Widespread school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic have raised concerns about students’ lack of access to dairy products.
“While kids are out of school, they may be missing out on an important part of their healthy diets: milk,” said Ali Berg, a faculty member in the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences and UGA Extension nutrition and health specialist. “When school is out, kids should still be encouraged to get enough dairy foods every day.”
Berg urged parents and caretakers to check with their local school district to see if meals are being served in their area.
While most people may think of milk and dairy foods as only providing calcium, dairy is actually an important contributor of several nutrients to the diets of both children and adults, including potassium, protein and vitamins A and D, Berg said.
Calcium and vitamin D are essential for bone health, while vitamin A assists in vision and immune function. Potassium helps with healthy blood pressure and protein is good for muscle development and a variety of other functions.
Milk consumption is especially important for children and adolescents who are still developing bone mass, Berg said.
“Kids go through stages of picky eating, but most kids will still drink milk during this time,” Berg said. “Milk is a great way to make sure they’re getting many of the healthy nutrients they need.”
If access to milk is a problem, Berg said other dairy products such as yogurt and cheese can help meet recommended daily intakes.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, children ages 2 to 4 need 2 to 2.5 cups of dairy foods each day, while children 9 and older need 3 cups per day. Lactose-free and low-lactose options are widely available for those who are lactose intolerant.
“Choose lower-fat and fat-free dairy to limit your saturated fat intake,” Berg said. “Choose yogurt with little or no added sugar. A little added sugar is OK if it helps your kids consume a healthy food like yogurt, or try adding fresh fruit or drained canned fruit to your plain yogurt.”
For those with allergies or who choose not to consume animal sources of protein, soy milk is a good substitute, Berg said.
While not nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk, 1 cup of calcium-fortified soy milk counts as a serving of dairy, according to the USDA.
“People often think that other plant-based milk substitutes, like almond, rice or coconut milk, are equivalent because they have as much or more calcium, but dairy milk is an important source of protein for kids,” Berg said. “Soy milk provides about as much protein as cow’s milk, but the others have very little.”