Healthy, Non-Milk Sources of Nutrients for Toddlers

a toddler eating

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Calcium, vitamin D, and fats all work together to help your toddler reach optimal brain growth, meet developmental milestones, and grow healthy bones, muscles, organs, and skin. Fats help process vitamin D, which is a fat-soluble vitamin, and in turn, vitamin D helps the body use calcium. For most kids, getting these important nutrients isn't a huge challenge as they can get them through their daily glasses of milk. But this isn't so easy for toddlers who don't or can't drink dairy.

Parents who choose not to feed their families dairy products or who have children with a milk allergy need to find alternative sources for all the nutrients that milk provides. While it may not be as simple as having your toddler drink milk, there are plenty of other ways to ensure they get enough calcium, vitamin D, and fats in their diet. Listed below are foods you can feed your child that will help them get the required amounts of these essential nutrients each day.

Non-Dairy Sources of Calcium

Calcium can be found in a wide variety of non-dairy foods. Your toddler needs 700 milligrams of calcium per day.

Healthy, calcium-rich foods include:

  • Tofu
  • Salmon
  • Green leafy vegetables (like collard greens, turnip greens, kale, and spinach)
  • Beans
  • Broccoli
  • Almond milk or almond butter
  • Papaya
  • Calcium-fortified cereals
  • Calcium-fortified soy milk
  • Calcium-fortified orange juice

Aim to incorporate multiple servings of non-dairy calcium-rich foods into your child's diet each day. Check labels on foods you already buy and choose those that have higher calcium levels. Vitamin C helps the body absorb calcium so combining foods rich in vitamin C with the calcium-rich foods above can give your toddler an even better calcium boost.

If your toddler isn't a fan of green, leafy vegetables, you can try putting a little spinach or kale in soup or spaghetti sauce a few minutes before serving. This approach can make these vegetables more palatable—so much so that your child may not even notice they're eating something they refused the night before.

Non-Dairy Sources of Vitamin D

The National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements recommends toddlers get 600 IU of vitamin D per day. One glass of milk equals about 100 IU of vitamin D, so it would take 6 cups of milk to get the required amount—that's a lot, even for avid dairy fans. Plus, drinking too much milk can lead to problems with iron deficiency and obesity, so it's a good idea to source some of the required vitamin D from food and/or supplements even if your toddler is getting a few servings of milk.

Non-dairy foods that are high in vitamin D include:

  • Salmon, tuna, cod, mackerel, catfish, and other fatty fish
  • Shrimp
  • Eggs
  • Soy, rice, or almond milk products that are fortified with vitamin D​
  • Cereals that are fortified with vitamin D

Additionally, you can give your toddler about 5–30 minutes of unprotected sun exposure per week so their body can make its own vitamin D.

Non-Dairy Sources of Fats

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that toddlers get 30–40% of their daily calories from fat. Fats are necessary for cell growth, energy, and processing fat-soluble vitamins. When you consider that a toddler's diet should consist of around 1,000 calories per day, it's easy to see how 2 cups of whole milk (with 144 calories from fat) supply nearly half of that requirement. When dairy isn't an option, there is a range of healthy fish- and vegetable-based fats to choose from.

Non-dairy foods that can supply healthy fats for your toddler include:

  • Peanut butter or other nut butters
  • Avocados
  • Salmon
  • Olive oil
  • Canola oil
  • Olives (Just make sure olives are not served whole to prevent choking.)
  • Ground flaxseeds

A Word From Verywell

When choosing foods to replace dairy in your child's diet, look for the most nutrient-dense varieties you can find. Let your own tastes be your guide, but know that some non-dairy foods are definitely better choices health-wise than others. Be wary of relying too heavily on highly caloric, low-nutrient sources, particularly when it comes to adding fats.

The good news is that healthy options abound. Almond butter, for example, is rich in healthy fat and calcium. Salmon is rich in vitamin D, calcium, and healthy fats. While it may take a bit more purposeful planning, once you know where to look, you'll find plenty of great-tasting, milk-replacement foods to ensure your dairy-free child gets proper nutrition.

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Article Sources

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  1. Calcium: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Updated October 16, 2019.

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