In previous posts, we’ve looked at transitioning your baby from breast milk or formula to milk, as well as commonly asked questions about toddlers and milk. Now we’re taking a look at the relationship between kids and milk. We asked our pediatric dietitian, Lara Field, to answer a few questions about your child and milk, like how much they should drink and the best cow’s milk alternatives.
Why should my child drink milk?
Milk has been a staple in the diets of Americans for over a century—and for good reason. According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, milk contributes 9 essential nutrients to one’s diet including calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and potassium. Milk may be most recognized for its role in healthy bone development: A single glass of milk contains about 30% of the Daily Value (DV) for calcium. Milk is a source of high-quality protein with no added sugars, which cannot always be said of other non-dairy milk alternatives. MyPlate’s dairy guidelines offer valuable insight into portioning and choosing dairy products that suit your family best.
How much milk should my school-aged child drink?
Based on MyPlate’s dairy guidelines, kids ages 4-8 should consume at least 2-and-a-half cups of calcium-rich foods daily. For kids ages 9 and older, 3 cups of calcium-rich foods daily are ideal. These recommendations do not have to be limited to milk, though—they can include alternative dairy beverages (almond, hemp or coconut, as long as there is at least 30% DV of calcium per serving), yogurt, cheese and cottage cheese. Beyond dairy products, there are a few plant-based sources rich in calcium, such as tofu, broccoli and kale.
What type of milk should my child drink?
This depends on your child’s nutritional needs as well as their palate. Whole milk, reduced-fat milk (2%), low-fat milk (1%) and fat-free or skim milk are the main varieties of dairy-based milk. All of these options contain the same nutrients; the difference between these milk varieties is the fat content with whole milk having the highest fat content and skim milk having the lowest fat content. Check with your pediatrician or dietitian to determine the best milk for your child. There are several plant-based dairy alternatives (almond, hemp and coconut) that may work for your family, especially if your child has allergies or intolerances, but it’s important to see how these beverages compare to cow’s milk in terms of nutritional value.
My child doesn’t like milk. If they don’t drink it, will they still get enough protein and calcium?
Remember to approach your child’s diet from a birds-eye perspective. Are they getting protein and calcium from other foods? While a serving of milk offers protein, calcium and vitamin D, it’s certainly not the only source of these nutrients.
Vitamin D is needed for proper calcium absorption. It can be obtained from sunlight exposure and through food. Factors such as geographic location, time of year and time spent outside impact the amount vitamin D required from dietary sources. Salmon, eggs and even mushrooms are a few examples of ways to get vitamin D into their diet.
For calcium, look to other foods in the dairy group such as cottage cheese and Greek yogurt. You could also try yogurt made with almond milk or soy milk, but be wary of added sugars. Try calcium-fortified almond milk or orange juice, leafy greens (which you can blend into a smoothie if your kids prefer), beans and other calcium-rich foods like tofu or tuna.
Protein can be found in many others foods, including beans, eggs, fish, poultry and meat products. Alternative dairy beverages typically don’t offer much protein, however with a balanced diet including legumes, whole grains, eggs, lean meats and poultry, your child can achieve adequate protein intake.
Can my child have cheese instead of milk? Can my child eat too much cheese?
Cheese can be a good source of protein and calcium, but remember it also contains more saturated fat. Though a tasty condiment, cheese shouldn’t be the only way to get calcium in your child’s diet. Choose less processed cheese and stick to low-fat varieties whenever possible.
Do children with milk allergies need supplements?
Not necessarily. Plant-based milk alternatives are a great solution for those with milk allergies or lactose intolerance. Soy, almond, hemp and rice milk can be rich in fortified vitamin D and calcium—some even contain more calcium than cow’s milk. Be sure to check the label to ensure the product provides at least 30% DV for calcium per serving. Nutrients are typically absorbed better through real food versus supplements, so focus first on incorporating calcium into their diet in other ways. If you are concerned about your child’s calcium intake, consult your pediatrician or a registered dietitian for further recommendations and options for supplementation
If my child likes milk, is there a disadvantage to drinking it?
Absolutely not—just don’t overdo it. Because dairy-based products are often higher in protein and sometimes fat, they can be quite filling. If your child is a picky eater, drinking milk can undermine your goals for their diet, as they’re more likely to fill up on milk and refuse other, nutrient-dense foods. Try to space out your child’s dairy consumption throughout the day to prevent satiety from milk alone during mealtimes.
Should I stick to organic milk?
You definitely don’t have to! Research hasn’t found significant differences in hormone levels between organic and conventional milk. If you’d rather not pay the organic price tag, look for milk labeled “rBST free,” which means it contains no synthetic growth hormones.
All in all, milk provides several essential nutrients beneficial to proper growth and development. For many, cow’s milk acts as a great way to obtain these nutrients; however, it’s not the only source of calcium, vitamin D and protein for your kids. Ensure your child has a variety of calcium-rich foods in their diet, whether it’s through cow’s milk, plant-based dairy alternatives or other nutritious foods. Remember to work with your child’s nutritional needs and taste preferences along the way.