Pancakes are a classic American breakfast item, usually served with generous amounts of butter and syrup and available any day of the year. But today is officially National Pancake Day and to celebrate, we look at our love affair with the delicious breakfast dish and how to indulge in the day with healthier options.
The Origins of Pancakes
Evidence traces human consumption of wild grains to nearly 100,000 years ago and the cultivation and storage of cereals really took off about 10,500 years ago in Asia. Wheat was domesticated in the Near East around this time and made its way west where flour as we know it became a dietary staple. Simple grains and seeds were ground up, mixed with water, and placed on a hot stone in an open fire, thus giving birth to the first pancake.
Flat griddle cakes were consumed by the ancient Chinese, Greeks and Romans, and Middle Eastern civilizations and by the European Middle Ages, pancakes became an iconic food for Shrove Tuesday, the last day before the beginning of Lent in Catholicism. On this day, people used up perishable ingredients like eggs which were not allowed to be consumed in the days leading up to Easter Sunday and pancakes were a great way to use up extra food and fill your belly.
The American Pancake and National Pancake Day
The humble pancake was already being made with corn by Native Americans when Europeans arrived in the 17th century and brought along their own wheat-based version that they’d cook on a flat shovel over a fire, thus dubbing them hoe cakes. With the advent of the industrial revolution in the late 19th century, instant pancake mixes started hitting the shelves and the character Aunt Jemima quickly became a household name in America.
In 2006, The International House of Pancakes restaurant chain declared that every March they would celebrate National Pancake Day where guests are treated to a free stack of pancakes and are encouraged to make a charitable donation. To date, IHOP has raised $24 million for charity and given away a lot of pancakes.
The pancakes we order at a restaurant or whip up at home these days are a far cry from the unassuming little griddle cakes that humans used to once cook up over an open fire. Pancakes can be highly processed, loaded with sugar, and are little more than a nutritionally devoid medium on which we deliver everything from maple syrup and butter to melted chocolate chips and mountains of whipped cream.
The good news is that pancakes don’t have to derail your healthy eating plans. There are plenty of ways to make healthy and delicious versions and make sure the calories you do consume are nutrient-dense ones.
Building a Better Pancake
You don’t need to abstain from celebrating National Pancake Day if you’re worried about it throwing off your healthy diet. Here are some healthier options to eating flapjacks:
- Use alternative flours. Branch out and try different flours and meals that have interesting textures and flavor profiles. Blue corn pancakes are eye-catching and cause less of a blood sugar spike than white flour. Whole wheat flour pancakes are an easy way to get your daily consumption of grains while enjoying your meal. If you choose to use regular white flour, you can still sneak in a serving of protein by adding some protein powder as you mix the dry ingredients.
- Skip the artificial flavorings. Many commercial pancake syrups are actually nothing more than high-fructose corn syrup and artificial flavorings. Pass up the gallons of syrup and top your pancakes with fresh fruit, homemade chia seed jam, or if you are a purist, a small serving of real maple syrup served on the side. If you put sweetener in the batter, opt for something low-glycemic like Stevia instead of white sugar to avoid an energy crash.
- Go thin (and savory). Americans automatically think of pancakes as thick, sugary breakfast confections, but pancakes have been a dietary staple for thousands of years for a reason: they are incredibly versatile and the French are the authorities on this one. Thin, crepe-style pancakes are begging to be stuffed with nutrient-dense veggies and lean protein. Pack one with sauteed spinach, caramelized onions, and grilled chicken and you’ve got a seemingly decadent healthy lunch or dinner. Breakfast crepes can go savory and be filled with scrambled eggs, peppers, tomatoes, and avocado slices.
- Control your portions. One key rule which applies to all food consumption is to manage portion controls. As with anything in life, too much of a good thing can become bad, quickly.
No matter what style, size, or flavor of pancakes you decide to eat, one of the most appealing things about this simple food is that there are dozens of different ways to prepare it in a way that is nutritious, fun, and satisfying. Try some of these healthy pancake preparations out today or any other day of the year and you’ll have a meal that’s energizing, nourishing, and celebrates the thousands of years that humanity has reveled in its love of the humble pancake.