There's nothing inherently child-specific about a bowl of cold toasted grains soaked in milk, yet breakfast cereal seems to be inextricably associated with kids in the American imagination. Sure, it helps that most boxed cereals you'll finding lining your supermarket aisles today come liberally infused with sugar (quite a turnabout for a food category that started with Seventh-Day Adventist health nuts, who would probably be pretty horrified if they could get a glimpse of the industry today), but there are other reasons.
You could begin, for instance, with the unchallenging flavors of corn and wheat combined with milk, making cereal an easy sell for the harried parents, usually moms, raising fussy eaters, who saw themselves reflected in generations of harried parents raising fussy eaters on TV. There's the minimal preparation required, obviously, which made cereal the first meal many of us learned to fix for ourselves.
Add to that relentless marketing featuring every kind of kid bait you can think of—bright colors; unshakable jingles; talking animals (and cartoon chefs, and a leprechaun, and a captain of some never-seen navy); the promise of strength and coolness and superpowers; the insider-y nod to your membership in a special club that adults can't infiltrate; and the lure of sugar sugar sugar—and it's not hard to see how the cereals that accompanied us throughout our youth became a days-long conversation topic among the Serious Eats staff.
We've learned that few childhood cereals are cherished only on their own merits: The rituals that we created for eating them, the manic mascots that charmed us, and the cartoons that we ate them by on Saturdays were just as important. And we've learned that you can make nearly 50% of the SE staff happy by sitting them down in front of a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Here are the cereals that we still dream of forming our own secret kids' club around, even as grown-ups.
After an unfortunate incident wherein three-year-old Stella was left alone with Rainbow Brite cereal long enough to eat an entire box, my parents tried to steer me away from cereals with artificial coloring. That still left me with a number of excellent options—Pops, Honey Nut Cheerios, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, et cetera—the best of which was Alpha-Bits Cereal. They taste about like Lucky Charms sans the Styrofoam marshmallow bits, which was fine by me, and I'd like to think my love for a frosted alphabet helped steer me toward the baker/writer life I lead now. A-B-C-Delicious! (This bonus commercial is before my time, but everyone deserves to hear MJ singing about Alpha-Bits, especially in a video that includes The Jackson 5 sitting down for cereal around a $14,000 Eero Saarinen dining room set. Yes, I did the math.) —Stella Parks, pastry wizard
Fruit & Fibre
I knew and loved many a cereal when I was a kid—the candy-sweet nonsense, like Cookie Crisp and Lucky Charms, that my grandmother plied us with when we came for visits, as well as the more quotidian and practical choices of my parents, like Kix and Life. (Thinking back on it, I'm not even sure they bought Life that often, which speaks to its outsize importance in my mind. Life gets soggy faster than almost anything else, and it's still the best damn cereal on the planet.) I was even #blessed enough to be able to enjoy a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch fairly regularly in front of Muppet Babies.
But my most steadfast breakfast companion, probably starting when I was about eight and continuing into my teenage years, was Fruit & Fibre (now apparently styled "Fruit 'n Fibre"). Yep, I latched on to a sensible mixture of wheat flakes, nuts, and dried fruit, named after a dietary necessity and marketed at retirees, and I suppose Mom and Dad were only too happy to oblige this particular whimsy.
Fruit & Fibre was known in the '80s and '90s for the tagline "Tastes so good, you forget the fiber!"—which, again, doesn't scream "youthful image"—and a series of commercials that poked self-deprecating fun at the inexplicably British spelling, in which one character would insist that the correct pronunciation was "fruit and fee-bray." I don't specifically remember this one, starring Tim Conway, but it's representative and charmingly laid-back. I have been a very old person on the inside for a very long time. —Miranda Kaplan, senior editor
I grew up in a pretty healthy household, and that meant hell no to the sugary cereals. We had a lot of puffed-millet, cardboard-like stuff that tasted like nothing, though I do suppose it was a bit healthier (except when I put a lot of Splenda on it, which, now that I think about it, is totally gross). The only time we ever got sugary cereal was when my dad went grocery shopping, and his all-time favorite is Frosted Flakes. When that bright-blue Kellogg's box made it onto our cereal shelf, I went totally crazy with it—it was a classic kid-who-never-has-sugar scenario.
