How to Go Dairy-Free

photo credit: Flickr Adam Chamness

Have you been told you or your child has an allergy to dairy? Have you simply long suspected that dairy is causing your chronic heartburn, nasal congestion, IBS symptoms, etc? Last week, I explained why I went dairy-free. Now, let’s talk about how do to such a thing.

First of all, what is dairy?

Dairy is any food derived from the milk of a mammal – most often cow’s milk. This means butter, milk, yogurt, cheese, ice cream, sour cream, buttermilk, and the like. Eggs are not dairy, even though they are frequently found in the dairy case. These are the obvious sources, but foods with dairy-derived ingredients also need to be avoided. Ingredients that can mean dairy is an ingredient include:

– butterfat, butter oil, butter solids

– casein, ammonium caseinate, calcium caseinate, casein hydrolysate, iron caseinate, magnesium caseinate, paracasein, potassium caseinate, rennet casein, sodium caseinate, and zinc caseinate

– lactose

– whey, whey protein, whey protein isolate

– lactalbumin

– lactoglobulin

– recaldent

I don’t know about you, but that’s enough too-hard-to-pronounce words for me! Makes my head spin. The good thing is that in the United States, manufacturers are required to list allergens in their products. If you read the label, you can see whether something says “Contains Milk” or “May Contain Milk”. In addition, some manufacturers have even gone so far as to label if a product has been processed in the same facility or on the same lines as milk-containing products, allowing you to make an informed decision about whether you want to risk consuming those products.

However, many foods are naturally dairy-free. All fruits and vegetables, fresh meats, seafood, plain rice, beans, and many other staples are dairy-free. Think of a dinner of baked salmon with dill and lemon, a wild rice pilaf, with a side of broccoli – this can be made healthy and completely dairy-free. What about a fajita dinner? Without the cheese or sour cream, you can still enjoy corn tortillas, fajita meat (watch for marinades), peppers and onions, salsa, and guacamole  as part of a dairy-free meal. Many salads are dairy-free – just steer clear of cheese and opt for homemade dressings or oil and vinegar. A great many Asian meals are dairy-free as well – think fried rice, stir-fries, miso soup, sushi, and more! Stuffed mushrooms, peppers, and other veggies are easily still an option when dairy-free. So breathe in, breathe out, and realize that you.will.not.starve. Your food will not be boring. Dairy-free living is still full of amazing flavor and variety!

Now depending on your level of sensitivity, you may need to go through your home and assess where dairy cross-contamination can occur. For example, make sure that if smoothies are made with dairy, that the blender and everything is very well-cleaned before any dairy-free smoothies are created. Personally, I find dishes with baked-on cheese to be the hardest to clean – I only use glass bakeware for items that require cheese to be baked (for the rest of the family) so I can remove it completely. I also have a separate sponge/scrubbie for this (my “gluten/dairy” sponge), as cheese tends to “stick” on things and I worry that it would remain on a dish scrubber for my gluten and dairy-free dishes.

Still unsure on what you will eat when you can no longer grab a gluten-free, cheese-full pizza for dinner, or a yogurt for breakfast? Make a meal plan for a week. Eggs are great for breakfast – hard-boil some for when you’re on the go. Fresh fruit is also wonderful for breakfast, as are smoothies. LARA Bars and KIND Bars are often dairy-free and also great for on-the-go breakfasts. Salads, simple stir-fries, gluten-free pasta dishes sans cheese or cream sauces, and easy meals consisting of a protein+2 sides are a good way to start. Once you have a plan, write down the groceries you’ll need and go shopping. This way, you can relax, since you’ll know what you’ll be having for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the week.

You’ll get through this transition, I promise! Allow yourself time to adjust, and realize there might be a bit of time for “mourning”. I know I had to overcome the loss of cheese, as I was a lover of all kinds of cheeses. However, the improvement in my health and quality of life was worth more than cheese. Over time, I learned to substitute with non-dairy cheeses, and even have made my own. There are quite a few ways you can substitute for dairy in cooking and baking, and it can be delicious! For example, I actually prefer ice cream made with coconut milk – it’s easier and it’s deliciously creamy. More next week on those substitution ideas for your favorite dairy foods.

Of course, there is so much more we can learn from one another. For those of you that are a bit more experienced in the dairy-free lifestyle, what tips can you offer? If you could go back and tell your newly dairy-free self something that would make his/her life easier during this transition time, what would it be?



  1. says

    We had to go dairy-free for my son when he was just a few months old. Now that he’s not breastfeeding, I’ve introduced it back into my diet. When I did, I started gaining weight back tremendously, had lots of intestinal issues, headaches, and just don’t feel well at all like I did when dairy-free. Trying to get back to eliminating dairy again, but it’s so hard when not everyone in the household is on-board.

    • altawrites says

      Sarah – I am the only one in my house that is dairy-free. While I’d love to have everyone on board, the reality is that they aren’t. However, what I cook is dairy-free – usually naturally so. For nights when I make tacos, there is shredded cheese available for those that want it. On the rare occasion that I make pizzas, I make the crust and toppings all dairy-free, but there is regular cheese for the dairy-eaters, and my dairy-free cheese for mine – our family is big and needs several pizzas anyway. Every family dynamic is different, but it can be done! Best of luck to you – you can totally do this! :)

  2. Lisa says

    You mention using soaked and blended cashews to replace soft cheeses, like cheesecake. I tried once to make cashew cream and it was SUCH a disaster. My food processor was just not powerful. I had a ginormous lump of solids still left. Is it necessary to spend hundreds on things like Vitamix blenders if you’re going to be doing dairy substitutes homemade?

