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Cereal has been a staple in many households for decades — and it’s not hard to see why. It’s convenient, fairly filling, and kids usually love it. Feels like a win-win-win, right?
Probably. But many breakfast cereals, although fortified with vitamins, are loaded with added sugars, processed grains, dyes, and other potentially undesirable ingredients if you have kiddos who are gluten-free or have other food intolerances.
And even though the occasional bowl is no big deal, most of us know that Lucky Charms and Cocoa Puffs really qualify better as desserts than healthy breakfast foods.
But what can you look for in a cereal that will provide better nutrition for your child? And will your child actually eat it? Even adults don’t tend to be fans of high-fiber, low-sugar cardboard cubes — er — healthy cereal.
Read on for what to look for, what to avoid, and a few cereals that are healthy options for your family (plus one that’s healthy-ish!).
While each family has preferences that will impact their food choices, there are some basic nutritional guidelines that apply to all children.
One of the hardest to follow is the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) recommendation for sugar intake.
The AAP recommends no more than 25 grams (or about 6 teaspoons) of added sugar per day for children over the age 2. Eating too much sugar can put your child at a higher risk of obesity, dental cavities, heart disease, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and liver disease. Yikes.
Note that this recommendation says added sugars, so it doesn’t include naturally occurring sugars, such as those found in fruit.
But it will only take you a few minutes of reading nutrition labels to realize that 25 grams of sugar adds up really fast. And, let’s face it: most kids are sugar monsters.
While there’s some debate over whether high fructose corn syrup has different effects on human health than regular table sugar, the best practice remains: all types of added sugar, including table sugar, corn syrup, and agave should be limited in your child’s diet as they are unhealthy if eaten in excess.
So the total amount of sugar in your kiddo’s cereal is more important than whether or not it comes from high fructose corn syrup.
Fiber and protein are two ingredients you do want in your child’s cereal.
Fiber is good for gut health and helps slow the rise of blood sugar. Protein is an important building block for your child’s growth, and also helps keep them full until the next meal (although they usually get plenty from other sources, like milk).
We listened to experts’ nutritional advice, scoured ingredient labels, and listened to parent reviews to find cereals that bring a little more to the table than an eventual sugar crash. All of these cereals have 6 or less grams of added sugar per serving.
Our kids also happily participated in taste testing some of these options (and we’re not going to lie, so did we).
Get ready to edit your grocery list, because we have a feeling there will be some new family favorites when it comes to cereal.
- $ = under $5 per box
- $$ = over $5 per box
Three Wishes, a company focused on better-for-you twists on classic cereals, is a newer addition to the cereal scene. Their cereals are higher in protein (this one packs 8 g per serving) and fiber (3 g), and lower in sugar (only 3 g per serving) than typical cereals.
Their cinnamon cereal is a fan favorite and an allergy-sufferer’s dream, being gluten-free, grain-free, vegan, kosher, non-GMO, dairy-free, soy-free, and nut-free. Fun fact: Cinnamon may also have health benefits (including a positive effect on blood sugar).
Most people like the crunchy texture of this cereal, although a few parents said the cereal is too dense to be a great choice for young toddlers, who may have trouble chewing.
This delicious, flaky cereal has a great nutritional profile, with only 5 g of sugar per serving, 5 g of protein, and a whopping 7 g of fiber. It’s full of whole grain goodness, including wheat, quinoa, spelt, barley, millet, and oats.
Nearly all the ingredients are organic, and most parents said their kids do actually like this cereal (winning!).
It’s a favorite for health-conscious parents and kids alike. Some parents reported that their local grocery store doesn’t carry this brand, but it’s becoming much more widely available and is available online.
Granola is notorious for being jam packed with added sugar, but this Cashew Coconut variety from Cascadian Farm defies all that. There’s zero added sugar (but 8 g of sugar from fruit like dates) in this recipe!
You’ll also find 25 g of whole grains in a serving of this granola. But be mindful that the serving size for granola is usually smaller than that of cereals — the recommended serving for this option is 2/3 cup.
Cheerios have been a long-standing favorite for good reason. They’re made from whole grain oats, contain 3 g of fiber, 3 g of protein, and practically a whole multivitamin in every serving.
And while they’re not necessarily the shining star of this list in terms of nutritious ingredients, Cheerios only have 2 grams of sugar per serving — that’s pretty much unprecedented in a cereal that kids actually eat!
Cheerios are also gluten-free and make a great basic cereal that you can top with any fruit, nuts, or yogurt. The little Os are also very easy to eat and dissolve pretty quickly, making them a suitable early finger food for toddlers.
This cinnamon flavored whole grain cereal from Kashi is a fan-favorite among adults and kids alike. Not only is it delicious (if your kids like cinnamon, of course) but it packs 5 g of fiber and comes in right at our 6 g mark for sugar.
Parents say this cereal doesn’t get soggy easily and that it’s just the right amount of sweetness to keep kids interested without being overly sugary. Plus, Kashi is one of the most affordable organic brands on the market.
Another offering from Three Wishes, this crunchy O-shaped cereal is a higher protein, lower sugar alternative to the ever-popular Honey Nut Cheerios. They’re grain-free, vegan, kosher, non-GMO, and use plant proteins from chickpeas and peas.
Worth noting: Parents said this cereal doesn’t have the nutty flavor of its competitor and may be too dense and hard to chew for younger toddlers. However, if you’re looking for a healthier honey-flavored cereal, this is a fantastic choice.
Price: $ (sold as a 4-pack on Amazon)
While Barbara’s Peanut Butter Puffins have a little more sugar than we’d prefer (at 9 g per serving), these delicious, crunchy squares are a big-time kid favorite so we couldn’t resist adding them to the list as a “healthy-ish” option.
Peanut Butter Puffins have 2 g of fiber per serving, and 3 g of protein. The ingredients are non-GMO, vegan, kosher, and free of artificial stuff. These also make a tasty, healthier option for dessert!
It takes a lot of diligence on your end to stay within the recommended daily amount of added sugars. But if you can keep your kiddo’s breakfast cereal low in sugar, you’re already starting their day on the right track.
Adding a boost of healthy protein, fats, and fiber to your kid’s breakfast cereal can make their meal even more satisfying and nutritious. Try sprinkling cereal with sliced almonds, pumpkin seeds, or hemp seeds for an extra dose of these nutrients, plus an added crunch!
With the right ingredients, cereal can actually be an easy breakfast or snack option for your child that’s rich in whole grains, fiber, and protein. We hope this list helps next time you’re in the cereal aisle, or fixing breakfast on the run.