The 7 Worst Breakfast Foods for Kids and How to Make Them Healthier

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Why donuts and other pastries are some of the worst breakfast foods for kids. Getty Images

Breakfast is an especially important meal for school-age kids. Eating a healthy breakfast fuels kids' brains and bodies and helps them concentrate and stay focused during the school day. In fact, numerous studies have shown that kids who eat breakfast have higher cognitive function and regularly perform better at school.

But the kinds of foods kids eat for breakfast is important, too. Grabbing a quick breakfast that's high in sugar, saturated fat, preservatives, and other unhealthy ingredients can not only be unhealthy for kids, but may have a negative effect on their energy levels and their ability to learn.

Here are the worst breakfast foods to give kids, and what you can substitute instead:

1. Donuts
Donuts and pastries such as Danishes and croissants are typically loaded with sugar and saturated fat. And when kids combine a pastry with an energy drink, which usually contains high amounts of sugar and caffeine? It's a recipe for a very unhealthy breakfast, especially for a growing child. When you eat a breakfast that's high in sugar, your blood sugar drops and your mood changes a short while later, says Marina Chaparro, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Better breakfast option: Whole-grain toast with natural nut butter and jam with a glass of low-fat milk. (For more on how to cut down the sugar in your child's diet, read, "

2. Frozen ham sandwiches on croissants
These calorie and saturated-fat bombs may be convenient (you can just microwave them and go), but they're far from a healthy breakfast food for kids.

Once in a while may be okay but giving your child this every single day is a bad idea, says Chaparro.

Better breakfast option: Make a breakfast burrito with scrambled eggs or some black beans and rice the night before and warm it up in the morning. Or make an egg and low-fat cheese sandwich with a whole-grain English muffin or bread.

3. High-sugar cereal with whole milk
This one is the most challenging breakfasts to avoid because kids like it, says Chaparro. Not only that, it's super-easy for parents; all you need is a bowl and spoon and some milk and your child can be ready to go out the door in minutes. But the sky-high amounts of sugar make many kids' cereals a very bad breakfast option for kids. In a recent survey, the Environmental Working Group found that children's cereal contained an average of 40 percent more sugar than adult cereals.

Better breakfast option: Switch to whole-grain cereal that's low in sugar and give your child low-fat milk instead of whole milk to cut down the amount of saturated fat in his diet. Read the cereal-box labels and look for ones that have at least 3 grams of fiber and no more than 7 to 10 grams of sugar per serving, says Chaparro. If your child wants something sweet, you can always add some berries or some banana slices to the cereal.

4. Fruit drinks/fruit punches
Here's another instance where it pays to read the label very carefully.

Just because a drink has the word "fruit" in it, it doesn't mean it necessarily contains much--or any--fruit juice. Look for labels that say "100 percent fruit juice," which is what The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends, says Chaparro. To cut down the amount of sugar your child gets, look for juices that don't have added sugar and water it down before serving it to your child.

Better breakfast option: Skip the juice and give your child whole fruits instead. Or whip up a smoothie made with a banana, apples, kale, ice cubes, and other nutritious whole foods for a healthy breakfast drink.

5. Bagels with cream cheese
An entire bagel with full-fat cream cheese is high in calories and fat, and is just too much for a child to eat. And like white bread and pastries, plain bagels are made with refined white flour that has been stripped of nutrients and may cause blood sugar levels to spike and crash when eaten in large amounts.

Better breakfast option: Give your child a mini whole-wheat bagel (or 1/2 a bagel) with a healthy topping such as low-fat cream cheese, nut butter, egg, or a turkey.

6. Muffins
There are a few reasons why these seemingly-healthy baked goodies are not a good breakfast food for kids. For one thing, they tend to be humongous, says Chaparro. And they're often loaded with saturated fat and sugar.

Better breakfast option: Make your own. Bake up a batch of mini muffins using less sugar and healthier ingredients such as whole wheat flour, carrots, raisins, and nuts. The best part: You can make these when you have some time and freeze them. Then you can simply warm them up in the morning with some fruit and yogurt as part of a healthy breakfast for kids. And if you're running late, they're portable, too!

7. Cereal bars or granola bars
While these may sound healthy, breakfast and snack bars can be wildly different in how much nutritious (and unhealthy) ingredients they contain. Some granola and cereal bars can be laden with refined carbs, sugar, and preservatives, and may be no better nutritionally than a candy bar.

Better breakfast option: The key is to read the nutrition labels and try to stick to those that are low in sugar and fat and have more whole-grain and other healthy ingredients and fewer preservatives. If the ingredients list reads like a list of things you'd find in a chemistry lab instead of a kitchen, skip it. Look for bars that are made from whole nuts, fruits, and whole grains to provide fiber, protein, and other important nutrients.

As a general rule, try to combine three food groups--whole grains, lean protein, and fruit or vegetables--when planning a healthy breakfast for kids. Find recipes that you can make ahead to save time in the morning, and read labels carefully to make sure you steer clear of sugar, saturated fats, and preservatives. And since many of these healthy breakfast options can double as lunch ideas, you can also put them in your child's school lunch box to make her lunch healthier, too!

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