Healthy breakfast cereals

With shelves stacked top to bottom with hundreds of brightly coloured boxes competing for your attention, supermarket breakfast cereal aisles can sometimes feel like walking through a minefield.

Make the wrong choice and you or your child could end up with a breakfast cereal high in sugar, fat or salt, which if eaten too often can contribute to weight gain and health problems, including tooth decay and high blood pressure.

But whether it's puffed, baked or flaked, cereal can still form part of a healthy balanced diet. We've enlisted dietitian Azmina Govindji to sort the shredded wheat from the chaff to help you make a healthier choice. 

"While it's important to make healthier choices when it comes to breakfast, it's equally just as important to make sure you eat breakfast regularly and that you enjoy it," says Govindji.

What's a healthy breakfast cereal?

For a healthier option, choose breakfast cereals that contain wholegrains and are lower in sugar, fat and salt. Examples include:

  • wholewheat cereal biscuits
  • shredded wholegrain pillows
  • porridge oats

Wholegrains contain fibre and B vitamins, among other nutrients. Fibre helps keep our digestive systems healthy. Research suggests a diet high in fibre may help reduce the risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

"Avoid always going for the same brand as manufacturers regularly modify their recipes," says Govindji. "Try looking at the nutrition label, and compare brands so you opt for the healthier version."

Mueslis, which usually contain wholegrains and fruit, are often seen as a healthier option, but check the label first – many can be relatively high in fat, added sugar and, in some cases, salt.

Reading nutrition labels

Food labels can help you choose between brands and avoid breakfast cereals high in sugar, fat and salt. All nutrition information is provided per 100g and per serving, which can be helpful when comparing one cereal with another.

Some brands also use red, amber and green colour coding on the front of the packet, sometimes known as traffic lights. The more greens on the label, the healthier the choice. Find out more about food labels.

Sugar, fat and salt levels

You can use the per 100g information on the nutrition label to identify breakfast cereals that are:

High in sugar, fat or salt

  • high in sugar: more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g
  • high in fat: more than 17.5g of fat per 100g
  • high in salt: more than 1.5g of salt per 100g

Low in sugar, fat or salt

  • low in sugars: 5g of total sugars or less per 100g
  • low in fat: 3g of saturated fat or less per 100g
  • low in salt: 0.3g of salt or less per 100g

Serving cereal with milk or yoghurt

Having breakfast cereal is a good opportunity to add calcium to the diet if you serve it with milk or yoghurt. Go for semi-skimmed, 1% or skimmed milk, or lower-fat yoghurt.

"Milk and yoghurt are good sources of calcium and protein," says Govindji. Alternatives to cow's milk include fortified soya, rice and oat drinks. Find out what types of milk are suitable for young children.

Adding fruit to cereal

Having cereal is also a good opportunity to get some fruit in the diet. Raisins, dried apricots, bananas and strawberries are popular choices and can be added to any cereal, depending on your tastes.

"Adding fruit to cereals is a great way to get kids to eat more fruit," says Govindji. "It also helps them enjoy less sugary cereals, as you get sweetness from the fruit."

You could wash down breakfast with a small glass (150ml) of 100% fruit juice, which also counts towards your 5 A DAY.

How many calories should breakfast provide?

A helpful rule of thumb to maintain a healthy weight is to follow the 400-600-600 approach. That means having about:

  • 400kcal for breakfast (including any drinks and accompaniments)
  • 600kcal for lunch (including any drinks and accompaniments)
  • 600kcal for dinner (including any drinks and accompaniments)

That leaves you with just enough left over to enjoy a few healthy drinks and snacks throughout the day. This advice is based on a woman's daily recommended calorie intake of 2,000kcal.

"You might get about 150kcal from a 40g serving of cereal," says Govindji. "You could add a medium sliced banana and 200ml of semi-skimmed milk, which altogether would provide about 350kcals. 

"You need fuel in the morning, and starting the day with a filling breakfast can help you avoid reaching for a less healthy mid-morning snack to keep you going until lunch."

'My child is hooked on sugary cereals'

If you want to get your child off sugary cereals, Govindji recommends mixing sugary cereals with similar looking lower-sugar ones. You could then gradually increase the amount of lower-sugar cereal over time to get kids used to them. Or you could let your child pick from a selection of, say, three healthier cereals.

"The fact that your child wants to have breakfast is already a healthy habit," says Govindji. "You don't want to jeopardise that by making breakfast seem suddenly unappealing." 

'I don't have time to sit down for breakfast'

It's a sign of the times that people are increasingly abandoning breakfast cereals, one of the earliest convenience foods, for more convenient "on-the-go" options, such as a breakfast muffin and a latte.

If you're short on time in the morning, how about setting the table the night before? You could also grab a pot of porridge on your way to work or have your cereal when you get in.

"Cereals are still one of the best value breakfasts out there," says Govindji. "A bowl of fortified breakfast cereal with milk gives you more nutrients for your penny when compared to most on-the-go breakfast options."

No time for breakfast? Let yourself be tempted by our simple breakfasts designed to whet the appetite of even the most habitual breakfast skipper.

Page last reviewed: 15/01/2015

Next review due: 15/01/2017

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