Healthy Cereals for Kids

Cereal is a simple and easy breakfast, but finding a cereal your kids will eat that’s also healthy for them can be tricky. The sweet, brightly-colored cereals advertised on TV and displayed prominently tend to be the least healthy. 

Here’s how to choose cereals your kids will like that also have the nutrients they need to grow and thrive. 

Ingredients to Look For

Kids are constantly growing and using their bodies, and it’s important to choose breakfast cereals with important ingredients and macronutrients listed on the box.

Dietary fiber. Fiber is an important part of a healthy diet, for kids and grownups alike. It helps prevent constipation and keeps the digestive system healthy. 

The current recommendation for kids is between 19 and 31 grams of fiber per day, depending on their age. Teens need 26 to 38 grams. The more dietary fiber listed on the nutrition label, the better. 

Protein. Protein is an important fuel for muscle and bone growth. Protein helps kids build healthier bodies. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, put together by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, recommends that kids over the age of four get at least 19 grams of protein daily, and kids older than nine should get at least 34 grams.

Cereals are not as good of a source of protein as milk or other animal products, but many cereals contain at least some. Higher levels of protein in their morning cereal will help even picky eaters hit their protein needs every day. 

Micronutrients. In the U.S., many brands of cereal are fortified with extra vitamins and minerals. These cereals have extra nutrition added compared to unfortified cereals, making them generally a better choice for growing people than unfortified cereals. 

If a cereal is fortified, it will list the extra nutrients on the packaging. Often, fortified cereals will include: 

  • Vitamin A
  • Thiamine (Vitamin B1)
  • Riboflavin (Vitamin B2)
  • Niacin (Vitamin B3)
  • Vitamin B6
  • Vitamin B12
  • Vitamin D
  • Folic Acid
  • Zinc
  • Iron
  • Calcium

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Ingredients to Avoid

Most breakfast cereals are sweet, which is part of why kids like them so much. Cereals can also have lots of sodium. Both can make cereals less healthy. 

Sugar. Too much sugar  raises the risk of getting diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, tooth decay, heart disease, and obesity. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids eat less than 25 grams of added sugar daily, or about six teaspoons’ worth. 

Added sugar includes all sweeteners added during the production process, but it doesn’t include sugars that are naturally found in foods. For example, the fruit sugar found in an apple doesn’t count toward the added sugar limit, but honey, table sugar, agave, or high-fructose corn syrup in cereal all do. 

Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be a health difference between different types of added sugar, either. High-fructose corn syrup affects your health almost identically to table sugar. It’s better to avoid both whenever possible. In general, look for cereals where sugar or forms of sugar are not the first ingredient.

Sodium. On average, kids and teenagers eat as much as 3,100 milligrams of sodium a day, or about twice as much as is recommended. Eating too much sodium is linked with higher blood pressure in children and teens. Lower blood pressure in childhood can help reduce the risk of having high blood pressure as an adult. Simply eating less sodium can help.

Doctors suggest looking for cereal options with less sodium included in the ingredients. Even some “heart-healthy” cereals may have too much, so look for something with under 140 milligrams of sodium per serving.

Healthier Cereal Options for Kids

Knowing that protein, fiber, and micronutrients are important, and added sugar should be avoided, look for cereals that are both low in added sugars and high in other valuable nutrients and are generally fortified

Oatmeal. Oatmeal is high in fiber and completely free of added sugars unless you add them yourself or buy flavored instant oats. Plain oatmeal has 4.8 grams of fiber per one cup cooked serving and only one gram of sugars total. It also has five grams of protein, making this the most nutritious and customizable cereal option by far.

Toppings. If plain cereal doesn’t appeal to your child, you can dress it up with healthy toppings. A few to try include:

  • Fruit. Slices of apple, healthy berries, and chunks of banana can add sweetness with natural sugars.
  • Nuts and seeds. Hemp seeds and flax are popular choices, as are almonds and walnuts. Nuts can have lots of calories, so only add a few.
  • Nut butters. For warm cereals like oatmeal, stirring in a little peanut or almond butter can add flavor and protein.
  • Cinnamon. A dusting of cinnamon is a flavorful stand-in for extra sugar.
WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Pediatrics: “Added sugar in kids’ diets: How much is too much?”

American Heart Association: “Sodium and Kids.”

Cleveland Clinic: “How Much Fiber Do Children Need?”

Cleveland Clinic: “How to Pick a Healthy Cereal.”

FDA: “Added Sugars on the New Nutrition Facts Label.”

FoodData Central: “Oatmeal, multigrain, NS as to fat.”

Harvard Health Publishing: “Which is better, high-fructose corn syrup or table sugar?”

Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Use of Dietary Reference Intakes in Nutrition Labeling. Dietary Reference Intakes: Guiding Principles for Nutrition Labeling and Fortification, National Academies Press, 2003.

U.S. Department of Agriculture: “Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

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