Why Dairy Is an Important Part of Your Child’s Healthy Diet

Many active children don’t consume the recommended amounts
young girl drinks milk

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines has a few surprises – one of which was that children ages 4 to 18 are not eating the recommended daily intake of dairy products.

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This puts many children at increased risk for injury – or even rickets, says dietitian Kate Patton, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD.

Dairy products are an important part of the diet because in addition to providing carbohydrates, protein, and sometimes fat, they provide a wealth of vitamins and minerals, including calcium and vitamin D.

Important for growth

Calcium and vitamin D are important during all stages of life.  Calcium is required to keep bones strong and vitamin D is necessary for our body to absorb calcium. So adequate dairy intake is important for active young athletes.

Dairy products such as milk, yogurt and cheese are the richest sources of calcium.

Boys and girls ages 4 to 8 need 2.5 cups of dairy products per day, while children ages 9 to 18 need three cups per day. Meeting this goal should not be hard given that there are many forms of dairy.

Choose low-fat dairy

One of the key recommendations in the new dietary guidelines is to include fat-free or low-fat dairy.

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The dietary guidelines recommend fat-free or 1% dairy products over 2% milk, whole milk and regular cheese because they provide the same nutrients, with less fat.

The guidelines also encourage choosing milk and yogurt more often than cheese because they contain less saturated fat and sodium, but more potassium and vitamins A and D.

If your child is lactose-intolerant, serve lactose-free milk, yogurt and cheese. They have the same amounts of calcium and vitamin D, in addition to other vitamins and minerals. Soy milk also is fortified with calcium, vitamin D and other vitamins and minerals.

Getting more dairy in your child’s diet

To help your child meet the recommended intake of dairy, try these suggestions for meals and snacks:


  • Fat-free or 1% milk in cereal, a smoothie or oatmeal, or served alone.
  • Fat-free or low-fat yogurt and fruit.
  • Add cheese to egg dishes such as scrambled eggs or omelets.


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  • Fat-free or low-fat yogurt.
  • A carton of fat-free or 1% milk.
  • Add low-fat cheese to a sandwich.
  • Low-fat cheese and crackers.
  • Low-fat cottage cheese and fruit.


  • 1 cup fat-free or 1% milk.
  • Add low-fat cheese to protein, salads, vegetables.

Pre-practice/game snacks

  • Cereal and fat free or 1% milk.
  • Fat-free or low-fat yogurt.
  • Low-fat cheese or string cheese.

Post-practice/game snacks

  • Fat-free or 1% milk.
  • Fat-free or 1% chocolate milk.
  • Fat-free or low-fat yogurt.
  • Low-fat cheese, string cheese and crackers.
  • Fruit smoothie with fat-free or 1% milk.
  • Cereal and fat-free or 1% milk.

“Ensuring young athletes meet their dairy needs will ensure they develop optimal bone density which can help reduce their risk of injury and allow them to participate in sports for years to come,” says Patton. “Remember to set the example as parents by eating dairy sources daily.”

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