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Last year, I shared a photo of my daughter and I making breakfast together with a kitchen staple in our house: breakfast cereal. While many fellow registered dietitians – who understand the bigger picture of health and nutrition when it comes to neutralizing foods for the family – chimed in about how they, too, loved a good bowl of crunchy goodness, there were also those who naturally shared their unfiltered opinions. One went so far as to write, “Have never given our children those types of unhealthy cereals.”
While these types of comments will always appear on a post that’s controversial in some fashion, I think it’s time we spend a moment to break down why this theory of thought is archaic, and why many registered dietitians, myself included, let our kids have Lucky Charms (or, insert another kid-friendly breakfast cereal of choice). From providing important nutrients for growth and development to demonstrating how all foods can fit in a balanced and healthy diet, I’m going to show you how I make it work – and how you can too!
Why moms experience shame surrounding food choices
If you can relate to the scenario above and have felt – or are feeling – a sense of shame or guilt after being judged for a food choice you’ve purchased for your family, you’re not alone. According to registered dietitian and Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor Diana Rice, owner of Tiny Seed Family Nutrition and the voice behind @anti.diet.kids, “Diet culture tells us that ‘good’ parents either don’t allow these kinds of food in their homes or have magically cultivated children who don’t prefer them.”
Rice goes on to say, “There’s so much fear-mongering when it comes to taking responsibility for our children’s health. Society wants to hold someone responsible for the so-called childhood ‘ob*sity’ epidemic, and it’s a lot easier to point a finger at parents and their food choices than it is to explore what really leads to poor health, such as poverty and systemic oppression. And as usual, moms bear the brunt of the societal burden, which can manifest as overanalyzing every feeding decision or feeling guilt about not being able to feed their kids according to unrealistic societal standards.”
While change has to start within the home, there’s a way out of this cycle. We promise, you can get there too!
Breakfast cereal is an affordable, nutritious option
What’s so often overlooked when we discuss healthy eating are the barriers that come along with it for many Americans. We live in an era where 13 million children live in food insecure households. Parents across the nation are struggling to put food on the table, doing their best to provide nutrition that’s affordable and that their kids will actually eat.
A serving of fortified breakfast cereal with milk costs, on average, just $0.51. By starting kids’ days off with a bowl of cereal, parents across the world – regardless of socioeconomic status – can give their children important nutrients they need for growth and development, like vitamin D, calcium, iron, potassium, vitamin A, vitamin C, thiamin, niacin, vitamin B6, folate, vitamin B12, phosphorus, magnesium and zinc.
What about the added sugar content in cereal?
I understand the conflicting messages that are out there for parents. We hear “limit added sugar,” but then see on average 10 to 12 grams of added sugars in the same box that delivers the above variety of vitamins and minerals.
While limiting added sugars is recommended, the bigger picture parents often neglect to consider is overall diet quality and variety. Sure, there may be a few days in a row where your kid gets 2 to 3 teaspoons of sugar in their morning breakfast bowl. But you have the opportunity then to offer them other nutrient-rich, lower-sugar items throughout the day to help balance their intakes. Variety is key, and I promise you, after a week of eating Lucky Charms, even my sweet, loving toddler is asking for a yogurt bowl or egg sammie!
Plus, there are ways parents can still provide their children cereal that they’ll eat while lowering the added sugar. For instance, one of the easiest, most affordable simple swaps we use in my kitchen is purchasing one “fun” fortified breakfast cereal that my toddler expresses interest in, like Lucky Charms, and one whole grain, lower-sugar option like Cheerios. We then do a 50-50 mix when preparing her morning cereal bowl to provide her with the fun she craves while halving the added sugar, too.
While this won’t work for everyone (trust me, I understand the determination of those tiny humans at times!), it’s a great compromise to show your crew how you can blend happy and healthy memories together.
How parents can facilitate a healthy relationship with all foods
Research shows that dieting doesn’t work. In fact, after a year of adhering to strict diets, most individuals seem to veer off track and lose the progress they made during that year. Ask any registered dietitian, and I promise they’ll agree: Sustainable, simple, small changes that focus on building a healthy relationship with food is what will allow you to meet and sustain your health goals long term.
So, if you’ve been eyeing your kids Lucky Charms and restricting them for yourself, here’s your permission to go ahead and pour yourself a bowl every now and then right along with your kids.
Rice agrees, sharing that modeling eating all types of food yourself as the parent can be a great way to show your kids that “all foods fit” in a balanced diet. Rice notes, “Our kids learn how to relate to food from the adults in their world, so if you can enjoy everything from sweetened cereal to vegetables together, they’ll pick up on the message that none of these foods is morally superior to another and there’s no reason not to enjoy the ones we love best.”
In line with this, Rice goes on to encourage all parents to speak positively about all foods. “When we talk up vegetables but are either neutral or disparaging about foods with sugar or additives, we create a food hierarchy. The danger here is that children aren’t yet complex thinkers and may associate wanting a ‘bad’ food with being bad themselves. We can neutralize food by speaking positively about the sweet stuff too, such as saying that you can’t wait to enjoy the cereal together, asking about their favorite marshmallows and talking about the flavors and textures you notice.”
Yes, I let my kids eat Lucky Charms
At the end of the day, remember food is more than just a source of nutrition. Food is a source of memories, too. Lucky Charms may be the trip to Disneyland your family got to take last month for the family who can’t budget that in. It’s the spark of joy in a somewhat still-confusing time for these little minds. We don’t know what’s on everyone else’s plate, but we sure can stop judging what’s in everyone else’s bowl!
In addition to delicious breakfast cereals, consider these tasty ideas for the whole family: