Parenting: Dealing with the breakfast conundrum

Aug 08, 2013

Join writers Mari-Jane Williams and Casey Seidenberg as they discuss the challenges of creating a healthful family breakfast. Their articles on breakfast appeared in the Back to School issue of Local Living.

Hi, everyone, and thanks so much for joining us today. Please feel free to share not just your questions, but also your horror (and success!) stories about breakfast. At our house, it's usually much more low-key than dinner (the kids aren't as tired and cranky), but I worry that I'm not feeding them the right things or the best things, or giving them enough variety. And, of course, it's a fire drill getting everyone up and out on time. Let's get started with the questions!

Here are our stories on breakfast from today's Local Living:

Taking the stress out of weekday breakfasts with kids

A bounty of healthful ideas for breakfasts

When trying to get breakfast on the table, cereal is the quickest way to go. But are cereals such as cheerios and chex really all the healthy? Even if not the versions with marshmallows or honey, are they healthy enough when paired with (low-fat/skim) milk?

Processed cereals are not as healthful as whole grain options such as whole oatmeal. The grains in a processed cereal have been broken down so they don't provide all of the nutrition a whole grain would, and they often lack fiber so they enter the bloodstream more quickly than a whole grain which leaves a child hungry sooner. A better bet for a quick breakfast is to a homemade whole grain muffin, or pre-soaked oatmeal that can be heated quickly. 

Recently discovered that my toddler's day care is serving Apple Zings (loaded with artificial dyes and 16g of sugar!) as their "whole grain cereal." My efforts to discuss the matter with their dietitian resulted in her telling me that they couldn't serve something "healthier"--as the children wouldn't eat it--and that this meets the federal guidelines for a healthy breakfast. Any suggestions on how to combat this? (This was the healthiest sounding item on their monthly breakfast menu, which includes mini cinnis, apple frudels, french toast sticks with syrup, and muffins.)

Hmmm. That's a tricky one. I would definitely keep questioning the food choices, and trying to get better options for your child. In the meantime, can you take your own food for your child? That might be your best bet if they don't seem willing to budge.

There are also wonderful resources online that can support you in your effort to bring healthier options to the day care. offers a slew of resources including data to support your arugment that food dyes and sugar are not acceptable for young children. I recommend approaching the day care with a positive attitude instead of a compaining tone.  Suggest that the program has a wonderful opportunity to teach these young children about nutrition from the start. There are printable placemats and other activities relating to nutrition that are fun and education for very young children. You could bring a few examples in for them to use with the children.  

I switched the term "breakfast" to eat something. It could be scrambled eggs on toast sandwich or a meatloaf sandwich. Some days it was a serving spoon of peanut butter and a glass of milk.Other days it was homemade milkshake with frozen fruit. Our child was in a carpool and I lived with empty glasses and greasy paper towels left in my car.

These sound like great solutions for picky eaters. I think sometimes we fixate so much on breakfast food that we forget there are plenty of other acceptable, healthful options out there. Several of the moms and nutritionists I spoke with for the story also said they started doing this, and have had much success.

Leftovers often make a great breakfast! I agree that we should think out of the box when it comes to breakfast. We don't need to eat the very American cereals and baked goods.  Meats and broth and greens are traditional morning meals in many countries and are a fantastic way to begin any day.

For a quick breakfast, make egg muffins! Just like they sound - mix up a bunch of eggs with your favorite omelet fillings, fill up muffin tins (grease or use non-paper cups for best results), bake, and freeze individually. About a minute in the microwave, and boom! Quick, filling, healthy breakfast! And a note on smoothies - you're pre-processing the food before you eat it, which means your system has to do less work to digest it and you'll be hungry sooner. You're better to eat the fruit whole with yogurt and/or nut butter, or even better, scramble some greens into your eggs in the morning. I stay MUCH fuller than I ever did on smoothies, even green ones with nut butter in them.

