If you have a dairy-free child, I’m sure you have had this concern: how to get enough calcium into dairy-free kids. It can be really daunting as we are constantly told to get calcium-rich dairy foods into our children every day. (If you’d like some more general tips on how to cope when your child is diagnosed with a food allergy or intolerance, you might find this post helpful too).
Calcium just isn’t optional. While children are in their prime growing years, a deficit can lead to stunted growth, a condition called rickets and weak teeth. If you are concerned your child may have a lactose or cow’s milk protein intolerance, it’s crucial you talk to health professionals before taking them off milk and research the alternative sources of calcium you can use to nourish them. Here’s a guide as to how much calcium your child needs.
Thankfully, it’s not impossible to meet their daily calcium needs without milk and can be relatively easy. We were given lots of help by a brilliant paediatric dietitian who gave us a useful list of calcium-rich foods (this one is very similar). I focused on getting the richest sources of calcium onto the meal plan as often as possible. Vitamin D is also essential as, without a sufficient level, your child’s body can’t absorb the calcium they are getting so I’ll mention that throughout.
So, here are some great sources of calcium and how to use them in easy, practical ways that children will actually eat. Please remember that, although I’ve learnt a lot from speaking to dietitians, I am not a health professional.
Calcium-rich foods for children
If you have a fairly standard Western diet, milk probably features regularly, especially at breakfast. Alternative milks are easy to get hold of now but there are several things to think about even before you get to the taste, which can take some getting used to.
- Before a year old, babies who are not breast fed still need some formula. Talk to your doctor about dairy-free and ideally soy-free options (which can often be prescribed in the UK, saving you a shed-load of cash). They are not apparently brilliantly palatable but a good option if you are still at that stage.
- Unless you are sure your child doesn’t have an allergy, avoid nut milks
- If your child’s issue is cow’s milk protein intolerance, switching to soy products en masse can trigger a similar reaction to milk so soy is not a great replacement although a useful occasional emergency back-up
- Not all alternative milks are fortified with calcium. You want one that is. We use Provitamel Oat drink which tastes like the milk left in your bowl after a bowl of muesli.
- If your child doesn’t like the taste of the new milk, you could try adding a chocolate flavoured powder, similar to Nesquick. (Asda do a good generic version). These provide further supplementation. I wouldn’t have chosen this route if I hadn’t had a dairy-free child but it was a compromise I was willing to make if it meant Tintin would drink his milk!
Great for so many reasons. Fibre, protein and yes, calcium. You can get the low-sugar and low-salt version or consider making your own bean dishes in your slow cooker. Although I often don’t soak beans for the slow cooker, I would for tiny children because it makes them more digestible.
Ready-brek (instant oats)
Ready-brek (or instant oats) is not only made with calcium-rich oats, it is also fortified with calcium and other goodies like iron.You can obviously make it as usual with your dairy-free milk substitute but what you may not have thought to do is to bake with it. I replace some or all of the flour in my Muffin Template recipe with Ready Brek and it works really well, although it absorbs more liquid than wheat flour so you may need to bump up the liquid content if you use all Ready-Brek.
Oats are, in general, a great source of calcium as well as fibre and some protein. I have been eating the Cranks Molasses Flapjack recipe below for a lifetime (thanks Mum!). Molasses are a superb source of calcium. I usually get them either at a healthfood shop or at Holland and Barrett. They taste a lot like black treacle so you can test the flapjack recipe with that to see what you think if getting the molasses will be a hassle.
Tinned mackerel, sardines or salmon
If my kids didn’t like tinned mackerel, I’d probably cry. This is such an easy super-food to make. I just open a tin of mackerel in tomato sauce and pour it (cold) over hot pasta. The pasta warms it up enough to need no further heating. It’s the easiest kids meal on earth (I gave another 9 super-easy and dairy-free meals for toddlers here). Jamie Oliver also makes a great smoked mackerel carbonara which we all love (sorry Jamie, but I use the tinned stuff). I skip the milk and parmesan and sometimes add an extra egg.
