This is by far the most frequently asked question I get in my office. Why? well first, it is super convenient, so parents love it. Second, many are pretty sweet, so kids love it. And third, it’s a pretty cheap meal so people eat it a lot. So, is cereal healthy? Let me break it down.
But first, a little back story….
I consider myself a true 90’s child in just about every way possible. I am talking full on 90’s favorites. My garage was home to the skip it, moon shoes, the neon pogo stick, you name it, I loved it! I also grew up with a wide array of sugary cereal favorites. So let me start by saying, I am not going to tell you to stop buying your kids cereal.
Sometimes I hate to admit it, but here are a few that were in my line up:
- Captain Crunch with crunch berries,
- Coooooo-kie crisp!
- Berry berry kix
- Rice crispy treats cereal.
All sugar loaded. I’m pretty sure some of those are not even on the market anymore!
Here is the kicker….while all these cereals made a regular appearance in my household, we also had plenty of breakfast options without lots of added sugar.
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Don’t make sugar a big deal
I don’t remember cereal ever being a big deal in my house. I loved it, but I didn’t eat it every day. I think I turned out okay 🙂 and your kiddos will too! They key is to maintain a good balance between the sugary stuff and the good for you stuff.
If you have read any of my other blog posts or worked with me one on one, you know I am all about including things your kids enjoy but doing so with firm limits.
So while a little sugary cereal isn’t going to hurt them, and while you will never hear me say cut out all cereal, I will tell you that there are some pretty good alternatives without a ton of added sugars that your kiddos just might love.
But really, is cereal healthy?
Ready-to-eat breakfast cereals are not only quick and easy as a breakfast, but they also contain many nutrients that are important for growing children. Most breakfast cereals are fortified with key nutrients including B vitamins, iron, calcium, and vitamin D that help kids grow!
So the short answer is YES!
Breakfast cereal can be a great and nutritious option for kids while helping them meet key nutrient needs. However, walking down the cereal aisle can be very overwhelming for parents. There are so many options, colorful boxes and fun characters that catch your child’s attention. Sometimes, I even hear parents tell me the cereal aisle causes fights between them and their kids. Additionally, it can be confusing for parents to identify a good cereal option when there are so many claims listed on the boxes.
What to look for when buying cereal
There is no one best cereal out there, but there are certainly many that are good breakfast options. The key is knowing what to look for when you are shopping. Understanding a few key items on the box can help you pick a better cereal choice for your kids.
- Look for cereals that are low in added sugars.
- You can identify added sugars by reading the label on the back of the box.
- High sugar cereals also tend to be lower in fiber. These cereals do not keep kids full as long.
- Sugar may be listed in many different forms. Here are a few:
- raw sugar
- brown rice syrup or other types of syrup
- Despite what you may have heard, sugar is sugar no matter how natural it seems.
Goal: Find cereal with no more than 9 grams of sugar per serving.
- Fiber is an important component of your child’s diet because it helps keep them full and satisfied longer.
- It also helps (along with protein/fat) to combat the “I’m hungry” statement 20 min after breakfast.
- Fiber is one way to help with bathroom regularity and may help prevent constipation in children.
- More on constipation here. (Free printable included!)
- Fiber needs vary by age. A good rule of thumb to determine how much fiber your child needs is to take their age and add 5 to it. This will tell you the daily grams of fiber your child needs.
- EXAMPLE: if your child is 4 years old, 4 years + 5 grams = 9 grams of fiber per day.
- Breakfast cereal can be a great way to help meet your child’s daily fiber goals if chosen well.
Goal: Find cereal with ~5 grams of fiber or more per serving.
- There are two types of grains, whole and refined.
- Whole grains contain all parts of the grain, the bran, germ, and endosperm. These contain fiber.
- When reading the label, you might see these listed as:
- Whole wheat flour
- Cracked wheat
- Brown rice.
- When reading the label, you might see these listed as:
- Refined grains go through a process of milling to remove the bran and germ, which removes the fiber and some other nutrients.
- These can be enriched, a process where nutrients are added back to the grain, however, fiber is not one of these nutrients.
