How to Go Dairy-Free: Making the Transition and Tasty Dairy-Free Substitutes

Dairy-Free Peanut Butter and Jelly Ice Cream

So maybe you’ve been toying around with the idea of giving up dairy for a while. You know you need to give it up – it’s causing you or your family health issues (see why I gave up dairy). You have started to research how to go dairy-free, so you can learn what to look for on labels and how to navigate the grocery store. You can even plan meals with the best of them. What’s holding you back? It’s that emotional tie. Those dairy-full food favorites – ice cream, yogurt, milk, butter, and the most common – cheese.

What will you do without cheese?!

I’m here to tell you – you can live without cheese. Not only live, but you can thoroughly enjoy your meals, and not feel like you’re missing a thing.

Yes, really.

I received some great feedback from some of you last week on my How To Go Dairy-Free post. One commenter, Alisa, shared:

“The words of advice I always offer to newbies are: Focus on the foods you CAN eat. Stop worrying about what you are ‘missing out on.’ and focus on all that you can enjoy. Dairy is just one, single, component.”

Such excellent advice, and so true. Dairy is just one single component in a diet. There are so many other delicious foods available out there that you can work to incorporate into your diet, and your meals can be much more exciting and nutritious! This time of year, when so much excellent produce is in season, it’s even easier to make bright, flavorful dishes that are naturally dairy-free – but it can be done effortlessly anytime.

How? Rather than relying on butter, cheese and cream to flavor your dishes, think “outside the cow” and try some new spices. Some of my favorite go-to spices are smoked paprika, cumin powder, coriander powder, garam masala, and chipotle chile powder. They’re different – not the usual salt and pepper variety – and they add some lovely depth and dimension to a lot of dishes. Make sure you buy fresh spices. Often natural foods groceries will have bulk bins that allow you to buy various quantities of spices at a fraction of the cost at the traditional grocery store, and they’re fresher too. I also love to buy spices at ethnic groceries – the Indian grocer near me always has cumin, and it’s unbelievably fragrant and fresh.

Also, try to incorporate fresh herbs into more of your dishes. Rosemary can really make a roasted chicken sing. Basil and mint make any salad or dressing taste bright and full of summer. Just about anything can benefit from a handful of chopped parsley, and cuisines from Thai to Mexican to Indian cuisine incorporate a lot of cilantro. But don’t stop there – dill, tarragon, oregano, and thyme are all also wonderful additions to many dishes. If you have even the tiniest of spaces, you can grow a few herbs in a pot, allowing you to snip off fresh herbs for any meal. They’re easy to grow, and will save you a ton of money compared to grocery store prices.

Other flavorful condiments and ingredients can elevate the flavor in any dish. I love adding sun-dried tomatoes to casseroles and sauces. Olives add a briny, salty component to dishes that used to benefit from a salty cheese. An easy dairy-free pesto can add a burst of flavor to pasta or chicken salad. And of course, guacamole and avocados add a creaminess and are welcome (in my opinion) just about anytime. Try spreading your favorite nut butter on your (gluten-free) toast or biscuit, or whip up some coconut butter. Add that nut butter to your baked sweet potato – I promise, it’s delicious! And you may find that using a touch of coconut oil on your green beans is your next new craving, and butter is only a distant memory.

When you first go dairy-free, don’t cheat. Many of us have dairy cravings, especially at first. (Did you know sometimes cravings can be a sign of an intolerance?) The first 30 days are the hardest. But rather than give in to your cravings, remind yourself why you are no longer eating dairy (you want to feel well, you want to have energy to work/run/play, etc) and instead seek out an exciting, enticing dairy-free alternative that you will look forward to eating. Those cravings will subside, and you’ll find that your tastebuds will adjust. You might even find your tastes are more receptive to the many flavors of various foods that were previously “covered up” in a layer of cream and cheese. Be sure to plan your meals, and stock up on your favorites, including snacks. Then you can feel satisfied, and even look forward to the next planned meal, rather than wishing you were able to eat something that makes you sick.

While there are many dairy-free products out there intended to substitute for dairy products, take your time introducing them into your diet. The dairy-free milk substitutes shouldn’t be an issue – there is an increasingly wide variety of “milks” made from soy, almond, hemp, rice, oat, coconut, and more, and many are very tasty. I personally love almond milk and coconut milk beverages – and sometimes even make my own almond milks. But as for some of the trickier “substitutes”, such as cheese, give yourself some time to allow your tastebuds to adjust to dairy-free eating. You’ll be more accepting of those substitutes, and will find them pretty tasty and satisfying, if you give it some time before you try them out.