Recently I had brunch at MeMe's Diner in Prospect Heights, where, as a little amuse-bouche, they give you a blissful mixture of colorful sugary cereals in a little bowl—all those classics, like Cap'n Crunch and Fruit Loops. It is such a treat. I guess I can thank all that cardboard of my youth for helping me appreciate it. —Ariel Kanter, marketing director
I still have cereal for breakfast (and sometimes dinner) every day. These days I'm more of a Cheerios or Grape-Nuts eater, but as a kid, I definitely got hooked on the more sugar-oriented cereals, and Cookie Crisp was among the many options I rotated through. A bowl full of tiny chocolate chip cookies. Did I need more of a reason to like it as an eight-year old? Though perhaps the pair of cartoon crooks (including a dog) that served as the brand's mascot had something to do with it...that "CooooOOOOOkie Crisp" jingle is pretty solid. —Vicky Wasik, visual director
The thing I remember most about my childhood trips to the grocery store is setting up camp in front of the wall of multicolored cereal boxes, wheedling and pleading with my parents as they shook their heads and jabbed their fingers at the panel of nutrition facts.
I mostly blame the ensuing tears on the astonishing effectiveness of cereal commercials—especially the kind that featured greedy adults with Peter Pan syndrome, trying to steal cereal from children who, in this gritty, high-stakes universe, went to great lengths to save their most treasured possession: brightly hued, sugar-saturated breakfast candy. Sweetened cereals, they proclaimed, were a child’s birthright, and if you weren't getting your fill, it was almost certainly because some grown-up—like, say, your mom or dad—was an evil asshole.
Which is why my favorite breakfast cereal was virtually any breakfast cereal I wasn’t eating. For the most part, our pantry was limited to Cheerios or generic “health” flakes, with rare appearances from Raisin Bran and, on a good day, a box of Honey Nut Cheerios. Within the confines of those prison walls, I found myself with a particular affinity for Grape-Nuts, which would sink into a dense heap beneath my milk and form a gritty cement onto which I could project visions of overflowing bowls of Fruit Loops, Golden Grahams, and Cocoa Pebbles. Now that I’m a marginally health-conscious adult, I genuinely enjoy a bowl of Grape-Nuts. But back in ’93, they drew me in with their masochistic appeal: a meal that captured the true extent of my hardship, deprivation, and suffering. —Niki Achitoff-Gray, executive managing editor
Honey Nut Cheerios
I’ll happily eat Honey Nut Cheerios at any time of day or night, for any meal. They make an excellent appetizer, salad, entrée, or dessert; each little O possesses the perfect balance of sweet and savory (but mostly sweet). And, of course, as a kid growing up in a mostly sugar-free household in Berkeley, California, I could never eat them at home, which meant I searched frantically through cupboards and drawers whenever I was at a friend’s house, looking for that big red-and-yellow cardboard box. When I found it, I was in heaven. I still don’t buy them for my own pantry, but if I ever see that signature box tucked behind the grown-up food in a friend’s kitchen, I finish it off. —Elazar Sontag, intern
Growing up in New Delhi, India, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we couldn't buy cereal, and there weren't any cereal ads on TV. There was no joy in our house, and no pleasure in our home. I did pine after Corn Pops quite a bit, since I got a taste of some at my American friends' houses, even though the Pops cut up the inside of my mouth. And, apropos of nothing at all, the guy who played Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad was in a Corn Pops commercial. —Sho Spaeth, features editor
Kashi Heart to Heart
I have a confession to make: I did not eat cereal until I was 15 years old. Not because I was above consuming cleverly marketed sugar bombs for breakfast (because I ate plenty of Eggos), but because I'm lactose-intolerant. This was a time before I could eat my cereal with almond milk, as I do now, so it just wasn't an option for me. Then, during my sophomore year of high school, I had a very bright idea: dry cereal with raspberries and blackberries. The juiciness of 10 or 12 berries bursting in every two to three bites would surely mimic the milk-and-cookies effect of cereal with milk, right?
