Taking the leap into dairy free for your kids? Which dairy substitutes make sense, and taste good? Got a baby, toddler, child, or teen who needs a milk substitute, dairy free cheese, mac and cheese alternative, cheese free pizza?
There are plenty of reasons kids may need to go dairy free. Luckily, kids can thrive without it. From eczema, diarrhea, or cows milk protein allergy (CMPA) diagnosed in infancy, to suspect behavior changes, constipation, GI distress, or acne with big intakes of dairy food in teens, I encounter many scenarios in my pediatric nutrition practice that call for a total elimination for dairy protein. I often qualify this with some lab testing to define the issue, but bloodwork isn’t a complete deal breaker. If you want to trial a dairy elimination for your child or teen, go ahead – but know the pitfalls and caveats. In practice, I routinely help parents build menus and recipes for elimination diets. It’s my job to find alternatives that fit the bill for nutrition needs, and are accepted by the kiddos (even if it takes a few tries).
First and foremost, if your child depends heavily on dairy food every day, you must replace that protein with equal or better value protein from another source. If your child is too picky to add new proteins – like meat, fish, eggs, lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, nut or seed butters, collagen, protein powders without dairy, or chicken, then you may need some extra footwork to make this successful. In that case, check out this blog on milk addicted diets and how to bust the picky eating. There are crucial tips and how-to details there that you will need.
Once you’ve settled on the decision to start replacing dairy, you’ve got lots to choose from. It’s true, cheese is splendid! It’s not as easy to replace as gluten, which can be swapped without notice for other flours that do a good job with texture and taste. Nothing really beats actual cheese from a cow, goat or sheep. But if you have to go there with some alternatives, and you aren’t up for scratch cooking several hours daily, here are items kids take to well in my experience. These are good helpers as your child slowly expands their palate into more varied and whole foods. Some knock it out of the park with organic, non-gmo status and good nutrition profiles. Others don’t, but the taste and texture work, and can help your child get past dairy every day.
- My favorite milk replacements for babies and toddlers with cows milk protein intolerance:
- Holle goat infant formulas formula (though still dairy, many CMPA infants can tolerate a goat milk formula)
- An honorable mention goes to organic A2 milk, which has a slightly different configuration in its casein molecule than A1 milk (which is what comprises our dairy food supply for the most part). Some kids will tolerate this well, even if the usual A1 milk doesn’t work. A2 milk has its devotees, but I have found in practice however that even A2 milk can fail for kids with CMPA, IgE milk allergy, or casomorphin formation from A1 milk.
- Partly hydrolyzed casein based formulas can sometimes work. Many babies in my practice who need this option have done well on Alimentum Ready To Feed (not powdered). Besides an easier-to-digest form of casein, it uses tapioca and not corn syrup as a starch source and this seems key to tolerance also. I don’t love the cane sugar in it, but I would choose it over corn syrup, and it can work well if your baby has been struggling to grow, gain and feel comfortable. Remember – it won’t always be like this, and it’s ok to use what works.
- Elemental formulas like Neocate or Elecare – These formulas provide protein in its ready-to-absorb smallest components, and are helpful for babies with lots of allergy and food reaction features. Speak with your allergist, GI MD or pediatrician before using these. They are expensive. If your child meets criteria to use them, they may be covered on insurance. Some imperfect ingredients, but I have used these for over twenty years for many babies in my practice. They can truly help babies with issues like FPIES, severe colic, eczema, and sour stinging stool.
- Bobbie Organic Hydrolyzed Whey Formula – Whey is a dairy protein that can often be better tolerated than casein. This product has partly digested whey that is hydrolyzed for even better tolerance. I love this option because it is organic and because the starch source is lactose, which is what breast milk has for starch source.
- Camel milk infant formula – when all else fails, this has helped many babies in my practice. It takes a little work and is pricey because camel milk is a rare commodity compared to cow’s milk. Recipe homemade here; this is not yet commercially available. Use this with supervision from your MD care team.
- My favorite milk based drink replacements for toddlers and up:
- Else Formula – requires mixing (it’s a powder). Organic, non-gmo, soy, gluten and dairy free. This is not an infant formula but is suitable above age 1 year. No pea protein concentrate, one of my least favorite protein sources for kids with dairy allergy (because of potential to cross react with casein and because it is similar to soy protein).
- Kiki Milk – I love this packable and ready to drink option for school lunches, snacks at games or outings, or travel.
- Kate Farms Peptide – note that I don’t suggest regular Kate Farms here. The reason for this is that the pea protein concentrate in it can mimic milk protein for a cross reaction that triggers similar effects. This is another formula that may be covered on insurance, ask your pediatrician, GI MD or allergist.
