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Growing Strong: Non-Dairy Solutions for Children's Essential Nutrients

Contributors: Andrea Johnson, RD, CSP, LDN and Karen Ansel, MS, RDN, CDN

Reviewers: Academy Nutrition Information Services Team

Published: January 19, 2022

Reviewed: March 26, 2024

Dairy Alternatives for Kids | Girl Having Breakfast

Cow’s milk and dairy foods made from it, such as cheese and yogurt, are one source of several key nutrients important for a child’s growth and overall health. Examples of nutrients provided by these foods, which are part of the MyPlate Dairy Group, include calcium, potassium, vitamins A and D, as well as protein. But dairy isn’t the only source of these key nutrients!

Soymilk and soy-based yogurt also provide protein and can be a source of calcium, vitamin A and vitamin D when fortified with these nutrients. They are considered to be the closest nutritionally to cow’s milk and dairy yogurt compared to other plant-based alternatives and are part of the dairy food group for this reason.

According to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, "Other products sold as 'milks' but made from plants (e.g., almond, rice, coconut, oat and hemp 'milks') may contain calcium and be consumed as a source of calcium, but they are not included as part of the dairy group because their overall nutritional content is not similar to dairy milk and fortified soy beverages."

It’s important to note that only breastmilk or infant formula are recommended for children younger than 12 months old, so other types of milk including cow’s milk and soy-based beverages should not be served to children until age 1. Dairy foods like cheese as well as soy-based yogurt are acceptable choices when infants are developmentally ready for solid foods, which usually occurs around 4 to 6 months of age.

When Dairy is Not an Option

Children may not consume dairy for a variety of reasons including food allergies, lactose intolerance, cultural or family preferences such as a vegan eating style. Whatever your family’s dietary preferences or health concerns are, there are ways to provide nutrition for growing bodies, but it requires some additional guidance and planning.

When at the store, keep in mind that not all types and brands of plant-based milk alternatives are created equal. Parents should compare Nutrition Facts labels and select beverages that provide nutrients including calcium, protein and vitamin D and no added sugars.

Multiple food allergies can make choosing a milk alternative difficult. Parents should consult a registered dietitian nutritionist about which foods and beverages are best based on their child’s needs. When foods and food groups are avoided, important nutrients may be lacking and an RDN can help to ensure that nutritional needs are being met.

Get Creative to Meet Nutrient Needs

It's possible to get calcium, potassium, vitamin A, vitamin D and protein through a variety of foods and beverages. However, there can be differences in the amount of nutrients, such as calcium, that the body absorbs from plants and fortified foods. Eating a variety of healthful foods can help with meeting nutrient needs.

Here are some tips to obtain these key nutrients from non-dairy food sources:

  • Read the Nutrition Facts labels on foods such as whole-grain cereals to find those that are fortified with nutrients like calcium and vitamin D.
  • Add fruit, such as sliced banana, to hot cereal for additional potassium and stir in almond butter for some calcium.
  • Blend kale or other dark leafy greens, which provide calcium, with frozen fruit when making a smoothie.
  • Substitute canned salmon for tuna in sandwiches at lunch for extra calcium. (Two weekly servings of fish that are lower in mercury are recommended for children, but the amount of the serving depends on their age.)
  • Serve dark-green vegetables such as bok choy or broccoli as a side dish or mix in casseroles or soups at dinner for some additional calcium.
  • Add cooked beans to dishes, serve them mashed or use them to thicken soups as another source of calcium, as well as protein.

For additional suggestions and personalized healthy eating recommendations, consult a registered dietitian nutritionist. Use the Academy’s Find a Nutrition Expert  tool to locate an RDN in your area.

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