So I picked out a box of Kashi Heart to Heart cereal in Honey and Oat flavor, and a container each of raspberries and blackberries, and crunched my way through that for the rest of high school. I remember the pieces sometimes being so rough and scratchy that I'd scrape the roof of my mouth on them, but the flavor was good enough, and it allowed me to finally eat my cereal. Now that I'm talking about it, I think I may actually be sparking a craving. But this time, I just might add a splash of almond milk—because I can. —Kristina Bornholtz, social media editor
Golden Grahams and Cinnamon Toast Crunch
Junk foods were rarely an option in my home, and that meant no sugary cereals either. I tasted Lucky Charms only a few times, and that was at a friend's house after a sleepover. Golden Grahams and Cinnamon Toast Crunch were as sweet as my mom was willing to allow, and those two, to this day, are among my favorites, especially when combined in the same bowl. They go together so well, the nut-and-honey notes of Golden Grahams and the sugar-and-spice in Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and they both create, whether together or alone, some of the most delicious cereal milk in existence. I don't think I can pick between them, nor should I have to—I was cereal-deprived enough as a kid as it was. (Also, shout-out to Quaker Cracklin' Oat Bran, which was a decently sweet cereal on regular rotation at my home until health-conscious parents got worried about all the coconut oil in it. My, how times have changed.) —Daniel Gritzer, managing culinary director
...and More Cinnamon Toast Crunch
As a kid I'd spend all week daydreaming about Saturday, when I would wake up at the butt-crack of dawn to get my fill of cartoons and sugar. I was allowed to eat foods repped by colorful characters only on these early weekend mornings—likely because Pop-Tarts and Eggo waffles were the only things that gave my parents a day to sleep in. I wanted to maximize my sugar intake during these precious unsupervised moments, so my breakfast of choice was always Cinnamon Toast Crunch. I mean, it's so overloaded with cinnamon sugar that the slogan was "The taste you can see." I still don't understand how this stuff passes as children's breakfast food, but I'll never forget those mornings spent doing lines of cinnamon sugar with Hey, Arnold! in the background. —Sohla El-Waylly, assistant culinary editor
"Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids!" will forever be ingrained in my brain. I loved that this cereal was so colorful. I'm pretty sure none of the flavors actually differed from one another, but I do remember that at one point the original balls were replaced by actual fruit-shaped pieces, to try to convince you that there was real lemon, grape, lime, raspberry, and blueberry flavor in there. —Vicky Wasik, visual director
Rice Krispies Treats Cereal
A cereal I remember being better in theory than in actuality. I'm assuming this commercial's UFO references were crafted to piggyback on the paranormal-activity obsession that ran rampant throughout the late '80s and '90s, if kids' television of the era is anything to go by. (See: Goosebumps, The Secret World of Alex Mack, Ghostwriter, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles...okay, that one might be a stretch.)
The combo of sugary cereal plus thrills definitely hit the right note for me, and seeing a box of Rice Krispies Treats Cereal in the supermarket incited equal parts excitement and chills-creeping, sensation-laden terror, conjuring up late Saturday mornings glued to the tube over a bowl of (essentially) starchy candy that was "part of a complete breakfast." Whoever said the '50s and '60s represented the golden age of advertising was clearly never a wide-eyed, impressionable child cruising the cereal aisle, visions of RKTC commercials dancing in their head. —Marissa Chen, office manager
There were many long pit stops on my cereal journey growing up. Earlier on, there were the sweeter, more sugary stops, like Cap'n Crunch, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and Lucky Charms. At summer camp I would add extra sugar to my Frosted Flakes, purposefully stir the cereal so the extra sugar sank all the way down, and eat the sugary milk goop at the bottom of the bowl with the spoon. Later on I became ever-so-slightly healthier with Honey Nut Cheerios, a very long stint on Honey Bunches of Oats (still a favorite), and a brief and shameful period on Raisin Bran.
My final destination—and probably my all-time favorite to this day—was Frosted Mini-Wheats. Every bite has exactly the same ratio of ingredients, which I appreciate: just the right amount of fibrous (healthy!) and sugary. The texture is perfect, assuming you have the know-how to let the cereal soak up just the right amount of milk so it's not dry and crunchy, then eat it quickly before it gets soggy. A seasoned veteran such as I am may even split the bowl into two or three rounds of cereal addition, thus ensuring that no piece gets too saturated before your spoon reaches it. —Tim Aikens, front-end developer
I ate more than my fair share of cereal when I was a kid, usually while sprawled out on the living room floor watching reruns of Saved by the Bell or DuckTales. I reserved the more sugary cereals (Cookie Crisp, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Cap'n Crunch, and probably some that start with other letters of the alphabet) to be eaten as a dry snack and primarily ate "healthier" cereals, like Wheat Chex, with milk. I was never a big fan of cereal milk, so as I emptied the bowl, I would repeatedly add more and more cereal, until most of the milk had been absorbed. —Paul Cline, developer