Dairy free diets for children

Milk and milk products are an important part of a child’s diet because they are a good source of calcium, a mineral which is essential for the growth of strong bones and teeth. Calcium is also important for how muscles contract and is used in a range of enzymes and hormones in the body.

Childhood is a period of rapid growth and if children do not consume the calcium they need they are at risk of developing rickets while they are young, and osteoporosis in later life. However it is still possible to have an adequate intake of calcium if a child is on a cow’s milk free diet because calcium is present in a range of other foods.

How do I know which foods contain calcium?

Always check cow’s milk replacement products are fortified with calcium. Most plant milks like Oat Drink are fortified with calcium and are a good substitute for cow’s milk.

It is worth noting that rice milk is not suitable for children less than 5 years of age because of a possible risk of contamination.  Also organic dairy replacements are not fortified with calcium because there is not a source of organic calcium currently available. Therefore organic cow’s milk replacements should not be relied upon entirely to provide the calcium a child needs.

Many dairy free replacement products list their calcium content on the nutritional panel. A small glass (200 ml) of Provitamil Oat Drink contains 240mg of calcium, the same amount as cow’s milk.

Other foods which are high in calcium are fortified breakfast cereals; pulses, including baked beans, canned fish, green vegetables, dried fruit, nuts and bread.

How much calcium does my child need?

The amount of calcium a child needs throughout childhood and adolescence varies according to age and roughly corresponds with periods of rapid growth, see table 1 below.

Table 1: Recommended daily amounts of calcium for children

Age group

Daily requirement of calcium

Infants between 0 – 12 months

525 mg

- 1-3 years
- 4-6 years
- 7-10 years

350 mg
450 mg
550 mg

Adolescents 11- 18 years
- Girls
- Boys

800 mg
1000 mg

Figures from Department of Health, Dietary Reference Values for Food Energy and Nutrients for the United Kingdom, HMSO, 1991.

Is it possible to have too much calcium?

Yes. Taking more than the recommended intake of calcium can be harmful to a child.

What kind of meals and snacks can I give my child to increase their calcium intake?

  • Start the day with a breakfast of fortified cereal served with a cow’s milk substitute. Toast with a nutritious topping like peanut butter and some fruit is also a good idea.
  • Shakes and slurpies made with a mix of plant milk and fruit liquidised with a dairy free yogurt or ice cream are a delicious, nourishing snack.
  • Include puddings made with a cow’s milk substitute such as custard or rice pudding.
  • Add pulses to stews and soups and top baked potatoes with baked beans.
  • Offer dried fruit and nuts such as almonds and brazil nuts as a snack between meals.

Vitamin D, sunlight and calcium

In order to use the calcium in their bodies children also need a good supply of vitamin D. Children get most of their vitamin D from sunlight during the summer months, the rest comes from the diet. Eggs, oily fish and fortified breakfast cereals are a good source of vitamin D.

Is cheese allowed on a lactose free diet?

Provided a child is intolerant to lactose and not allergic to the protein in milk they can eat small quantities of certain cheese. Hard, mature cheddar where the lactose is removed from the cheese during the making process can usually be eaten. Gruyere, Emmental, Jarlsberg, Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano have been identified to have consistently low lactose content.

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