At about age one, your baby will start to be weaned off breast milk or formula in favor of cow’s milk. But that presents parents with a tough decision: Is cow’s milk the only alternative for my child? Although cow’s milk is packed with the nutrients such as protein, calcium, and vitamin D a growing child requires, it may not be the best choice for every child. Children who have an allergic reaction to milk or lactose intolerance may need to eliminate milk from their diet.
A family may also have dietary preferences that forbid the intake of animal protein. Or, your child may simply not like milk, leading to some pretty contentious situations at the dinner table. Fortunately, there are plenty of milk alternatives on the market that provide the nutrients your child needs — and will satisfy their finicky taste buds.
Your Child’s Nutritional RequirementsEach child is different, but there are some general guidelines on how much children need certain essential nutrients. Let’s look at calcium and vitamin D, which in tandem support strong bones and teeth as your child matures. Between the ages of 1 and 3, your child should consume 700 milligrams of calcium a day and 600 IU of vitamin D. By ages 4 to 8, those requirements increase to 1,000 milligrams of calcium, but remain at 600 IU for vitamin D. A child between the ages of 9 and 18 should take in 1,300 milligrams of calcium and 600 IU of vitamin D.
Protein is another vital nutrient in milk that promotes cell growth in your child’s developing body. However, your child doesn’t require as much protein as you may think, or as much as an adult. In fact, the average 1- to 3-year-old needs to consume only 0.5 milligrams of protein per pound per day. That works out to about 13 milligrams for a 26-pound child. Yet you’ll still want to make sure your child gets enough protein in their diet.
So how does cow’s milk fit in the equation? An 8-ounce glass of milk is filled with 8 milligrams of protein, 319 milligrams of calcium, and 80 IU of vitamin D. Obviously, your child will need to drink more than one glass of milk to receive the full nutritional value. It’s recommended that toddlers between ages 1 and 2 sip two to three glasses of whole milk per day. Older children between 2 and 5 should drink between 2 and 2.5 glasses of skim or low fat milk each day.
If you’re worried about fat intake, don’t be. About 30 percent to 40 percent of calories in a toddler’s diet should be in the form of fat. Fat is necessary for your child to absorb fat-soluble vitamins from food like vitamin D.
However, regular cow’s milk may not be the preferred choice for your child or family. If that’s the case, explore the many milk alternatives available that provide most or nearly all of the nutritional benefits of cow’s milk.
5 Milk Alternatives to TryAlthough milk alternatives typically don’t pack the same nutritional punch as cow’s milk, you can ensure your child gets the nutrients he or she needs in other food choices. As with any food product, a careful reading of the nutritional chart will give you the information you need to make an informed choice.
Soy Milk: A good and popular choice for children with allergies or intolerance, soy milk or pea milk is high in protein. Pea milk, in particular, is packed with omega-3. But soy milk lacks other essential nutrients, such as calcium, vitamin D, phosphorus, riboflavin, and vitamin B12. So choose a soy milk fortified with those nutrients. Also check the sugar content and pick a variety with less sugar. If your child has a protein allergy or intolerance, he or she may have an allergic reaction to soy milk. Many children have allergies to both cow’s milk and soy milk.
Almond Milk: Almond milk, like other nut-based milks like cashew milk, have become popular alternatives to cow’s milk and are recommended for kids with allergies to dairy, soy or gluten. But almond milk should only be given to children without a known allergy to nuts. Almond milk is lower in calories, protein, and other nutrients. Steer away from almond milk loaded with sweeteners.
Rice Milk: Similar to almond milk, rice milk is a great alternative for children with allergies to dairy, soy, nuts, and gluten. Rice milk has a higher calorie content than other plant-based milk alternatives, but most of that fat comes from refined carbohydrates rather than the protein and fat your toddler needs for growth. Finding an unsweetened rice milk palatable to your child may be difficult, too.
Coconut Milk: Coconut milk contains less vitamin D, protein, and calcium than cow’s milk. Yet it’s still a good source of fat for toddlers and vitamin B12. If you choose coconut milk, add other protein- and calcium-rich foods to your child’s diet.
Oat Milk: For vegan families, oat milk offers more protein than nut milk options, but it’s low in protein compared to cow’s milk. On the plus side, it’s high in the fiber and calories your toddler needs. Oat milk is also good for children with gluten intolerance or celiac disease. When selecting an oat milk product, choose one with added calcium and vitamin D and reduced sugar.