Healthy, Non-Milk Sources of Nutrients for Toddlers

a toddler eating

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Calcium, vitamin D, and fats work with other nutrients to promote optimal bone and brain development in infants and toddlers, especially in the first 1,000 days of life. Research has shown that this period is critical for brain growth in particular and can determine the mental health of a child for years to come.

While milk is one of the most common dietary sources of calcium, vitamin D, and healthy fats for toddlers, it is certainly not the only one. Many other foods also provide these important nutrients.

Overview

Dietary fats help the body absorb and store vitamin D. In turn, vitamin D aids in the utilization of calcium for bone and teeth formation, muscle contraction, and other essential functions in the body.

Getting these nutrients is not difficult for most kids, as both calcium and vitamin D are readily available in the milk and dairy products that young children typically enjoy. It's not so easy for toddlers who do not or cannot consume dairy.

If you choose not to feed your family dairy products or if you have a child with a milk allergy, you will need to find alternative sources for the nutrients that milk provides.

There are plenty of other ways to ensure they get enough calcium, vitamin D, and healthy fats in their diet. Here are some non-dairy sources of calcium and other nutrients you can include in your toddler's diet.

Non-Dairy Sources of Calcium

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

Healthy, calcium-rich foods include:

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

Try to incorporate multiple servings of non-dairy calcium-rich foods into your child's diet each day. Check the labels of foods that you already buy and choose those with higher calcium levels.

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—your child might not even notice they're eating a food that they refused the night before.

Vitamin C helps the body absorb calcium, so combining foods rich in vitamin C with those that are rich in calcium can boost your toddler's calcium intake even more.

Non-Dairy Sources of Vitamin D

The National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements recommends that toddlers get 600 IU of vitamin D per day. One glass of milk contains 120 IU of vitamin D., so it would take five cups of milk to get the required amount (which is a lot, even for avid dairy fans).

Because drinking too much milk can lead to problems with iron deficiency and obesity, it's a good idea for your toddler to get some of their required vitamin D intake from other foods, even if they are getting a few servings of milk each day.

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

  • Cereals fortified with vitamin D
  • Eggs
  • Mushrooms
  • Salmon, trout, tuna, cod, mackerel, and other fatty fish
  • Soy, rice, or nut milk products fortified with vitamin D​

Vitamin D can also be made by the body from precursors found in sunlight. However, due to the risk of skin cancer caused by too much sun exposure, this method is not recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

If your toddler follows a vegetarian or vegan diet, it may be difficult for them to get the recommended amount of vitamin D from food alone.

The AAP advises talking to your pediatrician to see if your child would benefit from a supplement that provides all of the vitamins and minerals needed for healthy growth and development.

Non-Dairy Sources of Fats

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that toddlers get 25-35% 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 with 250-350 calories from fat, you can see that 2 cups of whole milk (with 144 calories from fat) supplies about half of that requirement.

When cow's milk isn't an option, though, there are plenty of other non-dairy fats to choose from.

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

  • Avocados
  • Olive oil
  • Canola oil
  • Ground flaxseeds
  • Olives (serve cut up rather than whole to prevent choking)
  • Peanut butter or other nut butters
  • Salmon and other fatty fish

Keep in mind that toddlers only need about 13 grams of fat per day according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published by the US Department of Agriculture and Health and Human Services in 2020.

That amount is provided by 1 tablespoon of olive oil or 1.5 tablespoons of peanut butter. Because the average American diet provides plenty of sources of fats, the vast majority of toddlers have no problem getting enough dietary fat.

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 healthier than others. Be wary of relying too heavily on high-calorie, low-nutrient sources, particularly when adding fats.

Healthy options abound! While it may take a bit more purposeful planning, once you know where to look, you'll find plenty of delicious, dairy-free foods to ensure your child gets proper nutrition.

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Article Sources
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  6. US Department of Agriculture and US Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020.