Which Foods Are Rich in Calcium?

Dairy and nondairy sources of calcium

Young boy drinking milk

Chris Stein / Digital Vision / Getty Images

Knowing which foods are high in calcium can help you know which foods and meals to offer regularly. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, "The average dietary intake of calcium by children and adolescents is well below the recommended levels of adequate intake." This can mean that these children will not develop their optimal bone mass, which can put them at risk of fractures and osteoporosis.

You can encourage your kids to get enough calcium in their diet by choosing calcium-rich foods such as milk, cheese, and yogurt as well as foods that include these ingredients like smoothies, quesadillas, and parfaits. Children should eat three age-appropriate servings of dairy products per day, and adolescents should eat four servings per day or the equivalent. In addition to dairy, there are lots of delicious nondairy sources of calcium that you can encourage if your child cannot tolerate dairy products or you don't eat them as a family.

Daily Calcium Needs

It is also important to understand how much calcium kids actually need. The Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences recommends:

  • 700 milligrams (mg) a day for kids who are 1 to 3 years old
  • 1,000 mg a day for kids who are 4 to 8 years old
  • 1,300 mg a day for kids who are 9 to 18 years old

When you read a food label, the Daily Value (% DV) of calcium is based on the adult requirements of 1000 mg per day, not the requirements for children. A cup of milk that contains 30% DV for calcium would be equal to 300 mg of calcium, which would actually be equal to about 40% of a toddler's calcium needs for the day. But it would be only about 23% of a teen's calcium needs.

You'll either have to look at the milligrams or do a little math to see how % DV should be translated for kids under age 4 or over age 8.

Calcium-Rich Dairy Foods

In addition to choosing foods from the following list, you should learn to look at food labels and choose foods that have a high % DV for calcium and at least 20% of your child's requirements or more. You may find big differences in the calcium content of foods, even among different brands of the same foods such as cheese, juice, and bread.

  • Yogurt, plain
  • Yogurt, fruit
  • Milk, low-fat or nonfat
  • Milk, whole
  • Cheese, including American, ricotta, cheddar cheese, parmesan, and mozzarella cheese

Remember that just because your child is eating cheese, that doesn't mean they are getting enough calcium. Check the nutrition label to make sure the cheese has around 300 mg of calcium per ounce and then find ways to use a full ounce. And also look for foods made with calcium-rich foods as ingredients, such as smoothies made from yogurt or milk, macaroni and cheese (cheese), overnight oats (milk), quesadillas or grilled cheese (cheese), lasagna (cheese), and so on.

Nondairy Foods With Calcium

Getting enough calcium can be especially hard if your kids are allergic to milk or you don't eat it as a family. These nondairy foods can be good choices for kids with milk allergies who need calcium:

  • Salmon canned with bones
  • Tofu made with calcium as the coagulating agent
  • Rhubarb
  • Sardines canned with bones
  • Collard greens
  • Spinach
  • Turnip greens
  • Okra
  • Broccoli
  • Sesame seeds
  • Bok choy
  • Almonds
  • Calcium-fortified plant milks (like soy, almond, and oat)
  • Soybeans
  • Amaranth
  • Collard greens

Calcium-Fortified Foods

In addition to a large number of naturally calcium-rich foods (like milk and the cheese, yogurt, and kefir made from it), a lot of foods are now fortified with calcium. These can be especially good choices if your child doesn't like to drink milk or use other dairy products.

  • Calcium-fortified breakfast cereals that contain at least 20% of the daily value of calcium per serving.
  • Calcium-fortified orange juice
  • Calcium-fortified plant milks
  • Calcium-fortified instant oatmeal
  • Calcium-fortified bread or English muffins

In addition to dairy products, you can get calcium by eating leafy greens, broccoli, tofu, and canned salmon. Some foods, like orange juice and cereals, are also fortified with calcium. Check the nutrition facts label to see how much calcium is in various foods.

More Calcium Tips

Other things to know about calcium for kids include:

  • Most varieties of children's vitamins don't have much calcium in them and you may need a special calcium supplement especially if your child isn't eating several servings of calcium-rich foods a day.
  • The body absorbs around 500 mg of calcium efficiently at one time, so try to add a calcium-rich food to each meal and snack throughout the day.
  • In addition to getting enough calcium in your diet, regular weight-bearing exercise is also important for healthy bones.

Talk to your pediatrician if you aren't sure if your child is getting enough calcium in their diet.

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