My toddler had a short stint at adventurous eating. She’d eat sweet potato, avocado, and various cheeses with abandon. Once, we discovered a minestrone soup she’d spoon down until we worried she’d bust. On those nights, I was convinced she weighed significantly more post-soup.
Alas, none of that was meant to last, and soon she was turning her nose up at almost everything. If she tossed peas on the floor, I wouldn’t bat an eye. Toast? No problem. But milk—the stuff every pediatrician practically prescribed—I could not abide.
Yet, no matter how much I pushed dairy milk, my little one refused to drink it. And all the while, I couldn’t help but worry that, in letting it go, I was harming her in the health department. But here’s something I wish I’d known sooner: There are plenty of ways around a toddler’s refusal to drink milk.
“It is very possible for children to thrive without cow’s milk,” said Katie Ferraro, a Registered Dietitian and mom of seven. Despite the advice that babies go from breastmilk or formula straight to cow’s milk, Ferraro insisted that there are a number of ways for kids to take in the nutrients they need.
Trista Best, a registered dietitian, shared that cow’s milk is an easy choice for parents because it provides a mixture of nutrients growing toddlers need: vitamin D, calcium for growing bones, and good fats for their developing brains.
Adequate calcium intake is nothing to take lightly either. As Amy Shapiro, a registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of Real Nutrition, stressed, this nutrient is critical for everything from bone and teeth health to muscle contractions and nerve stimulation. Shapiro said that focusing on including calcium in childhood could also mean stronger bones well into adulthood.
“Luckily, these nutrients can be obtained from other food sources as well as milk alternatives,” she said. “Most milk alternatives like oat milk, almond milk, and even soy milk are fortified with these important nutrients.” She added that for some toddlers, dairy milk can cause an upset stomach, and kids pick up on what doesn’t feel good for them. In these cases, Best emphasized the importance of listening to little ones and helping them find a good alternative they can comfortably enjoy.
But it’s not just about swapping one white drink for another. There are other avenues for taking in calcium—at least until you can coax your child into drinking cow’s milk. Pediatric Nutritionist Dr. Charlotte L. Robinson suggested adding in low-fat yogurts and healthy portions of cheese to increase calcium intake.
“If you have begun to feed your toddler meat, fruits, and veggies, then I would recommend good amounts of sardines, salmon, kale, broccoli, green turnip, oranges, kiwi, papaya, and guava,” she said.
If that all sounds idealistic and you can’t imagine your toddler slurping down a sardine, you can also try this age-old parenting hack: Hide undesirable food inside irresistible stuff. A delicious fruit smoothie blended with milk or yogurt makes for a toddler-friendly and nutrient-rich part of breakfast. Dr. Robinson also suggested cooking oatmeal with milk, adding it to breads and muffins, or even just building up a taste bud tolerance by first diluting milk with water.
If that all sounds idealistic and you can’t imagine your toddler slurping down a sardine, you can also try this age-old parenting hack: Hide undesirable food inside irresistible stuff.
Whatever your approach to dealing with your toddler’s distaste for milk is, don’t stress. As Ferraro reassured, “Many children do just fine without cow’s milk. There are ample ways for kids to get these nutrients, be it through other cow’s milk products or alternatives.”