Deciding which milk to give your child isn’t always straightforward. Learn about milk nutrition and the factors to consider when choosing the best milk for kids.
Let’s face it, not all milks have the same nutritional benefit for your child.
The non-dairy milk or fortified plant milk you choose is an important decision. It’s also a personal decision that may reflect cultural considerations, core beliefs, flavor preferences, and any medical conditions your child may have. You want the best for your child, but you just aren’t sure which milk is the right choice.
Does your child have food allergies?
Cow’s milk, soy or nut milks may not be an option if your child is allergic.
Is your family opting to follow a vegetarian diet?
There are so many plant based milks on the market now and few provide the same nutrients as cow’s milk.
How do you know which one to choose?
First you’ll need to understand milk nutrition. Milk nutrition comparisons are tedious and the information isn’t always easy to find.
Here’s what you’ll learn in this article
- Beverages and your child’s needs
- Nutrition and milk for toddlers
- Nutrition and milk for kids
- The breakdown of milk nutrition for each type of milk, from cow’s milk to cashew milk
Beverages and Your Child’s Nutrient Needs
Selecting food and beverages with nutrients in mind helps you find the right balance in your child’s diet to meet his nutrient needs.
Approximately 65% of young children and 34% of teenagers do not meet their recommended dairy intake, according to the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Cow’s milk is a good source of protein, calcium, vitamin D and other nutrients. Even chocolate milk!
One 8oz cup of low-fat cow’s milk contains 8g protein, 310 mg calcium and 80 IU of vitamin D.
Plant based milks are not an even exchange for milk. While some plant based milks are high in calcium, they’re not part of the dairy group because they lack other important nutrients. These non-dairy alternatives tend to be low in protein and vitamin D.
Even if you choose cow’s milk, you still need to make sure your child gets calcium and vitamin D from other sources in the diet. Give careful attention to these key nutrients if you opt for plant based milk for kids.
Age & Nutrient needs for growth and development
Note: Three cups of dairy won’t meet the requirement for vitamin D, or for calcium in the older child and teen.
Other Sources of Calcium:
- Chia seeds
- Turnip greens
Other Sources of Vitamin D:
- Fortified ready to eat cereals
- Fatty fish
- Egg yolks
- And of course, sunshine!
If you select a milk alternative such as rice, almond, cashew, or coconut milk, you’ll need to pay more attention to other protein and fat sources in your child’s diet. It may surprise you to learn that some non dairy milk options contain key nutrients in low supply.
The most important thing when choosing a milk or plant based milk for kids is that you make an informed decision. Decide on the beverage that best contributes to and complements your child’s nutrient intake from other foods.
Best Milk for Toddlers
For young kids, drinks provide a major source of nutrition throughout the day.
The younger the child, the more dependent he or she will be on the type of milk you choose as an important source of nutrition. For example, young toddlers (aged 1-2 years) continue to have unique nutritional requirements different from those of older children and adults.
Young toddlers have higher fat and nutrient needs related to their body weight, and higher calories per pound of body weight for growth. Choosing beverages low in protein, fat or calories can negatively affect the health of a growing toddler. Often young children under age 2 are drinking whole milk to meet their protein, fat and other nutrient needs.
Plant based milks (except for soy) are not recommended as an exclusive replacement for dairy in kids 1-5 years old unless it’s medically necessary or cultural preferences exist, according to the consensus statement of the Healthy Beverage Consumption in Early Childhood.
Note: Children should not consume any milk or plant based drinks before they are 1 years old.
To learn more about toddler milk, listen to my interview with Dr. Jennifer Harris.
Recommendations on Milk for Kids
As kids get older, they rely less on liquid nutrition and more on solid food.
The diet shifts to meals based on the food groups and the focus is on balancing a variety of foods to meet your child’s need for health and growth.
“Balance” is the key word here, because nutrients like calcium and vitamin D remain very important in the growing child’s diet (up through adolescence).
By age 20, 95% of bone mass is set so a growing child’s calcium and vitamin D needs are very important.
These nutrients (and meeting the requirement for them) deserve a little more attention so that kids attain a nutritious diet. Learn more about calcium rich foods for kids so you can meet those daily needs.
What’s the Best Milk for Kids?
Now, that is the big question… and I’m afraid to say that it all depends. Personally, I am a big fan of traditional cow’s milk for taste and nutrient composition.
And a fan of chocolate milk, too. Yes, you can serve chocolate milk without feeling guilty by having a game plan and fitting it into the overall balance of your child’s diet.
But that’s my pediatric nutritionist and dietitian brain talking. I understand your criteria for choosing milk or a milk substitute for your child may be different.
From coconut milk to cashew milk, I’ve outlined cow’s milk and the most popular and widely available sources of plant based milk to help you make an informed decision.
Many of the plant based milks below come in sweetened and unsweetened varieties so look for “unsweetened” to reduce your child’s intake of added sugars.
