and three strips of bacon has helped the No. 2 burger chain boost sales, according to company reports.

"Quick-service restaurants are refocusing on breakfast" with better-tasting products and a greater variety of ingredients, said Michael Allenson, a principal with food-industry consultant Technomic in Chicago.

They were spurred on, he said, by the success about three years ago of McGriddles, a line of pancake sandwiches introduced by McDonald's. The fast-food giant "already had a strong breakfast business, but they were able to increase sales even more," he said. That encouraged other chains to introduce new breakfast products — or, in some cases, offer breakfast for the first time.

In the past two years, breakfast sales at restaurants have continued to grow. A recent survey by the National Restaurant Association showed that breakfast growth outpaced both lunch and dinner at close to 40 percent of restaurants surveyed.

Breakfast is also big in the supermarket. The 2005 report just released by the Chicago-based market research firm Mintel indicates consumers are looking for not only convenience and portability in breakfast foods but also healthful products. The push by the federal government to increase whole grains in the diet, plus the worry over the rising number of obese children, has had an effect, according to the report.

Newer, hand-held foods such as energy bars, sausage sandwiches and drinkable yogurt surged in sales but so has that old-fashioned breakfast food: hot cereal. In the cold cereal aisle, low-sugar, high-fiber cereals had the strongest sales, while the high-sugar brands saw a dip.

"Americans want convenience at breakfast," said food-trend expert Harry Balzer, vice president of the market research firm NPD Group, "but they also want a hearty meal. The Pop-Tarts and breakfast pastries are convenient, but they don't fill you up like a breakfast sandwich."

Even if we have to wait until we get to the office to have what some in the industry call "deskfast," fewer of us are skipping the morning meal. We're more likely to skip lunch, according to NPD data. "Sixteen percent of lunches are skipped, but only 13 percent of breakfasts," Balzer said.

In fact, if you have to skip a meal, "skip lunch. Breakfast is too important," said dietitian Lalita Kaul, a professor of community and family medicine at Howard University.

Ideally, she'd like to see people eat breakfast at home or bring healthy food from home, such as a cheese sandwich or even two Nutri-Grain bars, to eat at their desks.

"Don't have fast food more than three times a week," she said. She recommends skipping the bacon on a breakfast sandwich "or ask for your omelet on whole wheat bread instead of a biscuit or croissant."

While more Americans may be eating breakfast away from home, what they're eating hasn't changed much in 100 years or more.

Food historian and author Nancy Carter Crump of Petersburg, Va., said Americans have been eating bacon or ham and eggs for breakfast since the late 1800s. Coffee for breakfast has been around since the early 1700s.

The difference, she noted, is just a matter of form: Today the ham and eggs are on a biscuit that you eat as you drive.