Interested in going dairy-free as a family? Great! Here are some things to consider when it comes to plant-based milks for little ones.
When people find out that I’m raising plant-based kids, many will ask where my boys get essential nutrients if they don’t drink cow’s milk.
There’s so much confusion around the idea of dairy alternatives for kids that it’s often the one obstacle preventing parents from making the full plant-based switch.
We’ve been conditioned to believe that dairy is sort of a gold standard for childhood nutrition. Kids need nutrients like calcium, protein, fat, and vitamin D for proper growth and development, and dairy provides these. It’s also calorically-dense, affordable, and easily accessible.
However, more parents are recognizing the health and ethical concerns associated with dairy and are looking for alternatives.
Enter, Plant Milks
Luckily, cow’s milk isn’t the only milk option, nor is it a requirement for raising healthy, thriving kids. To be clear, milk of any kind isn’t a necessity in life – but if your family chooses to drink it, there are now at least ten varieties of plant milks, and that number is growing.
Plant milks can be very nutritious. They’re also cruelty-free and more environmentally sustainable than dairy.
Plant milks are typically made by soaking and pulverizing either legumes (beans, nuts, seeds) or grains (oats, quinoa, rice) with water and draining out the solids. Commercial plant milks are sometimes flavored or sweetened, and are usually fortified with vitamins and minerals.
The Role of Plant Milks For Kids
Neither plant nor cow’s milk should be used as a replacement for breast milk or infant formula, especially before one year. After that, it’s generally considered safe to start introducing plant milks (as long as there are no allergy concerns). It’s best to choose a full-fat option for kids under the age of two.
That being said, by the time kids start weaning, they’re likely becoming familiar with a variety of solid foods. And while milk is a nice vehicle for additional nutrients, it’s these foods that should become their primary source of nutrition. Plant milks can be served alongside meals and can also be used in recipes, but shouldn’t be relied upon for meeting all of a child’s nutritional needs.
There are plenty of plant-based proteins that can be age appropriate, like canned beans, tofu, lentils, peas, and quinoa. Avocados and thinned nut butters are packed with healthy fats. Pureed or mashed fruits, veggies, and grains provide complex carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Choosing A Plant Milk For Your Family
If you’re wondering which plant milk is best for your kids, my vague answer is that 1) it depends and 2) there isn’t necessarily just one. No plant milk is quite like another, and there are a few things to take into consideration when choosing the right one(s) for your family:
- They can have very different nutritional profiles.
Plant milks are highly heterogeneous, depending on the type of milk and the brand who makes it. Soy and pea are high in protein, while almond, cashew, and coconut generally have none. Hemp, soy, pea, and coconut typically offer more fat than the nut milks. The types and amounts of vitamins and minerals can differ, too. Oat, coconut, soy, flax, and hemp are often fortified with vitamin B12, whereas almond, cashew, hazelnut, quinoa, and pea may not be. Similarly, certain varieties are better sources of vitamins E, A, and D, iron, and calcium than others.
- Their ingredient lists can vary significantly.
Some brands take a minimalist approach to ingredients, while others use flavorings, sweeteners, and sometimes controversial thickeners like carrageenan. Some milks are naturally high in protein, while others (usually “protein” versions of nut or flax milk) have isolated pea protein added. Some milks also contain natural fats, while others have added oils to achieve this.
- They can be unexpected sugar bombs.
Added sugars run rampant in our food system and plant milks are not immune to this, especially those that come in chocolate flavor. Look for rice sweetener, cane juice, or cane sugar in the ingredient list. Sweetened milks can contain anywhere from 5-13 grams of sugar per cup. Fortunately, there are unsweetened versions available of almost every kind (and they will be labeled as such). Oat and rice milk, however, often contain more sugar that you might expect, even when none is added.
- They can contain unwanted substances.
Soymilk is very popular, but the majority of soy grown in the United States is genetically modified. For this reason, I recommend organic soymilk. Choosing organic plant milks in general will reduce your family’s exposure to pesticides. Rice milk is also at high risk for arsenic contamination, and there’s no label or certification that addresses this.
- They may contain allergens.
Before you start introducing plant milks, it’s a good idea to make sure your child isn’t allergic to soy or nuts. I’ve seen many milks that are actually a combination of multiple plants, like almond and cashew with pea, or coconut with almonds. Kids with tree nut allergies should also avoid milks made from hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, and pecans.
My Two Cents On Plant Milks for Kids
With these few considerations in mind, plant milks can be a fantastic alternative to dairy for kids. Keep a few plant milks with different nutritional makeups on rotation in your household, with at least one being calorically-dense and high in protein, like soy milk.
Choose organic, unsweetened, non-rice versions as much as possible, and read labels. You can also make your own, which is very easy and requires few ingredients – just remember that it won’t be fortified like commercial milks are.
Speak with a registered dietitian who is knowledgeable in plant based nutrition for more individually-tailored advice about dairy alternatives for kids.
Whatever you decide, talk to your kids openly about why you don’t drink dairy and what milks you enjoy instead. Most of all, be confident in your decision to raise a compassionate, plant-based family!
Tell Me Below:
- What non-dairy milk alternatives does your family drink?
- What other questions do you have about cow’s milk alternative for kids?