Cindy Dean’s shirred eggs with spinach, prosciutto, tomato and cream. Photo by Cindy Dean

Before the pandemic, Cindy Dean had a 30- to 40-minute commute to her job as an associate professor of education at the University of Maine-Augusta. She rarely ate breakfast.

“I’d have coffee for sure,” she said. “And I got into a really bad habit of stopping at Panera and getting a breakfast pastry.”

Now, 10 months after the coronavirus invaded Maine, she is working from home and cooks a big, hardy – but healthy – breakfast for herself and her husband every morning. And she’s lost 40 pounds.

Dean is one of many Mainers whose breakfast habits have been transformed by long stretches at home and lots of time to think about eating. Some people who pre-pandemic only had coffee, or grabbed a granola bar as they rushed out the door, are now enjoying a regular morning meal, even if it’s only oatmeal or cereal. Others are savoring the extra time to cook, eating full breakfasts during the week instead of saving the bacon, eggs and waffles as Saturday or Sunday treats. It has also been a time for people to eat better. Mainers are learning how to blend protein-packed smoothies and, like Dean, making over traditionally rich, caloric breakfasts into healthier options.

The clues that breakfast is back are everywhere. The NPD Group, a market research firm, has reported that from late March through June, kitchenware retailers sold more than a half million electric griddles (pancakes, anyone?), a big jump over the same period in 2019, and sales of single-serve blenders – the type often used to make smoothies – were up 41 percent.

Erika Dodge, a spokesperson for Hannaford, said that while sales of cereal have increased a bit, “there is strong evidence that big breakfasts are back. We have seen a substantial increase in our sales of pancake and waffle mixes and syrup. Along with that is a sizeable increase in (sales of) our breakfast meats like sausage and bacon.”

Ethan Whited’s Vagabond Coffee Truck delivers coffee to his customers’ doors. Photo courtesy of Ethan Whited

Don’t forget the coffee. Ethan Whited, who owns a mobile coffee shop called Vagabond, has been delivering more growlers of nitro cold brew and homemade decaf chai to people’s front doors in his 1949 milk truck, as more people enjoy coffee at home (with so many of us working from home, our regular drive-thru and coffee shop habits are on hold). Sales of the coffee growlers are about double over 2019, he said. The pandemic has also widened his customer base; he’s now delivering from Brunswick to Kittery, and all the small towns in between.

Sales of family-sized packages of GrandyOats granola have gone up so much during the pandemic that the company introduced its Chocolate Almond Crisp variety, which was created for universities, to national grocery store shelves. Photo by Russell French

Aaron Anker, co-owner of GrandyOats in Hiram, says granola sales are up “and we’re finding people are buying larger quantities.” Over the past 24 weeks, he said, the data show that nationwide sales of one of the company’s most popular products, family-sized Honey Nut Granola, have gone up 164 percent. In grocery and natural food stores, he added, the granola/muesli category is up more than 12 percent.

“The funny thing about breakfast is it’s been a deprived time for people because of their commutes and rushing out to get to school,” Anker said. “We’re really busy. And the pandemic now has allowed people to have a little bit more time to have breakfast.”

That’s the case for Dean, who has been cooking breakfast every day for herself and her husband. Sometimes they keep it simple, enjoying steel cut oats and fruit, or scrambled eggs, sausage and toast. But she also makes lots of omelets, filled either with vegetables or – their favorite – smoked salmon and leeks. The couple also love Eggs Benedict, smothered with a slimmed-down Hollandaise that’s made with just one egg yolk and a tablespoon of butter. The morning we spoke, she made a Bostonian Benedict – brown bread with applewood smoked bacon, poached eggs and Hollandaise.

So how did she lose 40 pounds eating like this every day? Partly, it’s portion control.

“My husband eats two, and I eat one,” she said of the Eggs Benedict, adding that she limits herself to a half slice of bacon. And the couple eats breakfast later in the morning, so they can skip lunch.

Plus, the pandemic has given Dean the time to browse through her large collection of Cooking Light cookbooks. From those cookbooks, she’s learned to make shirred eggs and a lightened-up breakfast casserole.

Like Dean, Hannah Babineau of Brownfield has lost a lot of weight – 30 pounds so far – during the pandemic, but in a simpler way. Her secret weapon? Oatmeal.

In normal times, Babineau works as the wedding planner for the Stone Mountain Arts Center. She is now a stay-at-home mom who is home-schooling her children. Every morning she warms up a crockpot of oatmeal – “the oatmeal my nana used to make” – for her family of four. Her husband and two daughters, ages 7 and 14, raid the pantry to add what they want, usually nuts, dried or fresh fruit, butter and maple syrup made from sap harvested from their own trees. Babineau prefers a savory version, topping her oatmeal with a fried egg, spinach and hot sauce.

“It’s super easy and cheap,” she said. “Being out of work, (it’s nice) having something that fills you up for the day. It keeps you going for a while when you’re trying to remote-school your children and ship packages of maple syrup from your home. Before, we would have done Dunkin’ Donuts, or stopped on the way to school for Starbucks.”

