Is It OK to Substitute Non-Dairy Milks in Kids’ Diets?

Plant-based dairy alternatives are growing in popularity, but are they a one-to-one swap for milk? Let's explore some nutrition facts before choosing whether milk or plant-based alternatives are right for your family.

Healthy child pours milk from jugPhoto: Taste of Home

Non-dairy milks, such as soy, coconut and almond milks, seem to be non-dairy trendsetters, but are they right for your children? Allergies or dietary choices, such as paleo or veganism, may lead a family to choose a dairy-free alternative. Before the message gets cluttered in a debate, I’ll say this: Both cow’s milk and plant-based milks fit into a healthy diet for the whole family. If you’re on the fence about which is a better addition for your family, let’s explore both cow’s milk and non-dairy alternatives.

And just so we’re clear, we’re talking here about children 1 year and older—before that age, the recommendation is for nothing beyond breastmilk and/or infant formula.

Experts Sound Off

When it comes to protein and B vitamins, there’s no doubt cow’s milk is a superior choice for most children, and considered the top choice by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). The AAP has encouraged healthcare professionals to discuss nutrient gaps between dairy alternatives and cow’s milk when working with parents of young children.

“If your child drinks non-dairy milk, be sure to understand if and where any nutrient gaps occur so that you can address them in other areas of your child’s diet,” says Jill Castle, a leading childhood nutrition expert and registered dietitian. “For example, if your child’s non-dairy milk is low in protein or fat content, be sure to provide other sources of protein and fat from other foods in his or her diet, such as beans and avocado.”

Similarly, Sally Kuzemchak, dietitian and the voice behind Real Mom Nutrition, adds, “Non-dairy milks can be a nutritious replacement, but they aren’t one-for-one swaps, nutritionally.” Sally also cautions, “Homemade non-dairy milks aren’t good sources of calcium and vitamin D, because store-bought versions are fortified with those nutrients.”

Another nutrition expert, Diana K. Rice, The Baby Steps Dietitian, added, “In my experience, a child who dislikes dairy milk is unlikely to prefer a non-dairy option unless it contains a good amount of added sugar, in which case I recommend skipping milk altogether.”

Filling in the Nutrient Gaps

Most experts can agree that unsweetened, dairy-free alternatives have their place on pantry shelves, and can fit into a child’s diet. It’s important, however, to fill in any nutrition gaps that can occur. Cow’s milk has calcium, protein, B vitamins, vitamin D and fat; so, consider adding in foods like sardines, almonds, navy beans, tahini, leafy greens, avocados and salmon to match nutrient needs.

If the taste or texture of milk is an issue for a child, consider replacing milk with yogurt, cottage cheese, kefir or homemade mac and cheese.

Trying Out Non-Dairy Alternatives

Before swapping cow’s milk for soy or other dairy-free milks in your favorite recipes, check out these substitution tips, because the trade isn’t always a 1:1 ratio.

Looking for fun ways to sample non-dairy milks? Try out these recipes for simple ways to sip or chew these plant-based creamy alternatives. For beverages, try Banana Almond Milk Shakes or Peanut Butter Banana Smoothies. In the mood for something savory? Go for Lactose Free Macaroni & Cheese or Pasta Primavera with Soy Cream Sauce. Wake up to Scrambled Egg Wraps or Pumpkin Pie Oatmeal. And for dessert, treat your kiddo to Mango Rice Pudding, Chocolate Hazelnut Soy Pops or Light & Creamy Chocolate Pudding.

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Wendy Jo Peterson, MS, RDN
As a registered dietitian Wendy Jo touches on the science and facts behind food, but as a gardener and world traveler she savors the classical dishes our great-grandmothers once made. When she’s not in her kitchen, you can find her and her family exploring the US in their campervan, Olaf!