Cereals: health friend or foe?
Cereals are now an incredibly common breakfast choice. They are quick, cheap, there is loads of variety and people feel they are a healthy way for children to start the day.
Unfortunately, however, this last point is very often not the case when it comes to the most common children's cereals. Many are incredibly high in refined sugar and low in the complex carbohydrates which is key to keeping us fuller for longer. When these cereals are consumed first thing in the morning, it's a time when blood sugars are low. The sugars from the cereal are digested and absorbed quickly into the bloodstream, sending your child's blood sugars and thus his or her energy levels sky high; this then very promptly crashes back down again, just in time for the start of school. This results in low mood, low concentration and a craving for another sugar fix.
So this begs the question, what cereals should we avoid and what should we be feeding our children for breakfast?
First of all, always, always check the nutritional label on the packet, regardless of what the claims are on its front. Just because it says it contains X, Y and Z vitamins and minerals, it doesn't mean it isn't packed with any nasties.
The key cereals to avoid are those with:
- Sugar greater than 15 g per 100 g but preferably you want one with less than 10 g per 100 g
- Fat greater than 20 g per 100 g but ideally less than 10 g per 100 g
- Salt greater than 1.5 g per 100 g, anything under 1 g per 100 g is a better option.
What are better choices for your children's breakfast?
Recipe 1: Overnight oats
You can make enough of this recipe for three mornings on a Sunday evening in around five minutes and store it in an airtight container in the fridge. The basic ingredients are oats, yoghurt (check the label - I go for Greek yoghurt), a splash of milk and then whatever else you/your kids like, such as fresh fruit, dried fruit, nuts, seeds; the options are endless.
Not only is this breakfast quick, easy and adaptable, but because it contains oats, it means that it is high in those all-important complex carbohydrates that will keep them fuller for longer. They also contain protein, which along with the protein from the yoghurt, will support growth, development and make them feel full. Proteins and complex carbohydrates also slow the release of sugars into the bloodstream meaning a much steadier release of energy to keep your kids going until their next break.
Recipe 2: Frittata
This breakfast is another make-ahead choice especially for those who prefer a savoury breakfast. Like the overnight oats, this can be adapted to taste, cooked in bulk in a tray bake dish and kept in the fridge. This dish contains eggs which make it high in protein and vitamin D, which will support bone growth in children because vitamin D enhances calcium absorption. Plus, eggs also contain many vitamins and minerals, which support normal energy metabolism.
Adding a carbohydrate element, such as oats or sweet potato, will provide energy and fibre, plus keep kids fuller for longer and supports healthy digestion. These elements, along with any Mediterranean-style roast vegetables, which are also high in fibre as well as a selection of vitamins and minerals, makes for a nutritionally complete meal. You could also throw in some lean ham or turkey to give the frittata an extra boost of flavour and protein.
Low-sugar and salt cereals
Although care does have to be taken when choosing cereals, they should not be banished complete, as they are not all bad and some top cereal brands have started to lower their sugar contents. As long as they are within the boundaries mentioned above, they can form part of a healthy breakfast. Especially as many are fortified with essential nutrients for children's growth, including vitamin D and iron. However, instead of filling their bowl with only cereals, why not use less and add some chopped nuts and fruit to bulk it out, while also making it more filling and nutritious.
If you have a little more time…try out my banana pancake recipe
It is a winner with kids, has no added sugar and, although best fresh, they can be made ahead, frozen and warmed in the oven or the toaster in the morning.
They contain oats which means they will keep your kids full and stop the sugar hit that we are trying to avoid. Bananas provide a great source of fibre, slow-release energy, potassium and nearly half the daily recommended vitamin B6 intake. Vitamin B6 is one of those behind-the-scenes vitamins, which is crucial in a huge number of ways for various functions in the body, including brain development.
You can top off these delicious pancakes with berries (I like to use frozen and heat them in the microwave to make a warm raspberry topping) and a little honey.
Not only are these breakfast options tasty, but they will support your child to grow strong and healthy, and also help them to maintain a good mood and concentration throughout the day. Although time can feel stretched in the morning, it is important to provide your children with a breakfast that will set them up for the day. After all, we are 'breaking the fast'!
Rose Constantine Smith is an AfN Associate Nutritionist based in London. Follow Rose on twitter: @Rose_Nutrition