Q: Amanda - I am going to change our family’s diet to gluten and dairy free. I have a 23 month old son and was wondering what I can give him to replace whole milk?
A: Alisa – It depends on the needs you have for your little one. Since you are inquiring about replacing whole milk specifically, I am going to assume that adequate fat is your primary concern.
One cup of whole milk (3.25% fat) contains approximately 8 grams of fat, 5 grams of which are saturated. While there isn’t a milk alternative currently on the market that exactly matches the nutrient profile of whole milk, there are some excellent options that can provide a fair bit of fat for growing toddlers …
Light Coconut Milk – This option is the highest in fat, with 15 grams per cup. It works wonderfully in smoothies, baking, and cooking, lending a slight coconut taste (more diluted than whole coconut milk), depending on what you are combining it with. I don’t recommend it for straight drinking, since it is still quite rich.
Hemp Milk – Though relatively new to market, there are already several brands of this milk alternative available. Each has a very different taste, so I recommend experimenting. The brand with the highest fat (7 grams per cup) and protein (5 grams per cup – not bad compared to the 8 grams of protein in milk) is Hemp Bliss. This nutritious profile comes with a stronger flavor, so I recommend combining it in smoothies with some sweet additions like ripe bananas, for little ones.
Coconut Milk Beverage – Weighing in at 5 grams of fat per cup, this new kid on the block definitely wins out for taste and versatility. Most really enjoy it straight from the glass, but it also works like a dream substitution for 2% or whole milk in cooking and baking. The coconut taste is a bit lighter than light coconut milk, but it is still somewhat present.
Soymilk – Before coconut milk beverage and hemp milk came along, many dairy-free dieters used soymilk for fat and protein. The nutrient profile varies by brand (of which there are many), but Silk Soymilk contains 4 grams of fat and 7 grams of protein per cup. I must be honest that I have never been a big soymilk fan, but many people love the taste (I find Silk brand to be one of the most overall appealing), and find it works as a fair substitute for whole milk in cooking, though you may want to add just a pat of extra fat for the best results.
Rice milk and nut milk tend to fall further down the chain in both fat and protein, more akin to the fat levels of 1% or even skim milk.
Another excellent source of healthy fats that can be used in liquid form is nut and seed butters. Adding a tablespoon or two of a favorite “butter” (peanut, almond, cashew, sunflower seed, etc.) to a breakfast or snack smoothie for your child will usually elicit smiles. You can start with a frozen banana (or fruits of choice), add water or milk alternative to get things moving, blend in some nut or seed butter, and if needed, sweeten to taste.
You can find more information and recipes for using these whole milk alternatives in my book, Go Dairy Free.
For advice on the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals your toddler requires, speak to your pediatrician.
For more dairy-free Q&A topics, see our Ask Alisa Page.
Alisa Fleming is the founder of GoDairyFree.org and author of Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook for Milk Allergies, Lactose Intolerance, and Casein-Free Living. In addition to her own dairy-free lifestyle, Alisa has experience in catering to the needs of various special diets, including gluten-free, soy-free, egg-free, vegan, and multiple food allergies.