Rachel Petlowany and her roommates at CSU-Monterey Bay are cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. And Cocoa Pebbles. And Cap’n Crunch. And Special K. And Raisin Bran. And just about any other cereal they can find.

"It’s so good," said Petlowany, munching on her third of bowl the day.

"And it’s easy," said Christina Morley.

"And it’s quick," said Shalin Cooney.

And apparently it’s common, this love affair between college kids and their cereal. Children 12 and under are by far the biggest consumers of cereal. But anecdotal evidence suggests that growing up doesn’t mean growing out of cravings for a bowl – especially among teenagers and those just out of their teens.

In other words, Trix aren’t just for kids.

"It’s actually pretty amazing to see how many college kids love cereal," said Cooney, who with her roommates has a 12-box stash on top of the refrigerator in their shared suite of rooms.

The trend caught the eye of a couple of entrepreneurs, who’ve launched a chain of cereal-only restaurants, called Cereality, in university towns. The first one opened right on the campus of Arizona State University; two others followed near campuses in Philadelphia and Chicago. Cereal fanatics can choose from 30 varieties, drown them in a variety of milks including soy, and finish them off with any of 30 toppings, including bananas, almonds, M&Ms and marshmallows.

At the dining hall, cereal is offered in bins or in individual-serving-sized containers for students who want to just grab some and go. Students like sophomore Cassie Golding, who headed to the checkout line recently with four containers.

"We usually go to Costco and buy big boxes," Golding said. But she and her roommates had run dry, so she was on an emergency run.

Golding was buying the cereal for breakfast, but Daniel Kaupie, the campus food service director, said that’s not the norm. Breakfast burritos, Tater Tots and other hot-from-the-grill options are the most popular eye-openers.

"Most cereal is not consumed in the morning," Kaupie said. "Believe it or not, it’s during the evenings and weekends. It tends to be more of a comfort food than a source of good eats."

It’s a connection to home for people who may be away from the nest for the first time, Kaupie said. It reminds them of childhood and security.

Greta Dobie, a resident assistant in the dorms at CSUMB, said she thinks the round-the-clock consumption is a way of showing new-found independence.

"I remember when I was a freshman, tons of students would eat cereal for lunch and dinner because it was available to them," Dobie said. "When you are younger you think college students are so cool and they can do anything they want. So when they go to college they will be eating cereal any time of the day."

There’s also the convenience factor. Jenny Powers ranks cereal as her third favorite food. But the first two – Belgian waffles and shrimp – aren’t exactly easy to keep on hand. So she regularly indulges in the runner-up.

"I usually eat it after my afternoon class or for dinner sometimes and definitely after dinner before I go to bed," said Powers, a junior from Santa Cruz majoring in social behavioral sciences.

The campus stocks both sugary and healthy options, "but the majority goes for the sugar," Kaupie said.

Like Tiffany Ghiorso, who usually alternates between bowls of Cocoa Puffs and Cocoa Krispies.

"I always have chocolate because I feel like I need sugar in the morning before a long day of school," said Ghiorso, a junior majoring in social work.

For a while, the campus was out of Cocoa Krispies so she kept bugging Kaupie about stocking up. He called her one day and told her to come to the dining hall – with an empty backpack.

When she arrived, he gave her a jumbo-sized box of her favorite cereal, "so I did not complain" any more, she said.

The cereal devotees said their parents are aware of their habits – and even enable them.

"I went home for break and my dad gave me my favorite cereal," Cooney said. It was the sometimes hard-to-find Waffle Crisp. "He just found it for me," she said admiringly.

One adult did discourage all the cereal consumption, though. Roommates Petlowany, Cooney, Morley and Rachelle Jones are all on CSUMB’s soccer team and the coach got wind of their serial cereal eating.

"Coach was like ‘You need to be eating something else besides cereal. You need protein,’" Petlowany said.

So they expanded their diets a bit. But cereal is still a staple.

"There’s so many different kinds," said Morley. "You can have cereal that’s good for you. You can eat the crappy stuff."

"It is embarrassing, I realize now," Cooney said, "but it is our number one snack between classes, or late at night when you just want something small, quick and easy, and of course, for breakfast."

© 2005, The Monterey County Herald (Monterey, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.