The gold standard, cow’s milk, has been the fluid of choice for many years, and many generations, and remains so in the eyes of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
Cow’s milk, when included with a variety of foods, can support the growth and development of children.
The fat content of milk represents the difference between whole milk, 2% milk, 1% milk and fat-free milk. At one year of age, it’s recommended that babies transition to whole cow’s milk.
At two years, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advocates a decrease in milk fat to 2% cow’s milk.
As your child ages, your pediatrician may advise 1% or fat-free milk depending on the family history of cardiovascular disease or problematic weight.
All varieties of cow’s milk are excellent sources of protein, calcium, and Vitamins A and D. If your child is lactose-intolerant, a lactose-free cow’s milk may be an ideal alternative.
When I look at milk alternatives with a good source of protein, soy milk (and pea protein milk, aka Ripple Milk…read more below) is a top choice. It’s a good option for children who are intolerant or allergic to cow’s milk, or for those following a vegetarian diet.
It’s estimated that 40% of children who are allergic to cow’s milk are also allergic to soy milk.
Soy milk is processed to match the nutrient content of cow’s milk, although some versions provide higher levels of protein. Since this non-dairy milk is fortified with calcium and Vitamin D, it provides adequate protein and calories for growing children over the age of one year.
Sugar may be added to soy milk to mask the naturally bitter taste of soy.
Is soy milk okay for kids?
I get a lot of questions about the safety of soy products for young girls and boys.
According to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), moderate soy consumption (up to two servings per day* of whole soy foods) is safe.
(*One serving of soy averages about 7 grams of protein and 25 mg of isoflavones.)
Scientists now know that soy does not increase estrogen levels in humans, nor does it feminize men.
Rice milk is another plant based milk for kids who are allergic to both cow and soy milks, or as a milk substitute in the vegetarian child.
Rice milk has very little protein, fat, and calories. Replacing soy or cow’s milk with rice milk requires thoughtful meal planning, especially for toddlers who need more of these nutrients.
Rice milk is fortified with vitamin D and may contain added sugar.
Is Rice Milk for Toddlers a Healthy Option?
Some research has shown evidence of growth failure in young children consuming rice milk due to its poor protein, fat, calorie, and vitamin/mineral content.
There’s also concern about the amount of arsenic in rice products, including rice cereal, rice cakes and crackers, and rice milk.
If it’s necessary for your young child to consume rice milk (i.e., due to a food allergy), consult with a Registered Dietitian (RD) or your pediatrician (MD) so they can provide guidance to make sure your child meets his overall nutrient needs and to minimize arsenic exposure.
Hemp milk is a vegan milk made from the cannabis plant. It contains omega-3 fatty acids and is also a source of iron, vitamin B12, magnesium, calcium and vitamin D.
Flavored hemp milk is similar in caloric content to whole cow’s milk and soy milk but carries a punch of added sugar (~14 gm/cup, or 3 1/2 teaspoons).
The unflavored variety is considerably lower in calories.
Protein and fat content are lower than cow’s milk, but higher than other grain-based milks.
Nut Milks (Cashew and Almond Milk Nutrition)
Another category of milk substitute are the nut milks such as almond and cashew milk. These also tend to be low in protein and fat.
They should not be offered to children who have a nut allergy.
Read More: The Big 8: Common Food Allergies in Kids
Almond milk has very little protein (~1 gm per cup) and is low in calories. But all is not lost! Almond milk nutrition stands out for having a decent amount of both vitamins E and B12.
It may be fortified with calcium and vitamin D (check label). Cashew milk showcases a similar nutrient profile to almond milk.
Another non-dairy milk popular with adults is coconut milk. Coconut milk is a low to no protein milk alternative (depending on the brand) made from blending coconut water with the liquid extracted from grated coconut flesh.
Its fat content is similar to whole cow’s milk, and it boasts some decent levels of vitamin B12.
Dairy aisle coconut milk is low in calories.
Pea Protein Milk (Ripple Milk)
Pea protein milk is another milk substitute on the market. It’s made from yellow peas and boasts equal protein to cow’s milk. Nutritionally, it offers omega-3 fats, and a heftier dose of both calcium and vitamin D compared to cow’s milk.
Similar in nutrient composition to rice milk, oat milk is low in protein and calories and has a considerable amount of added sugar.
As far as alternative milks go, flax milk is in the same boat with almond, cashew and coconut milks: virtually no protein content. It’s the lowest calorie plant milk in this list. However, it has a decent dose of heart healthy omega-3 fats.
If you are trying to decide whether to give your child cow’s milk or a plant based milk, consider your child’s age and nutrient needs for growth and development. Consider food allergies or other medical conditions that may require a specific nutrient composition. Last, consider your family food practices and cultural traditions.
Choosing the best milk for your child should meet your child’s nutritional needs and taste preferences.