The Best Drinks for Kids
Tips for Healthy Hydration
Drinks for kids become an especially hot topic (or is it a cold topic?) in the summer months. But whether we're sweating under a hot August sun or drying out in an overheated room in December, hydration is key. In the colder months, especially, it's part of an overall strategy for fighting cold and flu viruses.
Healthy kid beverages can be a challenge, because kids often crave sugary, additive-packed sweet drinks. The good news is that when we help them make smart drink choices early on, they're more likely to stick with healthy drink habits long term. That's the idea, anyway ;)
I'm not fanatical about this. You'll find my kids happily sipping Sprite at a restaurant meal or birthday party. The key is that these are special occasions. By contrast, here's how we handle everyday slurping...
(image: ponx cc)
Despite some concerns about water purity, water is still the healthiest drink on the planet. Sugar and calorie free, it helps kids maintain a healthy weight and won't harm their teeth. It hydrates effectively and is, at least in the developed world, the most affordable thing to drink. Kids should always have access to water.
If your kids don't like water, try introducing it slowly. The YMCA's Healthy Family Home initiative has suggested "Water Wednesdays" at dinner, as an easy intro. Just serve water every Wednesday night, in lieu of your typical drinks.
For very young children, the old "water down the juice" trick has served many a parent well. Start by adding just a splash of water to your wee one's juice, then gradually increase until the drink is half water (or more). Yeah, it sounds kind of gross, but before long they'll be ready to suck down plain old water, no questions asked.
"But I don't liiiiiike water...."
Ever heard that whine? Gotta admit they have a point. Plain water can get kinda boring. Solution: Homemade fruit-infused water. So so easy with this budget-friendly, BPA-free infusion pitcher. And kids can make their own cool infusion combos with this recipe collection. Drinking healthy just got a lot more fun.
Steal This Idea!
A friend of mine has this policy when eating out with her kids: If they choose to drink water instead of ordering soda or another pricey beverage, she pays them (later, at home) the cost of the drink they would have had. Isn't that smart?
~ At home soda maker - tool for healthier soda? ~
My kids, sigh, love soda. I don't allow a lot of it, but they do consume a few sodas a month, sometimes more, and what's irritating is how much they ask for it. After a stern talking-to from the pediatrician, who is really really anti-soda, I started looking into getting an at home soda maker for the family. It's a pretty cool contraption, turning plain tap water into soda for less than you'd pay at the grocery. My kids would have a blast with this, but the main advantage would be an ability to control how much flavoring (hence, how much sugar) goes into each bottle. We could even skip the flavor packets & instead use lemon or lime juice, etc. Everything in moderation?
At some point we broke our addiction to single-use water bottles. They're pricey and eco-unfriendly. Reusable bottles are a much better deal and the least we can do for our poor, embattled planet. Just fill 'em with filtered tap water and off you go.
Plastic water bottles have come under scrutiny in recent years for their potential to leach a chemical called bisphenol A (BPA) into water. BPA can mimic estrogen in the body and disrupt the endocrine system. Not something most of us would choose for our kids--or ourselves, for that matter.
What's the best water bottle? Our family has road-tested 4 kinds. Here's how they compare:
Sigg Aluminum Bottle
Kleen Kanteen Stainless Steel Bottle
Keep It Clean
~~~~Fiber supplements: Okay for kids?~~~~ - Doctors may recommend fiber drinks for some children
Kids who struggle with constipation benefit from lots of water every day, along with fresh fruits, vegetables & whole-grain foods. If constipation persists, ask the pediatrician about a fiber supplement like Citrucel. While my kids haven't needed it, it has helped me tremendously with abdominal discomfort due to IBS. Instead of psyllium, found in brands like Metamucil and irritating to some stomachs, Citrucel uses another plant fiber called methylcellulose. It must be mixed with at least 8 ounces of liquid, such as water or juice. The orange taste isn't bad once you get used to it. I've used both the powder and capsule varieties and fare much better with the powder. Check with your pediatrician first before starting this or any supplement, especially for children under age 6.
Milk has fallen somewhat out of favor in recent years due to an increasing number of kids with milk allergies or sensitivities. For children without these issues, I personally feel lowfat or skim milk still has an important place in a healthy diet. Milk is more filling than other drinks and is rich with the protein and calcium growing kids need.
Partly through cutting out single-use water bottles, we started budgeting for organic milk several years ago. One of the kids, at age 7, developed a teen-style pimple, and when I asked the pediatrician about it, she said it could be the early traces of puberty. At 7?? I thought. And then I remembered a friend talking about how growth hormones given to cows can trigger early puberty in kids who consume milk. That was the moment I decided we needed to go organic. I can't prove a causal relationship, but my son is now 10 and hasn't had one of those pimples again since we switched.
"Organic Rx": Milk is Item #1
Pediatrician Alan Greene, M.D., hosts my favorite website on children's health and is a real evangelist for organic food and drink. He advises parents to start with milk, as they switch to organics:
"When parents start making organic choices they often intuitively start at the top of the food chain, with organic milk, if dairy is part of their family's diet. When moms understand that the food they eat and the medicines they take can go into their breast milk, they often make the connection that the medicines and foods given to dairy cows can affect their family's health. They prefer avoiding the routine use of antibiotics, artificial hormones, pesticides, and genetically modified feed. And with good reason. Some recent USDA monitoring data found synthetic pyrethroid pesticides in 27% of conventional milk samples, and in only one organic sample - and even that at a lower level."
