Nutrition: Make the switch – going water (and plain milk) only at your school

Children should be having no more than 5 teaspoons of added sugar per day (World Health Organisation).

By Branko Cvjetan, Manager North Island Nutrition Advisors, Heart Foundation

Did you know that the biggest contributor of sugar to the New Zealand diet is sugary drinks? Sugary drinks (like fizzy drinks, sports drinks, flavoured milk and juices) contribute to tooth decay, obesity and diabetes, and also make it harder for children to learn while at school.

Children should be having no more than 5 teaspoons of added sugar per day (World Health Organisation). These sugary drinks are all too high in sugar:

  • 600ml bottle fizzy drink has 16 teaspoons added sugar.
  • 350ml fruit juice has 10 teaspoons of sugar.
  • 750ml sports drink has 15 teaspoons added sugar.

Schools that have moved to being water and plain milk only have seen that it benefits behaviour and achievement as well as student health and wellbeing. By providing healthy drink choices in a school environment, the healthy choice becomes the easy choice and denormalises the growing consumption of sugary drinks.

That’s why moving to be a water and plain milk only school is so important. But what does water and plain milk only mean? It means these are the only drinks sold at school (for example through a lunch order system or tuckshop). It means children are only permitted to drink water and plain milk at school, including breakfast club and during events.

As with all changes that affect the school community, it’s important to communicate and consult throughout the process. Here are some tips:

  1. Prepare and share your goal

Role model through staff, look for resources to support you (see below for links), communicate the aim and reasons why. Make sure water is accessible. This could include fountains outside and sinks in classes for refilling bottles.

  1. Engage the students

Incorporate learning about sugar into the curriculum, include hydration breaks during class. Survey students to find popular alternatives to food-based classroom rewards. A dedicated student health team could be tasked with approaching local shops to ask for their support of the policy.

Plain milk is a nutritious liquid food and a good alternative to water.

Being water only can include school events like shared lunches, discos and galas. We can support you with healthy fundraising alternatives, whether it’s selling healthier food and drinks at events, or selling non-food fundraisers.

  1. Develop a water only policy and guidelines

Involve the whole school community, including whanau, local shops, your tuckshop/lunch provider. There are great sample policies available as a starting point. Share the finalised policy far and wide.

  1. Promote your water only status

Write and talk about it often e.g. assemblies, newsletters, social media, enrolment packs. Reward and celebrate positive behaviours.

It’s important, if there are drinks sold at school (e.g. canteen or lunch order system), that the provider is on-board with this change. Where there is a written contract for food and drink sold at school, it is a good idea to include the school’s water only status in the contract.

A frequent concern is that you will be “telling” parents what they can and cannot give their children. According to recent research by the Health Promotion Agency, 93% of parents and/or caregivers think it is important for schools to limit access to sugary drinks. If parents choose to give their children other drinks as treats, they can still do so outside of the school environment.

There is a suite of great resources at the link below. Check out the case studies to see how going water only has had a wide range of flow-on effects including improved dental health and classroom behaviour. Simonne Goodall, Principal of Randwick School, had this to say about going water only: “The school’s teachers have noticed better concentration and work habits from the students and a sense of responsibility for their own hydration.”

Visit and search “water only”

How can we help?

If you would like any assistance, the Heart Foundation has Nutrition Advisors around the country that can support your school through the process of going water only. You can contact your local Nutrition Advisor via the Contact Us page of , ring 0800 863 375 or send a message to

Byline: Branko Cvjetan works for the Heart Foundation as a Manager for Nutrition Advisors in the North Island. His team support schools and early learning services to encourage healthy eating and physical activity. He is a New Zealand Registered Dietitian and father of two who is passionate about helping children to eat well.