Wonderful idea! The pre-made egg muffins most certainly make the morning less hectic. And I agree that a breakfast with protein-filled eggs can help keep a body full for a longer period than a more processed breakfast can. And any time you can add vegetables to a meal, you should!  Great ideas.

Not a question, but a parenting and breakfast win! First I hooked my family on smoothies (fruit, yogurt, juice, sugar). Over several months I switched to plain, nonfat greek yogurt, then started adding raw kale (which is tasteless compared to the other ingredients), switched the juice to coconut water (potassium!) and cut out the added sugar. Now my family gets a full serving of raw fruit and vegetables (and even wheatgrass, which you can now buy in frozen cubes apparently) every morning. I but the fruit when it's fresh and freeze single portions, so in the am all I have to do is drop everything in the blender. It's been so successful that my six year old will now tell anyone who will listen how much she likes kale and has even been will to try, and like, it in other dishes like soups and stir fry. Breakfast win!

That is a victory for sure. I once got my veggie-disliking child to eat kale inside ravioli. Thanks for sharing!

Cheers to you! I love success stories like yours. The earlier we start our children experiencing and enjoying the flavors of kale and other healthful foods the more likely they will stick to them. Keep spreading the word!

Is there any risk to eating the same thing every day, as long as it's something healthy? (Besides boredom, that is. I never get tired of yogurt and granola, but I worry that maybe I need variety for health reasons?)

As long as you are getting a variety of foods and nutrients throughout your day, you are probably fine eating the same healthful breakfast most days.  It never hurts to shake it up on weekends or when you have more time to experiment. Perhaps add fresh fruit or some raw nuts to up the nutrition.

Why do you need sugar if you've already got fruit and juice in the smoothie?

You are correct, the ideal smoothie wouldn't have added sugar. In fact, it wouldn't even have juice. A banana adds plenty of sweetness as can other fresh or frozen fruits such as strawberries, cherries or pineapple. Protein can come in the form of nut butter, raw soft nuts or seeds, or plain yogurt. So yes, skip the sugar!

Kids need calories in the morning. I wish people wouldn't be so quick to insist that youngsters who are not overweight put skim or low-fat milk on their cereal or drink it. Let them have a half-cup of whole milk on their oatmeal or cheerios.

Yes, studies show that kids who eat a healthful breakfast tend to feel full throughout the day so they consumer fewer calories at lunch and even dinner. Kids who eat a good breakfast have also been shown to make healthier choices throughout the day. And healthful fat is in fact a very important part of the breakfast meal. It provides energy to the body which is essential for the school day, and it is a building block for the brain.

Hi. I know this is off topic, but I hope you will take my question anyways. I am the father of a 20 month old boy with a communnication delay who has generally been late on developmental milestones(late crawler, late walker). So far, we've bought him his own potty that he seems to like to sit on, and I take him with me whenever I go to the bathroom and he seems pretty interested in what's going on. What should I do next? Anything else I should be doing? I'm really not sure where to start here.

Hi. Your son sounds a lot like my son (who is now 9 but was late in many of those same areas). Honestly, I would let him sit on the potty and go in there with you, but wait until he's a little older before you really start potty training him. I think 20 months is a little young even for a typically developing child, and for one with developmental delays, he might not be ready to understand and control his bathroom needs until he is 3 1/2 or so. When he's old enough to understand a reward system/sticker chart, you can try that, too--that's what finally did the trick in our case. Best of luck with your son!

If you read the OP's post in its entirety, you would learn that (s)he did, indeed, gradually cut out the sugar. It was likely necessary to get the kids to drink the smoothies in the first place (maybe coming off a steady diet of Lucky Charms) but (s)he was soon able to cut the sugar and add healthier ingredients.

Kids, and adults, need time to adjust to new flavors and new levels of sweetness or bitterness.  Making gradual changes is a wonderful way to move kids toward a more healthful way of eating.

It seems to be trendy these days to make your own nut butters, yogurt, flours, etc. Is it worth it? I guess I'm wondering about taste-wise, nutrition-wise and price-wise.

