I get asked about healthy cereal a lot. Parents ask me questions like:
What are the best cereals for kids?
What is the healthiest cereal for kids?
Which brands qualify as a healthy cereal for kids?
If I look at the cereal box, can I tell if it’s healthy? Do I look at the ingredients in cereal?
Can you give me a list of some healthy cereal brands?
I usually rattle off five or six different low sugar options that I believe, as a pediatric nutritionist, qualify as a healthy cereal.
Typically, it’s the cereals I feed my own family!
But, seriously, what are the best cereals for kids?
It’s such a common question, I thought I’d dig a little deeper and address it here.
In this article, you’ll learn what defines a healthy cereal, what to look for, and 17 of the best cereals for kids you can easily buy at your local grocer.
The History of Cereal Brands
Cereal is a breakfast staple. It’s been around since 1863, when the first cold breakfast cereal, called Granula, was invented. From there, granola was conceived.
Afterward, the Kellogg brothers brought Corn Flakes to market. Since then, breakfast cereal has been a mainstay in the U.S. diet.
When I was a kid, I remember Cheerios and Corn Flakes.
I also remember getting really excited when Cap’n Crunch and Cookie Crisp came to market.
In college, my favorite cereal for breakfast and snacking was Cracklin’ Oat Bran, until I discovered Grape Nuts with an added topping of raisins.
Although cereal has gotten a bad rap over recent years for being too sugary, the truth is, healthy cereal can be a vehicle for some significant nutrients, particularly iron, zinc, folate, and B vitamins.
Nutrients and Ingredients in Cereal
If you look at the Nutrition Facts panel on any cereal box, you’ll see at the bottom a box that outlines the Daily Value for micronutrients.
These are represented as a percentage. Any percentage over 20% is a good source of that nutrient.
Fortified Cereals: A Source of Important Nutrients
Food fortification was done in an effort to alleviate common nutrient deficiencies. For example, flour and bread products were fortified with folic acid in order to prevent neural tube defects like spina bifida.
Milk was fortified with vitamin D to reverse the growing trend of rickets.
Salt was fortified with iodine to prevent goiters.
Cereal is one of the most commonly fortified foods.
Fortification means that vitamins and/or minerals are added to improve the nutritional quality of the food or to follow mandatory fortification rules, as in the case of folate added to flour and bread products.
In some of the best cereals for kids, you will commonly find the following nutrients:
The B vitamins such as thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B6), pantothenic acid, and vitamin B12 may be added to cereal to boost its overall nutrient content.
Iron is added to cereal because it is an essential nutrient for the body to properly function. In young, developing kids, iron is an at risk nutrient, especially for babies.
You can find zinc in many cereals, especially whole grain types. Fiber and phytates found in whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds may bind zinc and make it difficult for the body to absorb.
Fortification with zinc in cereal may promote better absorption from whole grain, high fiber cereals.
Vitamin D and calcium
Calcium and vitamin D are often added to cereals. Adding calcium to cereal has been shown to improve overall absorption of calcium.
Vitamin D was added to cereals during a time when rickets (bone softening and improper bone development resulting in bowed legs) was a public health concern.
Ironically, both calcium and vitamin D continue to be a nutrient of concern for children.Cereal can be a vehicle for important nutrients, particularly iron, zinc, folate, and B vitamins. Click To Tweet
As you can see, fortification may make cereal a robust and reliable source of nutrition.
However, there are critics of food fortification and the potential for nutrient toxicity, especially for vitamin A and niacin.
If your child takes a multivitamin and eats a lot of cereal, it’s possible to go overboard on certain nutrients.
Healthy Cereal for Kids Contains Fiber
Cereal may be a good source of fiber, or it may not be. Fiber is so important for kids, I consider it a requirement when evaluating the healthiest cereals for kids.
Whole grain cereals will be made with whole grain ingredients. Cereal may be fortified with additional fiber sources.
Some cereals have very little fiber and are made with refined grain products.
Generally, you can see on the front of the cereal box whether a particular cereal is a good source of whole grains by seeing a whole grain stamp.
You can also look on the Nutrition Facts panel for the amount of fiber per serving. A serving of whole grains means the product contains 16 grams.
Fiber is always part of whole grains, and children should try to eat their daily requirements from a variety of foods. Getting a source of fiber at the start of the day (or as a snack) through a healthy cereal may help your child meet their fiber requirements.
As I mentioned, fiber is one of my inclusion criteria for a healthy cereal for kids, as it helps them meet their daily needs.
Fiber Intake Goals per Day
|1-3 years||4-8 years||9-13 years||14-19 years|
|19 grams||25 grams||Girls: 26 grams |
Boys: 31 grams
|Girls: 26 grams |
Boys: 38 grams
Sugar in Cereal
The amount of sugar in a serving of cereal is certainly something to consider. A serving of cereal can contain anywhere from 1 gram of added sugar to 18 grams of added sugar, and possibly more.
In parent-speak, that means next to no sugar per serving and all the way up to 4 ½ teaspoons of sugar per serving. This sugar is built into the cereal, so anything else added to the bowl increases the overall sugar content.
For a refresher on how much sugar children should be eating in their daily diet, read: Simplifying the New Added Sugar Recommendations for Kids.
Health Benefits of Breakfast Cereal
According to a 2014 systematic review of breakfast cereals, oat-, barley-, or psyllium-based cereals can help lower cholesterol concentrations. High-fiber, wheat-based cereals can improve bowel function, relieving constipation symptoms.
[Got a constipated kid? In need of some natural home remedies for relieving constipation in kids? Read: Natural Constipation Relief for Kids]
Additionally, regular breakfast cereal consumers had higher intakes of carbohydrate, total sugars, and milk, and lower intakes of fat and cholesterol.
As you can guess, the consumption of vitamins and minerals was better. And, there was a greater likelihood of meeting the requirements for them, especially for calcium.I've got a filter for analyzing which #cereals are best for your child. Check it out! #healthycereal #lowsugar #highfiber Click To Tweet
Cereal Brands and Choosing the Best Cereal
I use a filter when I look at and evaluate the best cereals for kids. My first filter is the amount of sugar contained in a serving of cereal.
I like to target 9 gm or less of sugar per serving. This equates to about 2 teaspoons of sugar per serving.
Rest assured, the cereals that fall into this category will be healthy cereals and won’t include Cocoa Puffs, Trix or Lucky Charms.
It’s also important to note that serving sizes differ with cereal brands. Some may be a ½ cup, while others can serve up to 1 ¼ cup.
The second thing I look at is the fiber content. I like to see some fiber!
Constipation is a real issue for some kids and natural constipation relief is top of mind for their parents.
In order to get enough fiber, your child should also be eating foods such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains throughout the day. So, start the day with a good source of fiber to get things moving!
I’ve created a quick chart for you so you can answer the question: What is the healthiest cereal for my kid?
Using this chart, you can determine which cereal (s) would be best for your child and family. You’ll find 17 cereals that (mostly*) meet my criteria for low sugar and a source of fiber. *One low sugar cereal has no fiber! 🙁
17 of the Best Cereals for Kids + a FREE Comparison Chart Click To Tweet
Written by: Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Published on: April 4, 2018
Updated on: August 24, 2019