March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
If you can't remember the last time your child asked for a glass of milk, you're hardly alone. "Less than 50 percent of children ages 2 to 8, and only 25 percent of kids ages 9 to 19, drink the recommended amount of milk each day," says Melissa Dobbins, MS, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. That may not sound like a big deal but milk and dairy products are the main source of calcium in our diets, a critical mineral kids need to build strong bones, help muscles contract and transmit nerve impulses. Yet a 2006 study by the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (now known as the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) found that kids who shun dairy rarely get the calcium they need.
When it comes to milk, calcium is only the beginning. Milk is also a top source of high quality protein, with each cup delivering more protein than a large egg. Plus it provides eight other essential nutrients; including several kids don't get enough of like vitamin D and potassium.
For optimal health, serve up 2 cups a day for kids aged 2 to 4; 2½ cups for kids 4 to 8; and 3 cups for kids 9 and older. Just be sure to choose low-fat options like 1 percent or non-fat milk. These deliver all the nutrition of 2 percent or whole milk with a fraction of the total and saturated fat. That makes them healthier for kids' hearts and also lower in calories. Sound like a tall order? Try these tips:
- Shun the Soda
"Today, soda is a major competitor for kids' attention," says Dobbins. In addition to packing nearly 3 tablespoons of added sugar per can (and lots of empty calories), soda may have another downside. A January 2012 Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics study indicated that kids who reported drinking at least one sugar-sweetened soda a day also reported they saw a decrease in their school grades. The Journal study also pointed to other previously published research indicating that disruptive behaviors, poor mental health and substance use have been associated with consuming sugar-sweetened drinks.
- Turn It into a Treat
If your child insists on soda and sweetened drinks, try stirring a teaspoon or two of chocolate or strawberry syrup into low-fat milk for a sweet treat with far less sugar, yet more protein and child-friendly nutrients.
- Serve It at Snack Time
"A glass of milk at snack time can make up for the nutrients kids may be missing at meals," says Dobbins. Offer it with fresh fruit, whole grain crackers or a home-baked cookie or muffin.
- Show 'em How It's Done
"Children learn by example," says Dobbins. "So the very best way to get your kids to drink milk is to be a good role model and drink yours too."