    • altawrites says

      Lisa – That’s a great question. I actually used to use my inexpensive Oster blender for cashew cream (I used it for the first vegan cheesecake I made: and it worked just fine!) before I bought a Vitamix, and I’ve chatted with another food blogger that swears by this $20-30 little blender for her smoothies, cashew creams, nut butters, and more! So no, you don’t need an expensive piece of equipment. Using one of the cheaper blenders sometimes means you have to stop and scrape down a bit more often, you might need a bit more water/liquids to get it going, and you definitely have to soak cashews, but it’s definitely doable!

  3. says

    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.
    Make a menu plan and include snacks. If you have a plan and a well-stocked fridge, you won’t have time to be hungry and have cravings. You’ll always be satisfied.
    Don’t cheat at all if you want the cravings to subside.

    • altawrites says

      Alisa – Great tips! I’m big on planning – I feel satisfied and can look forward to my “safe” meals, rather than think about missing out on something I can’t have. :)

  4. Jen says

    Hi! I just found your blog yesterday while searching for a cashew cream recipe *to make mac & cheese)! I was SO happy to see all your recipes were GF and dairy free. Our eldest son is autistic and so we have recently started a GFCF diet for him. I’ve done GF and I’ve done CF but both at different times…so together is proving a bit of a challenge (mostly b/c he has some other ‘allergies/sensitivities’ that I also have to take into consideration) but I do it and the menu planning DEFINITELY has been helping or I’d go nuts and likely quit! It takes all the guess work out of it. There were times before GFCF where it would be 3:00 or 4:00 and I’d have NO idea what to make for dinner! With this kind of special diet & with many restrictions, it just isn’t going to happen if I don’t plan ahead of time! Anyway, SO happy to have found this and I’ll likely be a regular! Can’t wait to try that cheesecake recipe soon! All your food has looked amazing! So excited that GFCF doesn’t have to look boring (as I’ve been doing so far) :)

    • altawrites says

      Jen – I hope that the GFCF diet for your son allows him to improve! I have heard so many positive results from that change in diet. Yes, menu planning is key, especially when you want to keep on track with any healthy diet, GFCF or otherwise! For me, it just takes the stress out of the whole process. Thanks so much for visiting and the kind words! Do try that cheesecake! :)

  5. says

    Great post Alta! I love living dairy-free and I’m so thankful sensitivities drove us here :) I like your tips. I think I’d tell myself that one day I will NEVER look back and that there are an incredible amount of options out there for df living!

    • altawrites says

      Maggie – I agree – there are an incredible amount of options out there! Now more than ever – it’s a great time to go dairy-free. :)

  6. bob says

    Good reminder. I certainly don’t remember all those hard to pronounce names off the top of my head! Thankfully I’m only very lactose and galactose intolerant, so I don’t suffer reactions if things only contain traces of dairy.

    I would tell newbie me that you will have ice cream, and you will like it. You WILL get used to soy milk and rice milk (and that almond milk is out there and tastes so much better!). Utilise herbs and spices in cooking so that you don’t miss the cheese much – eg. using dairy-free pesto and semi-dried tomatoes on pasta. Make sure you have snacks prepared ahead of time so that you can take some with you when you go out or are with friends. Grabbing fresh fruit on the way out the door is a good option too, but a banana doesn’t cut it sometimes when everyone else has cake. I always keep a couple of small packets of raw almonds in my bag, so that I have a healthy, safe snack to keep me going until I get home or can find something safe to eat.
    Finally I would tell myself that eating dairy WILL make me sick, and it’s NOT worth eating it.

    Looking forward to more posts in the series!

    • altawrites says

      bob – I love these tips, thank you! I too am big on using herbs and spices (I was before I went dairy-free) but they’re even more essential when you no longer just cover everything with cheese. :) Also good to bring snacks – I’m the same way – I’ll try my best to have snacks prepared. And yes, thinking about how sick cheating would make you helps! Thank you!

  7. says

    I used to think that dairy free would be harder than gluten free, but it isn’t at all. Once you make up your mind AND realize how many things you CAN eat, it’s a cinch. And no more phlegm for me! Going dairy free after going gluten free took my health up to a whole new and wonderful level! Thanks for this great and informative post Alta!

  8. Carrie says

    My family and I have been dairy free for over a year now, and the benefits to our health have been tremendous! I think the first month was the hardest because you actually crave it, just like an addiction! But it was the best thing we could have ever done – definitely worth the withdrawal!! No more heartburn, IBS or headaches. I have always suffered from severe menstrual problems, and they have all cleared up – amazing! I feel lighter, happier and vibrant! Dairy free has also helped my children, especially my son who was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome a few years ago. He has gone from a kid with no energy or attention span, to a happy, energetic brilliant child! He is now very social and his confidence has soared!! My advise would be that dairy free is so worth it- it may seem difficult at first, but it is actually very easy and you don’t have to give up any food- dairy is easily replaceable in every dish!! And so worth the rewards!!!

    • altawrites says

      Carrie – Thanks for the advice! I’m so glad your family is reaping the benefits of a dairy-free lifestyle. Especially your son – it seems miraculous to see that much of a change in a child. Kudos to you for taking the plunge!

    • altawrites says

      Natali – Yes, goat’s milk is considered dairy. Some people that have issues with cow’s milk seem to tolerate goat’s milk though. In my non-professional opinion, if you are going dairy-fre, you should eliminate all forms of dairy at first. Once you’re dairy-free for a while (at least a month or so) you can try goat dairy to see how it affects you. I wouldn’t automatically switch out one for the other – you may not give your body the opportunity to heal in order to really understand whether it’s a problem or not.

    • altawrites says

      A Table in the Sun – Thank you! And I agree – and there’s SO much to choose from when you look at real food!


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