Healthy Breakfast Cereal and Your Kids

Friday, November 16, 2007 - 11:45am

By Stephanie Clarke, MS, RD, CDN and Willow Jarosh, MS, RD, CDN

Navigating the cereal aisle is a full-time job, with its boxes upon boxes of flakes, puffs, twigs, nuggets, and fruity this or cocoa that. Add a pint-size shopping cart co-captain with his or her own set of breakfast cereal criteria (cartoon characters ON the box; toys IN the box), and cereal shopping can be less than fruitful. The good news is that knowing the most efficient way to read a cereal box lets you quickly choose healthful cereals for your kids (and yourself). Follow these guidelines and you will wind up with healthful cereals that your kids will like.

Misleading food labeling

Don't let the millions of misleading terms, like "low-fat," "wholesome," "low sugar," and "multigrain" sway your cereal choices. Instead, go directly to the side panel! There is no information on the front of the box that you cannot easily determine from the Nutrition Facts Label and ingredient list.

Fiber from whole grains

If there is not at least three grams of fiber per serving, leave the box on the shelf. If there are at least 3 grams, check the ingredients to make sure that the cereal is made from whole grains (as opposed to refined flour with fiber added back in). The first ingredient should have the word "whole" in it. For example, "whole wheat," "whole oats," and "whole grain mix." Corn is an exception - it is a whole grain, but may not include the word "whole."

For information on new whole grains on the market see the following article from TheDietChannel: 3 New Delicious Whole Grains.

What is the right kind of fat?

Grains are naturally low in fat, so there is no reason a cereal should have more than 2 or 3 grams per serving. Healthful fats from added nuts or seeds are okay, but fat from unhealthy trans fats or saturated fats are not. Be sure to check the ingredients - leave the cereal on the shelf if hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils make an appearance.

Beware of sugar in your diet

For every 7 grams of sugar on the label, imagine 1.5 teaspoons of sugar sitting in your child's cereal bowl! However, some sugar is found naturally in fruit and grains. To get a better sense of natural versus added sugar, divide the grams of total carbohydrates by the grams of sugar to determine the carbohydrate to sugar ratio. This number should be at least 4 (the higher, the better). A cereal that contains 28g total carbohydrates and 12g of sugar (Frosted Flakes) has a ratio of 2.3, whereas one with 25 grams of carbohydrate and 3g of sugar (Kix) has a ratio of 8.3. If there are any artificial sweeteners in the ingredients, nix the cereal - even though they don't add sugar, they do contribute to a preference for sweeter cereals.

How to choose healthy cereals for breakfast

The most healthful foods maximize nutritionally rich ingredients and minimize nutritionally void ones; so think twice before choosing cereals with artificial colors and dyes. Also, you may have noticed that calorie recommendations aren't mentioned. If a cereal meets all of the above criteria, calories are likely within an appropriate range and come from healthful sources. When offering cereal to your kids, keep all cereals in clear plastic containers. This empowers kids to make their own food choices, but ensures that packaging doesn't play a role in cereal decisions.

Healthy breakfast cereals we like

A few cereals we like are: Cheerios, Wheat Chex, Cascadian Farm Clifford Crunch, Barbara's Puffins (original, cinnamon), Weetabix Organic Crispy Flakes, Nature's Path Heritage Raspberry Granola, Kix, Wheaties, Post Spoon Sized Shredded Wheat, Kashi Organic Promise (Cinnamon Harvest, Autumn Wheat).