Back To School: Thinking Outside the Carton

Shreela Sharma, Ph.D., and her sons making a delicious smoothie.  Credit: Maricruz Kwon/UTHealth
Shreela Sharma, Ph.D., and her sons making a delicious smoothie. Credit: Maricruz Kwon/UTHealth

Mega Doctor News

Newswise — Deciding what to give your children to eat and drink is a minefield these days, even when it comes to milk. Once almost universally regarded as a daily dietary staple packed with vitamins and minerals essential for good health, its relationship with consumers over the years has somewhat soured.

With those “Got Milk?” ads starring everyone from Kermit the Frog to Beyoncé long gone and the explosion of social media, parents are now engulfed with endless, often conflicting, messages about how to best feed their brood. One minute, milk is a superfood for all; the next it’s full of hormones, causes bloating and bad acne.

Shreela Sharma, Ph.D., associate professor and registered dietitian at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health, sympathizes with the plight of parents and wants to help demystify milk so they can make balanced well-informed choices.

Getting nutrients

Whether the reason to avoid milk is taste, an intolerance or allergy, or lifestyle, “it shouldn’t really be all about milk,” Sharma says. “There’s a far more important question: ‘Is my child getting all the nutrients they need?’ ”

Milk is a good source of calcium — critical for bone growth — and protein, which supports various functions including the immune system and muscle mass. It packs a powerful nutritional punch, containing vitamins A and D, riboflavin and phosphorus. But it’s not the only way to get these important vitamins and minerals.

“If children are getting these from other foods, they don’t have to drink milk,” Sharma says. “Leafy greens like spinach, kale, bok choy and broccoli, as well as types of fish such as sardines, salmon and rainbow trout are all lesser-known but perfectly good sources of calcium. It’s worth remembering milk became so popular because all this variety didn’t exist back then.”

Milk consumption in the U.S. has consistently fallen over the past few decades, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This decline is especially marked among adolescents, where it has dropped by nearly half — to less than a cup daily — between 1977 and 2006, falling well short of the official recommendation.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans advise two to three 8-ounce size cups of low-fat milk (1 percent or 2 percent) a day for children over the age of 2.

“The reason 1 or 2 percent is recommended is because more than a third of children in the U.S. are obese. If your child prefers whole milk, it shouldn’t be denied on health grounds. We need fat to live and all foods can be enjoyed in moderation,” Sharma says.

But she does not consider chocolate milk, which has been served at schools to increase milk uptake, a good substitute.

“Parents should try to steer clear of anything with lots of added sugar, and chocolate milk falls firmly into this category,” Sharma says. “As humans, we’re programmed to like salt and sugar, so it’s really important to ensure your child doesn’t become accustomed to high amounts, which are unhealthy and will set them on path to poor eating habits. If your child insists on chocolate milk or nothing, skip the sugar-laden milk and seek the good nutrients from alternatives.”

Making food fun

From her experience working on a wide range of initiatives focused on improving child nutrition and curbing the obesity epidemic, including the award-winning Brighter Bites program, Sharma is passionate about making food fun. As a mother to two boys ages 8 and 12, she has plenty of firsthand experience and tries to make variety the spice of their diet.

Milk or plain yogurt with no added sugar is great for making smoothies. Adding things like berries or pineapple will give it a natural sweetness,” Sharma says. “My children also really enjoy fruit parfait — yogurt with sliced fruit. Soft fruit like peaches and nectarines go really well, and they’re in season right now. Sometimes we might sprinkle granola or a handful of almonds on top. They love it and also help with the preparation.”

Milk comes in many forms and cheese is another area ripe for exploration.

“Milk is so versatile. There’s cottage cheese, which you can have with fruit or adding chives. Cheese on toast is also a quick and easy favorite in our family,” Sharma says. “On the weekend as a treat, we like to get cheese bread and have it with tomatoes and fresh herbs, like basil or dill. Figs make it even more flavorful and delicious.”

Besides adding to the enjoyment, there are also health benefits.

“Children can be picky eaters, but a more limited palate can put them at greater risk of developing deficiencies. If you start eliminating certain food groups, they may be going without crucial nutrients. Calcium, for instance, is especially important because their bones are still growing,” Sharma adds.

Fortunately, non-dairy alternatives such as soy, almond, cashew, coconut or oat milk are generally fortified with calcium. However, Sharma warns against sweetened varieties, which tend to be high in sugar. Checking the protein content is also advisable. Although regular milk and soy milk are good sources of protein, with around 7 grams per serving, the others may provide less.

As for organic, it’s an optional extra in her book.

“The jury is still out on the added benefits, so standard milk is a good place to start. And don’t forget there’s so much more to milk than just a beverage. Trying it in other forms often leads to healthy combinations with fresh fruit and vegetables, so it’s well worth thinking outside the carton,” Sharma says.

For more information about what counts toward your child’s dairy intake, portion sizes equivalent to a cup and alternative sources of calcium, visit Choose My Plate.

Dr. Shreela Sharma’s smoothie recipe

Makes 2 servings


1 ripe banana
1 cup cold milk
2 tablespoons plain, unsweetened yogurt
1 cup frozen/fresh strawberries and raspberries OR 1 cup frozen/fresh mango
Blend and enjoy!