A Beginner’s Guide to Ditching Dairy

Looking to ditch dairy completely? Confused about where to start? Here are my tips.

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1) Godairyfree.org. This is the very best resource I have found for everything dairy-free, from product recommendations to restaurant guides. This site is your best friend. The dairy ingredients list is a must-bookmark link for your phone. I’m closing in on 3 years into my dairy-free journey, and I still reference the list.

2) Read labels! If you’re purchasing anything in a box or package (sauces, bread, cereal, seasonings, etc.), read the ingredient list carefully. Dairy is sneaky; it hides in the weirdest places. Don’t just look at the allergen list. Don’t expect dairy ingredients to be in bold font, either. When in doubt, refer to the dairy ingredients link noted above. If you ever wonder about a questionable product, contact the manufacturer for allergen information.

3) Be wary when eating out.  Whether it’s takeout, a 5-star restaurant, or grandma’s kitchen table, be extra vigilant of food prepared by others. Dairy allergies and intolerances are still not understood by the general public. When ordering at a restaurant, always ask the server to double-check with the chef that your food selection is — or can be — prepared dairy-free. (Do not simply take even the most well-intended server’s word for it.) If you have a dairy allergy, make that abundantly, though politely, clear to the waitstaff. Also, take a look at your food before digging in, searching for obvious dairy such as a cream sauce, cheese, or pat of butter. When eating at another’s home, you need to decide the most comfortable option for you: go potluck by bringing your own dairy-free item(s) to share — with the host’s permission of course — or go over your dietary restrictions with the host ahead of time to determine what menu items you will be able to eat. You will find, eating out will be your greatest obstacle.

4) Eat naturally dairy-free. When you go dairy-free you have two choices: try to eat as you did before or change your lifestyle to suit your new dietary needs. Don’t get me wrong, there are many increasingly available dairy-free substitutes for everything from cheese to protein powder. However, sticking to a diet that’s predominantly naturally dairy-free will not only be better for your waistline (dairy-free substitutes often contain more fat and extra processing) but for your wallet, as well. Aim for animal or vegan protein sources alongside fresh produce and whole grains, and you’re set.

5) When in doubt, go vegan. New to dairy-free ingredient searches and feeling anxious about making the wrong selection? Choose the vegan option. Since a vegan diet eliminates all animal products and biproducts, dairy will not be an ingredient. However,  if you’re sensitive to cross-contamination, you’re going to want to be even more vigilant (see #9.)

6) Don’t cheat! The better you are about maintaining a dairy-free diet, the easier it is to stay dairy-free. Your tastes will change. You will stop craving dairy. You simply have to power through. The first month will be hard, but things will get easier by the six-month mark. By your first dairy-free anniversary, you’ll likely barely think about dairy, no less crave it.

7) Find basic substitutes you enjoy. I know I said to go predominantly naturally dairy-free, but you will need some substitutes. Do some experimenting to find your preferences. Do you like coconut oil instead of butter, or are you a dairy-free margarine fan? Do you prefer coconut milk, cashewmilk, soy milk, rice milk, oat milk, or hemp milk? Do you like GoVeggie vegan “parmesan” or is nutritional yeast your go-to? Do some taste-testing and recipe experimentation.

8) Learn to make a roux. Cream sauces, cream-based soups, gravies… they become readily accessible once you learn to make a dairy-free roux. My favorite uses Earth’s Balance Soy-free Buttery Spread, all-purpose flour, cashewmilk, salt, and pepper. I add nutritional yeast for a cheesy flavor.

9) Know your sensitivity level. Some people are highly sensitive to dairy, others are not; know where you lie. Can you handle cross-contamination? Can you risk a questionable dairy content? Be knowledgeable. Know your risk so you can make the best dietary decisions for you.

10) “Milk-free” doesn’t mean dairy-free. “Lactose-free”, “Milk free”, “Non dairy”… none of these actually mean “dairy-free.” Confusing, right? The only way to know for sure is to read the labels… carefully.

11) Know what is and isn’t dairy. Eggs are not dairy. Goat’s milk and sheep’s milk are dairy. Butter, ghee, yogurt, ice cream, margarine (if not specifically dairy-free), cheese, whey, and casein are dairy. Mayonnaise is generally not dairy.

12) Learn to self-advocate. Being dairy-free means learning how to navigate a dairy-filled world. You will need to determine how to best advocate for yourself.

13) Find a good grocer. Do your research and find a good grocery store — online or brick-and-mortar — that offers a variety of dairy-free options. The more options you have, the less deprived you’ll feel and the more content you’ll be in your diet.

14) Find a balance, find sustainability. As with any diet, balance is key because without it the eating pattern is unsustainable. Eat healthy but also find dairy-free indulgences that satisfy you. Read labels, peruse product reviews on Godairyfree.org, join a dairy-free group on social media… tasty dairy-free products are out there.

15) Think of it as a new journey, not a burden. Sure, being required to drop all dairy from your diet can be challenging, even isolating at first. You’ll find your way though. You’ll find new recipes, learn new cooking techniques, become more aware of your health, likely eat in a more nutritious manner, and possibly even lose a little excess weight. Sure, it’s annoying not to be able to give in to every cupcake craving or pizza desire, but it’s probably better for you not to do that. You’ll feel better. You’ll live better. In time, it’ll be standard operating procedure… life as usual.

You can do this!