I don’t buy sardines because I find them too scaly but my son likes them mashed on toast (so retro!) and I’m sure you could work tinned salmon into a pasta dish or mash it with mayonnaise as a baked potato filling, just as you would tuna. In fact, subbing salmon for tuna is a really easy step. Salmon is also a good source of Vitamin D which helps bodies absorb calcium.
Along with these canned fishes you also get the beneefit of brain-friendly fish oils so it’s a win all round.
Chick peas (garbanzo beans)
Hummus is the easiest way to get chickpeas into kids although they can be thrown into many things. Bought hummus contains tahini, made from sesame seeds which is also a super-rich source of calcium. Go hummus!
I have often made a 5-minute hummus by blending a can of chickpeas with some garlic, olive oil, lemon juice and a dash of sesame oil to get that tahini taste without the trip to a health food shop but shop bought is also really good if you’re past the age where salt is an issue.
If you fancy falafel, ready-made falafel and falafel mix are both now readily-available in bigger supermarkets.
You may wonder how to get cornmeal into tots and babies. Wonder no longer. It’s super-easy with the recipe in this post.
I’ve mentioned hummus already but if your kids will eat halva, a Middle-Eastern sweet available in many different flavours, you’re onto a winner. I can get the plain version in Sainsburys but a chocolate version is available. It is very high in sugar too so just be aware of that.
You can also make a tahini-based sauce to go with falafel (or salads in general) if you think your children will eat it. I over-dosed on the stuff in Israel and haven’t touched it since but I certainly used to enjoy it.
Almonds, all other nuts and nut butters
If you are sure your child doesn’t have a nut allergy (some are only intolerant to certain types so be cautious), nuts and nut butters can be a great calcium and protein sourced. Nut butters are best for tiny kids who might choke on
whole nuts. Almonds are the best for calcium but almond butter is expensive so consider making your own if you have a food processor. It’s a cinch. Just put the nuts in with the blade attachment and a tablespoon of sunflower oil and put on your ear defenders. Consider adding a little honey for taste
Sunflower seeds/sunflower seed butters
Also a great source of calcium, these can be added to cereal for a lovely chewy crunch. Sunbutter is available in the UK although often in the free-from section rather than health foods as it’s a good alternative to peanut butter for allergy-affected kids.
Because of the issues with soy which I mentioned in the discussion about milk, we didn’t try tofu with Tintin. I believe you can make great smoothies with tofu but I haven’t tried. However, my husband and I have really enjoyed the Leon tofu scramble. Unfortunately all my other tofu meals include cheese!
Oranges are a good calcium source but don’t overdo it. especially in under 2s as they are very acidic and you’ll end up with sore botties if you’re not careful.
White bread and low-sugar breakfast cereals
I was horrified when our dietitian suggested white bread (I can’t stand the stuff) but white flour is apparently fortified with calcium so, as part of the mix, it’s a good option and your child may think it’s a treat. Just bump up their fruit that day for the extra fibre. You could try the Eggy Bread with blueberry sauce in this post.
Breakfast cereals are also fortified – Shreddies and Weetabix are both good low-sugar, higher-fibre options for children. Oatibix would be even better!
Dark green vegetables like kale
I’ll be honest, I struggle to get any dark greens into my boy but I have whizzed spinach into passata and then put it in Bolognese. However, the calcium in spinach isn’t easily absorbed so kale and green cabbage are better if your children will eat them. I’m still waiting for that age!
My personal instinct is that my kids should get their nutrients from real food but, especially if you’re struggling to adjust to a new eating regime or your child is getting over a prolonged period of infection, I think thee’s a case for a high quality, real food supplement. This one has worked like magic on our two over the years. We don’t use it all the time but buy it in if they’ve had a series of bugs or are off their food and looking peaky. It has a very obvious effect within a few days and includes calcium.
Apart from the sources of vitamin D mentioned, the best way to get it into your child’s body is through sunshine. Give them 15 minutes without sun protection (ideally not around midday) every day and consider supplementing in the winter if you’re in the UK. Remember, without vitamin D, you could shovel hummus into your child until it was coming out of their ears and they still wouldn’t absorb the calcium so get out of the door for a walk or a play in the garden and feel the happy!