A Smarter Breakfast by Design

Whenever I create a recipe, I solve a problem. Specifically, I aim to invent a dish that tastes delicious and—pun intended—brings something new to the table. What’s more challenging is when I am trying to deliver an appealing flavor and texture in a nutritious package. Over the past few years as I’ve increasingly emphasized healthfulness, my job has gotten more difficult.

Normally, when I begin the process of inventing a recipe, I make a mental list of any relevant parameters, or limiting factors. For instance, my goal might be a chicken recipe with only five ingredients, or an egg dish that nods to Spain, ingredient-wise, and takes 20 minutes or less to prepare.

Yet, with a process called “design thinking”—which I learned about via an online course from IDEO—recipe creation (or the solution of any problem) revolves around putting the users first—and trying to improve their lives. Here’s how I used design thinking to create an original, problem-solving recipe.

Step 1: Frame a question

As I reflected on the eating and cooking issues that plague so many of us, I focused on breakfast. Many nutritionists deem the morning meal the most important one of the day. Personally, I agree, opting for my largest meal in the morning and smallest in the evening.

I decided to solve the following problem: How might I come up with a breakfast that is delicious, healthy, filling and effortless? Since my family eats seven breakfasts per week (and the costs add up), I also wanted to keep the recipe affordable, with easy-to-find ingredients.

Step 2: Gather inspiration

As I mulled over this problem, I thought about how most people wake up groggy and time-starved. If they’re truly in a rush, they might skip breakfast, or pick up a pastry on their way to work. With a couple more minutes, they might microwave a high-sodium, high-fat, high-sugar frozen meal or a packet or two of flavored, highly sweetened instant oatmeal. Or, they might reach for cereal with milk—and feel starved one or two hours later.

All of these options are mediocre, unhealthy and often not filling. Yet, a proper breakfast, full of fiber and protein (and low in sugar), is key for sustained energy. The problem is that the vast majority of people lack the time, energy and motivation to cook in the morning.

Step 3: Generate ideas

Next, I devised a list of main ingredients that would deliver fiber and protein, narrowing them down to oatmeal or muesli (both of which rely on whole-grain oats) and egg breakfast sandwiches. Then, I considered the challenges with typical preparations of these ingredients. For instance, microwave oatmeal packets are so popular because they are near-instant and flavorful. Yet, they are loaded with sugar and nearly devoid of protein. Meanwhile, homemade oatmeal (especially steel-cut oats) takes time to prepare.

An egg breakfast sandwich requires the preparation of eggs, the toasting of muffins and assembly. You could hard-boil eggs in advance, but not everyone would appreciate a version with cold eggs. Another possibility could be microwaved poached eggs, but that would entail layering the raw egg with other ingredients in a single serving cup in the morning. Too much work at the last minute.

Since oatmeal is more straightforward and sweet breakfasts are popular, I decided to come up with a version of oatmeal or muesli. Both are prepared (in mere minutes) the night before, and rely on inexpensive, easily-available raw oats.

Design thinking encourages un-self-conscious, unfettered brainstorming, including devising “mash-ups,” or—as the IDEO course describes it—“bringing odd or unexpected things together to spark fresh ideas.” Deciding to mash-up the two dishes, I considered combining raw quick-cooking oats (present in both dishes) with milk (typical of cold overnight oatmeal) and freshly grated apple (a staple ingredient in muesli). The next morning, cooks could stir in yogurt (common in muesli), if desired.

Since I aimed to make the dish healthful, I needed to figure out how to add flavor without sugar. To amplify the apple flavor—sans sweetener—I decided to stir in unsweetened applesauce. To increase the perception of sweetness, I would include pumpkin pie spice and unsweetened vanilla-flavored almond milk. Realizing that the recipe was still low-protein and not very attractive, I determined that I would garnish it with chopped toasted pecans. Again, yogurt could be added the next morning for additional protein and creaminess.

Step 4: Make ideas tangible

Before I test out a recipe, I always write what I call a “skeleton,” in which I predict the exact ingredients and procedure. In design thinking, this is called a prototype or mockup. With mine complete, I went “shopping” in my home kitchen (I always keep the ingredients for this recipe around), and prepared it.

As I tested out the dish, I made a few changes. For instance, I realized I could save cooks even more time if the recipe served six. Then, cooks would need to spend a mere 10 minutes once a week, to yield six breakfasts (since the recipe keeps for four days in the fridge, this means three days of breakfast for two people). This meant some changes to the recipe and its instructions, including upping the mixing bowl size from small to medium.

The next morning, I tasted the oatmeal-muesli, and made a few more adjustments—typical in design thinking, which is an iterative process. I realized that although the recipe was delicious as-is, I might sometimes feel like having it hot. I hadn’t considered the possibility of microwaving it before. This could let the cook could serve the recipe one of three ways: cold as-is, cold with added yogurt (for a more muesli-like feel), or hot. Perhaps in the summer, I would opt for the cold version.

The resulting recipe (below) not only solves the initial problem (or problems), but also addresses another one: It allows people with varied needs, desires and parameters to customize their morning meal in multiple ways. For instance, I try to avoid added sugar, so I do not add honey. However, many cooks might prefer a drizzle for enhanced sweetness. Indeed, this oatmeal-muesli is truly the little black dress of breakfasts.

When shopping for the ingredients, make sure to purchase “unsweetened” almond milk and applesauce and plain (unsweetened) yogurt, if using. For convenience, you can buy chopped toasted or roasted nuts.

Step 5: Share the recipe (or story)

Overnight spiced apple oatmeal-muesli

If you’re debating when to serve the recipe hot or cold, keep in mind that the oats soften more as the days go by. I prefer this breakfast hot the first day, and cold (with yogurt) on consecutive days.

Makes about six servings (3/4-cup portions)



  1. Using the large holes of a box grater, grate the apple into a medium bowl (together, the juice and flesh should measure about ½ cup). Stir in the milk, oats, applesauce, spice and salt. Cover tightly, and refrigerate for several hours or overnight.
  2. The next morning, serve one of three ways:

A) For hot oatmeal (if you have two minutes), spoon ¾ cup into a small (microwave-safe) cereal bowl, cover, and microwave until warm (90 seconds to two minutes), top with 1/6 of the nuts, and drizzle with honey, if desired.

B) For cold oatmeal (if you are in a rush), spoon ¾ cup into a small cereal bowl, and top with 1/6 of the nuts and, if desired, honey.

C) For cold, creamier, higher-protein oatmeal (if you have an extra 30 seconds), spoon ½ cup into a small cereal bowl. Stir in ¼ cup yogurt until well-mixed, and top with nuts and, if desired, honey.

Photo credit: Jennifer Pallian, Unsplash