was visiting my parents on a recent weekend when I witnessed the following tableau at 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning: my dad, clad in a blue cotton pajama set and robe, sitting in the kitchen with a newspaper spread out before him, pouring 2% milk into a bowl of Grape Nuts cereal and eating it at a notably leisurely pace. I must have watched my father perform this ritual thousands of times over the course of my childhood, but I suppose I never registered the fact that he was still doing it. I observed with rapt attention, like an anthropologist observing some bizarre human behavior.
After a few minutes, I couldn’t help myself: “Dad, you still eat milk and cereal for breakfast?”
“Yes?” he replied, his tone more question than answer, as if curious why I even found it necessary to ask.
Thus began a mental spiral that ended with a pressing — nay, burning, investigative query: Is the combination of milk and cereal, eaten out of a bowl and consumed with a spoon, still a breakfast staple in 2018? It hasn’t been one for me in at least eight years, though I did ingest milk and cereal daily in this precise manner from the moment I had enough teeth to chew a Cheerio to at least the end of my senior year of high school. My cereal phases over the course of this seminal period were arguably more powerful than my stylistic ones, evolving from Rice Krispies to Raisin Bran to Smart Start to Honey Bunches of Oats to Cracklin’ Oat Bran with no shortage of ceremony. Sometimes I garnished my morning bowl with banana slices, but more often than not it was an purist endeavor: plain cereal swimming in milk of the cow variety (skim, 1% or 2% — whatever was in the fridge). I ate it in the company of my family before we set off for school, or work, or whatever agenda the day happened to hold, all five of us huddled over the kitchen table, washing down each bite with a sip of Tropicana orange juice. I ate it without thinking, because it was placed on the table in front of me and it tasted good.
Then, I stopped. It was somewhat gradual in the sense that I replaced the milk in my cereal bowl with Greek yogurt circa 2010, but when I ultimately eliminated the cereal as well, the transition picked up considerable speed. I became a flake in the brewing avalanche that was Wellness with a capital W, and baby, I was snowballing. All of a sudden I was eating oatmeal decorated in the manner of a professional mosaic and assembling open-faced toasts worthy of the Museum of Modern Art. The only thing close to milk I continued to consume regularly was the soy variety I added to my coffee in the morning, and cereal? I pretty much forgot it existed.
Apparently I wasn’t the only one: “[Breakfast] cereal, both as a cultural marker and a profit center, is at a crossroads,” The New York Times proclaimed in 2016. “Since the late 1990s, its popularity has been slowly fading.”
“Overall cereal sales in the U.S. have declined 11% over the past five years to around $9 billion in 2017, according to Mintel, a consumer research firm,” The Wall Street Journal reported this past spring. “Post CEO Robert Vitale said cereal has lost a tenth of its shelf space as a result.”
In a Twitter poll conducted a year ago by CNN Money Digital Correspondent Paul La Monica inquiring how often his followers ate cereal, the majority of responders answered “Never!”
More woes for General Mills. Cereal sales down. So is $GIS stock. Will include this poll in story later today. How often do you eat cereal?
— Paul R. La Monica (@LaMonicaBuzz) March 21, 2017
I posed a slightly more specific question to my Instagram followers last week, asking how many people actually consume cereal and milk for breakfast these days. Responses poured in by the hundreds, many of them from staunch defenders of this mealtime ritual I’ve associated with a bygone era.
“If eating cereal as an adult is wrong, I don’t want to be right,” one person messaged me. “If anything, cereal should be the norm! A lot of us are adults who work full time jobs and are not afforded the luxury of having the time to prepare a full breakfast for ourselves every morning. Cereal is cheap(ish), easy and there is a ton of variety.”
“Absolutely,” another said. “There is nothing more decadent than a simple bowl of cereal (bonus if you go for a ‘children’s’ cereal, a.k.a. joy in a bowl.)”
In addition to ease and cost, nostalgia was the primary reason responders cited as the driver behind their cereal consumption: “I had a long chat with some folks about this the other day,” one person told me. “We all agreed that we only eat cereal when we’re feeling super nostalgic! And, depending on my mood, I either go for the super sweet sugar bombs (that I was only allowed to eat at grandma’s house) or the boring cereals (Raisin bran) that remind me of what the adults were eating.”
“Cereal feels dependable and reliable, not to mention very comforting and nostalgic,” another wrote. “There’s nothing nostalgic about a protein shake or a poached egg!”
“It totally hits the spot when I wake up feeling off or need food that feels like a hug from mom,” said another.
