Free Resource Sheets to Teach Healthy Eating Habits


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« Dealin' with the Devil | Main | The 10 Most "Dangerous" Foods »

The (Chocolate) Milk Mistake

If you give your kids chocolate milk to get them to drink milk you would be better off giving them a glass of plain milk and a Dunkin' Donuts Chocolate Frosted Donut.

The total sugar intake would be slightly lower (although a few grams more or less hardly makes a difference).

  • One cup of lowfat chocolate milk has around 28g of sugar (depending upon the brand).
  • One glass of plain, lowfat milk has 12g of sugar.  Add a Dunkin Donuts Chocolate Frosted Donut (13g) for a total of 25g

 More importantly, the milk and donut option will teach your kids 2 important lessons:

  1. What real milk tastes like.
  2. That the sweet part -- the donut -- is a treat.

In contrast, chocolate milk teaches kids that: 

  1. Plain stuff isn't tasty, but chocolate certainly is.
  2. Somehow, mixing milk with chocolate negates the chocolate, rendering the whole drink healthy. 

Chocolate milk should be an occasional treat, not a daily (or even weekly) staple.

I know what you’re saying: Some of the sugar in chocolate milk comes from the milk itself.

But that just drives home the point that milk is already sweet.  Why sweeten it even more?

And: You're worried about your children’s calcium intake.

There’s really no need to worry.   Kids 1-3 only need about 500mg of calcium per day.  That can be fulfilled in lots of ways:

  • 2 cups of milk
  • a cup of milk and some cheddar cheese
  • 1 cup of milk and 1 container of YoBaby Organic Whole Milk Yogurt.  (Want to sweeten the yogurt up? Read The Magic of Yogurt for ideas.)

There is also calcium in spinach, tofu, salmon, pudding, ice cream and a myriad of fortified cereals and juices. Read the National Institute of Health’s Calcium Fact Sheet.

Ironically, giving your kids chocolate milk on a regular basis because you're worried about their calcium intake will ultimately reduce their calcium intake. Training tiny taste buds to prefer sweet foods reduces the range of foods your kids will eat, thereby reducing the sources of calcium (other than chocolate milk) that they consume.

Just how sweet is chocolate milk?  Compared to the 28g of sugar in one cup of chocolate milk…

  • One Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar = 24g of sugar.
  • One serving of Cocoa Krispies has 12g of sugar.
  • Entenmann’s Softees Powdered Donuts = 26g of sugar.
  • One Dairy Queen Child’s Chocolate Cone = 17g of sugar.
  • One Dairy Queen Child’s Chocolate Cone with Rainbow Sprinkles = 22g of sugar.
  • One Dairy Queen Child’s Chocolate Cone with Oreo Pieces = 28g of sugar.
  • An apple fritter at Starbucks = 27g of sugar.
  • One 12-ounce can of 7UP = 25g of sugar. 
  • 6 Oreo Cookies = 28g of sugar.
  • 1 large Pepperidge Farm Soft Baked Chocolate Chunk Dark Chocolate Brownie = 13g of sugar. 

Of course, if you give your children the 16-ounce bottle of Nesquik chocolate milk (58g of sugar) -- which your tot will probably drain since research shows that the container size determines consumption-- you might as well give your kids a McDonald's Hot Caramel Sundae: it has only 44g of sugar.

The fallacy of using the nutrition model to feed kids is that it encourages something I call Selective Attention and the Feel Better Approach: we focus on the dimension of food that makes us feel better (in this case the calcium) and overlook the dimension we would rather ignore (the sugar).

Unfortunately, good eating habits can't be shaped that way because it's the desirable, not the nutritious, aspect of food which shapes how our kids really eat.

Chocolate begets more chocolate; it never leads to carrots. Or spinach. Or tofu -- unless it's Tofutti Chocolate Supreme (with 8g of sugar per 1/2 cup).

~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. ~

For more on chocolate milk read Chocolate Milk vs. Chocolate Bars: The 10 Most "Dangerous" Foods.


All websites accessed 7/27/10 

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Reader Comments (14)

Great post, as always.
You present a dichotomy of plain milk vs. chocolate milk. But there are ways to reduce the sugar content drastically while still maintaining flavor - for example, by mixing chocolate milk with plain milk. Or adding a flat teaspoon of nesquik powder to a warm glass of milk.
Or are these methods invalid because the child still connects milk with flavoring and will never want to drink a plain glass of milk ever again?


