An International Spin on Breakfast

Our European tour is in full swing. We spent a week in Reykjavik, Iceland (presenting a Whole9 nutrition seminar at CrossFit Reykjavik), four days tramping across Sweden (culminating in a meet-and-greet with Whole9 Nutrition Partner Reebok CrossFit Karlstad), and five days in Denmark (hosting a Paleo Q&A session for Danish journalists at Kong Hans Kælder, and an abbreviated Whole9 seminar at Copenhagen’s famous Butcher’s Lab).

The cities have been gorgeous, and the people bright and friendly. But most important for this article, the food has been delicious, and breakfast (the meal most likely to be voted “bland and boring” while traveling) has been a surprising delight. We’ve enjoyed a generous breakfast buffet nearly every morning, either compliments of our hotel or while venturing out to a local restaurant—but these buffets are vastly different than what you find in North America.

Breakfast, American Style

A typical U.S. breakfast buffet at a nice hotel consists of bread, bread, and more bread. You’ve got toast, English muffins, regular muffins, Danish, croissants, pancakes, waffles, and French toast. (They typically serve five different kinds of cereal, too, just in case you haven’t had your fill of grains.)

If you’re lucky, they may have some low-fat yogurts, a tray of scrambled eggs, or some bacon or sausage. And if you’re very lucky, you’ll get a sad looking bowl of fruit (or a few bananas) added as an afterthought, at the very end of the line.

And at almost all breakfast buffets in America, you’ll find one thing in common… nary a vegetable in sight. No wonder one of the most common questions we get from people switching to a Paleo-style diet is, “What the heck am I supposed to eat for breakfast?”

Breakfast, Scandinavian Style

So when our hotels or the local restaurants we visited offered a breakfast buffet, we shrugged our shoulders and said, “meh,” imagining the typical buffet of home. But then we realized that Scandinavian countries think about breakfast very differently.

We were introduced to our overseas buffet lines not by bread, bread, and more bread, but by salads. Three different kinds of salads, with fresh greens, vegetables, dressings, and herbs. In fact, you started your buffet line by filling your plate with salad. (“Fill your plate with vegetables…” Sound familiar?) Many places also offered grilled or fresh vegetables in addition to the salads—grilled zucchini, roasted tomatoes, and raw carrots, peppers, and celery.

Next up were the cold cuts—large plates with ham, salami, turkey, smoked salmon, and several varieties of pickled herring. These were often paired with cold cheeses as well, either sliced or in large blocks. Many restaurants, including the all-organic BioMio in the Vesterbro neighborhood of Copenhagen, had a wide range of spreads for dipping or spreading—olive tapenade, pesto, and aioli were favorites. Vegetable-based soups were also popular fare, ranging from a chunky tomato to a split pea soup with ham.

Eggs were generally not the star of our breakfast show, with most buffets serving just hard and soft-boiled eggs. (Although Mother, also in Copenhagen, served a delicious egg frittata loaded with grilled peppers, onions, eggplant, and sundried tomatoes.) Bacon and various kinds of sausage were a staple, however, as were several varieties of yogurts, soured milks, and skyr with fresh berries and dried fruits.

And yes, of course, there was bread, generally in the form of various freshly-baked loaves and rolls. Pastries were at a minimum—and we observed only one buffet that offered very small, thin pancakes. (Certainly not thick cakes the size of your head like you’d find at home.) We mostly passed on the bread, although for “dessert” at Mother in Copenhagen, Melissa couldn’t resist a slice of freshly baked, still-warm white loaf smothered in Nutella.

When it’s worth it, it’s worth it.

Breakfast in Translation

So what does this mean for you? It means that “breakfast food” is merely learned behavior, and not a cemented prescription. It means that, with a little creativity, you can bust out of your breakfast rut, whether from a standard American diet (toast, oatmeal, cereal, orange juice) or Paleo diet (eggs, bacon, avocado) and pick up some delicious tricks from other countries.

  • Start your day with a big, fresh salad. Crisp greens and a balsamic and oil-based dressing are the perfect palate-cleanser first thing in the morning, and a tasty, nutrient-dense way to contribute to your “eat more veggies” venture.
  • Experiment with breakfast veggies. Most of us don’t wake up craving a big pile of steamed spinach, but what about pepper and carrot slices dipped in Dreamy Avocado dressing, or some grilled eggplant and zucchini drizzled with balsamic?
  • Many people worldwide start their day with soup, so try a hearty butternut squash bisque, tomato soup, or sip on a cup of bone broth to get your day off to a warm start.
  • Breakfast meat isn’t limited to eggs, bacon, or sausage. How about smoked salmon? All-natural salami or other forms of high-quality charcuterie? Leftover chicken, turkey, or even an egg-topped burger makes for hearty, satisfying breakfast fare. (And if you do choose eggs, mix them up! Try hard-boiled one day, a frittata from It Starts With Food the next, and an Asian-inspired  veggie stir-fry with eggs the following morning.
  • Enjoy fruit as part of your breakfast meal, but don’t make it the star of the show. Too much sweet stuff right after waking can promote cravings and hunger throughout the day, so skip the juices and smoothies.
  • Finally, stop thinking about it in terms of traditional breakfast! You can eat steak at 8 am just as easily as you can eat eggs and bacon at 8 pm – how liberating!

