For the most part, neither do you.
My kid plays soccer and softball. My daughter is four, which means she has just as much fun playing tag between the innings as she does hitting the ball from a pitcher instead of off the tee. It also means she’s not burning a ton of calories, despite her tag partner’s best effort.
Based on my kid’s weight, she burns about 95 calories at most during her softball game. Which should make sense: She’s four. There isn't much sprinting for line drives or inside-the-park homers happening in her league. Mostly it's dirt-kicking and running the bases once an inning.
Soccer, with its near constant running, does require more effort: A 75 pound child will burn about 300 calories per hour—if he or she is really playing the game hard. There isn't a lot of data on how many calories you burn dancing around the field holding your best friend’s hand.
So you can imagine my dismay when my kiddo is handed an adult-sized sports drink after her hour of "exertion." For reference, a 20-ounce Citrus Cooler Gatorade has 140 calories. A 32-ounce Orange Powerade comes in at 200 calories. Combine either of those very regular offerings at the snack roundup with real snacks my child has been given this year, a Chocolate Chip Clif Bar (250 calories) or an Oreo four pack (200 calories), and you’re well into the 1400-1800 calories recommended for a girl ages 4-8 before meals.
For reference, a 2018 movement in Europe called Change4Life found that half of the sugar in kids’ diets came from snacks. They advised limiting snacks to two per day and a maximum of 100 calories each.
So when my 50 pound nugget of a kiddo runs over with 140 liquid calories and another 250 in “snack” calories at 5pm just before we have dinner, what am I supposed to do? Take the snack away? Talk to her about how not all choices are good ones right there in front of her teammates?
When another parent is on rotation (which I am absolutely thankful for, by the way!), I’ve decided to pick my battles. The snack she has now will influence what I offer her later. No treat after dinner, and I’ll be mindful that her next meal doesn’t have many empty calories hiding in it. That’s only, of course, if Plan A fails, which is of course to put the snack directly in my bag, say I’ll open it in the car, and hope we both forget, (which actually works about 70% of the time).
I’m an advocate of dialogue with kids, but just because we talked about having smart snacks and not spoiling dinner yesterday doesn’t mean it will transfer to today, when gummies and a juice box are in hand.
We do talk a lot about how milk and water are the best things she can drink. And when it’s my turn, I do my best to show up with things I know she loves that also happen to be good for her: clementines (35 calories), a banana (102 calories), applesauce squeezes (60 calories), yogurt squeezes (90 calories), or real fruit popsicles (60 calories).
It’s not that I’m calorie obsessed. I know there are other factors I should consider, including the protein that energy bars pack. But when it comes to sports drinks, there just doesn’t seem to be any reason to give them to her when water will do just fine.
Mostly I’m hoping she learns by her dad and my example when she sees us bring bottles of water to the park or reach for a glass of water after a family walk instead of a sports drink. Because guess what? We don’t need sports drinks either. Unless you're running a marathon, the chances that you'll exert yourself so much that you throw your electrolytes out of balance are vanishingly low. Mostly you're just consuming a lot of unnecessary carbs and sugar, and some food coloring.
If you choose to let your kids drink sports drinks for fun or flavor, then go for it and adjust their diet accordingly. But if you think they’re replenishing much needed nutrients, you may want to do a little more research.