Learn which drinks are best for kids, how to choose healthy ones, and try a few easy recipes for delicious options to keep the kids hydrated.
Healthy Drinks for Kids
Between the drinks the kids prefer, all of the marketing and special “kids drinks” at the store, and what we hear about the drinks kids are “supposed” to drink, knowing what to serve can be confusing! This post is here to help.
A report called Healthy Drinks, Healthy Kids was released about a year ago in a combined effort by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, American Academy of Pediatric Dentists, American Academy of Pediatrics, and American Heart Association.
In it, they share a consensus on what kids should be drinking:
- Breast milk or formula only for first 6 months.
- Add a few sips of water between 6-12 months.
- After 12 months, all kids should be drinking 1-5 cups of water per day.
- Up to age 2, 2-3 cups of plain whole milk per day.
- Over age 2, switch to skim or 1% milk, limit 2-2.5 cups per day.
- Limit 100% fruit juice to no more than 4-6 ounces per day for kids over age one.
- Avoid chocolate milk, other flavored milk, plant milks, fruit drinks, sport drinks, sodas, diet sodas, and all other sugar-sweetened or artificially sweetened drinks.
That’s a fairly all or nothing approach that doesn’t take real world considerations into account, so I have more to say on each of these points below.
Best Milk for Toddlers
The advice for younger kids is very straight forward and not bound to raise any red flags. Toddlers should drink whole milk dairy, or a nondairy equivalent such as soy milk or plant milk with added protein and calcium up until age two.
TIP: You can read more about the best milk for toddlers here (including recommendations for plant milks if you want one for allergies or preferences).
Best Milk for Older Kids
Even though many health organizations still say that kids over age two should switch to low or non-fat milk, that advice is somewhat outdated and newer advice suggests that it’s perfectly fine to stick with whole milk.
This would be something to talk to your pediatrician about if you have concerns.
How much water do kids need?
Kids should be drinking 1-5 cups of water per day and a general rule to follow would be to offer water between meals so the kids avoid filling up on juice and milk—and have the space in their bellies to be hungry for food.
You can introduce water when baby starts solids around 6 months. (It’s not recommended to do it any earlier and it should never take the place of breastmilk or formula.
TIP: Remember that foods are hydrating too.
How much juice can kids drink?
The advice in the new report says that kids over two should have no more than one small serving of juice a day. If you’re blending up fresh fruit into an all-fruit juice or smoothie, I wouldn’t consider that the “juice” they mean—we’re talking regular juice you’d buy at the store.
The reason for this is that juice contains relatively few nutrients because you’re just taking part of the whole fruit. So if you were to eat a whole apple, you’d get fiber in addition to Vitamin C. But there’s no fiber in the juice.
There is a case to be made for not wholly restricting juice though, both because it can be useful to help kids drink enough when it’s super hot, when you’re dealing with constipation, or when you really just need the kids to drink fluids.
And because restricting whole foods groups can make them more tempting to kids, causing them to potentially go overboard when they do have access, it can be perfectly fine to include drinks besides plain milk and water in the mix of an overall varied diet.
TIP: You can try watering down juice a little to give kids the flavor they like and expect to add more water into their diets.
Is chocolate milk healthy?
If a child has two servings of chocolate milk a day, that’s already almost the sugar limit for the day at 22 grams added sugar recommended per day by the American Heart Association.
That said, there’s no evidence to suggest that chocolate or flavored milks are the sole culprit behind kids bodies growing faster than they have in previous years.
I consider chocolate milk to be a “fun food” and try to think of it in the same category as other fun foods such as chips, desserts, and treats. That may or may not work for your family, but it helps me to keep it in perspective and remember that some is perfectly okay—especially when my kids choose to drink it at school.
Healthy Kids Drinks for School
If your school is like ours, there is at least chocolate milk—if not strawberry and vanilla. It’s wholly unfair to ask a child to choose plain milk for health reasons because all they really care about is that food tastes good.
If you are worried about the type of milk your child is drinking at school, talk to the food director or the principal. It would be much easier for kids on a whole to make “healthier” decisions about drinks if they had fewer options at school.
