Breakfast cereal has been a morning staple for years, and for good reason. Many of us have nostalgic memories of dunking our spoons into a bowl full of crunchy goodness, scooping little shapes and colors into our mouths.
While you may have been thinking about the colors and flavors of your favorite breakfast cereal, you may not have been thinking about how breakfast cereals are an opportunity to provide an easy, convenient whole grain. When paired with milk and fruit, cereal can be a wholesome, balanced breakfast. Unfortunately, clever marketing, added sugar, and artificial colors have made many breakfast cereals not healthy at all.
Let’s take a look at what ingredients to search for in cereals, which ones to avoid, and 10 healthy breakfast cereals that kids (and parents!) can enjoy.
*The Institute for Integrative Nutrition has no affiliation with any of the cereals mentioned in this blog post and receives no compensation for featuring them.
Why Does Choosing a Healthy Cereal Matter?
When had for breakfast, cereal can help set the stage for the rest of the day. Start off with sugar-laden, fun-colored foods, and you may be temporarily satisfied ‒ but this could lead to an afternoon crash and cravings for more sugar. Fueling your body properly with foods that are not just healthy but healthy for you can leave you feeling ready to make the most of your day.
Ingredients to Look for in a Healthy Cereal
Cereals are a great way to incorporate whole grains into your diet. Check the nutritional panel of your cereal box for phrases like 100% whole grains or whole wheat or even wheat bran. If you are gluten-free, you’ll want brown rice or corn. Aside from these, there are other important ingredients to consider.
About 95% of Americans fail to meet the recommended daily intake of fiber, which is 20 to 40 grams for most children. Healthy breakfast cereals can help boost your consumption of fiber in a delicious way. Optimally, the healthy cereal will have five or more grams of fiber in a serving. This will not only help you feel fuller for longer, but it’s also good for managing healthy cholesterol levels as well as “keeping things moving,” for your gut health.
Protein is not something that’s generally thought about with cereal, but keeping your macronutrients balanced is important. With cereal, aim for three to five grams of protein per serving, which will go toward the recommend amount of protein per day, which ranges from 13 to 50 grams for most kids.
Bright, artificial colors are eye-catching and fun, but research has indicated that the dye used may be linked to hyperactivity or attention problems. Additionally, it’s been reported that up to 4% of people have some level of sensitivity to food dyes ‒ specifically, red dye 40. A simple way to avoid potential sensitivity is to avoid any products with food dyes.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 25 grams (about 6 teaspoons) of added sugar per day. When you start paying attention to cereal labels (and other food labels) and reading the number of added sugars on many of them, you’ll see that it’s easy to meet the daily limit early in your day. For that reason, make sure to read the labels and consider the added sugars per serving. Spoiler alert: Those fun-colored boxes many kids are begging for are probably not going to make the cut.
Healthiest Cereals for Kids
Based on some of the major criteria for whether a cereal is on the healthier end of the spectrum – added sugar, fiber, protein, and length of ingredients list – we’ve compiled the 10 healthiest cereals you can feel better about stocking in the pantry.
1. Cheerios Whole-Grain Cereal
An oldie but goodie, this staple still makes the list as one of the healthiest cereals. Why? Whole-grain oats are the first of just six ingredients, all of which are non-GMO. It boasts five grams of protein and four grams of fiber, and there are only two grams of added sugar.
2. Barbara’s Shredded Wheat
This cereal is made with just one ingredient: whole-grain wheat. It has zero grams of added sugar, six grams of protein, and an impressive seven grams of fiber! Add some fruit and milk (regular or dairy-free) to make this a great start to your family’s day.
3. Nature’s Path Whole O’s
This cereal is similar to Cheerios but even simpler. Made with just five ingredients, this organic cereal contains the suggested amounts of protein and fiber and has just four grams of added sugar. It also comes in eco-friendly packaging.
4. Nature’s Path Heritage Flakes
Made with Kamut wheat flour, wheat bran, whole wheat, and just a few more ingredients, this option is another hearty, healthy cereal. One serving size offers five grams of protein, an impressive seven grams of fiber, and five grams of added sugar.
5. Nature’s Path Mesa Sunrise
This cereal is made up of corn meal, flaxseed, buckwheat flour, and quinoa, making it a great option for those who need or want to be gluten-free. Bonus: It’s organic and comes in eco-friendly packaging.
6. One Degree Sprouted Brown Rice Crisps
This option is a play on classic Rice Krispies, but it’s more nutritious for kids. Organic sprouted brown rice makes nutrients more bioavailable and easier to digest, and this cereal has just three other ingredients. Bonus: Not only are these crisps good as a breakfast cereal, but they’re great in recipes like Salted Caramel Crispy Rice Treats.
7. Bob’s Red Mill Classic Oatmeal
Oatmeal is cereal, too! With just four ingredients (rolled oats, chia seeds, flaxseed, salt), this hot cup of cereal with zero added sweeteners allows you to get a full dose of fiber (seven grams) in one to-go cup.
8. Bear Naked Triple Berry Granola
We looked high and low for a good granola that has less than five grams of sugar per serving ‒ and this is in the running, with six grams per serving. On the plus side: It’s got seven grams of protein; six grams of fiber; and fun freeze-dried raspberries, blueberries and strawberries that your kids will enjoy.
Another oldie but goodie, Wheaties has been fueling champions for an impressive 100 years! Your kids may enjoy seeing a famous face on the box (we know we used to), and you, as the parent, will enjoy seeing that it has few ingredients. This cereal contains only four grams of sugar per serving and a good amount of fiber, too.
10. Rice or Corn Chex
Simple in ingredients, they provide a powerful crunch. Rice or Corn Chex are simple to snack on and are just as good dunked in some milk or served with fruit on top! Both have protein, fiber, and minimal sugar, and they’re available in most major grocery stores.
The Bottom Line
Navigating the cereal aisles can seem daunting. Whether there’s a struggle between you and your child or a desire to know what is best, following a few simple steps can take the guesswork out of which boxes to pick. Look for minimal, real food ingredients, fiber, protein, and small amounts of added sugar.
In general, finding what works for you and your family is a bio-individual process – that's IIN’s core concept, and it means we need to discover what foods work for us as individuals – and involving your children is a great way to get them excited about making healthier choices. Doing a little research and choosing healthy breakfast cereals can be a great way to start your day!