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4 Ways to Choose a Healthy Breakfast Cereal for Kids

posted: 08/27/15
by: Blythe Copeland
kids eating cereal
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When it comes to quick and easy breakfasts for kids rushing out the door to school, few meals fit the bill like cereal: It comes in nearly endless varieties, so everyone can find a brand he likes; it's relatively inexpensive; and kids can prepare it almost without supervision (especially if you pre-measure bowls and cups of milk the night before). But with shelves full of cereals that are loaded with sugar, dye, and preservatives, finding a healthy option is essential to setting up a successful morning routine.

1. Look for whole grains.

Whole grains are grains that "contain 100% of the original kernel -- all of the bran, germ, and endosperm," according to the Whole Grains Council. The whole grain seed provides nutrients, antioxidants, and vitamins that can be lost when the grains are stripped and processed. Cereals labeled "whole grain" or "whole wheat" count, as does oatmeal, but "wheat", "wheat flour", and "multigrain" don't necessarily mean you're getting whole grains. You need to read the ingredient list, too; according to the WGC, "If the first ingredient listed contains the word "whole"...it is likely -- but not guaranteed -- that the product is predominately whole grain. If there are two ingredients and only the second ingredient listed is a whole grain, the product my contain as little as 1% or as much as 49% whole grain." (The Council also provides a list of cold cereals classified as whole grain.)

2. Check the sugar content.

Kids' cereals are known for being packed with sugar, which is part of why the Trix, Cocoa Puffs, and Lucky Charms you remember from childhood were so delicious; one study found cereals aimed at kids had 40 percent more added sugar than cereal meant for adults. The American Heart Association recommends no more than three teaspoons, or about 12 grams, of added sugar a day for kids -- including what they get from juice and other drinks, sweetened applesauce or fruit cups, and cookies or other treats. But some of the other classic childhood cereals you remember are low-sugar options: Think Cheerios, Rice Krispies, and Corn Flakes.

3. Analyze the fiber.

Meals that are high in fiber are touted as great breakfast options because they keep you feeling full longer -- which means your kid can't blame hunger for bombing that mid-morning math test. Many of the best sources of fiber are whole grains (which you already have covered!) and fresh fruits--so adding a handful of berries or a sliced apple alongside a bowl of cereal can offer a boost of fiber to help get your kids through to lunch. Some experts also recommend giving a closer look to cereals that claim they are high in fiber but don't label themselves as whole grain: Added isolated fibers, like those from oat, soy, or corn, "have no proven health benefits," making the percent of whole grains a much better indicator of how healthy a cereal is.

4. Pay attention to portions.

Just like with anything else you feed your kids, portion control is one of the best ways to make sure their cereal habit stays healthy. Even good-for-you cereals come with calories, so if a serving isn't enough to satisfy your kids' hunger, pair it with fresh or frozen fruit, vegetables, or protein (think hardboiled or scrambled eggs, low-fat yogurt, nuts, or nut butter). And if you have a low-sugar, whole grain option they love, it doesn't have to just be for breakfast--offer it as an after-school snack for a midday energy boost, and save the sugary cereals for a weekend treat or dessert.