Does My Child Need a Meal Supplement or Replacement Shake?

2-5 Years

As parents, we all feel the pain of how challenging it can be to feed our kids. Some days we feel like we’re winning because our little one is happily eating every meal and snack. Then, on other days, it’s a battle to get them to eat anything, let alone what used to be their favorite meal. For most kids, it is normal behavior to eat more one day and less the next, but a lot of parents are still left wondering: Is it enough? Does my child need a meal supplement or meal replacement shake?

When meal supplements or meal replacement shakes can help

Let’s cut to the chase: Most kids do not need a meal supplement. When a child does need a meal supplement, it is usually for a medical reason—not fussiness or picky eating. For example, a pediatrician may recommend a meal supplement or replacement shake (such as PediaSure or Boost Kid Essentials) for a variety of reasons, including for a child who has delays in growth and development or for a child who has difficulty getting nutrition due to a chronic illness or health-related dietary restrictions.

When meal supplements can hurt

A lot of manufacturers advertise supplements (from shakes to powders to pouches) as a way to get a picky eater to get the nutrition he needs, but the fact of the matter is that meal supplements and replacements can actually make picky eating worse. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Many meal supplements and replacements are liquids or purees that call for sucking or slurping, so your child is not learning to develop necessary eating skills, such as chewing and using utensils.
  • Meal supplements and replacements do not teach children what real foods look or taste like. For example, if your child only recognizes broccoli from a pouch, how will he know that broccoli is actually a little green tree that comes in a bunch?
  • Meal supplements and replacements keep kids from trying new foods with different textures and tastes, making it more difficult to get them to eat those real foods later in their natural form.

The other concerning aspect of meal supplements and replacements is how much added sugar they typically have. Many meal supplements contain as much as 4 teaspoons of added sugar, which is the daily added sugar limit for preschoolers. (The American Heart Association recommends no added sugar for children under the age of 2.) And, when those supplements are sipped or sucked, the added sugars tend to sit on your little one’s teeth longer, which can lead to cavities and tooth decay.

What about supplement powders, such as Go & Grow Mix-Ins?

The newest craze seems to be powder supplements that you can mix into your child’s foods and beverages to make them more nutritious. The trick is: The main ingredients in the powders tend to be powdered milk, milk proteins, milk sugars and added fats. In other words, these powder supplements are simply overpriced milk-based supplements. Your child is much better off consuming real dairy products, such as plain milk, yogurt and cheese. Plus, they cost a lot less!

The bottom line on meal supplements

Most kids get the nutrition they need over the course of several balanced meals and snacks that include a variety of nutritious foods, so be patient with your child’s picky eating. It could just be a phase. The best thing parents can do is to model a healthy diet. Kids learn from what we do, not from what we say. So, continue eating and offering lots of healthy proteins, veggies, fruits and grains (without pressuring them to eat it), and eventually our little ones will follow suit.

If things don’t improve, and you’re concerned that your child is not getting enough nutrition, talk with your pediatrician.