Got (non-dairy) milk?

Alt-milks are great for grownups, but dairy is king for kids.

As adults, we may prefer the lower-calorie, plant-based alternative “milks” available these days. But is a non-dairy beverage the right choice for your child?

When compared based on nutritional value, none of the alternatives stack up to traditional cow’s milk.

“There are big differences in calories, proteins, fats, and vitamins between milk and milk alternatives,” says Sarah Sahl, a registered dietitian at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. “Children need calories for bone and brain development, growth and activity through the teen years. Dairy milk is a great source for protein and fats, and it already has a natural ratio of calcium and phosphorus to optimize bone health.”

Sahl points out that most alternative “milks” are more similar to juices squeezed from nuts. The manufacturers then add calcium and other vitamins that don’t occur naturally at these levels in plants.

“These alternative beverages are more highly processed than milk, generally,” she says.

Sahl notes that there are many reasons why families may raise concerns about cow’s milk.

“Choosing hormone-free or organic dairy milk can alleviate many concerns parents have,” she says. “If an alternative is a must, such as with a milk allergy, the most nutritionally similar choices are fortified soy or oat milk.”

Recommended daily amounts of dairy milk by age:
  • 2-3 years: 2 cups
  • 4-8 years: 2 1/2 cups
  • 9-13 years: 3 cups
  • 14-18 years: 3 cups

For families who follow a vegan lifestyle or have another compelling reason to seek an alternative, Sahl emphasizes that parents should study the nutritional information and discuss options with a pediatrician or dietitian to make sure children’s needs are met.

If you have questions, talk with your pediatrician or consult with a dietitian at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital by calling (503) 346-0640

“Kids are more vulnerable to inadequate nutrition, especially younger children who may not be chewing well yet and may be resistant to some of the foods presented to them,” Sahl said. “They are less likely to ask for extra spinach or copious amounts of leafy greens to make up the nutritional difference.”


This article was written by Cheryl P. Rose and originally appeared in the Portland Monthly 2018 Kids’ Health Annual magazine.