Have you heard that you shouldn’t feed your kids cereal? That cereal is bad for toddlers? I can’t tell you how many times I have heard from parents that they feel guilty giving their kids cereal for breakfast, or that they haven’t ever considered it because of all the stories out there and the shame around “easy” foods and shortcuts. But cereal is a great nutritious option that makes getting breakfast on the table easier, and is something that can definitely be served to kids, with a few pointers and caveats.
Is breakfast cereal healthy for kids?
Before we get into what I recommend, let’s talk more about the elephant in the room. Can cereal be a part of a healthy diet for your kids?
Yes! Absolutely. With some caveats, of course.
Every grocery aisle in every country and city is going to look different. But I’d wager that the majority of cereal options on shelves are not ones that I would consider giving my kids every day.
Those super sugary boxes with lots of fun characters on them? You likely know the ones I’m talking about. Those aren’t something that I’d recommend being a standard part of your child’s diet.
All foods can have a place in a nutritious diet, and there are very few foods that I would ever say you should completely avoid. Those cereals included. They are okay sometimes, just preferably not as mainstays in your child's diet.
We know that some foods will help our children meet their nutritional needs more than others. Sugary cereals don’t tend to be in the helpful category, but some of the less sugary ones can be!
What to look for in a healthy cereal for kids
The biggest nutritional concern that I have with cereals as a dietitian is how much sugar they contain. Just taking a walk down the breakfast aisle of my grocery store and picking up boxes of cereal shows this.
Many boxes of cereal have 8-12g of sugar per serving (servings tend to be ¾ of a cup.) To put this in perspective, a teaspoon of sugar is 4g! Starting the day off with 2-3 teaspoons of sugar is not something that I generally recommend.
Look for low or no sugar cereals
Many dietitians out there will recommend sticking with 5g of sugar per serving or less for breakfast cereals. And while I think this is a decent goal, I tend to take a different approach.
When it comes to younger kids, meaning generally up to age 3 or 4, I still think 5g of sugar in their breakfast daily, or even a few times a week, is too much.
Instead, aim to have the majority of your child’s cereals with 1-2g of sugar per serving at most.
Just where can you find cereals like that? Look for the boring ones!
Things like O’s, wheat squares, rice crisps. The ones that don’t tend to have characters on them and really aren’t all that exciting. (I’ll show you in a bit how I recommend serving cereal to make them more interesting and filling, and not boring!)
Especially if you have a baby or a toddler, it can be fairly easy to start them off on the boring cereals and skip the sugar laden ones that tend to be marketed towards kids. That gives you the benefit of an easy and quick breakfast, without compromising their nutrition when they are young.
If you have an older child or you’ve already introduced some sugary cereals to them, all isn’t lost!
Try mixing in some of the boring cereals with their current cereals. As they get used to it, start to increase the amount of the boring ones and decrease the amount of the sugary ones.
Eventually you’ll get to a place where there is just a little, or none at all, of the sugary cereals.
Don’t worry about the other stuff!
If you are finding cereals that have 1-2g of sugar per serving at most, the chances that there is a lot of other "stuff" in them is pretty slim. These boring cereals tend to be ones that are pretty simple and not uber-processed with a lot of fillers.
You can get fortified cereals, or unfortified ones. Often, the store that I’m at dictates whether the cereal is fortified or not more than anything. Different brands will have fortified cereals, like O’s, and others will have unfortified O’s.
I’m looking for my cereal to provide a base food for a meal, and like to add additions myself. So I don’t tend to be super concerned with fiber, fat, or anything else in a cereal. The toppings you add to the cereal to make it interesting will provide all of that!
A list of healthy cereals for babies, toddlers, and kids
Here are some ideas for cereals to look for the next time you are at the grocery store. Keep in mind that different locations throughout the world will have different ones. It’s less about the name brand and more about the type of cereal to look for!
From experience, here in the US I can often find some of the best variety of low sugar options at a store like Whole Foods. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t find them at a regular grocery store too!
How to Make Healthy Breakfast Cereal Interesting
If I were to serve you a bowl of Cheerios and milk, with nothing else, you’d probably be pretty underwhelmed. Not to mention there’s a good chance you wouldn’t stay full for long! Your kid is the same way.
Instead of just a plain bowl of cereal, with just an extra minute or two you can add some quick toppings that will bulk up the nutrition, add interest, and keep your child, and you, full for longer.