And when she did cook breakfast at home before the pandemic, it was more like cooking four breakfasts. Now that the family is eating oatmeal, the toppings provide variety without the hassle.

“Everyone always wanted to eat different things,” Babineau said, “and now they can.”

Cindy Dean’s corned been hash with eggs. Photo by Cindy Dean

Mindy Fenn of Brewer has also lightened up her breakfast. Before the pandemic, breakfast usually meant fast food or leftovers.

“I’ve always had to eat breakfast because if I don’t, my body hates me,” she said. “If I could find something in the fridge, it was like a piece of leftover pizza, or a bagel if we had it, some random thing. Sometimes it would be a couple of carrots. It was never very good.”

On the weekends, Fenn and her boyfriend would go out to a breakfast buffet or cook omelets, pancakes, or bacon and eggs at home.

When the pandemic started, Fenn was furloughed from her job as a receptionist for about a month and a half. She says it gave her time to do a little morning meal research. “I was tired of getting hungry halfway through the day,” she said.” I needed something with a bit more protein or sustenance.”

For Fenn, the answer was smoothies. One of her favorites starts with a mix of blueberries, strawberries and cherries, with kale for iron and fiber. Then she throws in sunflower seeds and protein powder. She’s back at work now, but still makes this smoothie most mornings and takes it with her. (She got a personal-sized blender for Christmas.)

“I’ve started working out because I have more energy,” Fenn said. “It’s keeping me full, but it’s healthy, so I’m not overindulging on fast food.”

For Edith Berger and her husband, Mark, who live in Waldoboro, the morning meal has changed in a way that has nothing to do with cooking and calories. Since March, whether working from home or not, the couple has made a point of preparing and eating breakfast together every day. “Breakfast is more of an event,” said Berger, who is an elementary school teacher.

She brews the coffee, cuts up fruit and puts the English muffins in the toaster. He does the cooking. They make sure to always set the table.

“We’re eating more eggs,” Berger said. “We used to not really eat a lot of bacon. Bacon is still a bit of a treat, but we might have it once a week now, when we used to have it once every six months.”

Berger has always baked her own bread, but now she also makes bagels, scones and, occasionally, cinnamon rolls and coffee cake. French toast, she says, is still reserved for weekends.

But whether they’re eating oatmeal with apples or scrambled eggs with vegetarian sausage mixed in, the couple plans to continue enjoying breakfast together long after the pandemic is over.

“It’s a nice start to the day to have that quiet togetherness,” Berger said.

Grammie’s Brown Bread

Edith Berger’s grandmother in Henniker, New Hampshire, passed down this family recipe. It’s the first thing Berger remembers learning how to make. “She encouraged us to bake, but we had to clean up our own messes,” Berger said. “Both my sister and I have a copy of this recipe in our grandmother’s handwriting, and it is one of our most precious possessions.”

1 cup All-Bran cereal
1 cup sour milk (1 cup milk, 1 teaspoon vinegar or lemon juice)
¼ cup molasses
½ cup sugar
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour an 8- or 9-inch cake pan.

Mix the All-Bran, sour milk and molasses in a large bowl. In  a separate bowl, combine the sugar, flour, soda and salt, then add to the All-Bran mixture. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake for 25 minutes or until a toothpick set into the center of the bread emerges clean.

Lightened Hollandaise Sauce

Cindy Dean uses this slimmed-down Hollandaise from Cooking Light on all kinds of Benedicts, including Classic, Crab Cake, Bostonian (made with Boston brown bread and applewood bacon), Lobster, Fish Cakes, Clam Cakes and Fried Green Tomatoes.

1½ tablespoons cornstarch
½ teaspoon dry mustard
2/3 cup milk
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon butter, melted
1/8 teaspoon salt
2½ tablespoons lemon juice

In a 2-cup microwave-safe measuring cup, combine the cornstarch and dry mustard. In a separate bowl, combine the milk and yolk. Add the milk mixture to the cornstarch mixture and whisk thoroughly. Microwave the mixture on high for 1 minute; remove and stir and then return to the microwave for an additional 30 seconds. Add the butter, salt and lemon juice. Whisk until smooth.

Shirred Eggs for Two

Cindy Dean said she likes to serve orange wedges with this dish, which she found in AAA magazine. She said frozen spinach can be substituted for the fresh, as long as it’s drained well and dried with paper towels. You can also substitute cooked pancetta, bacon or ham for the prosciutto, she said, and gruyere, Swiss or Monterey Jack for the cheddar.

1 teaspoon olive oil, plus more for the ramekins
2 cups baby spinach, lightly packed
Pinch of salt
¼ cup diced prosciutto
2 slices of tomato
About ¼ cup grated cheddar cheese
4 large eggs
¼ cup heavy cream
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Rub the insides of two 8-ounce ramekins with oil.

Heat a medium-sized skillet over high heat. Add the olive oil, spinach and salt. Cook for about 1 minute to wilt the spinach. Divide the spinach evenly between the 2 ramekins. Evenly divide and layer the prosciutto, tomato, cheese, eggs and heavy cream in that order in the ramekins.

Bake for about 20 minutes or until the whites of the eggs are just done. Sprinkle with black pepper and serve immediately.

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