How to choose healthy breakfast foods—cereal, too

March 5, 2014

Lemon Maple Overnight Oatmeal | One Hungry Mama

Every parent knows that breakfast is important. After all, weren’t we repeatedly told by our own parents that it’s the most important meal of the day? We’re no dummies! That said, I took that value of breakfast at face value for a long time. It wasn’t until I started a career in food that I realized just how true that old adage is. Breakfast really is the most important meal of the day.

To save you the hardship of starting your own career in food, I asked a nutritionist to give us the straight dope on breakfast so that you, too, can have a meaningful understanding of what make a breakfast good for you. Once you have that, you can make a clear plan for how to take control of breakfast in your house.

This quick overview of breakfast nutrition is from Tsolig “Sunny” Shahinian, MS, RD. I asked Sunny to focus on cereal, but you can apply what she shares here to any breakfast food. Her overview gives a clear anatomy of a healthy breakfast. To learn more about Sunny and how to contact her, check out the links below.

Why Breakfast is Important
Healthy eating impacts a child’s overall well-being as well as school performance. Breakfast, in particular, provides fuel essential for concentration to start our bodies and brains for the day. Studies have shown that children from elementary to high school who eat a nutritious breakfast perform better in school, especially in reading, math, and on standardized tests. Serving healthy breakfasts is undoubtedly important and so is helping to instill healthy breakfast habits.

What Makes a Balanced Breakfast
A balanced breakfast typically includes a grain (e.g., whole grains, whole grain breads and cereals), protein, and fruit or vegetable. The aim is to provide a meal rich in protein, high in fiber, and low in sugar (even artificial). Healthy fat is important, too, as it may benefit a child’s attention and concentration span. Protein can come from low fat meats, eggs, beans, or dairy, and should be at least 3 grams per serving. Fiber can be found in whole grains, vegetables, and fruits.

A prime example of a healthy breakfast is a hard-boiled egg, an orange, and a bowl of low-sugar, whole grain cereal with milk. Other examples of good breakfast foods include: yogurt, waffle with peanut butter topped with bananas, string cheese, crackers, and an apple.

I firmly believe when it comes to kids, especially picky eaters, they should be allowed to eat lunch or dinner foods for breakfast. The important thing is that they eat. My daughter didn’t like (and still doesn’t like) breakfast foods, so I let her eat foods like rice and beans or pizza for breakfast. As long as she ate before school, it was fine. That’s the most important thing.

Try to avoid giving children sugary breakfast cereals, white-flour pancakes and syrup, pastries, and white breads. They are digested quickly and end up leaving you hungry and tired in just a couple of hours. Protein and fiber are what will satisfy your hunger over the long haul until lunch.

How to Choose a Cereal
The keys to a healthy breakfast cereal are that it is low in sugar and high in dietary fiber. Reading the nutrition facts label is very important—I can’t stress this enough.

When looking at a cereal label, start with the sugar. There is a difference between naturally occurring and added sugar. Sugar is naturally found in fruits and grains which are considered part of a healthy, balanced breakfast. Too much added sugar, though, can be detrimental to our health. The exact amount of sugar intake for a healthy person varies by age and size. It is helpful to keep in mind, though, that every 4 grams of sugar on the label translates to 1 teaspoon of sugar.

It’s also good to be mindful of the total carbohydrate-to-sugar ratio, which should be no less than four to one. So, for example, if the “Total Carbohydrate” line on an nutrition label says 24 grams, the “Sugars” should have a value of 6 grams or less. If it does, this tells you that most of the carbs come from the grain and fibers, not from the added sugars. Super nutritious cereals have a carb-to-sugar ratio of six or seven to one.

Another quick guide, this one to assess whether a cereal (or other breakfast food) has enough fiber, is the “Five and Five” rule: look for foods with less than 5 grams of sugar and at least 5 grams of fiber.

Cereals are made from grains which are naturally low in fat, so there is no reason a cereal should have more than 2 or 3 grams per serving. Fats from unhealthy trans fats or saturated fats are not okay so check the ingredients. Leave the cereal on the shelf if hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils are on the label.

Learn more about Sunny and her work at LinkedIn/sunnytsoligshahinian or Twitter/SunnyDietitian.

2 Responses

  1. Tried this last night. Pretty good, although I think I will try it with vanilla instead of chocolate next time.

  2. N’oatmeal implies there’s “no oatmeal” in it but it produces a mock-oatmeal effect as a recipe result Enjoy!

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