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Bone Up on Calcium!
Clever ways to sneak this vital nutrient into your kid's diet. By Anne Krueger
Bone Up on Calcium!
Click here to view Calcium Usage Chart

We all know children who shun vegetables or turn up their noses at milk. This can be challenging for parents who understand that kids' eating habits have health repercussions and can, literally, make or break those 206 bones that they're building. Take calcium, for instance. It's essential for developing strong bones and a beautiful smile, healthy nails, nerves and organs, and even some tissues. Recent research strongly suggests that the mineral may also play a part in battling the onset of obesity. That's why such organizations as the National Institutes of Health and the American Academy of Pediatrics are worried that children aren't eating more calcium-rich foods. In fact, they say, nearly half of kids under age 10 don’t get enough calcium.

What's a Parent to Do?

It's unlikely that the 10-and-under set will be worried about bone-thinning osteoporosis, even if parents warn them their bones may become soft or holey when they grow up. But children might be intrigued by the notion that their bones are such as a bank account: They need to make deposits of calcium now through adolescence, while bones are still developing, so bones can handle the withdrawals that occur later in life, when the ability to absorb the mineral declines. The way to really boost calcium intake is to make it as painless as possible. That means not only concentrating on variety and taste of the foods, but also getting your kids involved in the selection. Your daughter doesn't like milk? Okay, but chances are she likes flavored milk, pizza, hot chocolate, ice cream or macaroni and cheese — all foods that deliver healthy doses of calcium, and all foods that she can help prepare. With a little imagination, you can hike even a milk hater’s calcium intake painlessly with these and other tasty treats.

Surefire Substitutes

Try chocolate milk (it provides the same calcium boost as plain) or a chocolate shake, use high-calcium ricotta cheese instead of mayonnaise in your chicken salad, serve fun-shaped cheese bites or whip up some mashed sweet potatoes. If your child will only eat calcium-rich veggies such as broccoli, carrots and kale with a healthy dose of melted cheese, go for it and pat yourself on the back for providing a double calcium whammy with the added dairy. Naturally, parents (and some older children) are worried about the fat in high-calcium dairy foods. This is why preteen girls often stop drinking milk. But these days, low-fat versions of dairy foods are plentiful and deliver just as much calcium. And the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that if you're worried about a child's fat intake, cut back on another food group that won't jeopardize her calcium intake. Your child's bones will thank you.

Too Cool For Milk?

Tweens need more. As children approach puberty, they often want so-called "cooler" beverages, such as sodas and sports drinks. Bad idea. Tweens and early teens need calcium more than ever, because 50 percent of their bone mass develops during these years. According to an American Academy of Pediatrics study, the average 12-year-old takes in just 850 mg of calcium a day, falling 450 mg short of the recommended level. Because kids this age are more likely to eat calcium-rich foods, go with the flow — stock up on low-fat yogurt or ice cream bars, encourage tweens to create their own signature smoothie, or turn a winter staple into a summer surprise by making frozen hot chocolate.

Bone Builders

Help kids play an active role in the kitchen and learn the benefits of calcium all at once.

Make It Mexican

If grilled cheese sandwiches are old hat, have your children make simple quesadillas by melting grated cheddar cheese (200 mg of calcium per one ounce) between tortillas (60 mg per tortilla).

Quick Dips

Kids can spear pieces of broccoli or cauliflower into melted cheese and they’ll be double dipping on the calcium front. Other spreads rich in the mineral include hummus (made from chickpeas), spinach dip and yogurt sauce with fresh herbs.

Homemade Trail Mix

Combine roasted almonds, cheese crackers and dried fruit, including the powerhouse fig (30 mg of calcium) or dried apricots (46 mg per 8) for a crunchy, calcium-rich snack.

Have a Pizza Party

There’s no better way to get your kids to eat right — and have fun — than to host a make-your-own pizza night. Buy ready made, individual crusts, a variety of tomato sauces and an assortment of shredded cheeses. Then set up a kid-friendly assembly line, complete with delicious, healthy toppings such as peppers, tomatoes, pineapple and broccoli. Help your kids create a calcium-rich pie.

Try Tasty Tofu

Sauté strips of firm tofu in oil with garlic and a little molasses (for sweetness). These "french fries" are so delicious, your kids will never know they're eating a calcium-loaded vegetarian meal.

Say It with Smoothies

Fun and frosty, fruit smoothies are a refreshing warm-weather treat any time of day. They may seem like a sweet indulgence, but smoothies are packed with calcium, protein and vitamins. Pick up a variety of fresh fruits at the grocery store and let your children invent their own crazy flavor combinations. Throw the fruit in a blender, and mix it up with milk or frozen yogurt.

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