Deciphering Dairy

By Alison Preston, EYN Partnership Nutritionist

Why should we include dairy in our diet and that of our children? Including the right balance and types of foods from the different food groups in children’s diets helps them develop good dietary habits for life. Milk and dairy products, such as cheese and yoghurt, make up one of the food groups and provide a good source of protein and calcium. Unsweetened, calcium-fortified dairy alternatives like soya milks, soya yoghurts and soya cheeses also count as part of this food group and can make good alternatives to dairy products. These will be needed for children who are allergic or intolerant to dairy foods.

That’s not the only good reason to include them as part of a balanced diet. Dairy products can provide important benefits at different stages of development and life. But knowing about the benefits is only half the challenge! With so many variations of dairy produce available; no-fat, half-fat, semi-skimmed, full-fat…the list goes on…it can be tricky to know what type and how much to offer your little ones. So here is a handy reference guide for you:

Ages 1-5 years

What are the benefits?
Children grow rapidly during this time. Dairy provides young children with energy, protein and fat-soluble vitamins that are essential for growth and development.

What type of dairy?
Children under 2 years should have whole milk (blue top in most shops) and whole yogurt. From two onwards children can move to semi-skimmed milk providing they are growing and eating well. Children who cannot consume dairy products can have non-diary alternatives – these should be fortified with calcium and milks should be unsweetened. Note that dairy free cheese alternatives can be high in saturated fat and salt, so check the labels if considering these products. A link to more information on milk allergy is provided at the end of this blog.

How much?
Three portions a day. These could include:

  • 100-150 ml milk on cereal or as a drink
  • 15g-25g cheese. Children need the energy provided by full-fat dairy but it’s fine to include low-fat cheeses, such as cottage cheese, in children’s diets for variety.     
  • 1 pot (100-125g) yogurt. Choose whole (full-fat) yogurt but don’t forget to look out for those lower in sugar.


Primary age children

What are the benefits?
Milk still provides essential nutrients that are important for growth and development.[1] A carton of milk (1/3 pint) at school will provide a 7 year old with 42% of their recommended calcium intake as well as providing iodine and vitamin B12.

What type of milk?
Providing they are growing and eating well, children at this age can move on to semi-skimmed or other reduced fat milks if they’ve not done so already.

How much? 
Three portions of dairy in the following quantities will meet the calcium needs of primary age children:

  • 150ml milk
  • 150g pot of yoghurt. Don’t forget to look out for those lower in sugar
  • 20g cheese.


Positive role modelling

What are the benefits?
Our bones are still developing until our mid-thirties. We need calcium to support this growth and to maintain our bones as we grow older. Including three portions of dairy a day in your diet will not only help you to meet your calcium needs but will teach children good dietary habits too. Positive role modelling is important to ensure children adopt good dietary habits from an early age. And it’s never too early to start! In adults, dairy foods provide about 1/3 of our calcium requirements and you can also get calcium from canned fish (where the bones are soft enough to be consumed), breads, green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds.

During pregnancy it’s important for women to consume enough calcium to meet their own needs as well as the needs of their developing baby.

What type of milk? 
Semi-skimmed milk will give you just as much calcium and protein as whole milk, but with less fat.

How much?
To meet your calcium needs across the day try including:

  • 200ml milk
  • 150g pot of plain low-fat yoghurt
  • A matchbox size piece of cheese (30g or 1oz).


Don’t like dairy?

If you or the children you care for are really not keen on milk or milk products, here are some ideas of how you can use them as ingredients for other tasty options that you may all find more palatable:

  • Make some flat bread, mix 500g self-raising flour with 500ml natural yoghurt. Shape into 6-8 flatbreads. Place on a lightly greased tray and bake in a hot oven for 20 minutes (turn over half way through cooking so both sides go brown).
  • Use yoghurt as a quick and easy topping for moussaka or lasagna. Beat two eggs into 500ml natural yoghurt and spread across the top of your moussaka or lasagna, sprinkle with cheese and bake until the top has browned and the filling is heated/cooked through.
  • Make a tasty cheese filling for a jacket potato or sandwich. Mix half a tub of cottage cheese with 50g grated mature cheddar, snip in some chives (or other ingredients the children like, such as pineapple,) and enjoy.
  • Mackerel dip (wow, the added bonus of having oily fish and dairy in one recipe…..) drain a can of mackerel and mix with half a tub of  cream cheese, add a squeeze of lemon (if you have some) and enjoy as a dip with some veggie sticks or try it in a jacket potato or sandwich. Mackerel too fishy for you? Replace it with canned tuna instead (but remember that canned tuna is not an oily fish).
  • Make some fruity yoghurt ice cream. Blend a bag of frozen berries (think raspberries or blueberries) with 500ml Greek or natural yoghurt. Add a small amount of mashed banana to sweeten (if necessary) and freeze.


Remember that milk allergy can be common in younger children. For information on this topic click here

Want to find out more? Here are some useful links:

What to feed young children. 

Milk and dairy in the diet. 

Dairy and alternatives. 


1. The Dairy Council. Milk Fact Sheet.  2015 Available at: September 2017)
Alison Preston is a Nutritionist based in Bristol. After a 25 year career in the food industry which included owning her own outside catering business, Alison chose to follow her love of food in a different direction and studied for a Post Graduate Diploma in Sports Nutrition. Since graduating in 2010 Alison has registered with the UK Voluntary Register of Nutritionists (UKVRN) and has developed a portfolio of roles including facilitating family weight management programmes and providing nutritional support to the healthy living zone within a sports centre. She has worked as a health improvement practitioner running family cookery courses and delivering programmes such as HENRY (Health, Exercise and Nutrition for the Really Young). Alison’s experience also includes developing and delivering an adult weight management programme called HELP (healthy eating and lifestyle programme) and more recently coordinating an adolescent weight management programme. These programmes highlighted the difficulties in changing established eating patterns and the importance of developing healthy eating habits in the early years - which Alison works to achieve through the provision of healthy food and the modelling of healthy eating habits.