Making your own food is wonderful!  If you have the time of course. I often make nut butters because we eat a lot of them, but I have decided that the ground flours are worth buying since there are wonderful options out there and I don't have the time to ground my own. Everyone has different amounts of time, different comfort levels in the kitchen, different budgets, and access to different foods... so I believe it is best to decide what works for you and your family.  Do you eat a lot of nut butter and do you have the time to make your own?  Or do you drink a lot of almond milk so homemade would be worth the added nutrition? Evaluate your priorities and family routines and decide what works the best for you. And get the kids involved!

My 2.5 year-old had always been a mommy's girl, but recently she's reached a whole new level. She often cries she needs her mommy -- when she's with daddy or someone else or in another room. For the past two weeks she refused to participate in her ballet/tap class (I wait in the hallway) and just cries. What can I do to help her become more independent?

I think this is pretty typical behavior in a child that age. Make sure she gets enough special mommy time, but also try to increase her time alone with daddy or other trusted adults (maybe even go out for an hour or two and leave her with daddy). My guess is that after the initial crying for mommy, she recovers pretty quickly. Our parenting advice expert, Marguerite Kelly, will be chatting at noon on Aug. 29, so please check with her for more suggestions.

I tried an on-line recipe for overnight steel-cut oatmeal in a crockpot. It was tasty, but the bottom was utterly burned -- took me days to clean out the crockpot and the house smelt like burnt caramel. Does anyone have a reliable recipe to use? I just don't have the time to do oatmeal in the a.m. -- my spouse is in charge of breakfast and he won't do more than put something in the toaster or microwave.

I often soak the oatmeal in the fridge in filtered water overnight. Then I heat it up on the stove. Because it has been soaked it doesn't need to be cooked for a long time so makes a very efficient breakfast.  

Interestingly, we tested a similar recipe to run with our story today, and didn't use the recipe because we had similar results. Does anyone have a crockpot oatmeal recipe that they recommend? I like the idea of waking up to the smell of oatmeal.

I don't think that you completely addressed the poster's comment about the day care menu. It sounds as if the dietician is concerned that the children will consume the food they are offered and if they don't, the day care will get complaints that the kids are hungry. Unfortunately, many children have already been trained to prefer sugary food by the time they arrive at day care. How does a day care provider strike a balance between ensuring that children aren't hungry (and complain to their parents) and providing wholesome food. It seems that the dietician is relying on federal guidelines, which seems reasonable.

In my experience with my own three children and within schools, children will eventually eat what is available. They may balk at new items first, and ask for the items with which they are familiar, but they will eventually open up to new foods. Not everything of course.  There are ways to ease away from the highly chemical, food-dyed offerings without shocking the children by providing kale chips as a replacement.  There are packaged items that have natural dyes and less sugar that could be the first step. 2 Angry Moms is another organization that offers advice and resources to parents hoping to approach their school to make food changes. 

I'll admit we're a pop-tart family. Any ideas for alternatives we can bring in the car?

One of the nutritionists I spoke with for my story suggested filling a whole-wheat tortilla with scrambled eggs mixed with cheese and vegetables, wrapping it up, and eating it in the car.

Make whole grain muffins, whole grain waffles, or as one person just suggested, egg muffins - all of which are easy to take on the go. Try the recipe for the granola wedges featured in the article, as they are portable. Hard boiled eggs are another option, and I sometimes give my kids smoothies for the car - just be sure to get a cup with a top and straw to avoid spills! 

One of my 3 kids just plain isn't hungry in the morning... it takes at least 2 hours for her stomach to "wake up" (I am the same way) and before that, it's all I can do to get her to drink a glass of milk. When she was in preschool this wasn't much of a problem, as she'd get to school at 9:15 and then have a snack at 10 (which was really her breakfast). But she's starting kindergarten next month, and she'll need to eat something in the morning! I've tried smoothies, cereal, pancakes, muffins, and all kinds of "treats," but she just won't touch anything. Any thoughts?

Have you tried cutting back on her evening snacks? That's one suggestion I would have, to try to make sure she's really hungry in the mornings.

