What foods beyond dairy are a good source of calcium?

Whether your child has an intolerance to milk or you're just worried your child isn't getting enough calcium, there are good reasons to get this important nutrient into their diet every day. The good news is there are many foods high in calcium that can be prepared in a variety of ways.

Food sources and daily needs

Food Serving size Amount (mg)
Plain yogurt, low fat 1 cup 448
Tofu (made with calcium sulfate) 4 oz 397
Sesame seeds 1/4 cup 351
2% milk 1 cup 349
Fortified orange juice 1/2 cup 250
Dried figs 1 cup 241
Collards 1 cup, raw 232
Almonds 1/2 cup 189
Fortified soy milk 1/2 cup 150
White beans 1 cup 131
Black strap molasses 2 teaspoons 117
Sardines 1 ounce 108
Rhubarb 1 cup 105
Swiss chard 1 cup 101
Oranges 1 cup 71
Dill, dried 1 tablespoon 53
Broccoli 1 cup, raw 43
Age group Daily requirement (mg)
1-3 yrs 700
4-8 yrs 1,000
9-18 yrs 1,300

Function in the body

boy eats orange

Most people are aware that calcium contributes to strong bones and teeth. Calcium also is present in our blood to help with muscle contractions, nerve functions and blood clotting. Calcium in our blood only makes up one percent of our total calcium but it will be taken from our bones when there is insufficient amount flowing in the blood.

You can think of our bones like a calcium "bank account," where kids are able to pack in their savings during childhood. As they grow up and age, they'll start taking from this savings "account" — this ultimately is what can lead to osteoporosis if they go into debt over time.

You may have heard that drinking soda can weaken bones; this is true due to the phosphoric acid in dark sodas. It dilutes the one percent ratio of calcium in the blood and can begin depleting the calcium "account" from their bones while they are still young.

Maximizing absorption

Calcium is a mineral that has several factors that influence how it is absorbed, excreted and mineralized. Knowing what to look for can help put these food sources to best use.

  • Having adequate vitamin D in your child's diet is critical for calcium absorption and bone formation. Discover the best food sources of vitamin D.
  • Eating high amounts of potassium also can help with retaining and absorbing calcium.
  • High amounts of sodium, caffeine and protein increase the loss of calcium.
  • Foods high in phytic acid (grains, nuts and legumes) as well as oxalic acid (found in spinach and green tea) can lower absorption of calcium. Many of these foods are high in both calcium and phytic or oxalic acid so finding a balance and getting diverse sources of calcium is best.

It's important to know that our bodies only can absorb around 300mg to 400mg of calcium at one time. For example, an adult taking a "one-a-day" pill that contains 1,000mg will only absorb about 1/3 of that amount; the rest will be filtered through the kidneys and discarded in the urine. This can be hard on the body and recent research is questioning the advantages over disadvantages of supplementing. We at PCC always encourage getting nutrients from food as the first option.

Useful tips

It is easy to find simple ways to incorporate calcium-rich foods into your child's diet without changing it drastically.

  • Add finely cut collards or other leafy greens to tomato sauce or soup
  • Drizzle a tablespoon of molasses into pancake batter or oatmeal
  • Snack on an orange, a handful of almonds or dried figs
  • Tahini — sesame seed butter — is wonderful when mixed with a little honey and spread on a sandwich, or it can be creatively incorporated into a sauce or dip: Quick and Easy Hummus.
  • Use almond butter in place of peanut butter
  • Mix sardines into tomato sauce — they add a satisfying saltiness without tasting "fishy"
  • Get creative with tofu — firm tofu can be cubed and marinated for a stir-fry, or try silken tofu blended into a mousse or smoothie: Tofu: Four easy ways to enjoy it.

by Leika Suzumura, R.D., former PCC Nutrition Educator

More about: nutrition, PCC Healthy Kids

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