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Published August 13, 2010, 12:00 AM

Smart cereal choices add nutritional boost

“Mom, can I talk to you in private?” my 7-year-old asked the other day. I braced myself. A private discussion usually meant that something in our house was cracked, broken, torn or wet.

By: Julie Garden-Robinson, INFORUM

“Mom, can I talk to you in private?” my 7-year-old asked the other day.

I braced myself. A private discussion usually meant that something in our house was cracked, broken, torn or wet.

“Do you remember when we stayed in a hotel last year? You said I could get that really good cereal sometime. That was last summer!” she exclaimed.

A discussion about cereal definitely wasn’t what I was expecting in our private conversation. I was impressed with her memory.

“Yes, you’re right. What kind of cereal was it again?” I asked.

She didn’t know the name of the cereal, but she described the appearance in great detail and marveled at its sweetness. The cereal was in a plastic dispenser at a hotel’s continental breakfast, so she had not seen the box with the cartoon character.

“OK, I’ll pick up a box at the store since you waited a whole year,” I remarked.

Without my daughter’s assistance, I found the brightly colored box of cereal, and I read the Nutrition Facts label. I put it in my cart as her long-awaited special treat.

At about 110 calories per ¾ cup serving, the cereal was comparable in energy content to other cereals. It definitely was sweetened, with about 3 teaspoons of sugar per serving. It had less protein and less fiber than other cereals and was not whole grain.

On the other hand, a serving provided 25 percent of the daily recommendation for iron, several B vitamins and zinc, which growing children need. As shown on the two-column nutrition labels, adding ½ cup of fat-free milk improved the nutrition.

When I arrived home, I was greeted by a bright-eyed, beaming child who immediately retrieved a bowl, spoon and the jug of milk.

Americans enjoy a lot of cereal. PBS Kids estimated that a chain of empty cereal boxes would extend to the moon and back.

Marketers are fully aware of the unique ability of children to influence their parents’ purchasing decisions. The collective “pester power”

of kids sells lots of food, including cereal with enticing cartoon characters.

Cereal boxes are strategically placed on shelves to get noticed, so be sure to look up and down. To get the most nutrition for your food dollar, compare prices and nutrition labels.

Aim to “make half your grains whole.” To choose a whole-grain cereal, look for the whole-grain health claim: “Diets rich in whole-grain foods and other plant foods and low in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol may help reduce the risk of heart disease and certain cancers.” Cereals with this claim must contain 51 percent or more whole grain. Look for “whole-grain oats” or “whole wheat” as the first item on the ingredient label.

If you have someone with a sweet tooth in your household, remember that all foods can fit in a healthy diet. Consider toning down the sweetness of “kid cereals” and amplifying the nutrition by creating your own cereal blends.

Mix some unsweetened whole-grain cereal, such as Cheerios, with a sweetened cereal. Increase the fiber content of a sweetened flaked cereal by mixing in bran flakes. Add some antioxidant nutrients by tossing in some dried cranberries or blueberries or by adding sliced fresh fruit such as bananas or strawberries to your cereal bowl. Add some healthy oils by including some almonds or walnuts in your cereal mix.

If you like granola, try making your own with this tasty and easy recipe adapted from Texas AgriLife Extension.

Awesome Granola

3 cups rolled oats, uncooked

½ cup shredded or flaked coconut

1 cup chopped almonds, pecans or walnuts

¼ cup honey

¼ cup melted margarine

(or substitute canola oil)

1½ tsp. cinnamon

2/3 cup raisins (or dried cranberries)

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Combine all ingredients except raisins or dried cranberries in a large bowl. Mix well. Place in a

13-by-9-inch baking pan at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes. Stir

in raisins or cranberries. Cool thoroughly. Store in a tightly covered container. Serve with milk as a breakfast cereal or as a snack.

Microwave instructions: Prepare as indicated, but place in an 11-

by-7-inch glass baking dish (or similar-sized container). Cook on high for about eight minutes or until golden brown. Stir about every two minutes. Stir in dried fruit. Place on aluminum foil to cool. Store in a tightly covered container.

Makes 20 servings, ¼ cup each. Each serving has 125 calories, 7 grams (g) of fat, 15 g of carbohydrate and 2 g of fiber.

Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and associate professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.