This is a very common comment. I actually feel the same way myself!  My advice would be to do three things. First, explain to your child how important breakfast is to a growing child. has some simple statistics and easy to explain facts. This might not change her behavior immediately but is an important part of your role as a parent: to teach her to make the right choices when away from you.  Second, see if you can pack her something to eat on the way to school or even at her desk. Many teachers, if discussed in advance, will allow a child to eat something at school if there is a good reason for it. Third, think about lighter foods such as smoothies (which I know you have tried!) Ask your child if it would feel better for her to have a smoothie or a little fruit and plain yogurt instead of something heavier like oatmeal or a baked good. She might be more open to foods if they are labeled "lighter".

What we do is take 2 cups rolled oats, 2 cups milk, 2 cups water, and 1 bag of frozen fruit. Simmer on the stove for about 30 minutes, stir every 5 minutes (I do this while making dinner). Let cool and then refrigerate. It reheats super quickly and lasts for about 5 days.

Thanks for sharing!

While I can understand that a kale and yogurt or whole grain oatmeal breakfast maybe more nutritious than Cheerios or mini wheats, it seems to be that your responses thus far don't really address the "breakfast condundrum: - namely getting people to eat a resonably healthy breakfast with a minimum of complaining. No one I know would want spend the time making or eating some of the things you describe. I say bring in the decent-but-not-ideal cereal, the english muffin with store-bough peanut butter, and the instant oatmeal, pour a glass or milk or OJ, and be happy that breakfast is being eaten.

What you describe sounds a LOT like breakfast in my house, but I'm not a nutrition expert. I'm all for trying to get as much healthful food into my kids as possible. But it's also important to pick your battles, and no one wants to start the day off with a power struggle over food. I think the moms I spoke with for my story today had great suggestions for getting kids to eat: prepare ahead as much as you can, adjust the morning schedule to fit their moods/needs for time to relax, involve them in the preparation, and try to eat breakfast yourself. I know I'm in a much better mood, and much better able to deal with the demands of cranky kids, when I've had something to eat.

I agree that perfect can be the enemy, which is why I included a section in the article on packaged cereals, waffles and cereal bars. Every day is different - some are more hectic than others! Every child is different - some are picky and some are not.  And every family has different time and budget limitations so the article hopefully offered ideas for everyone.

Serves 4: 1 cup oats; 1 cup cottage cheese; 4 eggs; 1 t baking powder. Add vanilla and/or cinnamon to taste. Blend in blender to eliminate the "oatiness". High protein, high fiber, super-tasty, and easy to size-down recipe to single servings.

I'm going to have to try this one at home. The whole-wheat toaster pancake recipe that we ran with today's story was a big hit with my kids, so that is another great option.

Looks delicious, I can't wait to try!

What wonderful questions, comments and recipes today. I enjoyed chatting with everyone. Be well.

Thanks so much for joining us today and sharing lots of great questions and ideas about breakfast. Be sure to join us Aug. 29, when Family Alamanac columnist Marguerite Kelly will be taking questions about parenting children of all ages.

My son frequently says that he isn't hungry in the morning. I won't let him skip breakfast completely but I will let him keep it small on those days. Sometimes it is just a bowl of yogurt or, like this morning, half of an apple with peanut butter. Heck, sometimes it is salami and cheese! I try to be flexible and focus on getting at least some protein into him.

Great tip, thanks!

In This Chat
Casey Seidenberg
Casey Seidenberg is co-founder of Nourish Schools, a D.C.-based nutrition education company. In addition to writing a regular nutrition column for The Washington Post, Seidenberg works with schools to provide nutritional assessments, healthier options for the cafeteria, faculty and parent education, curriculum additions for the classroom, and farm-to-school relationships. As an educator and a mother, she recognizes the important connection between good nutrition and a child’s ability to learn, focus in a classroom, and stave off disease.
Mari-Jane Williams
Mari-Jane Williams is a staff writer at The Washington Post, covering parenting and family issues for Local Living. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and two children.
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