When I take my 6-year-old out to lunch with my mommy friends, they're surprised that she wants a salad before her meal and prefers the grilled chicken to the nuggets. For as much time as I spent nurturing her diet (we made salads together for at least two years before she'd try anything except the croutons and dressing), I wasn't nearly as on top of it about what she drank. I'm regretting that now. "Young children need five and a half to seven cups of fluid a day," says Melinda Johnson, RD, of Phoenix, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
The tricky part is getting them to drink the right fluids -- milk and water. Two-year-olds spend more than 120 calories a day on sweetened beverages like punch and lemonade, according to a Columbia University study. The typical 4- to 8-year-old drinks more of these sugar-packed beverages than any kind of milk. "It's not uncommon for preschoolers to be getting 500 or 600 calories from drinks -- about half of the calories they need for the day," says Susan Goolsby, RD, assistant director of clinical nutrition at Arkansas Children's Hospital, in Little Rock. Gulp. See if you have a problem drinker -- and, if so, what to do about it.
Your child fights you over having a glass of milk.
It's tough for kids who don't drink milk to get the bone-building calcium and vitamin D they need without a lot of extra calories or fat. Cheese, for instance, doesn't naturally have vitamin D, and it would take 3 ounces of reduced-fat cheddar (with its almost 14 grams of saturated fat) to get the calcium that's in 2 cups of low-fat milk (with just 3 grams of the artery-clogging fat).
Quench It: Some kids start resisting milk around the age of 1 as they're being weaned from breast milk or formula. "Cow's milk tastes considerably different from what they're used to having," explains Sanna Delmonico, RD, a childhood-nutrition educator in Napa, California. To get your kid accustomed to the taste, start putting a splash in his formula or in a bottle of breast milk and increase the amount every couple of days. "When you drink milk, be sure to do it in front of your toddler since kids this age are very impressionable," says Delmonico.
If your child, like mine, starts rejecting milk when she's older, flavor it yourself. Many brands of chocolate milk have 200 calories per cup and about half of the amount is from the added sugar. But you can make mouthwatering flavored milks with fruit or low-cal extracts; just follow the recipes in this story.
A sippy cup of milk is never far away.
Little kids need about two cups of milk a day to help them get calcium and vitamin D. You might think more is always better, but when they're constantly guzzling milk, they're usually not hungry at meals. "Toddlers start to resist some of the same foods they ate as babies," says Delmonico. "So if they go into meals feeling full, they may not eat meat and veggies."
Quench It: Since whole milk is more filling than the low-fat kind, make the transition to low-fat at age 2. The AAP even suggests that 1-year-olds drink reduced-fat or low-fat milk if heart disease runs in your family. Ask your kid's pediatrician about it. If your child doesn't seem to like the less-rich taste, mix the two milks together for a while. And give her water rather than milk between meals so she comes to the table hungry.
Your kid is a juice junkie.
There's no doubt that any flavor of 100 percent fruit juice is healthy -- it's packed with vitamins and heart-healthy antioxidants. "But it's incredibly easy for children to get too much of a good thing," says Johnson. My daughter can suck down an orange-juice box in two minutes, but eating a Valencia would take her at least 15. Plus, juice doesn't fill kids up nearly as much as fruit does -- even though it has a lot more calories. "An apple, at 60 or 70 calories, will satisfy hunger more than a 120-calorie cup of apple juice will, because the apple has a couple of grams of fiber," says Johnson. The AAP recommends no more than six ounces of 100 percent fruit juice daily for children ages 1 to 6, and only 12 ounces or fewer for older children.
Quench It: To stretch those six ounces, I've always watered down my daughter's juice. Surprisingly, nutritionists want parents to get away from this. "I'd rather make it a rule that kids get one juice box a day and when it's done, there's no more until tomorrow," say Johnson. "If you're constantly splashing water in their juice or juice in their water, you'll never get your child used to drinking something that isn't sweet."
To make plain water more appealing, she advises catching your child when she's thirsty. "Many kids constantly carry a cup with them, so they never feel thirst," she says. "You don't want to dehydrate your kid. But you can let him run around outside for a half hour and then offer a glass of cold water when he comes back in the house." Another tactic: Make H2O the one self-serve drink in your house. "Fill a small plastic pitcher and put it on the bottom shelf of the fridge," suggests Kerry Neville, RD, of Seattle, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "Then tell your child that he can fill his cup whenever he wants."
You always have lemonade around.
Fruity non-juice drinks are, sadly, a lot unhealthier than they seem. Take lemonade, for instance. It has six teaspoons of added sugar per cup -- the same amount as in five Oreos. "These kinds of drinks should be a treat every once in a while, not a substitute for juice," says Marcie Schneider, MD, a member of the AAP's nutrition committee. In the Columbia University study, kids were nearly three times more likely to down fruit punch, sugary flavored waters, and other sweetened drinks than 100 percent juice. Sometimes parents aren't even aware that the kids aren't drinking actual juice. "A lot of products look like they're juice, but they really contain a smidge of it and a lot of added sugar," says Dr. Schneider. "To make sure you're getting what you want, the words '100 percent juice' must be on the label."
Quench It: Most kids like fruit juice just as much as punches, so there's no reason to buy punch. Mott's even makes a tasty fruit punch that's made entirely from juice. If your kids drink a lot of lemonade this time of year, you can make a healthy pink version using watermelon. And many little kids may enjoy simply squeezing lemon wedges into a glass of water.
Your kids have a taste for soda.
About half of 4- to 8-year-olds will have a soda on any given day. It has about the same amount of sugar and calories as fruity drinks, plus colas and some root beers have caffeine that will make your kids wired. "What bothers me more about soda than fruity drinks is that it's so easy for children to get it at a restaurant or even at school," says Dr. Schneider. "And it's clear that drinking soda is linked to childhood obesity."
Quench It: My daughter got her first taste of soda at a friend's birthday party last year. When we were at the supermarket the next day, she asked me if we could buy some of the "drink with all the bubbles." I overreacted, lecturing her about how unhealthy soda is. But Johnson says that's not the way to handle it: "If your child starts asking for soda, don't ban it entirely because it makes it all that much more desirable," she says. "You need to establish clear, firm limits -- like you can have it at a birthday party. Don't say 'just on special days,' because to kids everything's special." To celebrate all those great moments -- from learning how to doggy paddle to getting a big-kid bed -- she suggests that you keep a bottle of sparkling water in the fridge. You can clink glasses with your child to toast a long, healthy life.
Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Parents magazine.