I didn't grow up drinking water. My drink of choice was cherry Kool-Aid. I didn't become overweight or obese from all those sugary drinks, but I did get an awful lot of cavities. And since I never developed a taste for water, I still have to push myself to drink it.
But now that I've got my own kids, I know that a penchant for plain water isn't necessarily something that's learned. My older son prefers it above anything else with all meals, while my younger son would guzzle a gallon of milk every day (with fruit juice chasers) if I let him.
I don't let him, of course, because drinking water is important for kids—and so is limiting juice and other sweetened beverages. It's even smart to limit milk to the recommended daily servings.
And apparently, encouraging more water is something a lot of parents like myself need to do because (ready for this shocker?) according to government data, one in four children and adolescents in the U.S. don't consume ANY plain water! That may be because children have limited access to water during the school day (I know our cafeteria doesn't supply it) or that parents aren't modeling water-drinking at home, says researcher Adam Seal, a doctoral student from the University of Arkansas. Seal was part of a group that recently published a study showing that children ages 8-14 who mostly drank water and milk showed better hydration (measured by urine concentration) than those who mostly drank beverages like juice and soda.
Water isn't just best for hydration. It also replaces sugar-sweetened beverages, which have been shown to contribute to the risk of obesity and are associated in research with higher BMI, waist circumference, and systolic blood pressure.
If your child--like one of mine--doesn't love the taste of plain water, here are some tips for making it a habit:
1. Catch them when they're thirsty.
I try to make sure water is available when my son is really parched so he associates it with quenching his thirst. And I talk to him about water being the best drink to choose when you're hot and thirsty.
2. Allow some fizz.
I'm okay with some no-calorie sparkling drinks like LaCroix or Spindrift (as long as they're not flavored or sweetened with artificial stuff). Sometimes we add a splash of 100 percent juice. But I'm also sensitive to my kids developing a fizzy drink habit, and there's some evidence that the flavoring used in some sparkling waters lowers the pH to the point of being bad for tooth enamel.
3. Add flavor yourself.
Instead of expensive store-bought flavored waters, you can make your own at home with sliced fruit. Your child may have fun coming up with his own combos, like lemon and frozen raspberries or cucumber and lime slices. I love this tip for flavoring a pitcher of water with a whole mango pit. If your kid doesn't like any pulpy bits in his drink, simply strain the water after flavoring it.
4. Send it to school.
Water may not be available to kids during the school day (and time at the drinking fountain may be very limited) so pack a reusable water bottle if it's allowed, and consider including a small one in your child's lunch box for extra hydration too.
And it goes without saying, but model the habit yourself of drinking water at home with and between meals too.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.