It's not as simple as looking at the label
How important is calcium for your child? Answer: it’s essential!
Fortunately, it's not hard to hit recommended daily targets if you know what foods have lots of easily-absorbed calcium.
Children's bones are growing, obviously, and along with exercise and vitamin D, your child needs calcium to have solid bones and strong teeth by adulthood, when they begin to fend off the slow, sad loss of bone we suffer as we age.
There is a shortcut to getting both vitamin D and exercise: playing outside. But unless they are eating their sidewalk chalk, that's not going to work for calcium.
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This is what the recommended daily calcium intake in North America look like for children and adults:
Absorption counts too
But reading calcium amounts on labels is not enough, unfortunately. You also need to know which foods have good absorption and which don't. Which is what I'm here to help you with.
Oxalic acid is the biggest culprit in low calcium absorption. It loves to bind with calcium and keep you from getting those bone-building benefits. Phytates are the other chronic offender, found in nuts, seeds, and grains, but their impact is less predictable, so we won't focus on them too much.
And please don't panic. There's lots of calcium in food.
I'm going to list some of the best calcium-containing foods so you can ensure a few of them make it onto the dinner table. But it's meant to be a loose list to keep in mind when making or buying meals, not something to add to your list of stresses.
If you think you'll obsess over whether your child is getting enough calcium, then please forget you saw this. Just keep offering a variety of good food and they'll surely get enough.
Can I trust you on this? Then read on . . .
Here's the list, though not perfectly in order of bestness. There are also some special cautions at the end, so don't miss them.
Yes, good old milk, cheese, yogurt. While there are concerns that dairy has been pushed too hard in North America, especially as the number of people who can't digest milk grows, it is one of the most efficient sources of well-absorbed calcium. One cup of milk or one cup of yogurt has all the calcium a 1-year-old needs in a day.
Interestingly, the amount of calcium in cheese can really vary by type, with harder cheeses tending to offer a bigger boost than softer ones. Parmesan wins big (my kids love Parmesan, depending on the week), while lowly Havarti offers little calcium benefit (I've never liked Havarti anyway).
Soybeans are brawny little calcium-carriers. And tofu can be extra potent when calcium itself is used to set it into a cake; the processing really ups the calcium. Soy milk too generally has calcium added, making it another strong source.
Little squares of tofu can make a great addition to your child's lunch box or dinner plate. And of course, soy milk comes in all kinds of flavors and sweetnesses to make it more attractive.
The weird thing about soy is that it actually has plenty of oxalic acid and phytates that should block calcium access, but the research suggests absorption is good anyway. Not sure why.
3. Canned fish
We store our calcium in our bones, and so do fish, so eating small fish, bones and all, is actually an amazing way to get calcium. If you can get your child to do it.
Whether it's whole sardines or canned salmon with soft bone pieces, fish with bones are one of the top calcium providers.
And that's a good thing. For us anyway.
One of the wonder-vegetables as far as calcium levels go, broccoli is often a child-friendly vegetable as well.
Steaming, for instance, can up its sweetness and reduce its bitterness, making it a green thing they are often attracted to. And fortunately, cooking it doesn't seem to drop its calcium level too much.
Raw broccoli can also be a handy dipping tool for kids of course.
5. Green leafy vegetables
Edible green leaves are kings and queens in the world of nutritious foods, and not just because they have calcium. Plus every child loves them, right? Okay, maybe not.
But they are so full of vitamins and minerals that it's worth regularly putting them on the table in whatever form you can. Pan-fried and shiny, creamed in a soup, tucked into an omelet, hidden in meatballs.
Oxalic acid levels make a big difference though, when it comes to green leafies.
While a cup of cooked spinach has more than twice the calcium of a cup of cooked kale, you absorb more than twice as much eating the kale (kale calcium absorbs even better than milk calcium, we think).
So feed your children greens when you can. But some of the best ones for calcium are: kale, turnip greens, and some Chinese greens. Next in line are collards, watercress, and lettuces.
