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Non-Dairy Calcium Rich Foods for Growing Children

written by: TanyaM • edited by: Rhonda Callow • updated: 5/23/2011

Calcium is an essential nutrient in every child’s diet, and milk and dairy products are one of the best dietary sources of calcium. However, many people avoid dairy, and it is possible for your child to grow into a strong and healthy adult without milk.

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    Why Calcium is Important

    Calcium is one of the most important minerals in our bodies, and it is essential for bone health, muscle contraction and proper functioning of the nervous system. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends that children over one year of age get between 500 and 1,300 mg of calcium each day, depending on their age. Unfortunately, the NIH has found that 44 percent of boys and nearly 60 percent of girls between the ages of 6 and 11 are not getting enough calcium.

    Dairy products, including milk, yogurt and cheese, are some of the best dietary sources of calcium. An eight-ounce glass of nonfat milk provides 302 mg of calcium, which goes a long way towards meeting that daily calcium requirement. However, some people avoid dairy products for a host of reasons. Some vegetarians and all vegans avoid dairy and other families may shun milk for cultural reasons. Some children also have problems with lactose intolerance or milk allergies. Luckily, it is possible to ensure your child gets enough calcium without drinking milk, but it will take a little more planning and preparation on your part.

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    Choose Fortified Products

    In this day and age, there are a variety of fortified products that can help your child grow big and strong without milk. In particular, fortified cereals are a great source of calcium; just be sure to choose cereals that are made with whole grains and are not loaded with sugar. Total cereal provides 100 percent of the RDA for calcium, and it comes in flavors -- like cinnamon crunch -- that kids will love. There are many fortified cereals on the market, so just check the nutrition label to see how much calcium they provide.

    Fortified soy and nut milks are also good sources of calcium, and many of these products come in the vanilla and chocolate flavors kids appreciate. Soymilk is a good source, with some brands offering up to 25 percent of the RDA in an eight-ounce glass. Nut milks are also gaining in popularity, and fortified almond or hazelnut milks can be a good alternative to dairy products. Be sure that the label says fortified, as some of these products are sold in unfortified versions as well. Calcium-fortified orange juice is another great way to get more calcium in your child’s diet, providing about 25o mg of calcium per glass.

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    Add Greens to Everything

    Greens, such as spinach, turnip greens and kale, are one of the best dietary sources of calcium behind dairy products and fortified cereals. A half-cup of cooked spinach provides 120 mg of calcium, in addition to a host of other vitamins and minerals.

    Getting your child to actually eat spinach or kale may be difficult, so the best way to add these foods to your child’s diet is to incorporate them into meals. Add chopped, cooked spinach to anything and everything -- pasta sauces, lasagna, meatloaf, soups, stews, chili, dips tacos, enchiladas and egg rolls. Most of the time, your kids won’t even notice the spinach, especially if you cook using fresh spinach, which has a milder flavor than the frozen stuff.

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    Choose Corn Tortillas Over Flour

    Many brands of corn tortillas are a surprising source of calcium, and research has shown that the calcium in corn tortillas is well-absorbed. In fact, studies in Mexico have shown that tortillas are one of the main sources of calcium in that country. Many brands of corn tortillas contain about 10 percent of the calcium RDA in a single tortilla, but check the nutrition label to confirm.

    Not only can corn tortillas increase your child’s calcium intake, but they are also highly versatile. Use them to make tacos or enchiladas for dinner, or fill them with shredded soy cheese and beans for a lunchtime quesadilla. You can also cut corn tortillas into pieces, coat lightly with cooking spray and bake them for homemade and calcium-rich tortilla chips.

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    Add Blackstrap Molasses to Recipes

    Unlike refined sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, which provide sweetness without many nutrients, blackstrap molasses is a sweetener that can significantly increase the calcium in your child’s diet. Two teaspoons of blackstrap molasses provide approximately 12 percent of the RDA for calcium, in addition to copper, magnesium and iron.

    Blackstrap molasses can be used in a variety of recipes, including for baked beans, gingerbread and soups. It has a pretty strong flavor, so it is most useful (and kid-friendly) when incorporated into recipes. Try experimenting with some of your favorite recipes to see if blackstrap molasses would be an effective substitute for honey or corn syrup.