Plant-based and vegan diets are on the increase and so are the amount of plant-based products, including non-dairy alternatives, being consumed by families. This can be attributed to the growing awareness around animal cruelty and the ever-increasing amount children who are lactose intolerant or allergic to dairy. Whatever your reasons for choosing to keep more plant-based products in your home, parents need to ensure that they understand both the benefits and the draw-backs of opting for non-dairy alternatives for their children.
Cow’s milk and dairy-based milk powders offer growing little people a healthy dose of calcium, protein, vitamin D and fats, which is why it has been recommended as a popular food source within a balanced diet for children.
Within a child’s first two years of life, they require a healthy dose of fats for all of their growing and developmental needs and parents are only encouraged to switch to low-fat dairy options after their little one’s second birthday. With vitamin D deficiency on the rise, largely attributed to many little ones not getting enough sunshine daily, it makes sense to opt for foods rich in vitamin D (including milk, fortified orange juice, salmon, canned tuna and egg). The great news is that non-dairy milk alternatives too offer some key nutritional benefits for you and your family but important to note is that not all dairy-free options are equal.
So which non-dairy milk alternatives are best to give to your child without compromising on their nutrition? And what do you need to keep in mind before swapping out cow’s milk for one of them?
Almond milk, along with other nut-based milks including options like hazelnut, are growing in popularity due the number of nutritional benefits and its naturally sweet taste. Almond milk provides a low-fat alternative to full-fat dairy (which is beneficial for children over the age of two) and a healthy dose of vitamin D however is lower in protein versus cow’s milk. If almond milk or other nut milks are the choice in your household, you’ll therefore need to ensure that your are providing your little one with a diet rich in other protein foods.
Fortified almond milk is able to offer your little one the calcium needed to assist with optimal growth and development but you’ll need to ensure that your nut milk of choice is indeed fotified with calcium. Always opt for non-sweetened varieties (given that sweetened options are crammed with unneccesary added sugar per serving or artifical sweeteners) and keep in mind that nut milks aren’t recommended for children with nut allergies.
Fortified soy contains a healthy dose of calcium, vitamin D and protein for young children, making it the best non-dairy alternative to cow’s milk for growing little people. The fibre content in soy has been said to assist children with the digestive issues frequently associated with cow’s milk including things like diarrhea.
Both soy milk and other soy-based products contain hormones in the form of phytoestrogens that can block the body’s ability to regulate estrogen levels. The evidence however is not conclusive on the long-term effects in children however the same can be said for other hormones found in cow’s milk.
For this reason parents should rather strive to offer soy in moderation along with a diet rich in variety.
Steer clear from soy milk if your child has any kind of thyroid dysfunction or soy allergy. As with any allergen foods, you will need to watch your child carefully for any adverse reactions.
Rice and Coconut Milk
As with soy and nut milks, both rice and coconut milk will need to be fortified with calcium and vitamin D to offer optimal levels of both minerals. For children with allergies, both rice and coconut milk are viable options however it is important to note that they are not nutritionally superior to cow’s milk: while rice milk is low in protein and high in naturally occuring sugars, coconut milk is low in protein and high in satured fats.
My advice (and the advice from experts)
Be aware of the nutritional pros and cons of non-dairy milk alternatives, or any plant-based foods for that matter, and adjust your child’s diet as required. Strive for a diet rich in variety and keep changing things up, never over-doing too much of anything and doing your best to offer your child a balanced diet. Remember you’ll have some good days and some less-good days – when your little one is open to trying new things and experimenting with tastes and those days when your child will only eat the familiar – and that’s ok.
What’s important is that you keep offering them choices packed with a number of different nutritional benefits and if you are concerned that your child isn’t getting enough of a particular nutrient be sure to speak to your child’s paed, doctor or nurse.
Some tips on how to include enough calcium-containing foods in your child’s diet
Dairy provides an essential source of calcium for healthy bones and teeth, and B vitamins for energy however milk isn’t the only source of these nutrients. In fact there are a number of delicious options to choose from that your child is more than likely already eating. Children under the age of one should be consuming milk as their primary source of nutrition but for a child approaching two you can rest assured that, as long as your child is receiving calcium from foods other than milk, she will be getting in enough of the good stuff.
There are also a number of other foods that you can offer to your little one that provide an excellent source of calcium beyond the usual dairy-based suspects. These include; seeds (including other seed-based foods like tahini), beans and lentils, edamame and tofu, fish products that contain edible bones (tinned salmon, sardines and fish paste), leafy greens (like spinach and kale), broccoli, sweet potatoes, oranges, almonds, calcium fortified orange juice, calcium fortified cereals and grains and calcium fortified non-dairy milk products (like soy and almond milk).
- Cow’s milk and non-dairy milk should never replace breast milk or formula within your child’s first year of life.
- The above information should never replace the advice of your paed, GP or nurse.
- Always consult your child’s health care provider before deciding to remove dairy from your child’s diet.