Do you remember the moment you fell in love with your child? Whenever it happened, it was a moment of utter certainty. Chances are good that it was also one of the last moments of utter certainty you’ve had as a parent, as well. We’re constantly bombarded by products that promise to soothe, stimulate, strengthen, nurture, and educate our children; companies are working to identify problems we didn’t know we had so that they can present us with more solutions. The options that promise to make our lives easier are overwhelming.
While I can’t help you with the big decisions, I can help with one thing: what in that long, colorful aisle of drinks should you be giving your child?
Bad news first: nothing. It’s an aisle that you can skip entirely. (Even the 100% organic juice? Yes. Even the 100% organic juice. I’ll tell you all about it.) But I promise that there’s good news coming: I’m about to make your life much easier.
Say "No" to Artificially Colored Drinks
First, let’s talk about those enticingly colored drinks at the grocery store. Although the FDA still permits Red Dye No. 40 and other additives, a 2007 European study and a slew of anecdotal research linking food dyes to hyperactive behavior have many parents rethinking unnaturally colored foods and drinks. Evidence is still inconclusive, but it’s enough to give parents pause. Is it worth the risk? Combined with the fact that most foods using these dyes are overly processed and of dubious nutritional value anyway, probably not.
Sports Drinks, Too
What about sports drinks? Surely we can make an exception for those highly colored (and highly sweetened) beverages? Sorry, I can’t give you a pass here, either. Sports drinks are made to give endurance athletes a boost — they replenish the electrolytes lost through sweat and it’s well documented that taking sugar while exercising can allow athletes to perform better. The truth of the matter is that the vast majority of children (and adults) don’t need any of this, however; a piece of fruit and big glass of water would do most people much better. Sugar will actually slow you down if you're running less than a 12 mile race, and eating a salty snack and drinking water will serve you better than drinking a sports drink after intense exercise, which the average second grade soccer game doesn’t count as, anyway. That snicker’s bar worth of sugar in a 12 ounce Gatorade? Not doing any favors for Little League exercisers.
But What About Juice?
Ah, juice. Juice avoids all of the concerns about unnatural ingredients and advertises itself as a wholesome alternative. After all, it’s just fruit in a bottle, right? The problem is that when you eliminate the fiber and bulk from a piece of fruit, what you’re left with is vitamins, water, and a whole lot of sugar. In addition to training your children to drink their calories and encouraging a growing sweet tooth, you’re also serving them liquid sugar that is processed by the body in exactly the same way it would process the sugar in a soda. In a world facing an obesity epidemic, teaching your children’s taste buds that drinks should be sweet is setting them up for trouble. Juice is all natural, yes. But healthful? No.
Tell Me Good News
Now for the good news. One of the biggest gifts you can give your child is a taste for water. Among all of the colorful, sweet drinks available to us, we’ve largely forgotten how refreshingly delicious water can be. I know that many of you are reading this skeptically, but positive references to water reach far back in our written record. Once upon a time, before we had saturated our taste buds with high fructose corn syrup and pure fruit juices, phrases such as, "Like a cool drink of water when you're worn out and weary is a letter from a long-lost friend," would have made sense. Remember reading Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder? She recalls her father digging a well and says, "The water was clear and cold and good. Laura thought she had never tasted anything so good as those long, cold drinks of water." Forget the idea that every meal needs to have a treat with it, and let your child have the most quintessential drink of all: water.
Milk is, of course, the other classic drink for kids. Whole milk is a great alternative to my previous list of overly sweetened and overly colored drinks. I’d ignore the recommendations you were given ten years ago though, and avoid skim. Kids who drink skim and one percent milk are heavier than kids who drink two percent and whole milk. Add to this that skim milk is heavily processed and with no apparent health benefits, and whole milk seems to be a pretty clear answer. More and more, we’re seeing that it’s sugar and not fat that makes us fat; there’s no need to avoid whole milk.
What about almond milk? Soy milk? Rice milk? Generally, the answer is that if the drink is all natural, low in naturally occurring sugars, and free of calorie-free sweeteners and added sugars, it should be just fine. Don’t hesitate to sub in water instead, though.
Why no calorie-free sweeteners? I think it makes sense to wait until new products are thoroughly tested before giving them to our children — none of the miracle sweeteners from the past 30 years have fared particularly well over time, and our past record isn’t particularly inspiring for future no-calorie sweeteners. The second reason is simply that it’s better to avoid conditioning kids to think that drinks should be sweet.
Can’t Kids Have Any Fun?
I’m a firm believer that everything, including healthful food, should be had in moderation. Special occasions should certainly have special treats.
Try an old classic: Warm milk with honey is as soothing, warming, and delicious as it was when you were five. Try spicing it up with a little cocoa powder, a splash of honey, or a dash of cinnamon, cardamom, or any other spice that inspires you.
Make a new friend: While smoothies are generally not a good idea since they introduce a lot of calories without slowing down your overall food consumption for the day, they can be delicious, and some are better than others. Blending an avocado with a bag of defrosted blueberries and a banana sounds crazy, but you end up with a creamy, delicious, sweet treat that’s packed with healthy fats to fill you up, as well as the fiber and nutrients in blueberries
Revisit juice: You can simply dilute juice with water (or fizzy water) for a special occasion drink that won’t spike your kid’s blood sugar through the roof, but you can also puree whole fruit for a delicious drink without as many calories as your average smoothie and with the added fiber that juices omit. Throw strawberries in a blender with a squeeze of lemon, a little honey, and enough water to make it drinkable. Or try blending a cantaloupe with a squeeze of lime. Any fruit with a high water content can be your new best friend. Keep in mind that for a child who regularly drinks sweeter beverages, these may be found lacking. Feel free to add an extra teaspoon or two of honey if needed, and then slowly decrease the amount the next few times you make them.