We Asked a Dietitian What to Order for Kids at Starbucks

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Meghan Splawn)

I realize that hitting a drive-thru of any kind for an after-school snack seems ominous from the start, but there are days when I have to bounce between school pickup and errands or soccer practice and I’d rather not do it without caffeine and with hungry kids.

This is definitely a survival-mode strategy, but I still don’t want to ruin my children’s diet with a sugary drink or snack, even if I’m doing a coffee drive-thru. I asked registered dietitian (and mom) Sally Kuzemchak, of Real Mom Nutrition, for her best advice about what to order and what to avoid when grabbing an after-school snack from Starbucks.

(Image credit: Sally Kuzemchak )

Sally Kuzemchak is a registered dietitian, mom, and author of the website Real Mom Nutrition. As a “Snacktivist,” she believes that our kids deserve more thoughtful snack choices that don’t exclude the celebratory cookie (on occasion). I chatted with Sally, mom to mom, to talk through a drive-thru snack strategy that I could feel good about.

I know that a Starbucks Drive-Thru isn’t the healthiest option for snacks, but how can I make the best of it when riding through with my kids?

Starbucks is actually a better option than most drive-thru places — you can make healthier choices more easily.

It’s nice to give your children the option of either a sweet drink or a sweet snack, but not both. For instance, if they do get a sweet treat like a Cake Pop, pair it with water or plain milk instead of a sweet drink. Whenever possible, though, choose a healthy snack — like a piece of fruit or nuts — rather than a drink, as chewing helps our bodies and brains feel more satiated automatically and keeps them fuller longer.

What are some good snack choices?

I’m a big fan of some of Starbuck’s packaged snacks. Selection varies from store to store, but the Peeled Dried Fruit Snacks are great — and they don’t have the added sugar of most dried fruit brands. Jerky or Chickpea Puffs are a nice savory option too.

Sometimes I’ll order oatmeal with nuts as a snack or small meal; the fiber from the oatmeal and fat and protein from the nuts makes this a really filling choice. If you’re looking for a mini-meal I do love the Bistro Boxes. Most of them are filled with good protein sources, like hard-boiled eggs plus fruit.

So, should we avoid Cake Pops?

Surprisingly, Cake Pops aren’t the worst thing to order! Although they are quite sweet, they have less sugar (18 grams) than, say, a blueberry muffin (30 grams) or a chocolate chocolate chip muffin (39 grams); they are small and actually feel like a treat. It definitely pays to give special attention to the nutrition in Starbucks’ in-house food choices.

What drinks are best?

I’m a big fan of steamed or iced milk with just a single pump of vanilla flavoring. Try ordering a short of any of the Starbucks menu items. These are smaller than the tall (12 ounces) at just eight ounces, but they are still satisfying.

Choosing full-fat milk or milk cartons will help your kids feel fuller longer too! You can even grab a chocolate milk — keep in mind that some of the sugars in milk are natural sugars and not added sugars.

What drinks to avoid?

A lot of pediatricians would back me up here, but I’m not really a fan of giving caffeine to kids. It’s helpful to note that almost all of the Frappucino drinks can be made without coffee. Starbuck’s tea offerings are spotty, because they don’t list the caffeine in the nutritional data. I’d say if you’re going to order tea, cut it either with water or even a little lemonade and opt for unsweetened choices.

Read more: Are Coffee Shop Drinks Safe for Kids? on Parents.com

I recently order a smoothie option from Starbucks and was really disappointed with the taste. Even though it seemed similar to something I’d put together at home, it wasn’t sweet or flavorful at all. It’s a shame to waste the money on a drink that doesn’t deliver on taste at all.

Any tips for making either drinks or snacks more nutritious or filling?

Always remember that fat, fiber, and protein help us feel fuller longer. So again, let your kids have a full-fat milk drink or pair a bagel with a squeeze-pack of almond butter for a more filling snack.

You can also ask to split a tall drink between two short cups (this works best if you’ve got two kids in the car) — that way they still feel like they are getting a treat, but they are getting a smaller, more reasonable portion.

Lastly, holding the whipped cream doesn’t make as much of a difference as you’d think. My kids always sigh when I ask for no whipped cream, so sometimes you can win by keeping it (it’s only about two grams of sugar in the end).