- Rebbl – Suitable for older kids and teens, available at many supermarkets and ready to grab and go. Choose from the 16 grams of protein option – the other Rebbl products don’t give enough protein to replace cow’s milk. Love the organic and functional ingredients like reishi mushroom (immune helper) and ashwaghanda (adrenal support) but these do have whole pea protein concentrate that can mimic milk protein, so follow up with your kids about whether this feels good – it should.
- Splash Ready To Drink Elemental Formula – this is the kid version of infant Neocate or Elecare, ready to pack and go in a “juice box” format with a straw. Once again, some not so great ingredients here. But, the protein is in elemental, no-digestion-needed form that has greatly benefited many kids in my practice. Skip the unflavored version unless your child is tube fed. The flavored versions are an acquired taste, so give it several tries. Your child is not likely to jump from cow’s milk straight to loving an elemental option, so work with it. This is expensive, so talk with your provider team about a prescription so you don’t have to pay out of pocket for it.
- Physicians Elemental Formula or Metagenics Elemental Formulas – these are specialized elemental protein powders I often use in my pediatric nutrition practice. They are not labeled for use in children, but I have safely and successfully used both in children of all ages. They mix well with milk alternatives to make a formula or power shake. A practitioner’s guidance is required to access this formula. If you would like to try it, contact me here to let me know.
- Collagen powders sweetened with stevia or monk fruit – my favorite brands are Ancient Nutrition and Vital Proteins. If you’d like to purchase those you can access them via my online dispensary here. Set up your account and go shopping! Then work with your child or teen to build a favorite power shake every day. You can also add unflavored plain collagen to puddings (like this dairy free vanilla pudding here), pancake or baking mixes, or hot cereal.
- My favorite cheese substitutes:
- VioLife products have won me over. I have been doing this for over twenty years, and have kissed a lot of dairy frogs. This newer-to-the-game product line does the trick for grilled cheese lovers or kids who need shredded cheeses for pizza, tacos, or melts. These also omit pea protein concentrate, a frequent fail for dairy-addicted kids who need to broaden their palates.
- Kite Hill soft cheese spreads – many uses, and delicious. Available widely in supermarkets. Based on almond.
- Treeline cheese alternatives – a cashew based option, if almond is a no go for your child.
- Cashew cream makes a delicious cow cream substitute that works well in many recipes, from vegan mac and “cheese” to aioli, soups, or casseroles. It’s easy to make, but if you don’t have time, you can buy it.
- Getting creative:
- Sliced or minced olives have a texture similar to cheese and work well in many dishes, from pasta to pizza toppings to taco additions. This is my hands down favorite olive at the moment, which I sometimes find at Costco, and I especially like those in this Tuscan Pasta Toss.
- Avocado slices in a sandwich can feel like cheese and add a mild flavor too.
- Coconut milk (canned) and almond milk (unsweetened) work well in recipes that call for milk, like mashed potatoes, gravies, puddings, custards, alfredo sauce, béchamel sauce, or baked goods. I have three different pudding recipes here for kids getting off yogurt but needing a snack with same consistency and strong calories. Add plain unflavored collagen like Vital Proteins to any of these if a protein boost is needed.
- Kids with high allergy or sensitivity may not be able to eat butter – but, they can often eat ghee, which is butter oil or clarified butter. Dairy proteins are removed when butter is clarified. Ghee and butter both offer some nice fats and vitamin A too if you choose organic grass fed.
What NOT To Do:
- If your child drinks a lot of cow’s milk every day, don’t use milk alternatives like oat, cashew, almond, macadamia nut milk, or rice milk as the replacement without a boost for protein, fats/oils, and micronutrients. Plant based milks are poor protein sources in and of themselves and are insufficient to nourish babies and young children as a sole nutrition source. Using them safely and effectively requires some tailoring to a child’s specific needs. This is especially true for babies, and for kids under age three years. Contact me if you need help with infant feeding.
- Don’t use milk replacements that have added cane sugar. Use unsweetened versions, or options sweetened with stevia or monk fruit; boost appropriately for protein, fats, and micronutrients with professional help if needed.
- I am not a Pediasure fan. Learn why here.
- Don’t use soy milk as a cow’s milk replacement. Some tofu, miso or fermented soy products are fine in a total diet, but day to day gobs of processed GMO soy protein in milks, yogurts or cheese are a non-starter in my practice. Too much phytoestrogenic activity for children. Infant formulas that are soy based also add so much iron that they can be extremely. constipating.
There you have it! Those are my favorite picks to help kids walk back the dairy in their day. Share your ideas here, and thanks for stopping by!