So take some cues from Scandinavia, and start thinking about your “meal number one” in a different (and refreshing) way. Want some additional “breakfast without eggs” ideas? Check this thread on the Whole9 Facebook page. Looking for some breakfast-that’s-not-breakfast inspiration? Check out the Whole30® section on Chowstalker, with 26 pages (!) of Whole30 Approved meals.

Ready to  share your best non-traditional breakfast idea or recipe? Drop it in comments.

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  1. Ed says

    Alright, I gotta ask – I know “liquid food” is generally not the best route to go but I’ve been making a habit of a smoothie with some coconut milk, small amount of mixed berries, and about 2 cups of spinach to go with a plate of eggs. Seems like such an easy way to get a good amount of green in! Am I cheating myself terribly much?

  2. Naz says

    Love this! Eating in Europe is a whole other experience! I think I’m going to have to give up eggs for a while possibly so thanks for reminding me there’s other things out there to try :)

  3. says

    Breakfast was one of my favorite meals when I visited Austria and Germany in the spring of this year.

    While there was no lack of fresh bread and pastries – the variety of cured meats (Schinkenspeck – similar to prosciutto and bacon), cheeses and fresh sausage (Weisswurst was great!) as well as yogurt meant I was never hungry for a morning of meetings.

    I also loaded up with breakfast before my return flight to the US – which allowed me to miss one of the pitfalls of healthy eating, airplane meals and snacks! I fasted through an eight hour flight with the exception of an apple.

  4. says

    Ed, I’m pretty okay with that “smoothie,” mostly because (a) you’re eating is as a supplement to real food, not in place of it, and (b) it’s clearly vegetable-driven, and not a fruit-bomb. In that context, as long as you have enough room in your stomach to get your eggs and other real food down, go on with your spinach drinks in the A.M.

    Naz, we are LOVING salads for breakfast here! I load it up with freshly squeezed lemon or an olive oil and balsamic dressing (heavy on balsamic) – it’s like brushing my teeth with delicious, healthy food. (I can’t explain it, but it feels very cleansing to me.) Get out there and explore!

    Dennis, we load up on breakfast too – it’s our biggest meal of the day here! With so many good food options, great espresso for Dallas, and a culture that encourages a leisurely, social meal, it’s really easy to let breakfast turn into a 90 minute affair.


  5. Naz says

    Thanks Melissa, in between your posts in Europe and another blog of a person who recently traveled to Iceland and other European destinations I’ve already got a whole bunch of inspiration, now just have to put it into practice!

  6. Drew says

    I was making a fritatta every morning but this week decided to switch it up. I have a plate with sausage, eggs, arugula tossed in lemon juice and cracked pepper, a few cut up strawberries and bananas.

  7. says

    I hope you both got a chance to try reindeer; it was the thing I last expected to enjoy as a cold cut, but I was pleasantly surprised, and spent the rest of my time in the Baltics trying to have more of it.

  8. Maria says

    Having grown up in Spain, my bone broth tomato soup breakfast is so easy, it’s common fare. I don’t even need to reheat….straight out of the fridge, and I”m good to go.

  9. Kel says

    Clearly, you must know that I have had breakfast on my mind. I am on Day 6, and breakfast has been my biggest challenge. Don’t get me wrong – I LOVE breakfast, but I think what I always loved was the sweet start to my day. This has been a big, and necessary, adjustment for me.

    I am happy to see that some fruit is okay; I really have been trying to not have fruit at breakfast.

    I might just try rocking a salad tomorrow! Thanks for the continued inspiration. (And had you not had a warm slice of bread with nutella, it would have been criminal.)

  10. says

    I’ve always loved savory stuff for breakast, so whipped cauliflower(boiled in homemade chicken stock and whipped with some pastured butter) with a grassfed burger is awesome. Plus it’s already made from the night before, so it’s a 2min breakfast.

    Try keeping some shredded parnsnips, yams and carrot in the fridge. Either cook it loose or make it into a patty and serve with tomatoes and smoked salmon or ham.

  11. Yvonne says

    It would be SO wonderful to be able to travel and get this kind of food for breakfast! Here in the US I have to bring my own food because, as you said, the “free” breakfast at motels is almost 100% grains–mostly refined wheat. Maybe we’ll take a trip to Europe next year after all!

  12. says

    Even though I am of Scandinavian heritage, the thought of pickled herring sends the icky shivers down my spine. BUT thanks for this post. I have had to rethink breakfast a lot lately because I have an immune reaction to eggs. So, often I turn to leftovers from the night before and will have turkey, chicken, or whatever protein sauteed with veggies. It is good to have some more ideas such as what you have written about.

  13. Frances says

    This is my favourite breakfast at present:
    Salad – made by finely slicing up 2-3 radishes, dicing a tomato, dicing about three inches of cucumber and tossing these three vegies in some olive oil and cider vinegar. Then fill the plate with a salad mix of bitter greens (eg lettuce, rocket, mustard, watercress, chervil and other bitter leaves). Toss again. Dice a boiled egg or two over the top. Toss again. Grind pepper on top. On the side a drizzle of tahini and a couple of figs. Walnuts are great too.

