Why You Eat the Same Thing For Breakfast Every Day

The same breakfast is what I make every morning. A toast and almond butter breakfast, along with coffee and a banana, avocado, spinach, protein powder, and banana smoothie are my favorites. I’ve eaten this combination of breakfast foods for the past two years.

Every night, I enjoy a new meal. Pasta on Sunday. On Monday, salmon and salad. Chips and shrimp on Tuesday. On Wednesdays, turkey burgers or sweet potato tots are available. Sushi Thursdays Pizza on Fridays. Saturday is an exception. This rotation, which is less stable, changes according to the seasons.

Weird, no? But I’m not alone. This is something that many of you also do. It is backed up by data. A paper will appear in the journal. AppetiteRomain Cadario, Erasmus University, and I examined the food diaries for 2,624 Americans and 1,275 Americans, respectively, to determine how frequently people eat the exact same meal each day at breakfast, lunch and dinner. How many times have you had the exact same breakfast combination every day, such as oatmeal with fruit and coffee on Monday? Our American panel found that 68% of the respondents ate the same breakfast at most twice in a given week, while the French had 73% and Americans 52%. Only 9% of participants repeated dinners (the Americans are slightly more likely than French to do so; 16% against 6%).
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It is strange that we eat the exact same breakfast every day while not having to repeat our lunches or dinners. What is the difference between eating the same thing for breakfast and choosing different foods later on in the day?

The biological part of the solution is key. Our physiological arousal levels fluctuate throughout the day. From the time we wake up in the morning, our level of physiological arousal drops until bedtime. To avoid being overstimulated in the morning, we may choose to eat less stimulating foods and more stimulating foods late at night to feel understimulated.

The cultural aspect is part of the reason. Because of the modern working day, we are often short on time and have less to eat breakfast. If we find a breakfast that’s rewarding and repeat it a few times, eating that combination of food becomes a habit that allows us to eat an efficient meal. Because it’s habitual, we may stick with our breakfast even long after we’ve tired of it (e.g., “I really should be able to find something better than oatmeal. Always oatmeal!”).

However, biology and culture can only be part of the answer.

A lot of it is psychological. It’s not that we believe breakfast is a trivial meal. It is the most important meal every day. Americans eat on average 361 breakfasts per year.

Our research shows that breakfast is a key factor in determining the success of other meals.

Are there any goals we are pursuing with our meals? Two goals influence all kinds of decisions about what we eat—hedonic and utilitarian goals. Hedonic goals drive people to eat foods that provide pleasurable experiences and sensations (e.g., “I ordered a salmon grain bowl because I love its flavor and texture”), and utilitarian goals drive people to eat to efficiently fulfill other objectives such as weight control, health, convenience or efficiency (e.g., “I ordered a salmon grain bowl because it’s a good source of protein and fiber”).

People shift their breakfast priorities to maximize the enjoyment they get from the evening and afternoon meals. In our diary data, for instance, we found that people were more likely to introduce variety into their breakfasts on the weekend—when people intend to eat a more pleasurable breakfast—than during the weekday. Another study asked participants to describe the foods that they ate in two days prior and how efficient they felt about each meal. The meal variety for breakfasts was much lower than that of lunches or dinners, as in both the American and French food diaries. This variation in variety was also explained by how participants ate each meal.

Learn More: The New Family Dinner: Family Breakfast

Although we tend to choose more practical goals for breakfast, we are able to pursue enjoyment and find variety when we put our minds to it. Participants were randomly divided into two groups to maximize their pleasure with a pleasant breakfast and maximize their convenience by eating a quick breakfast. Next, we had participants choose what breakfast they wanted and then compare it to the breakfasts that they’d eaten in the previous week. A combination of different foods was 27% more common among participants in the group that had been assigned to enhance their enjoyment by preparing a delicious breakfast.

What is the source of these goals? Research suggests that there are no differences between the meals we prepare and the meals we eat. Instead, our research shows that what time it takes to prepare and eat meals is determined by the objectives we have, rather than the reverse. If we are trying to eat an efficient breakfast, we’d likely be frustrated if a meal carved out more precious free time than we’d planned. It’s important to make the most of meals you enjoy, regardless if it is a breakfast at home or dinner out with your partner.

It is possible that biology and culture may both contribute to our goals when it comes to meals. Marketers tend to focus on the utilitarian and not the hedonistic benefits of breakfast foods as a reflection our culture. In over 3000+ products’ name descriptions we scraped from Amazon, we find that the volume of pleasure-related words (e.g., tasty, savory, delicious) compared to utilitarian words (e.g., nutritious, energized, healthy) is lower for breakfast foods than foods for lunch or dinner. Our biology may play a role in our pursuit of the goals that we set. Higher levels of physiological stimulation may decrease our desire to eat variety. It doesn’t matter if the goal we are pursuing is rooted in biology or culture. However, our psychological drive to have the same breakfast every day seems to come from our desire to control the choices we make.

This information can help us improve our diet. Although habits are hard to break, they can be easy to sustain. The habits that we form and keep are influenced by our desire to be efficient at breakfast. Making a nutritious and satisfying breakfast from the less-appetizing foods (e.g. kale and spinach) is easier than making a meal out of them all every day. However, it is harder to establish new habits when you have established old ones. People find it easiest to change a habit, like what to eat for breakfast, when they experience a “fresh start” like a move, a birthday, or the first day of the month.

As luck would have it, a new year is on the horizon—it’s a great time to make that change.


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