When you were a kid, do you remember the houses that were always stocked with the "good" cereal—in other words, 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 of sugar, 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 questioned for a possible link to attention problems. The good news is that manufacturers are taking out artificial colors and replacing them with more natural alternatives. Plant-based colors such as beet-root concentrate and turmeric extract are totally fine, but skip cereals with artificial dyes like yellow 5 and blue 1 (basically, watch out for colors with numbers beside them). Brown cereals may also contain synthetic dyes, so don’t let them sneak by you.
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.
Whole grains go first. Whole oat, whole wheat, brown rice, or another whole grain should be listed first on the ingredient list.
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.
Extra vitamins and minerals. Many brands are fortified with iron, vitamin D, B vitamins, and other nutrients, but organic or “natural” choices may not be. Does it matter? Picky eaters can benefit from the boost; in fact, kids who
eat cereal are more likely to get enough iron, calcium, and the B vitamin folate. But if your child takes a multivitamin daily, she doesn’t need the add-ins, says Parents advisor Jill Castle, R.D. They could even be too much of a good thing.
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.