How to Help Children Avoid Dairy at School

Dairy products have always figured prominently in the national school meals program, so it might take a few extra steps to keep your kids dairy-free.

In the National School Lunch Program — our nation’s program for providing children with a hot, nutritious meal each day at school — it has long been a rule that for the meal to qualify for federal support, it has to include a serving of fluid cow’s milk. Even if the child doesn’t want it or doesn’t drink it, that carton of milk has to be on the student’s tray for the school to get federal credit for the meal.

In addition to cow’s milk, the nation’s surplus cheese has traditionally been funneled into the program, encouraging its use in many of the dishes served to our kids. Like milk, cheese is a government commodity that schools can get at a much-reduced price, increasing the incentive of schools to find a way to incorporate the food into lunch menus.

Dairy in school meals has been one of the factors responsible for the difficulty schools have had in reducing the saturated fat content of meals. Most school lunches still don’t meet federal standards — the Dietary Guidelines for Americans — for limiting the amount of saturated fat in meals.

Two-thirds of the fat in dairy products is artery-clogging saturated fat. That’s a substance children and adults alike consume in excess, raising their risk for coronary artery disease and blood fat abnormalities, even in young people.

So what are your options if you want or need (for allergy or intolerance purposes) your child to avoid dairy products at school? Here are a few ideas:

  • Get a doctor’s order. Schools can give your child a nondairy alternative to cow’s milk, such as fortified soymilk or rice milk, if his doctor writes a note attesting that he needs it for health reasons, such as an allergy or intolerance to cow’s milk.

  • Coach your child. Work with your child to help him pick and choose appropriately among the items offered on the menu each day. Review the menu with your child before he leaves for school each day, discuss the options, and help him determine what he may choose.

  • Work with school personnel. Explain your child’s food preferences or requirements to the school food service director and determine how the school may be able to accommodate and help your child.

  • Take it from home. If it’s too difficult for your child to consistently get what he needs from the school’s lunch program, pack a lunch to send with him.

When you decide to go dairy-free with your children’s diets, you want to make sure they don’t mistakenly eat dairy products. The best way to do so is to educate your children about what dairy is and what it looks like.

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