(You can also consider sharing the new report with them as backup to your concerns!)
How to Choose Healthy Drinks for Kids
If you’re wanting to choose healthy drinks for kids, here’s what I would suggest:
- Rely mostly on water and milk for kids of all ages, though particularly for those two and under.
- Offer juice and chocolate milk less often (if you want to offer it at all—no pressure either way!).
- Use whole fruit smoothies and juices as you like.
- Use plant milks as needed for allergies and preferences.
- Don’t feel guilty if your kids like juice and milk—of course they do, they both taste good!
- Instead of coaching them to choose plain milk over flavored at school, work with the school to limit those options.
Easy Drink Recipes for Kids
These are some of the options I like to make at home to share with my kids.
Fresh Watermelon Juice
Learn the quick and easy method to make fresh and delicious Watermelon Juice at home with just one fresh ingredient—watermelon! It’s a Vitamin C-packed way to hydrate the kids and you don’t even need a juicer.
This is a perfect way to use up some of a giant watermelon and is also a wonderful way to help the kids stay hydrated in the warmer months. You can scale the recipe up or down to make more or less as you like.
Blend up the most delicious homemade Banana Milk with super simple ingredients and low added sugar. So good and nutritious!
Use a very ripe banana with a lot of brown spots in this recipe for the best flavor.
Learn how to make the BEST homemade strawberry milk with simple ingredients and very low added sugar. With vitamin C and protein!
You can make this with fresh strawberries or freeze-dried ones, depending on what you have on hand or access to. The version with freeze-dried berries tastes more similar to store bought strawberry milk; the one with fresh berries tastes more like fresh strawberries!
Learn how to make homemade Vanilla Milk in 2 minutes with just 3 simple ingredients. It’s seriously yummy, is a nice alternative to plain milk, and has way less sugar than store bought!
You can cut this recipe in half to make a smaller ½ cup serving.
Combine 4 simple ingredients to make lower sugar homemade Chocolate Milk that’s creamy and so super delicious. Plus: You don’t need any fancy tools to make it!
You can make this right before serving or make it up to 24 hours ahead.
Healthy Hot Chocolate
Make the best healthy Hot Chocolate at home with this super simple method that takes about 1 minute. It’s lower in sugar, but full of that creamy, cozy flavor you expect. It’s so darn good to make for (and share with!) the kids.
We serve this homemade hot cocoa in little kid-size mugs, but any small cup should work.
Strawberry Yogurt Smoothie
If your kids love those expensive bottles of drinkable yogurt at the grocery store or you’re looking for a super simple (and super yummy) smoothie recipe, you have to try this one. This Strawberry Smoothie recipe with yogurt has just 3 ingredients and can even be made ahead!
I use fresh, not frozen, fruit in the base recipe so it has the consistency of drinkable yogurt. This also makes it possible to use a full cup of fruit and maintain a drinkable consistency. If the fruit is in the fridge, the drink is a perfect temperature! See below for variations on this idea.
Simple Green Smoothie
Start the day (or snack time!) with a simple Green Smoothie that’s designed to taste good and be easy to make—so it’s not too thick, includes accessible ingredients, and is sweet enough to help kids enjoy every sip.
Frozen bananas give the smoothie a creamy, naturally sweet base, though you can make this with a fresh banana as long as the other fruit is frozen. It’s easy to add whatever berries or fruit you have on hand, so customize it for your kiddo.
All Fruit Slushie
Cool off with a refreshing Homemade Fruit Slushie that you can make with just 2 ingredients in a matter of minutes. They’re a great way to stay hydrated and to serve up nutrients in a delicious form!
Made with just two simple ingredients, these fruit slushies are super delicious and refreshing. They’re a great drink for warm days! Plan to freeze the apple slices, grapes, and watermelon cubes the day before (or at least in the morning) you plan to make these.
You can download our podcast episode all about whether it’s okay for kids to drink chocolate milk from iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, TuneIn Radio, or wherever else you get your podcasts—or listen to it above.
How do these recommendations sit with you? We’d love to hear, so please comment below!
This post was first published April 2021.