There is no greater sense of victory than being seated at Russ & Daughters Café after a 90-minute wait on a Saturday morning. As I glide past the hostess stand, the smell of fresh coffee and warm bagels envelops me like a burst of applause, a “mazel tov” for my patience. I sit down with an audible sigh of relief, ignoring the menu in front of me. No matter who I’m with, the order is always the same: two cups of milky coffee, one toasted everything bagel with cream cheese and lox, velvety scrambled eggs, a ramekin of noodle kugel, and challah bread pudding. Once done, all that remains is the white ceramic dishware and a few sesame seeds.  

I lost my breakfast portion control at the tender age of six after watching the 1995 film, A Little Princess. It’s the story of Sara Crewe, a privileged young girl forced into a life of servitude after her father, Captain Crewe, dies at war—really uplifting stuff. Sara is left to struggle alone at a New York boarding school in the custody of Miss Minchin, the heartless headmistress. For escape, Sara regales her friend Becky with whimsical tales inspired by her earlier life in India. After one scene in which the malevolent Miss Minchin withholds a day’s worth of meals, a hungry Sara conjures up visions of a decadent breakfast spread, with “every kind of muffin God ever made—and all of them hot!”

The next morning, the girls wake up to find their tiny attic room transformed, an entire feast waiting, complete with bouquets of sunflowers and embroidered napkins. (Ah, the power of positive thinking!) Sara and Becky happily sit down to a buffet of piping hot sausages, fresh baked goods, and orange juice served in crystal glasses.

As a six-year-old, I had never seen such a sumptuous breakfast, and, until that moment, had never realized that breakfast could be enjoyed as an experience, rather than something I just did every morning, usually as quickly as possible. After that, nothing was the same. On vacation, the quality of the hotel breakfast buffet would make or break my stay—a stipulation that continues to this day. When I walk into that dining room, I expect no less than an omelet station, a variety of exotic fruits, a pile of pastries, and bacon still sizzling in its fat. The sight of cereal trapped in a cheap plastic dispenser, or worse, in a prepackaged bowl, just breaks my heart.

What is it about the first meal of the day that drives us to excess?

But I know I’m not the only person afflicted with a tendency to overindulge. Take a look at your Instagram feed—chances are, it’s crowded with spreads akin to Sara’s. What is it about the first meal of the day that drives us to excess? A lavish, unhurried breakfast experience transforms the monotony of a morning routine into invaluable “me time.” And it may have less to do with the quantity of food we consume than with the intention behind it. 

Yes, I go a little nuts at brunch, but my Tuesday morning nosh is typically a reasonably-sized bowl of oatmeal with all the fixin’s. A true breakfast—not just a PowerBar inhaled while running out the door—allows us to savor that sacred hour (or mere minutes) over which we have total control before ceding to the day’s obligations. What makes that scene in A Little Princess so memorable is not simply the impressive bounty, but the way it immediately, if temporarily, supplants Sara’s worries with joy.

Author John Gunther wrote, “All happiness depends on a leisurely breakfast.” Even the roughest of times, the bleakest of Monday mornings, can be salvaged by a mindful meal. Just ask Sara.