The early years of life are extremely important in a child’s overall growth and development – and adequate nutrition can help decrease the risk of nutritional deficiencies, illnesses and diseases now and for years to come. Additionally, good nutrition in the initial years can help kiddos develop healthy eating habits for a lifetime – which is why, as a mom of three and a registered dietitian nutritionist, I have always placed high value on the importance of child nutrition and getting my kids involved in the kitchen.
Dairy foods – such as milk, cheese and yogurt – are full of essential vitamins and minerals, and these foods become important in a child’s diet starting in infancy and toddlerhood. Read on for dairy recommendations based on your child’s age.
- While breast milk or iron-fortified infant formula should be your baby’s sole source of nutrition for the first few months of life, at around 6 months of age (when the infant is developmentally ready), you can begin to provide complementary foods – including small amounts of plain whole-milk yogurt and cheese.
- Cheese and yogurt come in a variety of tastes and textures, which can help support development of future healthy eating habits.
- Yogurt is a good source of zinc. Zinc-rich foods are important starting at around 6 months to support growth and immune function.
- As kiddos transition away from human milk or formula after their first birthday, it’s time to introduce whole milk.
- Milk is a good source of calcium and vitamin D – two nutrients that play a key role in building healthy bones and teeth. Milk also provides 11 other essential nutrients for optimal growth and development.
- For toddlers (ages 12 to 23 months) who no longer consume human milk, focus on an eating pattern similar to MyPlate.
- Aim for 1⅔ to 2 cups daily of dairy foods (i.e., whole milk, plain yogurt and cheese).
- During this time, avoid flavored milk due to the added sugars.
- Leading health experts agree, water and plain milk are the only recommended beverages for children ages 1 to 5. In fact, milk is the number one source of energy, calcium, vitamin A, vitamin D and zinc for infants and young children, making it a critical component of a healthy diet.
- Due to the lack of nutritional value, sweetened beverages and sports drinks are not advised. While you can give 100% fruit juice in very small amounts, try providing whole fruits first.
- Aim for 2 to 2½ cups of dairy foods daily.
- Most pediatricians recommend a switch from whole milk to 2% milk after age 2. Lower-fat milks still provide the same 13 essential nutrient as whole milk, just with less fat and fewer calories.
- Plant-based alternatives are not recommended due to their wide variability in nutrient content, limited evidence of bioavailability, and impact on diet quality and health outcomes.
- Get creative with your toddler in the kitchen using dairy foods:
- Use this Behavior Milestones handout as a guide.
- Let them help you make these breakfast cheese and fruit kabobs.
- Top their yogurt with berries or a fruit puree for natural sweetness.
- Make a yogurt dip for their favorite fruits (what kiddo doesn’t like to dip?).
- Top their scrambled eggs with cheese.
- Let them help you cut pieces of cheese into fun shapes using mini cookie cutters.
- Make a smoothie with yogurt, milk and their favorite fruits or vegetables.
- Top steamed vegetables with cheese.
- Don’t forget about dairy at snack time – try these cheese roll-up snacks.
Need more resources? Check out this guide to feeding your baby, which was developed in partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics.