When I was a kid, the before-school breakfast of choice was almost always cereal. I personally loved Lucky Charms, but by the time I was in middle school, I preferred the slightly less-sweet Rice Krispies and Kix. But these days? I hardly ever eat cereal. I don’t quite remember when or why I stopped, but cold breakfast cereal gradually transitioned from a daily dish to a very occasional treat.
It turns out, I’m not alone. Consumers in the U.S. were eating a lot of breakfast cereal in the ‘90s. However, in the years since, the breakfast cereal market has largely been in decline as breakfast eaters have transitioned to apparently healthier and more convenient breakfast foods. When the pandemic hit and many of us were suddenly staying home instead of going into school and the office, breakfast cereal sales grew. But now, as we’ve begun to work our way back to “normal” life, what’s the fate of the humble breakfast cereal?
To understand where we now stand with cereal culture, it pays to learn about the food’s origins. It’s not as old as you might think—cereal was invented in 1863 by a man named James Caleb Jackson, who ran a sanitarium, a kind of conservative religious vegetarian health spa. Jackson’s name has been lost to history, though; it’s John Harvey Kellogg that made the food famous. He believed that cold cereal could stave off bowel issues (actually somewhat true) and discourage masturbation (almost certainly not true). The breakfast food caught on with vegetarians and religious zealots, but when Kellogg’s brother invented cornflakes, which, unlike Kellogg’s cereal, contained sugar, it gained more widespread appeal.
After World War II, the culinary lives of U.S. Americans had changed completely. Women, many of whom had to work during the war, were less inclined to spend hours at the stove preparing breakfast when they could simply pour some cereal and milk into a bowl and be done with it. Cereal brands started advertising to children, hoping to capture the taste buds of potentially lifelong cereal eaters. And soon, many of the most popular breakfast cereals lining store shelves were brimming with so much sugar, they should’ve just been considered dessert.
Eating mass amounts of sugar and carbs may not have seemed like an issue when diet culture was focused on low-fat foods, but once the fear of carbs gripped the U.S. populace, things started to change. Suddenly, sugar-laden cereal looked really, really unhealthy, and consumers started moving onto different breakfast options.
It wasn’t just a health issue, either; U.S. Americans’ mornings were starting to look different. More and more breakfast eaters wanted something they could take with them on the go. Microwavable breakfast sandwiches and granola bars seemed like a better option for those fighting their way through busy morning traffic or trying to sneak in a few bites on a busy train. After all, trying to scarf down a bowl of cereal while you’re trying to drive probably isn’t a great idea. Some people just stopped eating breakfast altogether—in 2022, only 35% of Statista respondents said that they ate breakfast on a daily basis.
In 2020, the breakfast cereal market saw a sudden increase in sales once stay-at-home mandates went into effect; perhaps diners finally had the opportunity to sit down at a table for breakfast but were too stressed to cook eggs and toast, or maybe they were just looking for comfort in the form of their favorite childhood breakfast.
But what is the fate of breakfast cereal now as we approach the third anniversary of covid lockdown measures? Some breakfast cereal makers are trying to shift their product offerings to appeal to modern-day breakfast eaters. Some, like Purely Elizabeth, have focused on products that seem healthier than their ‘90s counterparts. Others may do well to ditch the “breakfast” label altogether and embrace a new status as a dessert dish. I mean, let’s face it: Cookie Crisp is never going to be able to rebrand itself as a health food.
As inflation impacts grocery shoppers, though, perhaps cereal will be able to reassert itself as an inexpensive breakfast option for those of us who have been lucky enough to transition to full-time remote work post-pandemic. One thing is for sure: Even though I may not eat it often, I’m not ready to give up the cold-breakfast joy that is a good bowl of Rice Krispies. Hopefully, our favorite cereals will find a way back to our pantries again, home amongst our newfound lentils and gluten-free pasta.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.