While getting your child to eat nutritious foods can be challenging, finding healthy — yet appealing — beverages for your little ones can prove just as difficult.
Most children have a sweet tooth and are prone to asking for sugary beverages. However, guiding them towards more balanced options is important for their overall health.
Here are 7 healthy drinks for kids — as well as 3 beverages to avoid.
When your child tells you they’re thirsty, you should always offer water first.
This is because water is critical to health and necessary for countless vital processes in your child’s body, including temperature regulation and organ function (1).
In fact, in relation to body weight, children have greater water requirements than adults due to their rapidly growing body and higher metabolic rate (2).
Unlike many other drinks, water won’t provide liquid calories, making it less likely that your child will feel full and refuse solid food. This can be especially important if you have a picky eater.
What’s more, drinking enough water is linked to healthy body weight, reduced risk of dental cavities, and improved brain function in children (3).
Additionally, dehydration can negatively impact your child’s health in many ways, potentially reducing brain function, causing constipation, and leading to fatigue (4).
Summary Water is essential to your child’s health and should make up the majority of their fluid intake.
Because plain water may seem boring, it’s possible that your child may dislike this essential fluid.
To make water more interesting without adding extra sugar and calories, try infusing water with fresh fruits and herbs.
You can try out many flavor combinations to find one that your child enjoys.
Plus, your child will get a boost of nutrition from the fresh fruit and herbs used in the water.
Some winning combinations include:
- Pineapple and mint
- Cucumber and watermelon
- Blueberries and raspberries
- Strawberries and lemon
- Orange and lime
Get your child involved by letting them choose a favorite flavor pairing and help add the ingredients to the water.
Stores even sell reusable water bottles with built-in infusers, which can help your child stay hydrated when away from home.
Summary To make water enticing for your child, add fresh fruit and herbs to provide fun colors and flavors.
Although coconut water does contain calories and sugar, it makes a healthier choice than other beverages like soda and sports drinks.
Coconut water provides a good amount of several nutrients, including vitamin C, magnesium, and potassium — all of which are important for children (5).
It also contains electrolytes — such as potassium, magnesium, calcium, and sodium — which are lost through sweat during exercise.
This makes coconut water an excellent hydration alternative to sugary sports drinks for active children (6).
Coconut water is also beneficial when your child is sick, especially if they need to rehydrate after a bout of diarrhea or vomiting.
However, it’s important to carefully read the label when purchasing coconut water, as some brands contain added sugars and artificial flavors.
Plain, unsweetened coconut water is always the best choice for children.
Summary Coconut water is rich in nutrients and electrolytes, making it an excellent choice for helping children rehydrate after sickness or physical activity.
Smoothies are a scrumptious way to sneak fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods into your child’s diet.
While some premade smoothies are loaded with sugar, homemade smoothies — as long as they’re rich in nutritious ingredients — make excellent choices for children.
Smoothies can be especially helpful for parents dealing with picky eaters. Many vegetables — such as kale, spinach, and even cauliflower — can be blended into a sweet-tasting smoothie that your child will love.
Some kid-friendly smoothie combinations include:
- Kale and pineapple
- Spinach and blueberries
- Peach and cauliflower
- Strawberries and beets
Blend the ingredients with unsweetened non-dairy or dairy-based milk and use healthy add-ins like hemp seeds, cocoa powder, unsweetened coconut, avocados, or ground flax seeds.
Avoid purchasing smoothies at grocery stores or restaurants, as these may contain added sugars, and opt for homemade versions whenever possible.
Since smoothies are high in calories, offer them as a snack or alongside a small meal.
Summary Homemade smoothies are an excellent way to increase your child’s consumption of fruits and vegetables.
Even though many children prefer sweetened milk drinks like chocolate or strawberry milk, plain, unsweetened milk makes the healthiest choice for kids.
Plain milk is highly nutritious, providing many nutrients that are critical for growth and development.
For example, milk contains protein, calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium — essential nutrients for bone health that are especially important for growing children (7).
Additionally, milk is often fortified with vitamin D, another important vitamin for bone health.
While many parents tend to give children fat-free milk, milk with a higher fat content may be healthier for younger children, as fat is needed for proper brain development and overall growth (8).
In fact, children have a higher need for fat than adults, due to an increased rate of metabolism (9).
For these reasons, higher-fat milk choices, such as 2% fat milk, makes a better choice than skim milk for most children.
However, it’s important to note that drinking too much milk can cause children to become full, potentially causing them to consume less of their meal or snack (10).
To ensure that your child doesn’t become overly full on milk before eating food, only offer a small portion of milk at mealtime.
While milk can be a nutritious drink choice, many children are intolerant to dairy milk. Signs of milk intolerance include bloating, diarrhea, gas, skin rashes, and abdominal cramps (11).
Speak to your pediatrician if you suspect a milk intolerance.
Summary Unsweetened dairy milk provides a number of nutrients that growing children need. However, some children may be intolerant to milk.
For children who are intolerant to dairy milk, unsweetened plant-based milks are an excellent alternative.
Plant-based milks include hemp, coconut, almond, cashew, rice, and soy milk.