  14. rachel says

    Hi, I’d love to know if possible to chat with someone on your “team”. I noticed Robin Strathdee in the forums seems knowledgeable and friendly. I’m just lost on whether this is right for me or WHAT could be…thanks…please let me know (or maybe can Robin email me if she gets this? Thanks.

  15. says

    Your breakfast ideas all sound fabulous – especially the “savory” ones. I’m not a sweets person first thing in the morning – never have been. But the savory stuff- the whipped cauliflower, for example – sounds divine.

    We arrived in Berlin, Germany yesterday and had a really gorgeous breakfast at our hotel this morning – really similar to what we’ve been eating on this trip. Lunch meats (salami and some kind of meat I couldn’t quite ID but was delicious), a hard-boiled egg, raw veggies (cucumbers, peppers, and tomatoes) with some kind of chive dipping sauce, and some yogurt with chopped hazelnuts, accompanied by an orange Rooibus tea. Perfection!

    Keep the good ideas coming!


  16. ladyhoward says

    Melissa – i’m just curious about the yogurt. I thought I remembered you saying that dairy bothered you. It does me as well, so I was wondering what kind of yogurt you are able to eat without it wreaking havoc on your system. Thanks!

  17. rosita says

    funny you should bring this topic up. We were just in Europe and had the biggest problem with regards to food when it came to breakfasts. When we were in Amsterdam, our B&B host was a Philipino lady and so she made us eggs & bacon. There was an Italian couple that were also staying there and they seemed almost disgusted by the idea of eating protein for breakfast. They wanted “sweets” instead. Stuff that I would think of almost as a dessert they were having as breakfast.
    Brussels, Brugge and Paris were all similar. Very little options in the way of real food and almost all breads and pastries.

    I guess it really depends on where in Europe you are. Which reinforces the idea that “It means that “breakfast food” is merely learned behavior, and not a cemented prescription.”

    I’m loving all these great alternative breakfast ideas i’m seeing. I’ve already started adding more veggies to my breakfast and look forward to trying some of these new ideas out.

    THANKS everyone!

  18. June says

    All of that sounds delicious! I grew up in France where breakfast is typically a bread with jam and a hot chocolate or coffee. For my mother it was espresso and a cigarette :( Usually in a hotel breakfast, you’ll get pastries, bread, cheese, yogurt and fruit for sure and hopefully some boiled eggs…similar in england, italy and belgium. Ironically, I’ve never seen this type of vegetable buffet except in the States! We love a sweet breakfast but thanks to you I have dumped the bread and chocolate…my favorite breakfast is equal piles of fruit and scrambled eggs with coffee, it’s not exactly what you recommend but it’s a great change from before and works really well for me…baby steps :).

  19. Monica says

    Velvety butternut squash from Well Fed, cold, with a side of leftover coconut ginger pork. The butternut squash receipe is unbelievable. It is so liberating to be able to eat EVERYTHING for breakfast, even salads. Totally agree with the comment that it is a “learned behavior” that can easily be changed.

  20. says

    I got hungry reading your article.

    The last 22 years “brunch” in scandinavia has been developing from the typical english and american brunch to this healthy scandinavian style.

    On the top photo it says “slap af – hyg dig” it means something like “chil out – enjoy the coziness” – You made me miss eating brunch with my friends in Copenhagen :)

  21. says

    @LadyHoward: After spending about three years getting my gut in order, I did some specific testing of gut bacteria. Testing showed I was deficient in lactobacillus, so I decided to try some pastured, organic, plain sheep’s milk yogurt. Turns out at this point I tolerate it just fine, and I think it’s been helping to restore normal fauna. I didn’t go crazy with yogurt in Europe, but the stuff from Scandinavia was all pastured, and all plain (no sugar or flavorings) and it seemed to suit me just fine. Now that I’m home, I’m only eating it about once a week or so, though.

    @Søren Jensen: Thank you for translating that! Makes sense, given the very social and chill culture we saw while in Copenhagen, especially around food. We enjoyed every bite!


  22. says

    @Sarah, I worked with a naturopath to do a series of comprehensive testing, including stool testing to look at gut flora. I’d recommend finding a good functional medicine doctor or naturopath in your area to work with.


  23. Sara says

    Soup. BEST breakfast food, ever. (At least, it is for those of us in northern climates–been waking up to around -25 C all week….) I’m not a big fan of cold breakfast food, I guess I’m just too accustomed to warm, cozy, comforting foods first thing in the morning. Soups make it so easy to get protein and veggies AND fluids that don’t contain caffeine in one easy dose. They’re also super fast to reheat… which is good if you’re like me and tend to rely on the snooze button too much.

  24. Keri J says

    As a teenager I was able to spend 2 summers in Finland where we ate very much like what you describe. Although I still had a long way to go in my journey toward eating clean, I’m so grateful for the time spent in Helsinki that taught me that breakfast is no different from every other meal, and protein first thing makes for a much better day.