I get so many questions about dairy and dairy-free plant beverages every week! Many of you ask me which one is best.

I say: it depends.

This post is filled with different facts to consider when you choose the best dairy or dairy-free substitute for your child.

Choosing to stay away from dairy can be due to a health condition such as milk protein allergy. For some families, it is a personal choice. But if you have small children and especially picky eaters, there are a few factors to consider before choosing the best dairy or dairy-free beverage:

  • Breastmilk and formula are the best choices for babies under 12 months.
  • Plant milk is not always a nutritious option for toddlers under 2 – most varieties are not a nutritional equivalent to dairy. They tend to be too low in protein and/or fat. It is always best to talk to a dietitian to find an alternative and watch for the potential nutritional gaps in the diet. Soy milk, pea Ripple milk, or a special formula may be a better substitute for dairy at this age.

  • Some plan based beverages have added sugar, which contributes to your child’s daily intake.
  • Dairy is one of the main sources of iodine in the Western diet. Plant milks do not contain iodine. According to the BDA, schoolgirls and pregnant women are more likely to be at risk of a mild iodine deficiency.

  • While dairy has naturally occurring calcium, most dairy-free substitutes need to be fortified in order to be considered a similar source of calcium. Always check the labels.

Here is a downloadable chart comparing the nutritional content of dairy and not dairy drinks and their suitability for kids of different ages.

Dairy and dairy-free beverages chart

Dairy vs Dairy Free Beverages Chart

Download the PDF copy of the chart here.

How many servings of dairy or dairy-free substitute should your child get?

Whether your child drinks dairy or dairy-free beverages, it’s important to keep an eye on how much they are getting.

Dairy is very nutritious (calcium, magnesium, protein, calories) BUT I know many toddlers who would drink rather than eat their calories. Too much milk can easily squeeze out the nutrition they need from solids.

That’s why we limit dairy to 2 servings (including yogurt and cheese) for toddlers. See the chart below for sample serving sizes of dairy and dairy-free food and beverages.

On the other hand, if your dairy-free toddler is guzzling plant beverages by gallons, he may be filling his tummy with little more than water.

Besides, too much calcium from dairy or dairy-free beverages may affect iron absorption, especially if your little one does not eat meat. More on iron absorption here.

Serving sizes

What is considered a serving:

  • One glass of cow’s milk or fortified plant beverage

  • One 160g tub of dairy or fortified dairy-free yogurt

  • 30g of dairy or dairy-free fortified cheese

How many servings do children need daily?

  • Toddlers 1 to 3 – 2 servings

  • Children 4 to 8 – 2.5 servings

  • Children 9 and older – 3 servings

Source: Choose My Plate

As children grow up, overconsumption of dairy becomes less of an issue as they tend to stay away from calcium-rich beverages (dairy or dairy-free) and may be at risk of not getting enough calcium.

Some examples of when older children may not be getting enough calcium:

  • a 15-year-old who has recently pronounced himself a vegan
  • a 13-year-old who stopped drinking milk and does not enjoy yogurt or any fortified plant milk
  • a 10-year-old who has always been selective in her diet and has recently dropped one of her safe foods – calcium-fortified orange juice.

If you feel that your older child is not getting enough calcium, make sure to discuss a supplement with your doctor or dietitian.

Dairy vs Dairy free alternatives - photo of cow's milk, cheese and almond milk

Calcium requirements for children and teens

Age and sex US UK
1 to 3 years 700mg 350mg
4 to 6 years   450mg
4 to 8 years 1000mg  
7 to 10 years   550mg
9 to 13 years 1300 mg  
11-18 year old girls 1300mg 800mg
11-18 year old boys 1300mg 1000mg

I find it fascinating that calcium requirements differ so dramatically between the US and the UK. I will not go deeply into the reasoning behind this difference in this post, but it is worth noting that the science of nutrition is still very new and we may need more research to come to more definitive conclusions on the optimal amount of calcium.

If you feel extra geeky, here are the papers on calcium from the British Nutrition Foundation and the US Institute of Medicine and here is an excellent article highlighting some of the conflicting recommendations.

Calcium content of dairy and dairy-free foods and beverages

Finally, I compiled for you a list of high calcium foods and beverages. I hope you will find it useful when planning a balanced diet for your family.

It is definitely easier to meet calcium requirements established by the UK health authorities. To consume 1300 mg of calcium a day, as the US Institutes of Health recommend, an average teen would probably need a supplement, in addition to the recommended 3 servings of dairy or dairy-free calcium-fortified foods or beverages.

Best sources of calcium

Dairy Serving Calcium, mg
Milk, all types 240ml (1 cup) 270
Cheese 30g (1 oz) 220
Yogurt 160g 220
Non-dairy calcium-fortified
products 
Serving Calcium, mg
Milk alternatives 240 ml (1 cup) 300-450
Tofu 60g (2 oz) 200
Orange juice 200 ml (6 oz) 261
Breakfast cereal 30 g (1 oz) 100-1000
Bread (fortified) 1 slice (40 g or 1.5 oz) 40-190
Other non-dairy sources of
calcium
Serving Calcium, mg
Sardines (with bones) 60 g (2 oz) 260
Tinned salmon (with bones) 52 g (2 oz) 47
White bread (not fortified) 50g (2 oz) 50
Orange 1 medium 75
Broccoli, raw  1/2 cup 21
Kale, cooked 1 cup 94

Sources:

BDA Calcium Food Fact Sheet

National Institutes of Health: Calcium Fact Sheet for Health Professionals

Finally, while calcium is very important for bone health but let’s not forget about vitamin D that helps our bodies absorb it. Read more about vitamin D role and requirements for kids of different ages here.

Other factors playing a role in your child’s bone health are a healthy balanced diet and getting enough physical activity.

It turned out to be one of the longest and data-packed posts I have ever written!

Tell me, did you find it useful? Any other dairy, non-dairy and calcium-related questions I can answer for you?

Related articles:

How to help your dairy-free child meet his calcium needs?

Does my child need a vitamin D supplement?

How to choose the best yogurt for your baby

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