6. Winter squash
Winter squashes are another tasty food with a good amount of calcium and little of the bothersome oxalic acid that keeps your kid from absorbing it. Soft and often sweet, they can be an ideal food for young children, acorn and butternut being two of the most calcium-rich.
They are a great starter food too. If your child is still at a mostly mush stage of eating, winter squashes are great for cooking and mushing.
White beans or pinto beans, chickpeas or black-eyed peas — legumes offer so much, including decent calcium levels.
They do have major absorption issues though.
Soaking beans and lentils first (and nuts too, apparently) is thought to reduce the calcium blockers, so make sure to soak before you cook.
8. Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are super-good for you, at least on paper, but there is the question of how much good stuff is absorbed.
Don't get me wrong, they have protein and fiber and mucho good fats — worth being a regular part of your diet — but how well we access their calcium for instance, isn't clear.
Still, superfood seeds like chia, flax, and sesame are particularly calcium-rich. So use them and other nuts and seeds when you can.
Herbs and spices can be very high in calcium and other nutrients, but we use them in such small amounts, right?
Well what about pesto? A cup of raw basil leaves blended into pesto gives a huge, high-absorption calcium kick.
Tabouli too. It's a dish full of high-calcium parsley and mint leaves, though only the calcium from the mint absorbs well.
Start your children early on these highly-nutritious foods if you can. My daughter had tabouli at daycare and she’s still a fan!
Fruit can be pretty high in calcium, but also in that pesky calcium-blocker, oxalic acid. The two seem to come together.
It's hard to capture the different absorption levels, but here's a list of ten of the higher-calcium fruits, whether eaten fresh or dried.
5) Black currants
Honorable mention: While juice drinking has its sugar-water downsides, some orange juice comes pumped up with extra calcium.
11. Fortified cereals
I don't like processed, sweetened breakfast cereals much, especially the way they elbow out other food choices for breakfast.
But adding lots of vitamins and minerals to them was genius. Even I'm forced to admit that breakfast cereals have decent nutritional value.
The good ones have plenty of fiber. Most of them have iron, folic acid, and B vitamins at one-and-done levels for the day. And certain ready-to-eat cereals can have as much as 1000 mg of calcium in a bowlful. And that's not including the milk!
I know this probably seems like a strange addition; it is sugar, after all.
But sometimes the byproducts of human ingenuity (molasses is left over when making cane sugar) can have big value. While more of the sweetness goes into the sugar, all kinds of vitamins and minerals, including iron, and of course, calcium, are left behind in the molasses.
So whenever you can get away with using molasses instead of sugar, do it. In cookies. In hot milk instead of hot chocolate. Whatever you can think of.
Maybe this shouldn't be on the list, as most of our tap water isn't that impressive a source of calcium. But we do get some of our calcium from the water we drink, depending how hard or soft the water is.
Bottled spring water, on the other hand, is not a great source of calcium. Neither is water run through a filter, unfortunately.
But mineral water from some minerally source can give an extra calcium boost.
A few cautions
That's the list. But here’s what else you should know about dietary calcium — other big things that affect your child's calcium balance:
A. Too much salt: There are lots of reasons to avoid too much salt, but one you may not know is that extra salt makes you pee out your calcium instead of keeping it in your bones. So while that delivery cheese pizza might have a ton of calcium, the high salt levels might wipe out the benefit.
B. Too much sugar: I know, I'm always talking about how sugar is bad. But it turns out calcium loss might be another reason.
C. Too much calcium: Yes, you can get too much calcium. For children this can play out in the calcium blocking iron intake. It's not fully proven, but drinking too much milk, for instance, probably plays a role in childhood iron deficiency.
D. Not enough vitamin D: I’ll say it again here, since it's so important. Children need to get outside. They need to get some sun exposure so they can make the vitamin D needed to use their calcium. Vitamin D supplements can help make sure.
That was long, I know, but it has most of what you need to know about calcium and children.