Granola, that back-to-nature mixture of oats, fruits and nuts, was first hip to the natural foods crowd in the '70s. Today it's considered so mainstream even McDonald's sells a 99-cent yogurt-and-fruit parfait topped with a modest dusting of granola.
A dense, energy-packed start to the day, granola is one cool way to woo a sleepy head out of bed. A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report found the number of teens who eat breakfast declined 17 percent from 1965 to 1991. The same study found 9 percent of elementary school children went to school without eating breakfast.
When Rebecca Miller teaches middle and high-school foods classes, she polls students to find out how many are eating breakfast.
''I ask everywhere I go, and it's pretty frightening because they can go for hours and hours before they've got food or fuel to go on. I'd say at least 50 percent, maybe 60 percent, of the kids do not have breakfast,'' says Miller, the marketing director for Whole Foods in Overland Park, Kan.
Unfortunately, that choice can cost them more than a few extra zzz's. The link between breakfast and learning is well-established, but it turns out there's also evidence that students who skip breakfast may be missing out on important nutrients, including iron, zinc, calcium and vitamins A and B.
Yet even when parents manage to convince their kids to eat breakfast, consuming the cardboard cereal box may provide more fiber than the flakes, grains or puffs it contains. Not to mention excess sugar, salt and preservatives lurking in the supermarket aisles.
Packaged granolas tend to get a bad rap for their excess fat and calories. You can read the labels until you find an acceptable one, or better yet, skip the boxed versions and opt to make your own. Recipes are easy to come by. Go to http://www.recipesource.com and a ''granola'' search turns up more than 100 recipes.
But making your own granola requires little more than an outline: It's easy, economical and healthful because it allows you to customize your cereal to suit your personal tastes and nutrition requirements.
''You can control exactly what's going in it, from the spices to the cooking oil or fat to the different cereals that are fun to play with,'' Miller says.
A longtime granola fan, Miller considers granola ''the perfect food'' and a creative teaching tool.
To make your own: Start with whole grains, usually old-fashioned (not instant) rolled oats. Stir in a liquid mixture of flavorings, perhaps honey, maple syrup, sorghum or barley syrup. Spread the mixture on a baking sheet and bake at low heat. When cool, sprinkle in a few embellishments such as dried fruit, unsweetened shredded coconut, seeds and nuts.
''It's almost like the perfect food, and they can be creative about it,'' Miller says.
Eat it in a bowl with milk. Carry it in your backpack as a snack. Mold it into a breakfast bar. Throw a handful into pancake mix. Or sprinkle it over applesauce.
And to boost its overall nutritional profile, you can never go wrong adding seeds and nuts to your granola.
''By adding flax seeds, you can take some of the latest findings in nutrition and make it something tasty, which is not always the case,'' says Sandy Procter, a nutrition educator for Kansas State Extension and Research.
Just be careful about the fat and flavorings you use.
''Granola has a lot to offer, but it can vary widely in the amount of fat so I caution people don't think just because it's a good source of whole grains that you can sit down and eat unlimited amounts,'' Procter says.
But compared with the other items she could be eating - scones and muffins, to be exact - Sarah Walker grabs for granola every time. A chef/food consultant, Walker created the granola recipe served at the newest Mildred's Coffee House in Kansas City, Mo.
A light mixture of rolled oats studded with almonds and cranberries, Mildred's house-made granola is sold by the bowl or sprinkled over a yogurt parfait with fresh fruit. Granola just seemed like the right sort of cereal for a young, artistic crowd on the go.
''Most people in this area are kind of in a hurry in the morning,'' Walker says. ''They want breakfast fast, and [granola is] just something they can eat on the go.''
Canola oil or canola oil cooking spray, for greasing the baking sheet
1/2 cup honey, molasses or maple syrup or a mixture
1/4 cup canola oil
2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats (not the quick cooking variety)
1/2 cup sliced almonds
cup dried cherries
cup dried apricots
cup dried banana slices
Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Lightly grease a large baking sheet with sides; set aside.
Combine the honey and oil in a small saucepan and heat just until hot (or use the microwave). Place the rolled oats and sliced almonds in a bowl and mix. Add the honey-oil mixture and mix until well combined.
Spread the granola mixture evenly on the baking sheet. Bake about 40 minutes, or until light golden. It will still be soft when it comes out of the oven, but it will harden as it cools. Do not overbake, or the granola will have a bitter, burnt taste. Allow the granola to cool completely.
Add the optional dried fruit to the granola and mix well. Store in an airtight container or a zip-top bag.
Makes 5 cups.
- Eating for Pregnancy by Catherine Jones with Rose Ann Hudson
3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats (not the quick cooking variety)
1/2 cup sliced almonds
1/2 cup wheat germ
1/4 cup whole-wheat flour
1/4 cup oat bran
3 to 4 tablespoons packed light or dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 cup unsweetened apple juice or cider
3 to 4 tablespoons honey, warmed
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, almond oil or vegetable oil
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Butter or oil a baking sheet.
Stir the oats, almonds, wheat germ, whole-wheat flour, oat bran, brown sugar, cinnamon, salt, nutmeg and ginger together in a large bowl. Whisk the apple juice, honey, vanilla and butter together in a small bowl. Pour the wet ingredients over the dry, then toss well to mix.
Spread the granola on the prepared baking sheet. Bake about 45 minutes, stirring granola well every 15 minutes, until it's a shade browner than it started and dry to the touch. (It will become crisper as it cools.)
Cool on the baking sheet, break up any large pieces, then store in an airtight container until ready to serve.
Fruited Granola: Mix in your choice of dried fruit into the granola after it comes from the oven. Raisins, currants or dried cranberries can be stirred in whole. Cut larger fruit into small bits. For an offbeat fruit, try dried mango found in natural foods stores and Asian groceries.
Morning Glorious Fruited Parfait: Layer fruit (such as raspberries, blueberries, sliced bananas, sliced peaches, sliced strawberries or a combination of soft-textured bite-size fruit) with plain or vanilla yogurt and granola. Garnish with fresh mint, if desired.
Makes about 6 cups.
- A Real American Breakfast by Cheryl Alters Jamison & Bill Jamison