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What should parents look for in a kids' cereal?

With so many sugar-loaded, fiber-devoid meals in brightly colored boxes vying for kids' attention, finding one that appeals to children and still has enough nutritional value to get them through the day can be tough.
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With so many sugar-loaded, fiber-devoid cereals in brightly colored boxes vying for kids' attention, finding a cereal that appeals to children and still has enough nutritional value to get them through the day can be tough. We asked Sarah Krieger, national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, what parents should be looking for in a breakfast cereal for their kids, and then we went shopping to see what we could find. Finally, we asked for ratings on a scale of 1 to 5 from the real arbiters of taste: kids.

The guidelines
When selecting a healthier cereal for kids, parents should check labels for five things:

  • Whole grains: The ingredients list should read, "whole oats, whole grain, whole corn, etc." If it doesn't, steer clear.

  • Fiber: Look for cereals with 3 grams of fiber or more per serving. Kids need at least their age plus 5 grams as a minimum amount of fiber per day. For example, a 5-year-old should eat at least 10 grams fiber daily. A breakfast cereal with lots of fiber is a great start for the day.

  • Sugar: Cereal should max out at 10 grams per serving. Aim for cereals where sugar is not the first ingredient on the list. This includes all added sugars, including corn syrup, brown sugar, and evaporated cane juice. As a general rule, the sugar-to-total-carbohydrate ratio should be about 1 to 4, though the ratio for cereals with fruit or raisins may be slightly higher.

  • Protein: The milk you pour over the cereal has more protein than the cereal. So encourage kids to drink the milk left in the bowl, but added protein in the cereal is helpful. Whole grains naturally have some protein, and nuts and seeds in cereal will add even more. For a sampling of even healthier cereals, we looked for cereals with 2 or more grams of protein.

  • Ingredients list: Whole grains should be listed as the primary ingredient. The lower the down the list sugars or corn syrups are, the better. Generally speaking, if you stick with whole grain, low sugar, moderate- to high-fiber cereals, they will lack bright colors and artificial flavorings, but keep an eye out. If you're concerned about corn syrup, you'll want to keep an eye out—we found it in even the healthier-looking cereals.

Supermarket finds

  • Kix (General Mills): What parents say: With 3 grams of dietary fiber, 2 grams of protein and a super-low 3 grams of sugar, Kix is a great choice for kids. Okay, it's got corn syrup, which we don't love, but considering it can be found easily in any supermarket (we've even seen it in our local corner store), it's a great option.

    What kids say: Kids loved Kix. The puffed golden cereal, with its bright orange box and not-too-healthy appeal hooked kids in. "It's good and delicious," raved Vivan, 4 1/2. "It's so good, I can't stop eating it!" Kids liked the slight saltiness and mild sweetness, asking, "Is there any more?"

  • Score: 5
  • Life (Quaker): What parents say: The classic cereal doesn't quite meet our guidelines, with 2 grams of fiber, 3 grams of protein, and a low 6 grams of sugar. It earns points for its whole grains and lack of corn syrup, but it loses points for containing artificial colors.

    What kids say: Kids ate it, but it definitely didn't get the raves that some of the other cereals did. Without milk, the straw-like texture wasn't received well. With milk, it turned soggy a bit too quickly for our testers. "It's just okay," said 7-year-old Sarah.

  • Score: 3
  • Frosted Mini-Wheats (Kellogg's): What parents say: With a whopping 6 grams each of fiber and protein, Frosted Mini-Wheats pack a punch of energy for an early school day. But with 12 grams of sugar, it exceeds our guidelines by 2 grams. High-fructose corn syrup gave rise to concern, but parents appreciated the lack of artificial coloring.

    What kids say: The kid-friendly cereal box (read: lots of games and not a lot of writing) is a nice touch and was a draw for some of our testers. Kids who like a lot of texture in their cereals liked the uber-crunchy squares, and the sweet frosting turned the milk into a tasty treat, but some of our testers found the cereal too dry, even with milk.

