Do Kids Need To Drink Milk?

I can't seem to get through my Facebook newsfeed these days without seeing a reference to milk—either somebody denouncing it as a health hazard or extolling the virtues of whole, pastured, raw milk. Granted, I follow a lot of food bloggers and opinionated types. But there seems to be a definite uptick in the chatter from people at both ends of the spectrum, leaving a lot of people in the middle awfully confused.

And speaking of the middle, that's exactly where I come down on it. Here's my two cents:

Do kids need to drink milk?

Yes and no. It provides a really nice package of a lot of nutrients kids need, including calcium and vitamin D that are important for building bone. Milk is also an easy way to get filling protein and much-needed potassium. But if your child doesn't like it, there's an issue of allergy or intolerance, or your family follows a vegan lifestyle, a well-planned diet can provide these nutrients too.

Do I have to buy organic?

No. Some parents choose to spend their organic dollars on milk because their kids drink a lot of it, and they feel better knowing the cows weren't given hormones or antibiotics and didn't eat feed treated with pesticides. But if you can't swing it, know that research hasn't found significant differences in hormone levels between organic and conventional. You can also look for conventional cartons labeled "rBST free", which means the cows weren't given any synthetic growth hormones.

Is whole healthier than skim?

No. They are both good sources of calcium, vitamin D, and potassium—all nutrients many kids don't get enough of. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends fat-free or low-fat for kids older than two, and it's smart to check in with your pediatrician about your child's exact needs. If your kids really like whole or two-percent and weight is a concern, I'd first look for other places in the family's diet (like desserts and fast food) to trim and be sure you're offering water throughout the day as well. If your kids (over age two) prefer skim or one-percent, that's fine too. I know there's a growing trend to return to full-fat foods, but I don't see evidence that the saturated fat in dairy and meat has health benefits like the unsaturated fat in avocados and nuts does.

Is chocolate milk okay if my child won't drink white?

Yes—with a few caveats. There are about three teaspoons of added sugar in a serving (ideally, children should get no more than 5-8 teaspoons per day). Personally, I think of chocolate milk as a sweet treat, albeit a nutritious one. So if my kids get it at school, I don't pack any sweets in their lunchbox. I also don't stock it at home since they may have it at school or occasionally at restaurants. If your child doesn't like white milk there are other ways to get calcium too, like yogurt and cheese, and it's found in smaller amounts in foods like almonds, kale, and edamame.

Is it possible for kids to drink too much?

Yes, especially for toddlers and preschoolers who drink milk all day long (more than three cups). They run the risk of becoming low in iron because their little bellies are too full at mealtime for actual food, and milk is naturally low in iron. According to the USDA, children ages 2-3 need two servings per day of dairy (such as milk, yogurt, cheese, or calcium-fortified non-dairy beverage), children age 4-8 need two and a half, and kids 9 and older need three.

Are non-dairy milks okay for kids?

Yes (though never as a substitute for infant formula!). Keep in mind they're not one-for-one swaps with regular dairy. For instance, almond and rice milk have just one gram of protein per serving, compared to eight grams in cow's. When choosing a non-dairy milk, make sure it's fortified with calcium and vitamin D, and remember that homemade versions won't have those nutrients in abundance. Shake fortified beverages well before serving, because the calcium can settle on the bottom. And look for varieties labeled "unsweetened". One brand of "original" almond milk contains almost two teaspoons of added sugar per cup!

What about raw milk?

I know it has its (very passionate) supporters, but I can't get behind it. Flame me if you want, but I worry about bacterial contamination—especially for young children.

For more about milk, listen to this episode of my podcast The Happy Bite, with food sociologist Dina Rose.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. She is the author of Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.

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Image: Boy holding milk via Shutterstock

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