It's the most important decision you have to make whenever you enter a grocery store: Which brand of sugar-frosted, honey-coated, chemically colored, artificially flavored breakfast cereal should you purchase for your kids today?

Once again, let's join hands, gaze skyward, and thank God I'm here to help.

Originally, I planned to risk my own health, well-being and tooth enamel by actually eating some of the more popular and dangerous-looking cereals. But I abandoned that approach after a single spoonful of Hot Wheels Frosted Oat Mag Wheels With Marshmallow Cars, which only proved my long-held theory that automobile parts are best left on automobiles and as far from the breakfast table as possible.

So let's proceed from a different angle, under the very reasonable assumptions that 1) all kiddie-marketed cereals taste like crud, 2) anything that tastes like crud to adults is certain to be adored by their children, and 3) kids don't care about taste so long as the box looks cool, there's a nifty prize inside, the cereal has an abnormal shape and/or color, and they've seen it advertised on television.

Hot Wheels Frosted Oat Mag Wheels With Marshmallow Cars
Box: An action-packed illustration of a sports car careening toward a bowl of cereal. Color and shape: Off-white Styrofoam wheels and fluorescent pink, purple and yellow "marshmallow" cars that could probably double as pencil erasers. Prize: A plastic Hot Wheels car, definitely radical by cereal-merchandise standards. Overall kid-consumer rating: A+

Honey Teddy Grahams Breakfast Bears Graham Cereal
Question: Whatever happened to names like "Wheaties"? Box: A bear eating cereal while his edible counterparts frolic in a bowl of milk. Wimp city. Color and shape: Shellacked plywood teddy bears. Prize: A "Teddy Mask" cutout on the box. Cheapo-cheapo. Rating: F-

Rice Krispies
Box: Misters Snap, Crackle, and Pop, still marveling over their "talking cereal" after all these years. Strictly for traditionalists. Color and shape: Something akin to fresh, dehydrated insect larvae. Boring. Prize: A seriously cool vanishing-ink pen. Rating: B, for the pen.

Cocoa Krispies
Box: A monkey hanging on the rim of a cereal bowl by his toes. Not recommended for children who know what monkeys do with their toes. Color and shape: Something akin to old, dehydrated insect larvae. Prize: A game printed on box. Almost as bad as a cutout mask. Rating: F

Lucky Charms
Box: That dumb little leprechaun. Color and shape: Tan, obviously dead "four-leaf clovers" with a rainbow assortment of "marshmallow" hearts, stars, horseshoes--and the new addition of green trees, ostensibly to promote ecology. That goal might be better served if they made the box out of those so-called "marshmallows," which are sturdier than cardboard and waste no natural resources. Prize: A coupon for a free miniature tree. To a kid, a coupon is the only thing worse than a cutout mask. Rating: C

The Jetsons Cereal
Box: The futuristic cartoon family in its flying saucer, hovering near a giant cereal-bowl shrine. Not bad, but hardly stirring. Color and shape: Blond-mahogany moons, stars and rocket ships to spark the imaginations (if not the appetites) of preschool Earthlings. Prize: Glow-in-the-dark galactic stickers. Kids love anything that could be radioactive. Rating: B

Marshmallow Alpha-Bits
Box: Two lame-looking kids oohing over the words they've spelled in their bowls, as if children eat cereal for its educational value. Color and shape: Yellowish-beige and pastel letters. Prize: An alphabet "sticker puzzle" that appears to require thought. Worse than a coupon. Rating: D-

Fruity Pebbles
Box: Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble in a dull, nonaction pose.
Color and shape: Multicolored fishbowl gravel. Prize: "A free Bedrock dinosaur" is advertised, but there's no picture of what the thing looks like. Could be a trick. Rating: Incomplete

Apple Cinnamon Cheerios
Box: An apple next to a bowl of cereal. Not exactly an adrenaline pumper.
Color and shape: Same unimaginative look as Cheerios. Prize: "Free McDonald's food or drink coupon!" Oh, boy! A junk lunch with your kid's junk breakfast. If they'd throw in a junk dinner, you'd never have to buy the child anything else to eat. Rating: D+

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Cereal
Box: Everyone's favorite reptilian sewer heroes are shown, armed with a giant spoon and sneaking up on a bowl of cereal with the obvious intention of beating it to death. A real kid grabber, more exciting than the movie. Color and shape: An intriguing blend of green turtle "marshmallows," unidentifiable blue objects and, apparently, Rice Chex. Prize: A Ninja Turtle headband mask, sure to be treasured by any budding street-gang member. Rating: A+

Kids love anything that could be radioactive.

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Michael Burkett