A round-up of our favorite products and my top 10 cooking substitutions and strategies for handling a milk allergy in toddlers and young children.
My daughter M was allergic to milk, which we found out when she turned one. At age 4, she had outgrown it. (We celebrated with TCBY on the way home from the doctor’s office!) But for three years, we had to find substitutions and learn to avoid anything with cow’s milk in it. And cow’s milk is in a LOT of food – anything with regular milk of course, but also anything with yogurt, cow’s cheese, butter. Not an easy one to avoid. I was so thankful she didn’t have any other food allergies, because I know a lot of kids have more than one.
I talk at length about lessons from a food allergy baby here, but today I’m focusing on what we did to handle her milk allergy specifically, for those of you facing the same thing. Below is a run-down of the products I loved, those I didn’t and my top 10 tips on substitutions and strategies for a milk-free kid.
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. Please consult your child’s doctor or a registered dietitian with any medical questions or concerns.
For a cow’s milk substitute, our pediatrician recommended soy milk. Plenty of other milk substitutes exist – almond milk, rice milk, etc – and they all have pros and cons. M wasn’t allergic to soy and that’s what her doctor recommended, so that’s what I went with. And to this day, she LOVES it. She’s no longer allergic but prefers “her” milk over cow’s milk, so we still use it. And she can’t get enough. I feel good that it’s got calcium and vitamin D and all kinds of health benefits. I do make sure to buy organic and have always used the plain soy milk, not one of the flavored varieties but also not the unsweetened version.
Bottom line here, talk to your doctor and see what they recommend. Soy milk has been a great choice for us.
I found I didn’t really need or use it that much butter when cooking and baking for her. She was so young and I don’t cook with a ton of butter anyway. Most baked recipes can use oil or applesauce in place of butter, so that was an easy substitution when I needed it. I did buy a tub of SmartBalance, which is vegan, and it worked fine as a substitute in place of butter in every recipe I ever tried. Though honestly, I didn’t use that much of it.
Yogurt though. It felt like a must-have to me. Yogurt is such a healthy food option and important for a growing baby. And it’s easy — spoon and serve, no cooking or prep needed — so there’s that. I’m fortunate to have access to a Trader Joe’s and they have a goat’s milk yogurt, pictured here. M adored it. Still does. I’ve switched her over to plain Greek yogurt now that she’s not allergic, since that’s what the rest of us eat, but I’ll buy a tub of the goat milk yogurt whenever we go to Trader Joe’s because she does prefer it.
It’s a plain, unsweetened yogurt, similar to Greek yogurt – it’s tart and tangy, just not quite as thick. She gobbled it up from the beginning. I always make fruit mixes to stir into their yogurt, but she ate it plain even before I did that regularly. Other brands make soy or coconut milk yogurts and you may be able to find those in your regular grocery store, or request that they order it. I know my local store is really good about getting in products if they possibly can. Just check the labels because some of those come with added sugars and flavorings.
Another must have. I don’t know how you could get away with not having cheese for baby and toddler and kid food. It’s a staple!
I recommend going with goat cheese. It’s pure and natural just like cow’s milk cheese. You can get smooth, creamy goat cheese that’s very mild (pictured here, also from Trader Joe’s) and there’s the logs of goat cheese, plain or flavored with herbs or other additions, that are available in every grocery store. Those soft cheeses work really well as spreads – sandwiches, wraps, even quesadillas. And you can dollop them on pizza.
I also was able to find — again, at Trader Joe’s — some sliced goat cheese and a block of goat’s milk cheddar cheese. M loved them both and they worked well with crackers or sandwiches or shredding over pasta or pizza. It’s still her preferred cheese. I thought she’d be psyched to finally get to have some string cheese like her friends, but nope, she’d rather have her goat cheese, thank you very much. My takeaway? Never underestimate the power of priming those taste buds early.
Finally, nutritional yeast is a good substitute for Parmesan cheese, which can come in handy. It’s an inactive dry yeast that tastes surprisingly similar and also has some positive nutritional attributes. I even ate it myself, cause it really is good. Particularly on popcorn for the non-little ones 😉
JUST SAY NO
I don’t recommend soy cheeses. I did try some along the way, but was turned off. Two reasons:
1. You have to be very careful because there are some brands of soy cheese that contain milk. This completely baffles me. I would imagine most people opting for a soy cheese either have a milk allergy or are vegan and both of those groups are therefore excluded from buying a soy cheese product that has milk. Who are they selling that stuff to?!