- When reading the label you might see these listed as:
- White flour
- Enriched Flour
- White rice
- If the first couple of ingredients in cereal includes 100% whole wheat, oats or whole grains you can be confident that it is a whole grain cereal.
- If wheat is in the first couple of ingredients, but it’s listed without the word “whole”, or if it’s listed as enriched or refined, it does not contain whole grains. (At least not in any significant amount).
- Sixteen grams of whole grains is considered one serving, and one serving can have anywhere from ½ to 3 grams of fiber.
- If any form of sugar is listed in the first few ingredients, it likely has more than 9 grams of sugar per serving and does not meet the sugar goal above.
Goal: Find cereal that contain whole grain or oats as the first ingredient, not refined grains or sugar.
- Cereal serving sizes are determined by density, not necessarily by amount, so they can range anywhere from about 1/3 cup to over 1 cup.
- Be aware of the serving size when purchasing and serving cereal to your children.
- While I typically encourage parents to choose the foods and allow their child to determine how much of it they eat, it is still important to understand typical serving sizes.
- It’s easy to pour too much cereal in a very large bowl, this can lead to food waste. Pouring a large amount may also lead to overeating if the child is distracted during the meal (such as watching TV) and not listening to their hunger cues.
- Using a smaller fruit bowl can help with proper portioning.
- I always encourage parents to serve something alongside cereal for breakfast (such as fruit, nuts or another protein-rich food source.
- This allows for more food at the meal to satisfy hunger and help will fullness.
- Including at least 2 -3 food groups at meals also helps meet more of their nutrient needs.
What if my kids only like sugary cereal?
Many parents feel their children will refuse the recommended cereal choices. If your child is accustomed to sweet cereals it might take some time and patience, but it is possible to make a successful transition.
When I ask parents what other cereal options they have tried, 9 times out of 10 they tell me they haven’t actually tried many other kinds of cereal. Or they tell me they bought plain cheerios and they sat unopened in the cupboard.
If you give kids the option to eat whatever they want for breakfast, they will take it.
So let’s head back to the food parenting topic I cover in a number of posts. As the parent, you choose the food and they decide if they are going to eat it or not. The same applies to cereal. If you purchase a new cereal and decide that is for breakfast on Monday, then serve that cereal (along with some fruit and another protein source). Most of the time you will find they will eat it, or maybe not and that is okay.
This doesn’t mean you never buy the fruity pebbles they love. It just means choose which day you are going to serve the fruity pebbles. Maybe for your family, Saturday morning is fruity pebbles day. Then if your kids ask for fruity pebbles on a different day, you can let them know that is not an option today but that they can have fruity pebbles on Saturday.
Allowing your children to still eat foods they enjoy while introducing new foods is the best way for them to develop healthy eating habits.
What about hot cereal? Is oatmeal healthier?
- Hot cereal can also be an excellent source of nutrition for children, however, be mindful of the flavored hot cereals (usually found in packets).
- Flavored oatmeal packets are much higher in added sugars and are often higher in sodium than the plain version.
- Common flavored cereals include:
- Apples and Cinnamon
- Maple and Brown Sugar
- Other flavor varieties
- I recommend buying plain quick oats or steel cut versions and then sprucing them up with your own flavors and toppings. (Letting kids add their own toppings is also a fun morning activity)
Goal: Look for plain versions of hot cereal including oats/oatmeal, quinoa blends and other varieties of hot wheat cereal.
Tips to add flavor to cereals with less added sugar
You can add variety, fun, and independence by offering different toppings to your children. Create a “cereal bar” on a countertop or kitchen table. Have a selection of low-sugar, high-fiber cereals (hot or cold) and different toppings on display for your child to choose.
Cereal Topping Ideas
- Fresh fruit
- Dried fruit
- Unsweetened cocoa powder
- Coconut flakes
- Nut/seed butter
- Get creative!
Goal: Have fun, get creative, enjoy a meal together! Don’t forget to grab my free guide (with pictures): “12 Healthy Cereal Ideas for Kids.”