Why This Nutritionist Is OK With Her Kids Eating Lucky Charms
Should this frosted oat cereal with marshmallows be mom-approved?
A few weeks ago I posted a picture on Instagram of me holding a box of Lucky Charms cereal. The caption had nothing to do with the frosted toasted oat and marshmallow cereal—and, in fact, it wasn't even about breakfast. But a good friend (and mom to two littles) commented, "Wait, Lucky Charms? Is this mom-approved?"
I'm here to tell you that it is.
But—hold on, please pause—before you scroll down immediately to the comments and give me a piece of your no-processed-foods, no-added-sugar mind, hear me out.
Lucky Charms has some legitimate (redeeming) nutrition qualities. The first ingredient is whole-grain oats (reminder: half of the grains we eat each day are supposed to be whole and the pizza or deli sandwich bread my kids get at school lunch are usually white). A serving delivers 2 grams of fiber, which isn't breaking the fiber bank, but most kids don't get enough fiber as it is. (For comparisons sake, a hard-boiled egg is a super healthy breakfast choice, but it has zero grams of fiber.) And thanks to fortification, plus a little milk to wash the cereal down, your kiddo is getting nine different vitamins and six minerals at breakfast.
I know your counter argument: "But there is so much sugar in Lucky Charms!" The dietitian in me is very aware that Lucky Charms—and other "sweet" cereals—contain added sugar. And because you're reading this article I suspect you're concerned about how much added sugar your kid consumes. I'm right there with you: too much added sugar is unhealthy (for anyone) and we're usually eating more than we should be.
I won't sugarcoat it (pun intended): My kids gravitate to this cereal for the puffy, colorful marshmallows (the one with unicorns solicits shrieks of glee when I unpack it from the grocery store). And at first that's all they ate when I poured them a bowl of the cereal. I hated wasting all of that oat cereal, and also—hello—marshmallows are not a meal. Plus, all of the nutrition is in the oat cereal (I even went so far as to ask the folks at General Mills if the marshmallows were fortified…they aren't).
My solution? I limited their Lucky Charms to just a couple days a week. A natural and simple way to cut back on the sugar your kid is eating is to limit or eliminate sweetened cereals, right? That worked until one week it was the only cereal left in the house that my 4-year-old daughter would eat. I cringed at the idea of sending her off to school with a belly full of sugar and food dye, but I gave in. And after a few straight days of marshmallows, she started to eat the toasted oat cereal, too. Feeding experts might say it's because I stopped fixating on the marshmallows and backed off. When it was a limited treat, it stoked her scarcity mindset (aka eat it now while it's available).
So now that both parts of the cereal were being eaten, I needed to find out just how "bad" my kids' sweet cereal habit is. Because, you know, #momguilt. I dug into the data on where kids get most of their added sugars—and, surprisingly, found sweet relief!
Statistically speaking, cereals (including sweetened ones) make up only 3 percent of the sugar in our kids' diets. Sweetened beverages usually snag the top spots. Case in point: the amount of sugar in a ¾-cup serving of Lucky Charms is about equal to the amount of sugar in a half-cup of orange juice. Cereal is also a key source of other nutrients—providing healthy daily doses of folate, iron, zinc, vitamin A, a few of the Bs and D. Put another way: research shows that cereal is how kids are getting essential nutrients that they otherwise might not get. As David Katz, MD and public health expert (whom I've interviewed on many occasions, but not for this particular article), would say: there's a reason why a little bit of sugar makes the medicine go down.
Another newer study, which was recently presented at the American Society for Nutrition conference, compared kids who ate sweetened cereal to kids who skipped breakfast. Researchers found that children who ate cereal had signficantly healthier diets. "We analyzed data in children from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to identify which foods are predominantly eaten during the morning (i.e., from the time they wake up to just before lunch). Within the children, we found a group who did not consume any foods in the morning (11.5 million kids) and another group who consumed presweetened ready-to-eat cereals with milk (11.4 million kids). In comparison to kids not eating any morning foods, kids who included presweetened ready-to-eat cereals with milk in their daily diet had greater intakes of dietary fiber, calcium, potassium and vitamin D—all of which have been identified as nutrients of public health concern—in comparison to children not eating any morning foods," explains study researcher and nutrition scientist Yanni Papanikolaou. The kids who ate sweetened cereal also had nearly double the whole grain intake relative to the kids who skipped breakfast.
Remember, too, cereal doesn't just have to be a breakfast item. Yes, breakfast is important. It fuels our kids' brains for a morning of learning, and research shows that kids who eat breakfast are more likely to meet their overall nutrition needs. But cereal (sweet or not) is also a convenient, easy snack or a quick, healthy dessert choice. Whenever it's eaten, cereal is a (research-backed) delivery device for those hard-to-get nutrients like fiber, iron and zinc.
Overall, as a parent, it can be hard to make sure your kids get the nutrition they need.
Whatever your take is on cereal, if you're a parent you are familiar with the challenges of making sure your kids get the nutrition they need. Some days are better than others. For me, keeping cereal on hand lets me win an occasional battle. It also makes my kids happy—and if we agree on nothing else, let's at least agree that food should be delicious and eating should bring joy.
I have partnered with General Mills and their Big G cereals, but my words are my own, and I believe it is important to deliver sound nutritional advice. For more information on General Mills cereals, please visit GeneralMills.com.