Once you’re over that initial “hump” though, and are interested in trying out some substitutes, you’ll find that most substitutions are fairly easy, not just in simple cooking, but even in baking.

Dairy-Free Substitutions

Milk: Almond milk, Rice milk, Soy milk, Coconut milk, Coconut milk beverage, Hemp milk, Oat milk (be sure to check labels for gluten, if you are gluten-free as well)

Cream: Coconut milk (refrigerate can and scoop the hardened cream from the top, leaving the watery part behind), MimicCreme

Butter: Earth Balance buttery sticks or buttery spread, coconut oil, olive oil, ghee (not dairy-free, but it is casein, whey and lactose-free)

Buttermilk: non-dairy milk + vinegar or lemon juice (1 cup of non-dairy milk and 1 tablespoon vinegar or lemon juice, let sit for 5 minutes)

Sour cream: Coconut cream + vinegar or lemon juice (1 cup of coconut cream and 1 tablespoon vinegar or lemon juice, let sit for 5 minutes) or Tofutti sour cream

Cream cheese: Tofutti cream cheese or cashew cream cheese

Cheese: Daiya, alternative cheeses, nutritional yeast flakes, almond flour, cashew cheese

Ice cream: coconut milk ice cream, soy milk ice cream

Whipped cream: Soy whip, whipped coconut cream

In case you can’t deduct from this list, I regularly stock a lot of cashews and cans of coconut milk in my kitchen, just in case I need to whip up any of these ingredients. Honestly, though, on a day-to-day basis, dairy-free alternatives aren’t even used. It’s easiest to simply eat naturally dairy-free. Good to know, however, that these things can still be part of your new and improved, dairy-free diet!

If you are already dairy-free, what dairy-free substitutes do you enjoy? If you’re looking to go dairy-free or are newly dairy-free, but looking for a replacement for your favorite dairy-full food, share! We can all learn from one another as we take this journey towards healthier living together!




  1. says

    What great information, Alta! This post will be useful for so many people. And thanks so much for including my sweet potatoes with almond sauce, too! :)

    • altawrites says

      Ricki – You’re welcome – and I’ve been craving that almond sauce since yesterday! Might have to make some “on-purpose” leftovers with sweet potatoes tonight just so I can have that for breakfast tomorrow!

  2. says

    this is wonderful information. i’ve been attempting the dairy free lifestyle, on my own, for about 3 years. i still get surprised by the amount of dairy or lactose stuff is in food. (did you know motion sickness pills, ex: dramamine, have some lactose thing in it, to make it sweet and as a filler? i horrible car and plane sickness but now i can’t take these pills!)

    i love the advice of keeping in mind what i can eat as opposed to what i’m missing out on. i’ve recently discovered cashew cream (tho cashews are so expensive!) and nutritional yeast. also, larabars! i thought i didn’t likes dates but now i’m all about them and making my own larabar-type desserts at home, it’s wonderful.

    i do buy coconut, soy or almond milk but lately i’ve taken to making all three, alternating weeks so i don’t get tired of any of them. tofutti cream cheese was a revelation, i think i ate a tub of the stuff all by myself.

    ok, i’m rambling, i’m sorry, i’m just so excited to find your blog.

    • altawrites says

      Lan – So glad you like the blog. I agree with you – sometimes it is frustrating that dairy is in so much. I find it really hard to find a probiotic or digestive enzyme that is dairy-free. If I’m supposed to digest better, and yet I can’t digest dairy, why are you putting it in there? :)
      And never worry about rambling! I’m all about rambling! :)

  3. says

    This is so thorough! I’ve been dairy free for 9 years, and it’s funny how easy it is. I was so worried and a little sad when I first started. Now, I feel fantastic and never have a shortage of yummy things to eat.

    • altawrites says

      Kim – I was a little sad too – I think it’s totally normal to go through a period of “mourning”! But there never is a shortage of things to eat! :)

  4. says

    Great advice Alta and I completely agree with you about giving yourself time before trying certain dairy-free substitutes (namely cheeze). When you are newly dairy-free, just as with being newly gluten-free, the alternatives to foods that rely most heavily on the offending proteins, casein and gliadin, to provide the structure and texture…well, they can be quite a shock to the palate, LOL!