Read more here.
What about the sugary Ovaltine I give the kids on weekends but feel sort of guilty about? Dr. Greene's take on that is reassuring:
"Parents are often reluctant to let their children drink too much chocolate (or otherwise flavored) milk, concerned that this will give their kids too much sugar or fat. Actually, a glass of flavored milk contains less sugar than many juices, fruit drinks, or sodas. Furthermore, a University of Vermont study published in the June 2002 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association culled very interesting information from the from USDA's large Continuing Survey of Food Intakes of Individuals (CSFII). Children who drink flavored milk are more likely to meet the calcium requirements than their peers, and no more likely to have greater sugar or fat intake. Children age 1-3 need 500 mg of calcium per day, age 4-8 need 800 mg, and over 9 need 1300 mg. A glass of milk contains about 300 mg. A serving of yogurt contains about 400 mg. Previous data from the same researcher found that only those children who consumed milk or calcium-rich foods at lunchtime tended to get the calcium they needed each day."
Pure fruit juice with no sugar added is the best bet here. Avoid "juice drinks," which are sugar-sweetened and often contain little real juice. Even the natural fruit sugar in 100 percent fruit juice can add up in high doses, so limit this to 8 ounces a day, or 12 oz. for bigger kids and teens. (Bonus: This counts toward the 5 daily servings of fruit and veggies kids need.)
The only juice regularly stocked in our fridge is Tropicana low-acid orange juice. Fortified with vitamins A & C plus calcium, it seems to pack a bit more nutritional punch than other juices. And the low-acid formula is easier on the stomach.
What the Heck Is "Superfruit" Juice?
If you've never heard this term, I'm jealous, because it means you haven't been flooded with spammy emails about acai juice "AS SEEN ON OPRAH!" Ack.
"Superfruit" is a marketing term applied to fruits that combine high nutritional value and antioxidant properties with appealing taste. Blueberries, cranberries, red grapes, mango, and pomegranate all fit the bill, along with more obscure fruits like seabuckthorn and wolfberry. (Don't those sound like something out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?)
Not only are 100% superfruit juices often costlier than your garden-variety apple or orange juice, their flavors may be too strong for many kids, with the possible exception of Concord grape juice. If you want in on the superfruit action for your kiddos, my advice would be:
Use a bit to flavor their water.
Use fresh or frozen whole superfruits in smoothies (see below). Frozen blueberries and mango chunks are smoothie staples for us.
Serve fresh or frozen superfruits--rather than the juice--with meals or snacks, so kids get the fiber as well as the nutrients.
(image: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture via Wikimedia Commons ~ public domain)
Ah, those neon-hued, ubermarketed sports drinks. Kids love 'em--or at least mine do. This is an "only in moderation" option for our family, given the cost, the sugar content, and all the food coloring in the typical bottle of Gatorade or facsimile.
These beverages can be helpful for replacing electrolytes during and after vigorous athletic activity (see this article claiming they're even better for active kids than water--I'm not so sure, but it's an interesting read).
My guys enjoy Glaceau's Vitamin Water--not exactly a sports drink, but just as colorful and cleverly packaged--and this too falls in the "moderation" category for us. They like to mix a little of it with orange juice at snack time, which seems like a reasonable compromise. They don't end up getting enough of the Vitamin Water to overload unhealthily on vitamins.
If weight management is a concern, be sure to read the labels, as all these drinks may be more caloric than you think.
(image: Jeff Taylor via Wikimedia Commons)
Are Artificial Sweeteners Okay for Kids?
My gut instinct on this is "not really," and I found excellent backup in this writeup by nationally known pediatrician William Sears, M.D.
Once during Readers are Leaders week at school--a great program where the PTO brings in professionals from a wide range of fields to talk to the kids about how reading is important in their work--my son came out raving about a "really healthy" drink he'd just tried. When I asked what was healthy about it, my son said it had no calories. The classroom visitor that day had been a food company executive toting free samples of a new sports drink sweetened with Splenda. I wasn't nuts about the "no calorie = healthy" connection he made, partly because I think children should be discussing healthy choices rather than calories per se, but also because there's no science behind the safety of artificial sweeteners for kids.
I'd rather let them have a small amount of something higher calorie that's natural, like juice, than loads of no-calorie liquid chemicals. Just my 2 cents.
Smoothies have been a godsend for our family. Basically they let me get a healpin' helping of fruit and protein into the kids before they even leave for school. I cover the bottom of the blender with lowfat milk, add a banana per kid, throw in one serving of organic frozen fruit per kid, add 4-6 oz plain lowfat Greek yogurt per kid, add honey to taste (depends on how ripe/sweet the bananas are), and blend. This isn't a super low-sugar drink, but it's packed with nutrients and is filling, fast, and easy. And of course, very tasty.
One of our kids hates to eat in the morning, so a smoothie is pretty much his whole breakfast. I'm fine with that, because it packs enough nutritional punch to carry him through 'til lunch. A trick I've learned recently, but old-hat to many longtime smoothie makers, is to blend some avocado into the mixture. With 3 kids and whole pitcherful to make each morning, I can pretty much throw a whole avocado in. As long as I'm using red or blue fruit (e.g., berries), it doesn't affect the color too much, and it bumps up the drink's nutritional value with some healthy fat.
(image: Sigurdas via Wikimedia Commons)