What are healthy drinks for kids–and which ones should you limit or avoid? Here are some guidelines.
Thanks to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for sponsoring this post. All opinions are my own.
There’s a lot of focus on what kids eat (or won’t eat!). But drinks deserve attention too– especially right now, because they’ve become something of a problem. Beverages today are oversized, they’re everywhere, and they are the biggest source of added sugar for kids and grown-ups.
Why do drinks matter for little kids?
The habits that kids develop in early childhood have an effect for years to come. They shape overall health and can affect the risk of future health issues, from cavities to chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes. Research shows that what kids drink from birth through age five has an impact on their health. Drinks also help shape flavor preferences. If kids are drinking a lot of sweet beverages early on, they’re more likely to keep preferring sweet drinks–which makes water and other plain drinks a harder sell.
Fact is, many kids aren’t drinking the right things. For instance, a lot of babies get milk before their first birthday, even though their digestive system isn’t ready for it. Nearly half of all kids ages 2-5 drink sugar-sweetened beverages every day.
What should kids drink?
For the first time ever, four major groups–the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Heart Association–have come together to make consistent recommendations about what young kids should drink. Healthy Eating Research put together an expert panel from those organizations plus a scientific advisory committee to review the research and develop the recommendations.
breastmilk or formula, plus offering small amounts of water in a cup once foods are introduced
whole milk, water, and small amounts of 100% fruit juice (but whole fruit is preferred). No more than 4 oz of 100% fruit juice per day.
milk (skim or 1%) and water. Small amounts of 100% fruit juice
(diluting it with some water is a good approach), no more than 4 oz for 2-3 year olds and no more than 4-6 oz for 4-5 year olds.
5 years and younger
avoid drinking flavored milks (e.g., chocolate, strawberry), toddler formulas, plant-based/non-dairy milks (e.g. almond, rice, oat), caffeinated beverages (e.g. soda, coffee, tea, energy drinks) and sugar- and low-calorie sweetened beverages (e.g. “diet” or “light” drinks, including those sweetened with stevia or sucralose), as these beverages can be big sources of added sugars in young children’s diets and provide no unique nutritional value.
Important note: You should always talk to your child’s doctor about what’s best for your own child based on individual needs, including allergies or other medical issues!
My child is allergic to milk. Aren’t plant-based milks good for kids?
Yes, they can be a healthy part of a kid’s diet. The reason plant-based milks are mentioned in the recommendations is that they aren’t equal swaps for cow’s milk in terms of nutrition (for instance, almond milk has barely any protein compared to 8 grams in a cup of dairy milk). Homemade versions of plant-based milks also have low or no calcium and vitamin D. Only soy milk that’s been fortified with calcium and vitamin D is considered a substitute for cow’s milk for kids by the USDA.Some families follow a vegan diet or have allergies or intolerances, and in those cases, plant-based milks are absolutely useful. The point is to be smart about it. Check in with your pediatrician or dietitian to make sure your child is getting the nutrients she needs. There may be other foods you want to be sure to include–such as other sources of protein and calcium–to make up for what the particular plant-based milk lacks.
Is whole milk healthy for kids?
Low-fat and fat-free milk are recommended beginning at 24 months instead of whole to limit calories from saturated fat. There has been some research suggesting that full-fat dairy might actually be beneficial for kids and grown-ups, possibly because of other fats in milk that have health benefits (like MCT, the kind found in coconut oil) or because it’s more satisfying than low-fat. So if your kids prefer whole milk and you’re wondering what to do, see my advice is this post: Is Whole Milk Healthy?
Is 100% juice good for kids?
Juice does contain some nutrients like vitamin C and, in the case of orange juice, potassium. But there are a few problems with juice: Kids tend to drink a lot of it because it’s sweet (kids are actually the biggest consumers of juice!), and parents often serve oversized portions, assuming it’s a healthy choice. Juice is also high in sugar (even though it’s natural sugar) which puts kids at risk for cavities. Kids can take in extra calories from juice and gain excess weight–and on the flipside, a lot of juice can fill up kids’ tummies so they’re not hungry for meals and don’t get the nutrients they need. Juice is a common culprit in toddler’s diarrhea as well, and too much of it can cause bloating, gas, and belly pain. For all of those reasons, kids should get their fruit servings from whole fruit whenever possible (whole fruit also has the fiber that juice lacks)–and for children age one and older, they should limit portions of juice. Babies under one should have no juice at all.
What should older kids drink?
The recommendations above are for kids ages five and younger, but here’s some advice for older kids:
Caffeinated drinks: There are no official recommendations yet, but the Poison Control Centers warns that caffeine can cause disrupted sleep and decreased attention and reaction time among kids—and that children who consume caffeine regularly can have withdrawal symptoms like headaches if they cut back.
How I handle drinks with my family
As a dietitian, I totally support getting kids on a better path when it comes to drinks. But I know that there’s usually a difference between real life and recommendations. So here’s what we do when it comes to drinks:
Milk: We buy one-percent milk because that’s what we like best. I also buy a carton of whole chocolate milk each week because it’s the only milk my teenager will drink. It’s something I started buying when he was slightly underweight, and I still find it useful for him. He drinks a glass of it nearly every day.
Juice: The only juice we regularly stock is orange juice. I like it because it has nutrients beyond vitamin C (like potassium) and is fortified with calcium and vitamin D. But we don’t drink it daily, and my kids know our long-established policy: no more than one small glass of juice a day, which I’ve taught them is simply best for health. I sometimes buy other 100 percent juices to make spritzers with seltzers, but only very occasionally.
Soda: With the exception of cans of ginger ale, which we keep on hand for stomach bugs, we don’t keep soda in the house. When we go out to dinner or visit family or friends, I’m fine with my boys having a soda.
Lemonade & sweet teas: We have these a few times in the summer. My younger son and I like to make homemade, fresh-squeezed lemonade a couple times a summer, and I make a few pitchers of lightly-sweetened tea during hot weather months.
Water: It’s the default if they don’t choose milk with meals. My boys both take reusable water bottles to school and sports and bring them along for car trips.
What to do about drinks
If you want to make some changes where drinks are concerned, here are some doable steps to take:
Avoid regularly keeping sugar-sweetened drinks in the house. Save them for special occasions or when you’re out and about.
Go halfsies. Mix plain and unflavored milk, or juice and water to cut down on the added sugar. Kids’ taste buds will gradually adjust.
Flavor water with fruit. It looks fun and adds a little hint of flavor. Here are some ideas. Another idea: make cubes out of 100% juice and add one to a glass of water.
Consider sweetened drinks like a sweet treat. If you’re out, give you kids a choice between a sweet drink or a dessert, for example.
Serve water when kids are at their thirstiest. Have water on hand for sports and when they’re playing outside. They’ll learn to associate it with quenching thirst, which will hopefully encourage them to reach for it more often.