Many parents feel anxious when their child won't – or can't – drink milk. Milk and dairy products are a top source of calcium in diets of Americans and a critical mineral kids need to build strong bones, help muscles contract and transmit nerve impulses.
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, they need 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.
When it comes to milk, calcium is only the beginning. Milk also is a good source of protein, with each cup delivering about 8 grams. Plus it provides other essential nutrients, including vitamin D and potassium, that often are lacking in children's diets.
However, if children are refusing milk or have an allergy, these nutrients can still be obtained through other kid-friendly foods and beverages.
"I Don't Want to Drink That!"
While milk was once the go-to beverage for most kids, it increasingly is being pushed to the side, with the average child drinking between 5 and 10 ounces of sweetened soft drinks a day instead. 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 milk)
- Make mini-pizzas with whole-grain English muffins, tomato 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 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, cream and tomato soups, hot cocoa and homemade milkshakes or smoothies. You also can turn milk into a treat by stirring a teaspoon or two of chocolate or strawberry syrup into low-fat milk for a sweet treat with nutrients.
Just be sure to choose low-fat options such as 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.
When Dairy Isn't an Option
Vegan lifestyles and food allergies are common reasons that some children do not consume dairy products. It's still possible to meet calcium and vitamin D needs every day, though. You can try fortified beverages such as soy, almond or coconut milk. 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.
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.
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 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.
- Offer 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.
Reviewed October 2017 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.