Milk prices are skyrocketing lately, meaning that your weekly trip to the dairy case is hitting the pocketbook harder than ever. And if you're concerned about hormones and antibiotics in the milk supply from factory farmed dairy cows, your price for natural, local, or organic milk will be even higher. With all of this to consider, it's very tempting to skip the milk altogether, and save the money. Milk is certainly not compulsory, and many non-western cultures do not use cow's milk as a beverage, but if you have growing kids, milk is probably still your best nutritional value for the dollar.

Frugal readers may be familiar with Money Saving Mom, a blog written by frugal diva Crystal Paine. Crystal's forte and her unique contribution to the blogosphere is a grocery shopping strategy that involves gaming store promotional programs such as CVS Extra Care and Walgreen's Register Rewards to get large amounts of merchandise for little or no cash outlay. Using these methods, Crystal is able to purchase all of her family's groceries for $35/week, and most weeks she details her shopping trips and menus for the benefit of her blog readers. Money Saving Mom is instantly addictive, and it's hard to resist making an excessive number of trips to CVS and other stores in order to put together lucrative “deal scenarios.” (For those interested in learning more about bargain shopping at CVS and other stores, also check out Hot Coupon World and Slick Deals.)

One of Crystal's most radical methods for cutting grocery costs, though, is limiting milk in her family's diet. The family of four, including two parents, a toddler, and an infant, uses only half a gallon of milk per week, mostly eaten with cereal. Crystal sensibly points out that the calcium and other nutrients in milk can be found in other foods such as leafy greens and legumes. Should frugal parents follow Crystal's example and eliminate milk from their children's diets to save money?

Children can certainly be raised entirely without cow's milk. In fact, for certain health conditions it may be necessary. Breast milk or soy formula is adequate for infants, and iron-fortified soy milk is a good source of nutrition after weaning. Other foods that are high in calcium such as dark leafy greens, legumes, or other green vegetables can be offered instead of dairy products. However, if you look closely, these alternatives are either more expensive than milk or simply impractical as primary sources of calcium. It's not unusual to find soy milk for $3 to $4 for a quart. Calcium-fortified orange juice also costs more than milk, ounce for ounce. In fact, any vitamin-fortified beverage will cost more than regular cow's milk.

When you begin to consider solid food alternatives to dairy, the bulk of the food becomes a problem. It may indeed be less expensive to feed your child beans, but a toddler would need to eat approximately five cups of cooked beans per day to get her RDA of calcium. Even if she could consume all of that food, it would not leave much room for other nutrients not found in the beans. It would take a similar quantity of collard greens or kale to satisfy her calcium needs. And for green vegetables with a lesser quantity of calcium, a child would need to eat a bushel basket to get all of the calcium she needs. For this reason, soy milk is a staple of the vegan diet for children, and a typical daily menu for a vegan child would include not only calcium-rich leafy greens and legumes, but also 2-3 cups of soy milk. This is a valid health choice, but it is not as economical as a traditional western diet that includes milk.

Cheese and other dairy products also contain significant amounts of calcium, and may be considered as alternatives to milk drinking. Four ounces of cheese per day supplies the RDA of calcium for a young child. Two cups of yogurt is also sufficient. However, cheese costs about $7/pound, so for two children, you would need to purchase $24 worth of cheese each week (and I think most people would agree with me that this is not necessarily the best diet habit to establish for lifelong health). This compared to $7 worth of milk (assuming $4 per gallon, and 16 ounces of milk per child, per day). Using yogurt, the cost to supply 500 mg of calcium per day would be $17.50 (assuming $2.50 for a quart of plain yogurt). Most young children do not find plain yogurt palatable, so the cost of sweeteners and fruit would be additional. Snack-sized yogurts such as Dannon typically cost $1 per cup, so for two children, the price would be $28/week.

Children's calcium requirements increase as they grow, peaking at 1300 mg per day for adolescents. Calcium is essential for bone growth, and the bone density that is developed during childhood and adolescence can never be replaced later in life. Low bone density puts kids at a future risk for osteoporosis and a current risk for fractures. Additionally, milk is packed with other nutrients that children need, such as protein and vitamin D. Increases in bone fractures among children in the U.S., and increasing incidence of rickets are being blamed on diets poor in calcium and vitamin D, inadequate sunshine, and not enough exercise. When kids drink milk or a vitamin fortified beverage such as soy milk, in addition to eating a diet rich in dark leafy greens, beans, and whole grains, they have “wiggle room.” There is plenty of nutrition on the good days to make up for those inevitable days when Mom or Dad falls down as family nutritionist. (And we all have those days.)

There are many valid reasons to choose not to eat milk and dairy products. Health considerations or philosophy may play a role in that decision. However, from an economic standpoint, milk is a very good value, supplying all of the calcium requirements of a toddler for about $3.50/week, or all of the calcium requirements of a teenager for a mere $7/week. Eliminating milk from your traditional western diet is a false economy that may cost a great deal in medical care later.