( Photo courtesy Tim York )

Last month, leading health organizations — including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association — issued the first-ever set of recommendations on healthy drinks for kids under five. 

In addition to breast milk and infant formula, plain milk and water are the go-to beverages, according to the consensus recommendations. The “no-no” list for children includes flavored milks, plant-based/non-dairy beverages, caffeinated beverages and low-calorie sweetened drinks. While 100% fruit juices have important nutrients, they are lower in dietary fiber than whole fruit. For that reason, it’s recommended children get their fruit servings from fresh, canned or frozen fruit without added sugars.

While most fast-food restaurants have healthier kids’ meal drinks and sides available, many could do more to promote these healthy offerings and encourage parents to choose them.

The recommendations cite research showing what children drink from birth through five years of age can have a huge impact on their health now and in the future. This research puts well-deserved pressure on foodservice to ensure healthy beverage options are available and appealing at restaurants. 

Also in 2019, legislation was passed in California to make water and milk the default drink offered with all restaurant kids’ combo meals that include a beverage. Other cities and states are advancing similar proposals. At the root of both the consensus recommendations and the moves to promote healthy beverages at restaurants is children’s health.
  
“Nearly 40,000 people in the U.S. die each year from heart problems due to overconsumption of sugary drinks. This is unhealthy and unacceptable, and the seismic shift in our culture needed to change this status quo must start with our kids,” said Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association, when announcing the recommendations in September. 

There’s plenty of research to show that parents and kids will make the right choices if we make healthy eating easy and attractive.

While most fast-food restaurants have healthier kids’ meal drinks and sides available, many could do more to promote these healthy offerings and encourage parents to choose them. In a study last year of fast-food restaurant purchases for children, 74% received unhealthy drinks and/or side items with their kids’ meals, according to the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. 

There’s plenty of research to show that parents and kids will make the right choices if we make healthy eating easy and attractive. This is the premise behind the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, which provides schools with resources needed to build lunchroom environments that make the healthy food choice the easy choice. Fresh produce, for example, along with milk has seen an uptick in consumption in school cafeterias when promoted using Smarter Lunchrooms strategies.  

While right now, sugary beverages are the latest villain of public health, there is ongoing opportunity for all healthy food, including fresh produce, to position itself as part of the solution for improving the health of children. As a grandparent, I want my grandchildren to eat healthfully, and the latest recommendations and legislation to promote healthy beverages are a step in the right direction. 

Tim York is CEO of Salinas, Calif.-based Markon Cooperative.

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