I know it's tempting to think we can improve the situation by just using a little flavoring but regularly adding even a little sugar gets kids used to that flavor instead of plain milk. Why is that a problem? Well, it's not really a problem for milk consumption, but it is a problem when it comes to trying to expand our children's repertoire of acceptable foods. Reinforcing a preference for sweet (even if it's a lower sweet threshold) means kids don't get exposed to other flavors enough. The foods we want kids to eat aren't always sweet. If we want to teach our kids to eat right, we have to start by teaching them to appreciate a wide range of flavors.

The other problem with constantly flavoring milk is that it teaches kids that we'll do anything to get them to drink milk and that sets up a big power struggle. But even if it didn't, why the desperation around milk? I know it's the calcium, but there's calcium in lots of foods and it would be better if we parents took a deep breath around milk and starting working harder to get kids to eat a broad diet. As Marion Nestle says in her book What to Eat, the news about dairy-based calcium is mixed and there are plenty of countries where people don't consume cow's milk but they seem to get enough calcium.

I still think the best solution is to serve plain milk most of the time and chocolate milk on occasion.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this.


July 28, 2010 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

This post very logically addresses several of the arguments I often hear from parents about why they always give their child flavored milk. The argument "My child won't drink milk otherwise" always comes up, and now the release of the study by the Milk Processor Education Program (showing kids didn't take milk or threw it away if flavored wasn't offered) seems -- unfortunately and wrongly -- to support that argument.

I especially like your idea of avoiding the "nutrition model" in favor of habits. We do need to foster a better food culture in our children, one in which treats are for occasional eating and food is for every day eating. The line between treats and food is becoming more and more blurred. It's up to us parents to sort it out for our kids and teach them through words *and* actions how to eat healthy. Like serving regular milk with a donut: here's a treat and here's the milk. Fabulous idea.

Thank you for this post.

July 28, 2010 | Unregistered Commentercatherine delett

I remember when we were young and our parents would take us out to dinner. We would most always order milkshakes: chocolate, malt, strawberry, whatever flavor appealed. The idea of buying bottled chocolate milk from the supermarket did not exist. You would make your own using milk, cocoa and sugar. And my parents would limit us to 2 teaspoons of the sweet stuff. Does anyone remember when there was no such thing as non-fat milk? No-one would drink that stuff anyway - the flavor is mostly in the cream. And cultured milk products have even more taste to them.

So you can imagine how surprised I am that chocolate milk by the gallon is so much cheaper than regular milk. Now how does that encourage parents to do the right thing nutritionally? Try this on your kids instead (we did): Don't give them anything sugary or sweet for the first year of their lives, except for fruit. Oh, but wait, unless you're breastfeeding them with nature's sweet stuff, then they're probably getting formula which is already training them wrong! Right? Well check out the sugar content on formulas. Well, back to the no-sweet-stuff-for-a-year program: our boys loved their meat and veggies, especially their greens. When they get to have sweet stuff their desire for honest, plain food goes down the drain. We've seen it over and over - you don't need a nutritionist degree to realize that.

When we train our kids not to like greens, then we need substitutes (yes, taste buds are trained - try it yourself). A lot of what we end up trying to do is find a substitute to fix our nutritional deficiencies rather than exercising self-discipline in the areas of nutrition. It's easier to take multi-vitamins, enriched cereals etc than it is to change our way of life. We're training our children for life...

July 28, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterrhett

Hi I followed a Twitter link to here. I've also been following the interesting school lunch debate and watching Food Revolution US which has just started here. You mentioned greens and how we have trained our kids not to like them-they via the greens are packed with calcium protein and every other nutrient you need. Yes a broad and varied diet may mean there is less dependence on dairy for calcium. I love green smoothies and know many kids who do as well-they are really worth exploring as a healthy option. Jane

July 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJane

"they via the greens are packed with calcium protein and every other nutrient you need. " whoops- words missing- green smoothies via the greens etc...

July 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJane

Speaking of sweet stuff, in Australia it seems to be challenging for parents to get their kids to even eat fruit. I've always thought it must be easier for kids to get the recommended servings of fruit rather than vegetables, but I found national survey results last week that indicated less than 50% of 2-12 year olds have an adequate fruit intake.