    I can personally attest to the fact that 4 years into a strict gluten-free diet, I no longer remember the taste and texture of gluten-filled breads, etc. and the gluten-free varieties are completely “normal” for me. Not 100% there yet on the cheese, so for the most part, I simply avoid foods/recipes where cheese plays a critical role in the end product. I can honestly say that I don’t miss it…well, until I crack and indulge in a piece of real cheese (when I’m outside of my home), and then it’s all the way back to square one. I was definitely a bigger dairy addict than I ever was a bread junkie (pre-celiac diagnosis), to the point I would drink nearly a gallon of milk a day.

    The good news is that the longer I go between cheesy cheating episodes, the more I can tell when I’ve had it and my body curses me out a bit louder each time. A couple minutes of casomorphin-induced pleasure really isn’t worth the consequence of feeling like a slug for weeks afterward.


    • altawrites says

      Heidi – I’m the same way about gluten-filled breads and such. Sometimes I’ll bake/eat something I think is so close to the “original” and my family informs me otherwise. :) (But then again I often do make things that the gluten-eaters at home and at work gobble up, so it can’t be too bad!)

      I too had a tougher time giving up dairy. I wasn’t a big milk drinker, but I loved cheese. Stinky cheese, melty cheese, hard cheese, goat cheese, you name it, I loved it. I’ve had times in my past where I wished I could “get over” the dairy issues, but when I’ve accidentally ingested even something as innocuous as a bit of butter at a restaurant, my body too screams at me louder each time. I don’t crave it any longer, but it definitely makes me miss it less and less when the pain way outweighs the reward! And with so many alternatives, I don’t miss it anymore.

      Thanks Heidi for your insight!

  5. says

    I think the cheating is the biggest issue. I get many readers who argue me that the cravings don’t go away. For every single one, they’ll finally admit that they do “cheat” with cheese on occasion. When they admit to “on occasion” I know that it means at least once a month, but likely more (we all like to under-exaggerate when we feel guilty!). If you cheat with a food that you tend to crave, those cravings will come roaring back. Stay away strictly, and even the most stubborn cravings will fade within a few months. Yes, you might once in a while still look longingly at the cheese plate, but overall, you won’t miss it. Awesome series Alta!

  6. says

    My dairy-free life is so much better than my cheese-filled life :) I am so grateful! I don’t think we could live without nooch! We sprinkle it on almost anything – it was made for popcorn, wasn’t it? Mmmmm! Daiya is a gift too! Thanks for another great post.

  7. Jen says

    I am not DF but my son is just newly on a GFCF diet b/c of his autism. My dh & I don’t consume ALOT of dairy, but we do eat it…I haven’t bought cow’s milk in over 10 years now and my boys never drank it once weaned…I do love my cheese (as seems to be the consensus! :) but don’t use it near as much as I used to…and we will use yogurt in smoothies occasionally but that’s about the extent of our consumption…even butter, which we use a wee bit, has been cut WAY back and I find I rarely buy it anymore as I have substituted it with coconut oil…but I just buy a small block to have in the fridge for the odd use…so one of these days I too may make the plunge to DF!!
    But alot of dishes that I make are DF anyway b/c of my son (and I’m not making more than one meal if I can help it!). :)
    I am SO glad that someone told me about cashew cream! I’ve used that already a few times to make mac & cheese for us (he’s been asking for that alot) AND I even used it to make homemade icecream (in place of the heavy cream) and it turned out quite well…i just used almond milk and/or coconut milk as subs for the ‘whole’ milk in the recipes. I’ve also just simply used those non-dairy milks to make it too…it makes the icecream less creamy but WAY less expensive than buying it in the store! It’s a special treat that we’ve missed! This is still pretty new to us so it’s a bit of a learning curve but we’ve been doing pretty well.

  8. Monica says

    I have been dairy free off and on for the last 20 years (truly dairy free now) and just found out that I’m gluten sensitive this year. I think it’s interesting how people say let go of the dairy or gluten. I was a true milk drinker and bread lover, although I didn’t care much for cheese. Funny thing about the cheese is Daiya has made me love cheddar now. :-) When you love food it is harder to “let it go”. I had just come to grips with the fact that I have to give up dairy for good then find out I’ve gotta let go of my bread and pasta. Not cool at all. I have given them up due to the fact that I feel better now, but will never be able to “let it go”. I’m glad that I live in the age of the internet where I can get tons of good alternative recipes for some meals and desserts.

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