Nutrition is a critical part of any child’s welfare and wellbeing. Good nutrition early on can ensure optimal growth and development, prevent illness, and give a good foundation for a healthy, varied diet as they grow.
But what if your child is a particularly picky eater, has a metabolic disorder, or has a restricted diet? What if they’re not gaining weight as expected, or they refuse point blank to eat a vegetable? In this case, a child may well benefit from supplemental calories and nutrients, potentially in the form of a meal replacement shake.
If your intention is to supplement your child’s diet with a meal replacement or nutritional shake, then your first point of contact should be their healthcare provider, or a nutritionist, as they will be able to help you understand your child’s specific needs and whether certain products are safe and healthy.
In this guide we’ll be looking at whether it’s safe to give kids meal replacement shakes, what to look out for, and if there might be whole foods alternatives you can use instead.
Are meal replacement shakes safe for children?
Most meal replacement shakes are targeted at the adult market. They provide flexibility, convenience and a boost of nutrition for grown ups on the go. As such, the nutritional values may well be way above the recommended daily intakes for children, especially when combined with their regular diet.
Take protein, for example. Most meal replacement shakes contain high amounts of protein for an adult body to use as fuel until the next meal. Children need much less protein than adults do, and excess protein consumption over extended periods of time can cause kidney and liver problems, and put strain on their developing organs (Cleveland Clinic, 2017).
Meal replacement products should be used sparingly with children, and only if they are underweight for their age, or are at risk of nutritional deficiencies. However, they should not be used to replace an entire meal, as this can lead to disordered eating patterns, a complete disinterest in trying new foods, and a heavy dependence on liquid meals.
They should also not be used long term, as this may reinforce the idea that all your meals can come from shakes - and shakes definitely cannot reproduce all the nutritional values, tastes and textures of a balanced, whole foods diet.
What to consider when choosing a meal replacement shake for kids:
Choosing a meal replacement shake which is suitable for children can be difficult. As we’ve noted previously, if you have concerns about your child’s nutritional intake then a healthcare professional or nutritionist will be able to advise you on the best course of action. Here are some of the questions you might want to ask before you go out in search of a nutritional shake for your kids:
Does my child really need a meal replacement? This is an excellent question to address before you start. If your child is a healthy weight, and eats a nutritionally balanced diet then there should be no need to offer meal replacements, even as a nutritional supplement. The excess calories may cause an otherwise healthy child to experience weight gain, or an excess of protein, which can cause kidney and liver issues. Children with metabolic conditions or chronic illness might have difficulty in absorbing nutrients, and in those cases nutritional shakes have proven to be a useful supplementary tool, although further study is needed to determine both the efficacy and safety of meal replacement products for children (Francis et al., 2015)
What ingredients should I look out for? This one is relevant for both adults and children! Supplements are not as heavily regulated as food items so they may contain high levels of pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals and other contaminants, which could have potentially negative effects. Making sure that you choose a product which is third party tested for these contaminants is very important in ensuring that you (or your child) doesn’t ingest anything harmful. Alongside making sure that your products are free of contaminants, you’ll also want to ensure that the product you choose doesn’t contain artificial ingredients, bulking agents, or preservatives. You can read more about the ingredients to avoid in this article. Vivo Life’s WHOLE is a nutritional shake which contains only natural ingredients, is third party tested for contaminants, and is lower in calories than traditional meal replacement shakes, which may make it more suitable for children than others.
Are there alternatives to meal replacement shakes?
If you don’t want to use a meal replacement product, then there are nutritionally rich whole foods alternatives which can offer supplementary calories in shake form. Here are a few that you can add to a shake to sit alongside your kid’s main meal:
- Nut butters (provided your household is allergy free!) can offer healthy fats, potassium, dietary fiber and nearly 100 calories per tablespoon! (Slavin, 2005)
- Avocados are another great source of healthy fats, plus they can make a shake delicious and creamy! (Bhuyan et al., 2019)
- Bananas not only taste great in shakes, they are a great source of potassium and Vitamin B6 (Bhatt and Patel, 2015)
- Berries offer a great burst of flavour and natural antioxidants to a shake which is perfect if your kid has a bit of a sweet tooth! (Huang et al., 2012)
So, what’s the verdict on meal replacement shakes, then? In short, offering nutritionally rich alternatives should be the first port of call if you’re concerned about your child’s calorific or nutritional intake. However, if these concerns have led you to seek medical advice and your child has been offered supplementation by their healthcare provider, then it is imperative to make sure that you follow their advice directly.
Francis, D.K., Smith, J., Saljuqi, T. and Watling, R.M. (2015). Oral protein calorie supplementation for children with chronic disease. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. doi:10.1002/14651858.cd001914.pub2.
Cleveland Clinic (2017). Why Extra Protein for Your Child Is Unnecessary – and Possibly Dangerous. [online] Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic. Available at: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/why-extra-protein-for-your-child-is-unnecessary-and-possibly-dangerous/.
Bhatt, A. and Patel, V. (2015). Antioxidant potential of banana: Study using simulated gastrointestinal model and conventional extraction. Indian Journal of Experimental Biology, [online] 53(7), pp.457–461. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26245031/ [Accessed 27 Jul. 2022].
Bhuyan, Alsherbiny, Perera, Low, Basu, Devi, Barooah, Li and Papoutsis (2019). The Odyssey of Bioactive Compounds in Avocado (Persea americana) and their Health Benefits. Antioxidants, 8(10), p.426. doi:10.3390/antiox8100426.
Huang, W., Zhang, H., Liu, W. and Li, C. (2012). Survey of antioxidant capacity and phenolic composition of blueberry, blackberry, and strawberry in Nanjing. Journal of Zhejiang University SCIENCE B, [online] 13(2), pp.94–102. doi:10.1631/jzus.b1100137.