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

Contributors: Andrea Johnson, RD, CSP, LDN, Karen Ansel, MS, RDN, CDN, Sarah Klemm, RDN, CD, LDN and Esther Ellis, MS, RDN, LDN

Published: January 19, 2022

Reviewed: July 28, 2023

Dairy Alternatives for Kids | Girl Having Breakfast

Many parents feel anxious when their child won't — or can't — drink milk. Milk and other dairy products are a top source of calcium for Americans and a critical mineral kids need to build strong bones, help muscles contract and transmit nerve impulses.

According to MyPlate, children 2 to 3 years old need two-and-a-half cups from the dairy group per day. Calcium requirements increase as children get older, so from 9 years on, children and teenagers need 3 cups from the dairy group per day.

When it comes to milk, calcium is only the beginning. Milk also is a good source of protein, with each 8-ounce cup delivering about 8 grams. Plus it provides other essential nutrients, including vitamin D and potassium that often are lacking in children's diets.

"I Don't Want to Drink That!"

While milk was once the go-to beverage for most kids, it’s been increasingly pushed to the side. If 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 milk)
  • Make mini-pizzas with whole-grain English muffins, tomato sauce and ⅓ cup 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 fresh fruit (equal to ¼ cup milk)

Milk can be disguised in your child's favorite foods, too. Try mixing it in oatmeal, cold cereal or cream-based and tomato soups. Just be sure to choose low-fat options such as 1% or non-fat milk for children over the age of two. These deliver all the nutrition of 2% or whole milk with a fraction of the amount of saturated fat. That makes them healthier for kids' hearts.

However, if children are refusing milk or have an allergy, these nutrients can still be obtained through other kid-friendly foods and beverages.

When Dairy Isn't an Option

Vegan lifestyles and food allergies are common reasons that some children do not consume dairy products. With the exception of calcium-fortified soymilk and fortified soy-based yogurt, plant-based products are not recommended as a substitute for a serving from the dairy group. According to the 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." Soymilk provides protein and can be a source of calcium and vitamin D when fortified with these nutrients.

When at the store, keep in mind 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 and no added sugars.

Multiple food allergies can make choosing a milk alternative difficult. Parents should consult an allergist and registered dietitian nutritionist about which milk substitutes are best based on their child’s needs.

Getting Creative

It's still possible to meet calcium and vitamin D needs every day, though. There is a delicious array of foods from which to choose for a nutrient boost:

  • 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.
  • Serve dark leafy greens such as cooked collard greens or bok choy as a side dish or mixed in casseroles or soups at dinner.
  • Stir sliced figs and almonds into hot cereals.

Andrea Johnson, RD, CSP, LDN, is a clinical dietitian at Penn State Hershey Children's Hospital.

Karen Ansel, MS, RDN, CDN is a nutrition consultant, journalist and author specializing in nutrition, health and wellness.

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