Our version of making chocolate milk is adding two teaspoons of Milo ... I've just checked the packaging and realised that this is basically half sugar - so I'm adding 1 teaspoon of sugar to their milk when I make them a Milo.

August 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGrowingRaw

Growing Raw -

Don't feel bad about Australian kids not eating their fruit... American kids don't eat their fruit either. Maybe because it's not as sweet as the chocolate milk they're used to!!!


August 1, 2010 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

Hmmm, all very interesting, if you are a family with parents who understand nutrition and will go to great lengths to supplement the non-milk drinking with other sources. But that's not most families. The fact is, 29% of mothers don't serve milk at dinner. And many kids depends on school breakfast and lunch, free or at reduced prices. So school milk becomes the main source for most children. When chocolate milk is no longer an option, kids buy water or juice. Or throw away their white milk. The white milk at our children's school tastes terrible -- mine drink plenty at home. But at our socioeconomically diverse public elementary school, we are taking away the one way to get milk into these children. I also think chocolate milk is the wrong target: I'd love it so much more if they would take away the fried chicken nuggets and processed "smiley face" fries, as well as the syrupy goop they pour over perfectly good sweet potatoes, etc. etc.

Question re: the milk/donut argument: what is the breakdown of naturally occurring sugar in chocolate milk versus the added sugar?

September 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKim

Okay, I found it: Regular low fat milk has 12 grams of sugar per half pint compared to 24 or 30 grams of sugar in chocolate milk. So the refined, added sugar is 12 to 18 grams. I'd still prefer chocolate milk plus real food to no milk at all.

September 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKim


I agree with you that it would be better to replace the chicken nuggets and fries with more healthful fare.

I disagree with you about the chocolate milk however. There is a lot to say, but the real issue is this: why the panic over calcium consumption? Has there been an outbreak in rickets? Is there more osteoporosis now than before, and at an earlier age? As Marion Nestle points out in her book What to Eat, there are other countries with lower levels of milk consumption and their kids do just fine. Why do our kids need so much milk?

Thanks for your thoughtful comments,


September 15, 2010 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

To me, that's an entirely different issue and an individual decision, not one to make for a broad group. When our four children hit their growth spurts, our pediatrician told us two things were of utmost importance: calcium and protein.

But I do enjoy hearing your point of view.

September 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKim


With all due respect, when we set a public policy, which the school milk program is, we are saying that the issue is so important to the broader group that the group's interests supersede those of the individual. So the question about calcium and public health are germane.

On the individual-level, I appreciate your pediatrician's advice to pay attention to calcium and protein, but did he/she also tell you what the target amounts were? Most parents have no idea how much calcium their kids need or how much their kids are actually getting. Instead, they respond to the available advice by thinking their kids are never getting enough, and more is always better. This leads to a nutrition-at-all cost approach. But what if most kids do get enough? And what if more isn't actually better?

And, why can't we transfer some of the public concern about milk consumption to something we actually know our kids aren't eating—fruits and vegetables? If we promoted fruits and vegetables the way we promote milk, our kids would be eating better overall diets, and they would be getting enough calcium. It would be a win-win situation!!!

Thanks for engaging in this debate with me. I really appreciate your perspective.


September 15, 2010 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

I think everybody has missed the boat in a big way here. Almost all milk in the US (unless you are milking your own cow eating clean grass in your back yard) is too dangerous to be feeding to our kids. Milk is produced in factories by animals kept alive and producing milk by being pumped full of antibiotics and steroids. The drugs are in the milk they produce and in the animals' wastes which end up in our water table, further contaminating our kids and the word they will inherit. Health-wise, this product should be avoided without the need for further discussion, but when you include the destruction that raising these animals causes to our world you have two good reasons to avoid it. These animals are mostly fed on grains which if eaten directly, would provide ten to twenty times as much nutrition as they do when you process them through an animal and eat the meat or milk, so consuming this product intensifies world wide hunger. Lastly, if you value life and want yourself and your kids to live a spiritual life, then you have to take into consideration the torture that these animals endure for the sake of that glass of drug-tainted fat and sugar.

September 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJohn H

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