  • Score: 3
  • Honey Nut Shredded Wheat (Post): What parents say: No corn syrup, whole grains, 5 grams of fiber, 4 grams of protein, and a higher-than-we'd-like-but-not-outrageous 12 grams of sugar. Parents were pretty pleased with this supermarket find.

    What kids say: This cereal performed surprising well with our testers. The sweet-but-not-cloying nuggets of nutty deliciousness were a hit with even our pickiest testers. With milk, the dense squares soften nicely without becoming mushy. The cereal is a bit hard for little teeth to crunch through without milk, but overall, kids were pleased with this one. The only drawback? A decidedly adult box.

  • Score: 4

Specialty-Store Picks

  • Organic Clifford Crunch (Cascadian Farm): What parents say: With its organic, natural ingredients (no artificial colors! no corn syrup!) Clifford Crunch earned big points from parents. With 2 grams of protein, 5 grams of fiber, and a low 6 grams of sugar, it's a great choice.

    What kids say: The Clifford Crunch was one of the overall favorites in our taste test. "They taste like Lucky Charms except without the charms," said pleased 10-year-old Chloe. Even parents found themselves snacking on the crunchy treat. A fun maze on the back of the box kept the breakfast table quiet. "I need a box of these," concluded Kyle, 10.

  • Score: 5
  • Organic Wild Puffs (Barbara's Bakery): What parents say: It's not the best cereal we've seen, nutritionally speaking, but it does meets the guidelines with 3 grams of fiber, 2 grams of protein, and 7 grams of sugar. Organic dehydrated cane juice replaces traditional sugar and corn syrup.

    What kids say: If you're trying to transition the kids from traditional, sugar-laden kids cereals to a healthier option, this may be the perfect cereal for your family. The chocolaty, crunchy puffed balls look "junky" in that really yummy way and turn the milk into a sugary chocolate confection. The box still has all the fun elements that kids like so much. Our testers found the Wild Puffs to be "fun!" and "yummy!"

  • Score: 4.5
  • Honey Bunnies (Annie's Homegrown): What parents say: The Honey Bunnies only have 2 grams of fiber, but they are relatively low in sugar at 7 grams. The cereal also provides a nice 3 grams of protein. Whole grains and evaporated cane juice in place of traditional sweeteners round out this cereal.

    What kids say: Willa, 21 months, quietly ate two bowls of the Bunnies. "They're very sweet, as if Lucky Charms went on a health kick," said her mom. Kids liked the cute heart and bouncing-bunny shapes. The honey-tinged cereal and game box were both big winners.

  • Score: 4
  • Amazon Frosted Flakes (EnviroKidz Organic): What parents say: Some of the more health-conscious parents were put off by the word frosted, but with a low 6 grams of sugar from organic evaporated cane juice, it's surprisingly healthy. The short three-ingredient list also pleased picky parents. The cereal lacks whole grains, so its fiber content is low at 2 grams.

    What kids say: The jungle-themed box and Frosted Flake–like cereal did well with testers. "It's very good, but not super-special," said 10-year-old Kyle. The flakes weren't a particularly exciting shape of cereal, but for families looking for an upgraded version of Kellogg's classic Frosted Flakes, this one is a winner.

  • Score: 3
  • Cinnamon Puffins (Barbara's Bakery): What parents say: Peanut Butter Puffins have been a big hit here at Cookie for quite some time, but with only 2 grams of fiber, we went with their sister flavor, Cinnamon, which has 6 grams of fiber. A modest 6 grams of sugar and 2 grams of protein round out this cereal.

    What kids say: The cinnamon flavor was a bit intense for our kid testers. Box-obsessed kids were disappointed with the reading-heavy box. Parents, on the other hand, were obsessed with this cereal. "My husband and I found ourselves snacking on this constantly," said one mom.

  • Score: 3