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When it comes to finding a healthy cereal for your kids, unfortunately there aren’t a ton of options to choose from. There are those that are obvious sugar bombs with their bright, artificial colors, marshmallows and favorite characters on their boxes, but cereals that have health claims like “a good source of fiber,” “gluten-free,” and “made with real fruit,” aren’t the best options for breakfast either.
In fact, a May 2014 study by the Environmental Working Group found kids who eat a bowl of cereal every day for a year get a whopping 10 pounds of sugar in their diets. What’s more, 92 percent of cereals contain added sugars, even those that are considered “adult cereals” or “family cereals,” the same report found.
So what should you look for in a kids’ cereal? And how can you cut through all the health hype and find one that’s actually healthy for your kids? Here are some things to consider.
Don’t buy kid-friendly cereals
One of the easiest ways to make sure you don’t buy some of the worst cereals for kids is to avoid those that are kid-friendly, marketed to kids and those that your kids are likely to beg you to buy when you’re at the grocery store. Think cereals that are neon-colored, in brightly colored boxes with animal characters and those that look more like candy than cereal.
Most kid-friendly cereals lack nutrition and are high in sugar—even those that are organic. Serving kid-friendly cereals also encourages picky-eating habits and prevents kids from craving healthy cereals and other healthy foods.
Avoid artificial ingredients
Studies suggest artificial food dyes like Red 40 can lead to attention problems. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests food dyes, preservatives and packaging materials should be avoided because studies suggest they can interfere with kids’ hormones, growth and development and may increase the risk for childhood obesity, according to a July 2018 report in the journal Pediatrics.
It may also be wise to avoid artificial sweeteners like sucralose, aspartame and acesulfame potassium (acesulfame K) because research suggests these may encourage cravings for other sweet foods and displace calories from nutritious, low-sugar foods. Studies also suggest consuming artificial sweeteners may lead to metabolic syndrome and type-2 diabetes.
Choose whole grains
When looking for a healthy cereal for your kids, look for those that are made with whole grains, such as whole wheat, brown rice, oats, or oatmeal. Whole grains contain vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and filling fiber which is stripped from refined grains.
Look for high-fiber cereals
Most kids don’t get enough fiber in their diets but fiber is important because it staves off hunger, balances blood sugar, boosts gut health, and prevents constipation. A diet high in fiber can also prevent weight gain and childhood obesity.
Read the Nutrition Facts labels, compare brands and look for cereals that have a good amount of fiber—at least 3 grams per serving or more.
Avoid cereals with added sugars
Feeding your kids sugary cereals prime their taste buds for sugar-sweetened foods.
Buy cereals for your kids that are low in sugar—less than 4 grams per serving—or have no sugar at all.
Also pay attention to added sugars, which most cereals contain and have no nutritional value. As food manufacturers roll out the new Nutrition Facts labels this year and over the next few years, you’ll see a line for added sugars so you can easily find the amount of naturally occurring sugars versus how much added sugar is in a cereal.
If you don’t see a line for added sugar, you can spot it by reading the ingredients. Added sugars can go by a variety of names but some include dextrose, fructose, honey, malt syrup, rice syrup, molasses, fruit juice concentrate, corn syrup, evaporated can juice, barley malt, and caramel.
Keep in mind that cereals with dried fruit, which although are natural sugars, are still concentrated sugars and the fruit itself may be coated with even more sugar.
If your kids are used to eating sugary cereals, they probably won’t like the switch. If they complain the cereal you choose lacks flavor, add cinnamon, slices of banana, or fresh berries for a flavor boost and added fiber. If there’s no other choice, they’ll eventually come around.
Consider fortified cereals
If your child is a picky eater and isn’t getting an adequate amount of vitamins and minerals from fresh fruits and vegetables and other whole foods, you may want to consider choosing a cereal that’s fortified with vitamins and minerals.
Look for cereals fortified with nutrients like calcium, vitamins C and D, folic acid, and iron.
Tips for Serving Kids’ Breakfast Cereal
Most cereals don’t have protein, which kids need in their diets for their growth and development, to build strong muscles, and to stave off hunger.
Consider pairing cereal with yogurt, a handful of nuts or adding an egg on the side.
Don’t overlook oatmeal
Individual packets and containers of oatmeal that you add hot water to and microwave are fast and convenient, especially when you’re rushing to get your kids out the door in the morning. Yet most are low in fiber, highly processed, and high in sugar.
If your kids like oatmeal, make a large batch of old-fashioned rolled oats or steel-cut oats for the week that you can portion out in the mornings. Add fresh fruit, cinnamon or other spices, nuts or seeds for added protein and fiber, and a bit of honey for a hint of sweetness if your kid won’t eat it otherwise.
You can also make overnight oats by combining almond milk, chia seeds and spices with oats in a mason jar for an easy, healthy, and delicious breakfast.
Watch portion sizes
Typical portion sizes for cereal are 3/4 cup or 1/2 cup but kids can easily fill up their bowls and get double, even triple, the amount of sugar.
To help your kids learn about healthy serving sizes, give them a measuring cup or bowl to dish out their own cereal.