There seems to be a new form of soft or sports drink every week marketed towards kids. From fruity to fizzy to creamy, there's a vast market for kids' beverages. And for parents, it can be difficult to choose the healthiest drinks for your child, and which to avoid.
What your child drinks is just as important as what she eats. And when you're trying to feed your child a diet that best supports healthy development and physical growth, don't forget to consider the beverages they're sipping. You may be surprised to learn that there are hidden sugars and other harmful ingredients in many kids' drinks that are marketed as healthy.
So let's break down the healthy drinks your child should be drinking more of as well as the drinks to keep out of your house and your child's diet.
Healthiest Drinks for Kids
This one probably comes as no surprise, but dairy milk is one of the best food sources of the nutrients growing bodies and minds need. Because of the high concentration of calcium, protein, and micronutrients, including vitamin D in fortified milk, dairy-based milk is a powerhouse for bone health. Studies show a correlation between milk consumption and a reduced risk of children being underweight or having stunted growth.
Another expected drink in the healthy category, water is essential regardless of age. This should be your first offering when your child asks for a drink, as it's the best option for quenching thirst. In fact, studies show that drinking water can improve cognitive performance in school-age children.
If your child signs of lactose intolerance, which include stomach discomfort, gas, and bloating after consuming dairy, then plant-based milk is a great alternative to cow's milk. Choose unsweetened almond, cashew, hemp, coconut, or soy milk. As always, fortified beverages provide better nutritional coverage than unfortified versions.
Drinks Your Child Should Avoid
Soda and other sweetened drinks, including diet sodas and those with artificial sweeteners, are some of the worst choices for your child's diet from a nutritional perspective. The average soda servings contains nearly double the daily recommended sugar intake for children, which is 25 grams. However, one study shows that sugar-sweetened beverages make up 10% to 15% of children's caloric intake on average, with beverages being the primary source of added sugars. A high sugar intake is shown to cause childhood obesity, which increases the risk for chronic disease and obesity throughout life.
Caffeinated drinks, from soda to coffee to strong tea, can all have negative effects on your child's health. The same effect that adults experience from caffeine, including jitters, anxiety, and an elevated heart rate, are exasperated in children. Children under 12 should avoid caffeine altogether, while 12- to 18-years-olds should limit caffeine intake to less than 100mg per day.
While whole fruit is an important and nutritious part of any healthy diet, fruit juice does not provide the same nutritional profile. Even juices with 100% fruit are often high in sugar, which is associated with weight gain and obesity in children. They also provide calories without fiber or other satiating nutrients, which can lead to overeating.
While parents can work as hard as possible to feed their children a well-rounded, nutrient-dense diet that supports healthy development, it's not always 100% possible to check every nutrient box. That's when supplements for calcium and other essential nutrients can make a big difference in how your child grows and feels in her body.
Herber, C., Bogler, L., Subramanian, S.V. et al. Association between milk consumption and child growth for children aged 6–59 months. Sci Rep 10, 6730 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-63647-8
Edmonds CJ, Jeffes B. Does having a drink help you think? 6-7-Year-old children show improvements in cognitive performance from baseline to test after having a drink of water. Appetite. 2009 Dec;53(3):469-72. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2009.10.002
Keller A, Bucher Della Torre S. Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Obesity among Children and Adolescents: A Review of Systematic Literature Reviews. Child Obes. 2015;11(4):338-346. doi:10.1089/chi.2014.0117