And 2. Check the ingredient list. Not just to make sure it doesn’t contain milk, but to see what’s in this mystery cheese. Yikes. All kinds of weird processed chemicals and food substances of unknown origin. Once I saw that, I didn’t buy the stuff again and didn’t miss it. Goat cheese all the way.
Not pictured. Trader Joe’s had a vegan ice cream and our local store had a coconut milk ice cream. I bought each once for birthday occasions but wasn’t that impressed. She was young and not that into it, so I just stayed away from it all together. There are options though, if you have older children and need something for ice cream parties. As always, be sure to read your labels and go with a product that’s as “real food” as possible.
**TOP 10 TIPS AND TAKE-AWAYS**
Cooking substitutions and other strategies for raising a milk allergy baby, toddler and child:
- Anything vegan is safe. Vegan means there are no animal products of any kind used, so no cow’s milk of any description. This was helpful in looking up recipes online.
- As I mentioned, you can swap applesauce or oil (canola or coconut oil) for butter in pretty much any baked recipe and be OK. Easy.
- For cooking, you can also swap in canola or coconut oil for butter in most cases. If you need or want butter for flavoring or for certain recipes where a swap wouldn’t work, you can use Earth Balance or another vegan butter substitute.
- I always substituted the goat milk yogurt for either regular yogurt or Greek yogurt, whichever was called for, in baked recipes and cooking. Never had an issue.
- Spreadable goat cheese is great for crackers, breads, wraps, sandwiches, etc. If you can find sliced goat’s cheese, that’s great for packing for lunches. I also will tear it into small pieces to stir into scrambled eggs or melt over vegetables or for English muffin pizza or tuna melts. And if you can get ahold of a block of goat’s milk cheddar cheese, you can shred it and use it as needed for melting over things.
- Nutritional yeast can substitute for Parmesan cheese in any recipe. Try looking for it in the bulk aisles at a natural foods grocery store or at a Whole Foods or Earth Fare. You can also order it online.
- Be very careful at restaurants. I never ordered M food at a restaurant while she was allergic. Not once. I always packed her food and brought it with us to be safe. Because restaurants are notorious for putting butter, cream and cheese in places you wouldn’t expect. If you are ordering, please be sure to talk with your waiter and explain that your child has a milk allergy (not lactose intolerance) — and point out that means no butter, cheese, yogurt, cream, etc. because many people don’t understand this. Make sure they communicate with the chefs and see if it’s possible to order something safely. Don’t forget to mention cross-contamination. This isn’t being picky or a pain in the butt, it’s keeping your child safe.
- Similarly, be sure you talk with your child’s school and teachers and make sure they aren’t offered foods that might contain milk. M’s preschool has always been great about this. Most schools now are very allergy-aware but you’ll have to work with them on parties and special occasions. See more about that in my food allergy post here.
- Also talk with other parents, family members, caregivers and babysitters about your child’s allergy. Someone might innocently pass a piece of cheese to the little one eyeing the appetizers or absent-mindedly hand them a cracker that contains milk because they didn’t think it would be an issue. Be sure that anyone watching your child knows the details of a milk allergy and knows which foods and drinks are OK for your child to have. I always just set aside the food for M if I was going to be away and made sure the babysitter understood she shouldn’t offer her anything else. At parties, if M wasn’t going to be right with me, I spread the word that she had a food allergy, sometimes not specifying so people just wouldn’t give her anything. Better safe – and strict – than sorry, in my opinion.
- Experiment in the kitchen. Not sure about a substitution or adjusting a recipe? Just try it. The worst that happens is it doesn’t work – oh well. But it probably will.
I hope this was helpful! I know how scary and stressful it can be to approach feeding an allergic baby, toddler and little kid. Check your local stores for safe foods, read labels, check out recipes online and you’ll slowly start to expand your options. Please let me know if you have questions; I’m happy to help if I can!
P.S. I have lots of toddler- and kid-friendly recipes on the blog, almost all of which can be easily adapted using the tips above.
** Do you have a child allergic to cow’s milk? What products have you found and loved (or hated)? What are your top tips and suggestions? Concerns and questions? I’d love for you to share in the comments below.