When you were a kid, do you remember the houses that were always stocked with the "good" cereal—and by "good", I mean the kind that was rainbow colored, loaded with sugar, and endorsed by cartoon characters? Everyone wanted a sleepover at that house.
Growing up, my house was never that house. And now I'm not that house either (though I'm okay with my kids having sugary cereals for our annual beach vacation— read why). I do think cereal can be a healthy staple: It's one of the top sources of iron for kids, a mineral that many children may be lacking. It's also been shown in some studies that kids who are cereal eaters have higher intakes of certain nutrients—likely because many cereals are fortified with vitamins and minerals.
So when I'm in the cereal aisle, facing down rows upon rows of boxes, I use this criteria:
Around 5 grams of sugar per serving: Sometimes I buy cereals with less than 5 grams, like Cheerios (1 gram) or Kix (3 grams). Other times I buy one with slightly more, like Peanut Butter Puffins (6 grams). Having a tough time finding one that works? Buy a low- or non-sweetened cereal (such as plain o's or shredded wheat) and add your own sweetener. Even sprinkling on a half-teaspoon of sugar would result in far less sugar than many kids' cereals packs. Or combine a sweetened cereal with an unsweetened one in the same bowl to cut the total sugar in half.
No artificial colors: Many brightly colored children's cereals are made with synthetic dyes, which have been called into question for a possible link to attention problems. The good news is that more and more manufacturers are taking out artificial colors and replacing them with plant-based colors. In the meantime, look out for colors with numbers beside them (such as Red 40) if you want to avoid artificial dyes.
No artificial sweeteners: In an effort to lower the sugar content of cereal, some manufacturers have added artificial sweeteners. If you'd like to avoid those, watch out for ingredients like sucralose and acesulfame potassium. Read more about why I avoid artificial sweeteners here.
Some fiber: Beyond being good for general health, fiber gives cereal a staying power to keep kids fuller in the morning. Plain shredded wheat has a whopping 7 grams per bowl (about a third of daily needs), and you can add a small sprinkle of sugar or drizzle of honey for a touch of sweetness. You can also sprinkle chopped or slivered nuts onto lower-fiber cereal to add a fiber boost.
What are YOUR favorite cereals to serve your kids?
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook Twitter Pinterest, and Instagram. She collaborated with Cooking Light on the book Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.