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Back-to-school breakfast strategy

It’s overly processed. It’s overly packaged. Above all, it’s overpriced.

But breakfast cereal for me is something of an Achilles heel.

Maybe I can blame my mom for starting me on a steady morning menu of cereal as soon as I came of school age. They say some struggles are generational, so it’s probably little wonder that I perpetuate this dietary shortcoming, this concession to convenience, on my own kids.

The cereal aisle, characterized in grocery store tours that I conduct for a local nonprofit organization, is a minefield of murky ingredients, competing calorie counts and nutrition facts that require mathematical calculations, all overlaid with sugar and bundled into colorful cardboard. For all the impetus to buy breakfast cereal, there are myriad reasons to bypass it.

But do as I say, not as I do, I tell those taking the store tour. And I know I can do better.

So I strategized a back-to-school mission last fall to reduce reliance on breakfast cereal, offering it as a weekend “treat” to my 5-year-old son whose Cheerios addiction had become a tad concerning. Involving him in a day of cooking, I explained that he would have his choice every day among a few breakfast items. All we had to do was decide the night before what he wanted to eat, so we could thaw it out.

I chose items that would freeze and thaw well, even in a pinch in the microwave. Because we still had lots of garden zucchini on hand, quick bread was an obvious recipe. I envisioned spreading slices with cream cheese, my son’s favorite condiment, for a filling and healthy start to the day.

Even heartier are eggs. And although a scramble is hardly more involved than pouring a bowl of cereal, I wanted to make them a little special for my son. So I decided to bake individual frittata in a muffin tin. To make them more wholesome, I combined broccoli with ham and cheese.

Next up was a “breakfast bar,” a concoction of oatmeal, dried fruit and nuts that I could let my son mix and match. And to do double duty with the ingredients, I also planned homemade granola, an ideal recipe for giving kids some hands-on tasks in the kitchen.

At the end of the afternoon, I had several gallon-sized Ziploc freezer bags filled with miniature frittata, precut breakfast bars and presliced zucchini bread, plus a couple of quart-sized containers of granola — a cocoa-cherry flavor that I knew my son would love — to serve with yogurt.

And how did it go over? The recipes were decidedly forgiving, easily warmed in the microwave without sacrificing quality if we failed to transfer them to the fridge the previous night. I thought the zucchini bread and breakfast bars were improved by 30 seconds in the microwave.

My son deigned a few bites of the warm zucchini bread but left the majority untouched on his plate. Ditto with the breakfast bar. The frittata he accepted more readily but got bored with the flavor combination after several meals of it, not to say that I blame him. The granola proved most appealing, likely because it was most similar to his typical format.

So lest those made-ahead, grab-and-go breakfasts fossilize in the freezer, who ate most of them? I did. And I found them indispensable on rushed mornings when there’s hardly time to pour a travel mug of coffee as companion on my hourlong car circuit of two schools in two towns.

But that doesn’t mean I’m absolving us of better breakfast habits. My son graduated from Cheerios to Grape Nuts and Cracklin’ Oat Bran within the past year, after all.

The problem with so many breakfast cereals, even “healthy” ones, is their almost unconscionable quantities of sugar. Yet I found the same contradiction in my homemade breakfast bars, which contained more than a cup of brown sugar, plus 1/3 cup molasses. Imagine if I’d sweetened the deal for my son with the recipe’s optional chocolate chips. So I jumped on a “snack bar” recipe partially sweetened with fruit juice and fresh, rather than dried, fruit, using blackberries we had picked and locally grown peaches.

And because the garden zucchini was getting away from us, I made another batch of zucchini bread, this time flavored with lemon and orange extracts, instead of vanilla. Packed with more shredded zucchini than Betty Crocker indicated, the bread benefited from slightly underbaking to my son’s enthusiastic approval. This time, I had to take what slices I could get after he’d had his fill.

Confidence buoyed by those successes, I also plan to revisit the eggs-in-a-muffin-cup concept. This recipe for Mini Ham and Egg Casseroles would be a savvy way to use the heels of commercially sliced bread or the remnants of any artisan loaf on the verge of staleness. Ditto for bits of ham or other lunch meat left over at the end of the week. Similar to strata, the casseroles could be assembled the night before and baked in 15 minutes for fresh-from-the-oven “muffins” with much more staying power.

Oatmeal, Blackberry and Peach Snack Bars

1/3 cup orange juice

2 tablespoons cornstarch

2 tablespoons, plus 1/2 cup packed light brown sugar, divided

1-1/2 cups fresh or frozen blackberries

1-1/2 cups diced fresh or frozen peaches

1-1/2 cups quick rolled oats

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup butter, softened

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 large egg, lightly beaten

In a medium saucepan, whisk together the orange juice, cornstarch and 2 tablespoons of the brown sugar. Add the blackberries and peaches, then stir over medium-high until mixture is simmering and thickened, for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Coat a 7-by-11-inch (or 9-by-9-inch) baking dish with cooking spray.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the oats, flour, remaining 1/2 cup brown sugar, the butter and baking soda. Mix together with a fork until dough is crumbly but beginning to hold together. Set aside 1 cup mixture.

Mix the egg into dough remaining in bowl. Transfer dough with egg to prepared baking dish and press it evenly over bottom. Spread reserved fruit filling on top, then sprinkle reserved crumb mixture over it.

Bake in preheated oven for 30 to 35 minutes, or until lightly browned and bubbling. Transfer dish to a wire rack to cool completely, for about 1 hour. Cut into 16 bars.

Mini Ham and Egg Casseroles

1 (8-inch) baguette, cut into small cubes (may substitute any bread cubes)

4 ounces cream cheese, cut crosswise into 12 slices

1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

1/4 pound thinly sliced ham, chopped (about 1 cup)

4 scallions, white and green portions, trimmed and thinly sliced

Pinch ground black pepper, plus more to taste

1-1/2 cups half-and-half

6 large eggs

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

Salt, to taste

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly coat a 12-cup muffin pan with cooking spray.

In each well of muffin pan, arrange the bread cubes to fill halfway up pan’s sides. Top each bread portion with 1 slice of the cream cheese. Set aside.

In a small saucepan over medium, heat the olive oil. Add the ham, scallions and a pinch of pepper. Saute until scallions are tender, for about 5 minutes. Stir in the half-and-half and bring just to a simmer, then remove from heat.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, thyme and a pinch of salt, then whisk in warm half-and-half mixture. Pour egg mixture over bread in each muffin cup, then bake in preheated oven until puffed and golden around edges, for about 15 minutes.

Let cool for 5 minutes, then run a knife around edges and invert onto a cooling rack.

Makes 4 servings.

— Recipe adapted by The Associated Press from the April 2008 issue of Every Day with Rachel Ray magazine.

Tune into Sarah Lemon’s podcast at www.mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-whole-dish. Email her at thewholedish@gmail.com.

Oatmeal, Blackberry and Peach Snack Bars are partially sweetened with fruit juice. Photo by Sarah Lemon