Dairy Alternatives for Kids Who Won't – or Can't – Drink Milk

By Andrea Johnson, RD, CSP, LDN
Dairy Alternatives for Kids Who Can

Ingram Publishing/ThinkStock

Many parents feel anxious when their child won't – or can't – drink milk. The staple childhood beverage is rich in nutrients that impact bone development and promote growth in general. "If children are refusing milk, I worry about their calorie, calcium, protein and vitamin D intake," says pediatric dietitian Jan Heintzelman, RD, LDN. Fortunately, these nutrients can still be obtained through other kid-friendly foods and beverages. 

"I Don't Want to Drink That!"

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, children 2 to 3 years old need two cups of milk per day. At 4 years old, the goal is two-and-a-half cups per day. Calcium requirements increase as children get older, so from 9 years on, children and teenagers need 3 cups of milk per day.

While you're working on getting your child to accept milk, try these dairy equivalents: 

  • Blend 8 ounces of yogurt into a fruit smoothie (equal to 1 cup of milk)
  • Make mini-pizzas with English muffins, sauce and 1½ ounces shredded cheese (equal to 1 cup milk)
  • Serve ½ cup instant pudding made with reduced-fat milk as an occasional treat (equal to ½ cup milk)
  • Offer ½ cup cottage cheese with pineapple chunks (equal to ¼ cup milk)

Milk can be disguised in your child's favorite foods, too. Try mixing it in oatmeal, cold cereal, cream and tomato soups, hot cocoa and homemade milkshakes. 

When Dairy Isn't an Option

Heintzelman cites vegan lifestyles and food allergies as the most common reasons that some children do not consume any dairy products at all. It's still possible to meet calcium and vitamin D needs every day, though. She recommends beverages like calcium-fortified soy milk, which has "a nutrient profile closer to milk than some of the other alternatives." She also notes that not all non-dairy alternative brands and styles are created equal. Parents should compare Nutrition Facts labels and select beverages that provide calcium, protein and vitamin D.

Multiple food allergies can make picking a milk alternative tricky. "I don't recommend other animal milks such as goat's milk as the proteins may be similar to cow's milk," Heintzelman says. Parents should consult an allergist and registered dietitian nutritionist about which milk substitutes are best.

Getting Creative

In addition to a good variety of milk substitutes available, there is a delicious array of foods from which to choose for a nutrient boost without the dairy:

  • Serve calcium- and vitamin D-fortified orange juice for breakfast.
  • Find cereals that are fortified with calcium by reading Nutrition Facts labels.
  • Substitute canned salmon for tuna in sandwiches at lunch.
  • Blend kale with frozen fruit in a smoothie – they won't notice the difference!  
  • Offer dark leafy greens as a side dish or mixed in casseroles at dinner.

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