Others acknowledged that even though they maintain their cereal-eating habits, they do so in the midst of a changing breakfast landscape. “Breakfast is the hardest meal to choose,” one person confessed. “There are so many health injunctions related to breakfast. You ‘have’ to eat protein (but be careful with dairy!), good fat, no sugar, not too many carbs… it’s so hard and makes me more anxious than any other meal. I compromise by adding fresh fruits and nuts to my milk and cereal.”
“It’s definitely not trendy, and it seems old-school compared to something like avocado toast or chia seed pudding or whatever else people are eating for breakfast these days,” said another.
“The vibe I get at work is that the only acceptable grown-up breakfast food is yogurt,” chimed in a third.
Upon further research, I learned that cereal companies are not only wizening up to the powerful selling point of their products’ inherent nostalgia factor, but also pivoting their marketing strategy based on the reality that they can no longer compete with so-called “trendy” breakfast foods like green smoothies and chia seed puddings.
“The cereal makers realized that coming out with some of the really healthy cereals in recent years like Cheerios with added protein or Frosted Flakes with high fiber just weren’t getting people to eat more cereal,” Wall Street Journal reporter Annie Gasparao told CBS News. “The people who are eating cereal are eating it because it’s fun and it tastes good and it looks fun with fun colors. They aren’t eating it to be healthy.”
In other words, after trying and failing to hop on the Wellness train, cereal companies are now leaning in the opposite direction: more sugar, more artificial and more kid-like. According to CBS News, Post stopped selling the high-protein version of Honey Bunches of Oats and revived Oreo Os, which they had previously discontinued in 2007. (I purchased a miniature box of at my local bodega to confirm they do, in fact, taste like actual Oreo cookies). Similarly, Kellogg’s pulled its lower-sugar iteration of Frosted Flakes from stores and dispatched chocolate and cinnamon flavors instead, which boast a sugar content of 10 grams per (measly) 1/2-cup serving. And finally, my favorite: General Mills faced so much outrage for eliminating fake flavors, high-fructose corn syrup, and artificial dyes in Trix cereal (one incensed customer called it “basically a salad now”) that they actually decided to bring back the older, more colorful, corn-syrup-filled version.
“These companies know that the nostalgic brands, the fun flavors, the cartoon mascots that’s what’s selling cereal and that’s what’s going to make them be able to stabilize this category that’s lost shelf space to Gasparao told CBS.and protein bars and things that people view as healthier for breakfast,”
A side effect of this shift in focus is the somewhat startling but nonetheless true revelation that cereal isn’t so much a breakfast staple anymore as it is a novelty food. In a culture ruled by social media, no edible thing can succeed unless it is “doing the most,” and if cereal couldn’t do the most when it came to health and wellness, then it would have to do the most in other ways — as a snack (perfect for grabbing a 1/2-cup handful), as an indulgent dinner option (I can’t be the only one who begged to eat breakfast for dinner as a kid), as an experience (ever been to Kellogg’s NYC café or Milk & Cream Cereal Bar?) or as 2018’s unique blend of viral-friendly nostalgia (colors and iconography that reference the past paired with the kind of fantastical branding that sounds good in a tweet or looks like-worthy in a photo).
Haley’s boyfriend Avi (to whom I reached out for comment due to his rumored expertise on the topic of cereal) kindly sent me a bulleted list of the 11 different types of Cheerios he took note of during a recent trip to the grocery store: Original, Honey Nut, Apple Cinnamon, Multi Grain, Chocolate, Frosted, Fruity, Very Berry, Honey Nut Medley Crunch, Chocolate Peanut Butter, Protein. “There is also now a Pumpkin Spice Frosted Flakes,” he added. “There are more than six types of Raisin Bran. Have we advanced as a society because of this? Is this the best use of our time and resources?”
The answers to these questions are debatable, but Big Cereal’s marketing efforts seem to have reached at least one prominent member of Generation Z (13 hours before this story went live, I might add):
last night i had cereal with milk for the first time. life changing.
— Kylie Jenner (@KylieJenner) September 19, 2018
Life-changing indeed. Last week, I myself stood on a chair, pulled my roommate’s stale box of Cinnamon Puffins from the back of our kitchen cabinet and poured it into a bowl with milk. I ate it alone, legs curled criss-cross-apple-sauce underneath me on the sofa, washing down each bite with a sip of chamomile tea. I ate it at 8:21 p.m., but don’t worry, I’ll work my way up to breakfast eventually, and I’m sure Kylie will too.
Photo by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.