Like sweetened dairy milk, sweetened plant-based milks can contain loads of added sugar and artificial sweeteners, which is why it’s best to choose unsweetened versions.
Unsweetened plant-based milks can be used on their own as a low-calorie beverage or as a base for kid-friendly smoothies, oatmeals, and soups.
For example, 1 cup (240 ml) of unsweetened almond milk has under 40 calories (12).
Providing low-calorie beverages with meals decreases the likelihood of your child filling up on liquids alone. Plus, many plant-based milks provide a variety of vitamins and minerals and are often fortified with nutrients like calcium, B12, and vitamin D (13).
Summary Unsweetened plant-based milks — such as coconut, hemp, and almond milk — are versatile and make excellent substitutions for dairy milk.
Even though tea isn’t usually thought of as a kid-friendly drink, some herbal teas are safe and healthy for children.
Herbal teas — such as lemongrass, mint, rooibos, and chamomile — are fantastic alternatives to sweetened beverages, as they are caffeine-free and provide a pleasing taste.
Additionally, herbal teas offer nutritional benefits and may even provide relief for children who are sick or anxious.
For example, chamomile and lemongrass teas have long been used to calm and soothe both children and adults with anxiety (14).
Chamomile has also been used as a natural treatment for intestinal symptoms — including nausea, gas, diarrhea, and indigestion — in both children and adults (15).
Research shows that chamomile has anti-inflammatory properties and may help reduce symptoms related to intestinal inflammation (16).
While some herbal teas are considered safe for children, it’s important to consult with your pediatrician before giving your child any herbal teas.
Keep in mind, too, that herbal teas are not appropriate for babies and should be served to children at a safe temperature to prevent burning.
Summary Certain herbal teas, such as chamomile and mint, can be used as a child-safe alternative to sweetened beverages.
Although it’s perfectly acceptable for children to occasionally enjoy a sweetened drink, sugary beverages should not be consumed regularly.
Frequent consumption of sweetened beverages — such as soda and sports drinks — may lead to health conditions like obesity and dental cavities in children.
If any drink should be limited in a child’s diet, it’s soda — as well as other sweetened beverages, such as sports drinks, sweetened milks, and sweet teas.
A 12-ounce (354-ml) serving of regular Coca-Cola contains 39 grams of sugar — or almost 10 teaspoons (17).
For reference, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that added sugar intake be kept under 6 teaspoons (25 grams) per day for children aged 2–18.
Sweetened beverages are linked to an increased risk of illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, in children (18, 19).
Plus, drinking too many sweetened beverages can contribute to weight gain and cavities in kids (20, 21).
What’s more, many sweetened drinks, such as flavored milks, contain high-fructose corn syrup, a processed sweetener linked to weight gain in children (22).
Summary Sweetened beverages are high in added sugar and may increase your child’s risk of certain conditions, such as obesity, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and diabetes.
Even though 100% fruit juice provides important vitamins and minerals, intake should be limited to the recommended amounts for children.
Professional associations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend that juice be limited to 4–6 ounces (120–180 ml) per day for children aged 1–6 and 8–12 ounces (236–355 ml) per day for children aged 7–18.
When consumed in these amounts, 100% fruit juice is not usually associated with weight gain (23).
However, excessive fruit juice consumption is associated with an increased risk of obesity in children (24).
Plus, some studies have linked daily fruit juice consumption to weight gain in younger children.
For example, a review of 8 studies found that a daily serving of 100% fruit juice was associated with increased weight gain over 1 year in children aged 1–6 (25).
Because fruit juice lacks the filling fiber found in whole, fresh fruit, it’s easy for children to drink too much juice (26).
For these reasons, kids should be offered whole fruit over fruit juice whenever possible.
The AAP recommends that juice be completely restricted in infants under one year of age (27).
Summary Although juice can provide important vitamins and minerals, whole fruit should always be offered over fruit juice.
Many young children drink caffeinated beverages — such as soda, coffee, and energy drinks — which may have adverse effects on health.
One study reported that about 75% of U.S. children aged 6–19 consume caffeine, with an average intake of 25 mg per day in children 2–11 years old and double that amount in children aged 12–17 (28).
Caffeine can cause jitteriness, rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, anxiety, and sleep disturbances in kids, which is why beverages containing caffeine should be restricted based on age (29, 30).
Children’s health organizations like the AAP suggests that caffeine should be limited to no more than 85–100 mg per day for children older than 12 and should be completely avoided in children under 12 (31).
Parents should keep in mind that certain energy drinks can contain over 100 mg of caffeine per 12-ounce (354-ml) serving, making it necessary to restrict energy drinks for all children and adolescents to avoid excessive caffeination (32).
Summary Caffeine can cause jitteriness, anxiety, rapid heart rate, and sleep disturbances in children, which is why you should restrict or forbid your child’s intake of caffeinated beverages.
You can offer a wide array of healthy drinks to your children when they’re thirsty.
Infused and plain water, dairy- and plant-based milks, and certain herbal teas are examples of kid-friendly beverages.
Use these drinks in place of sugary, high-calorie options, such as soda, sweetened milks, and sports drinks.
Although your child may protest swapping their favorite sweetened beverage for a healthier option, rest assured that you’re doing the right thing for your child’s health.