Combine different cereals in one bowl
To help vary flavor, try combining, or letting your child combine, different cereals in one bowl. I like to have a base of a very low sugar cereal, like O’s or wheat squares. For babies and kids under 2, those are generally the two types that I mix. For older kids and adults, I mix in ones that are slightly higher in sugar. Think bran flakes, corn flakes, and rice crisps. Nothing fancy. But changing the mixture of cereals, you can make it seem like a completely different bowl every time you serve it.
Top with Hemp Seeds
If you haven’t discovered the nutritional powerhouses that are hemp seeds, I’m here to convince you to try them! Hemp seeds have an amazing amount of nutrients, especially for their small size. Iron, protein, healthy fats. You name it, it’s there. And they have a very mild flavor and don’t alter the texture of dishes. They are really an amazing addition to your baby or toddler’s diet.
For cereal, I simply add some to the top of the bowl before adding milk. They’ll mix in to the milk, but many will stick to the cereal.
Add nuts or other seeds
Nuts will add some healthy fats and proteins, as well as add another flavor to your bowl. Our favorite nuts to add are walnuts. Generally because I can get them in bulk at Costco! Any nut or seed will do, though. For kids under 4, whole nuts are choking hazards. Make sure you grind them up for babies and then sprinkle them on, or add as small pieces for older kids.
Don’t forget the fruit
One of the best ways to make a boring cereal interesting is to top it with a fruit. Again, any will do. Strawberries, raspberries, tangerines or oranges, and kiwis. The list is endless. And fresh or frozen (defrosted before serving, though!) will work equally as well.
If you are worried about the sugar content of fruit, there is no need to be. Fruit is full of so many vitamins and minerals, and the sugar in it is naturally occurring. It’s very different from added sugars you might find in a box of cereal.
Most people don’t eat enough fruit as they get older. If your child wants to eat fruits, let them go for it! Each breakfast we serve has a fruit with it. It’s a great way to start the day off with a big dose of vitamins and minerals!
Finish with milk or yogurt
Once you’ve got all of that added to a bowl, add some milk or yogurt and you are good to go. Milk of any kind will work. Even for babies, cow’s milk is fine as long as they are not being given it to drink.
Sticking with a whole milk instead of a low fat milk as they get older will help them to stay full longer, which is always a bonus!
How to Serve Breakfast Cereals to Babies and Toddlers
Breakfast cereal for babies
For babies, I like to stick to a super low or no sugar cereal, like an O’s or wheat square type. Different brands of O’s tend to have different textures, but they are generally safe for babies once they have their pincer grasp down. If you are in doubt, add milk to them and let them sit for a few minutes to soften.
For wheat squares, add milk and let sit for several minutes for babies. They will get very soft, but still remain intact so they are able to pick them up with their hands. Serving with whatever milk remains is fine.
Top with everything as mentioned above, and serve.
Breakfast cereal for toddlers
As your baby gets older, adding different cereals can help to keep them interested in their breakfast. I recommend avoiding added sugars before 2, or as long as possible until then. Once your baby is 2 though, it’s a great time to start adding in cereals like bran flakes and corn flakes, or any other low sugar options you can find.
These tend to have 3-4g of sugar per serving, but as you are only using them as a topping and to mix into a base cereal, the overall amount of sugar remains fairly low.
As your toddler starts to get older, they might decide that they don’t want some of the toppings on offer. That is okay, and normal!
In my house, I have a rule that hemp seeds always go on cereal to at least provide a filling boost. They are small and have no real flavor, so tend not to be an issue. Everything else is up to the kids.
That’s a great place to start, but just know that it is never worth a battle with your kids over. If they insist that they don’t want hemp seeds, let them choose what goes in their cereal and continue to expose them to hemp seeds by offering them. If you need help with this, make sure you check out the toddler course Mastering Mealtimes which walks you through it all!
Breakfast cereals can be a great option for kids!
Bottom line? Breakfast cereals are a great and convenient option for breakfast. I utilize them myself quite frequently, especially when it’s hot outside or I don’t have time for making another breakfast.
While sharing what I eat and how I serve it for my kids in my Instagram stories, I cannot tell you how many times I have heard from parents that they were afraid to serve breakfast cereal to their kids until they saw me serving it several times a week to mine.
As someone whose job it is to help parents feed their kids a nutritious diet, I hope that it helps to give you reassurance that cereal really can be a nutritious option when you see me frequently giving it to my family!
But with that said, it’s not about just a simple bowl of cheerios. By adding toppings to it, you round it out and that is truly where you find the great nutrition in a bowl of breakfast cereal.