Updated: Apr 18
Cereal has been deemed the breakfast of champions, but your classic bowl of cereal and milk is likely to leave you hungry in an hour. This isn't just annoying when you have a ton to do, but it can also lead to over-snacking and overeating--a scenario that may promote fatigue and weight gain.
Another potential cereal pitfall: The standard serving size varies from ¼ to 1 cup, depending on the variety. Let's be honest. That means it's really easy to pour yourself a larger serving and throw your meal off balance.
To create a filling bowl that’s also full of nutrition, here are some of my favorite tricks:
Chopped or grated apple or pear, strawberries or blueberries, and cherries are all tasty cereal add-ins that are rich in fiber, making your bowl more filling. If you’re feeling adventurous, add some veggies, too! Grated zucchini and matchstick carrots are veggies that pair well with fruits. These veggies also work well in hot cereal, like oatmeal, and in overnight oats.
Get fuller with fat
Chopped nuts or a sprinkling of seeds (such as chia, hemp, or pumpkin seeds) add crunch and deliciousness to your bowl of cereal, and these fat-filled foods also keep you fuller. Plus, these plant-based add-ins are potent anti-inflammatory agents, so they not only create a more filling cereal bowl, they keep you healthier, too.
Mix in some protein
To keep your meal balanced and make it last ‘til lunch, you need some protein. This nutrient gives you a small metabolic boost and if you eat sufficient amounts (about 20 grams at each of your three meals), it’s enough to counter the typical one- to two-pound annual weight gain that might settle on your waistline starting in your late 30s. Milk, unsweetened soy milk, and pea-based nondairy milk provide between 8-10 grams of protein, but other dairy alternatives (including almond and oat milks) fall short. Nuts and seeds (see above) help boost the content a bit, but to get to the full 20 grams, consider having a hard-boiled egg or another protein-rich option (like Greek yogurt) on the side. Or, skip the milk and use your cereal as a yogurt or cottage cheese topper, instead. (For more protein-packed breakfast ideas, read my blog on High Protein Breakfast Foods).
Stick with whole grain varieties
Cereal nutrition varies widely! To get the healthiest and most filling cereal, choose one that’s predominantly (or ideally, fully) whole grain. On the label, you’re looking for the first ingredient to say whole wheat, brown rice, oats, whole grain corn, or another whole grain (such as quinoa, amaranth, or sorghum). If you see enriched wheat as the first ingredient, it means the cereal is made mostly of refined, white grains. In other words, skip it! Enriched cereals have been stripped of their nutrients (though some vitamins and minerals are added back in) and are less filling and easier to overeat. (For more on processed foods, see my blog 4 Processed Foods to Avoid and What To Eat Instead).
Look for fiber-rich options. When you’re looking at a nutrition facts panel, check to see that your cereal has at least 3 grams of fiber, though more is better, provided that fiber is coming from real foods (like whole grains or fruit) rather than from manufactured ingredients (like inulin). (Eating an excessive amount of manufactured fibers through cereal and other foods can cause gas and bloating and you don’t want that!) In addition to the fact that fiber-filled cereals will be more filling, a fiber-rich bowl can improve your bowel habits, and in studies, people who have better bowel habits report lower levels of stress and anxiety and higher levels of wellbeing. (1,2)
Limit added sugars. I know you know this, but many cereals—even whole grain varieties—are loaded with added sugars. Let’s face it: You’re eating breakfast to wipe out hunger and fuel a productive morning, and sugar isn’t your friend on either front. Empty sugar calories don’t contribute to a filling cereal and too much sugar will only lead to less focus and attention (in other words, a less productive morning). Ideally, choose a cereal with no added sugar. If you like your cereal a little sweet, cap the added sugars at 6 grams (about 1 ½ teaspoons). And if you’re choosing plant-based milk, check labels to make sure you aren’t pouring sugar into your cereal with your dairy alternative. Many of these milks (whether flavored or unflavored) contain sneaky amounts of sugar. (Keep reading for more tips on lowering added sugars from cereal.)
Avoid cereals with artificial colors, sweeteners, and preservatives. This has nothing to do with creating a filling cereal bowl, but it’s still a smart idea. These types of ingredients aren’t health helpers, and instead, they’re usually a flag that you’re looking at something that has been processed to an unhealthy degree. It’s good nutritional sense to limit these ingredients as much as possible.
4 Healthy Cereals
Since I know you love product picks, here are three options that meet these parameters:
(If you're looking for easy recipes, be sure to download my free booklet with 10 meal and snack ideas you can make in 10 min or less!)
4 Tricks to Make Sugary Cereal Healthier
If you’re hooked on less filling, sugary cereal, here are some tricks to make your cereal habit healthier
Enjoy it as a snack in trail mixes, along with other nutritious ingredients, like unsweetened dried fruits, nuts, seeds, and popcorn (which is a whole grain).
Mix sweetened cereals with unsweetened ones to lower the added sugar content. Eventually, see if you can get down to a lightly sweetened or unsweetened variety.
Have it as a side dish. If you love a bowl of sweetened cereal and milk, have it alongside a more healthful meal instead of as the main dish. For example, have scrambled eggs with veggies and avocado plus a side of cereal instead of a side of toast.
Have cereal for dessert! If you love sweetened cereal, have a portion for dessert—with or without milk. Dessert doesn’t have to be ice cream, cookies, and candy! A sweetened cereal can be a good alternative and you’ll get some bonus nutrition if your sweetened cereal has whole grains and healthy amounts of fiber.
If you want to geek out on the science with me, links are below: