A Guide to Non-Dairy Milks for Kids

Plant-based milks are more popular than ever. But, which variety is right for your family? We've gathered nutrition stats and flavor descriptions to help you decide. 

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Got milk? These days, there's a good chance you're stocking plant-based varieties, along with—or instead of—dairy. After all, 49 percent of Americans now consume non-dairy milks, including 68 percent of parents and 54 percent of children younger than 18. In the past few years, the alt milk choices have broadened beyond soy, almond, and coconut milks to also encompass hazelnut, cashew, flax, quinoa, hemp, and even pea, banana, and tiger nut!

Why should you try these milks, if you haven't already? According to Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), 1-2 percent of young children and 0.2-0.4 percent of the general population in the United States are allergic to casein, the protein in dairy. Even more people have a reduced ability to tolerate lactose, or the naturally-occurring sugar in milk, after infancy.

Even if you can tolerate dairy well, you may find plant-based milks to be a healthy choice for you and your family. They're free of cholesterol and hormones, and if you're vegan, paleo, or kosher, these milks will likely be a staple in your kitchen. Bonus: many of them taste terrific and add unique flavors to smoothies or other recipes.

But, it's important to be aware of a few potential pitfalls. Most non-dairy milks are not a one-to-one nutritional swap with cow's milk. Only a few varieties offer as much protein or calcium. Other types can be loaded with added sugars. Always look for the word "unsweetened" on the package, as "original" products usually include added sugar (the exception are banana milks, which currently do not come unsweetened). Cow's milk does contain sugar, but it's naturally-occurring—not added—so not a cause for concern according to most dietitians.

How They Stack Up

Although plant-based milks tend to be lumped together, they're quite distinct in flavor and nutrition. To clarify the differences, here's a round-up of commonly available plain unsweetened types (including 2 percent cow's milk, as a baseline), with nutritional stats per 8-ounce cup. The ingredients in different brands vary, so there are ranges in some of the nutritional information.

2 percent Cow's Milk

Nutrition: 130 calories, 12-13 grams sugar (natural, not added), 8 grams protein

Flavor and use: Sweet, milky, creamy flavor. Versatile. 

Soy Milk 

Nutrition: 80 calories, 0-1 gram sugar (natural, not added), 7 grams protein

Flavor and use: The most similar to cow's milk, with a creaminess and subtle bean flavor. (Related: Is Soy Safe for Kids?)

Rice Milk

Nutrition: 10-120 calories, 10-13 grams sugar (natural, not added), scant gram protein

Flavor and use:Naturally sweet. Terrific solo or in crepes, oatmeal, and smoothies. 

Almond Milk

Nutrition: 30-40 calories, 0 grams sugar, 1-1.5 grams protein

Flavor and use:Neutral, with faint sweet nuttiness. Very versatile. Terrific in cereal, smoothies, soups, and baking; and solo. 

Cashew Milk

Nutrition: 24-36 calories, 0 grams sugar, 0-1 grams protein

Flavor and use:Neutral, with faint smoky-nutty flavor. Very versatile. Terrific in stews and cream sauces; and solo. 

Coconut Milk Beverage 

Nutrition: 46-60 calories, 0 grams sugar, 0-1 grams protein

Flavor and use: Sweet, rich coconut flavor. Try in smoothies, soups, baked goods, coffee drinks, and solo. Note that coconut milk beverage is found in cartons near the other non-dairy milks. Canned coconut milk, which is much higher in fat and calories, in best for dairy-free ice and whipped creams and curries. 

Pea Milk (such as Bolthouse Farms Unsweetened and Ripple brand Original Unsweetened)

Nutrition: 110 calories, 0 grams sugar, 12 grams protein

Flavor and use: Neutral flavor and creamy texture. Try wherever you'd use cow's milk. 

Banana Milk (WhiteWave Sir Bananas and Fresh Start Banana Wave brands, no unsweetened option)

Nutrition: 150-170 calories, 18-24 grams sugar (some added), 4-7 grams protein

Flavor and use: Creamy, sweet, banana-bread taste. Try in smoothies, banana bread, and oatmeal; and solo. Because of the added sugars, think of this variety like chocolate milk—more of a treat than a daily staple. 

Hemp Milk

Nutrition: 70-79 calories, 0 grams sugar, 2-3 grams protein

Flavor and use: Nutty, slightly bitter and grassy flavor. Try in strongly-flavored dishes and baked goods, such as brownies. 

Beyond the basic products, many plant-based milks (such as almond) come in versions fortified with added protein or reduced in fat (in the case of soy). Increasingly, you'll also find blends, such as soy-coconut or multi-grain. So whether it's cashew or rice, soy or pea, or some other variety altogether, get the facts, drink up, and show off those (non-dairy) milk mustaches. 

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