Several years ago, after three consecutive rounds of antibiotics for strep throat, my older son started having tummy problems every day. When I finally began eliminating foods that might be the culprit, dairy was the first to go. After all, between milk, yogurt, and cheese, he was eating it in nearly three meals a day.
And bingo. No dairy, no tummy troubles.
After over a year of total abstinence and a steady diet of probiotics, we were able to slowly reintroduce dairy and he’s back to normal today. Even so, we maintain some of our dairy-free habits because, after getting used to it, cutting back on dairy wasn’t all that hard and made us all feel better.
Here’s what we learned about how to cut back on dairy, with 10 tips to get you started on doing the same.
1. Swap butter for ghee.
I’m Greek, so if you ask me, anything that you can do with butter, you can also do with olive oil. Even top toast. That said, sometimes you just need butter for that buttery taste. When that’s the case — or you don’t share the same love for olive oil — use ghee. A staple in Indian cuisine, ghee is clarified butter, which means that the milk solids, along with lactose and casein, have been removed. So all the flavor of butter, with none of the dairy stuff. Magical.
Check out our post on healthy baking substitutes for our favorite brand of ghee.
2. Try nutritional yeast.
I used to think that nutritional yeast was an icky, 1970’s health food store relic, but as it turns out, it isn’t so bad! Before I go on, though, you should know that despite what you’ll hear from vegans and other folks who haven’t eaten dairy in ages, this is not just as good as Parmesan — or even close — but it does help get the job done.
Nutritional yeast adds a subtle, cheesy-like layer of flavor when mixed into things like pasta sauce, meatballs, or even sprinkled on hot popcorn. And, honestly, when you’re craving some grated Parm, you need something. This will totally do the trick, especially after you’ve gone a little bit without the real-deal.
3. Start buying — and soaking — cashews.
When you soak cashews overnight and then blend them, you get a surprisingly creamy puree that can work wonders in dairy-free cooking. Honestly! Even though we eat dairy, I commonly soak cashews to add creaminess to smoothies without having to add milk or yogurt, and cashews can even be used to make vegan mac and cheese like the vegan Green Chili Mac and Cheese at Minimalist Baker that we found when rounding up decadent mac and cheese recipes last winter.
Amazing, right? And it tastes pretty great too!
4. Consider coconut your friend.
You can disregard this if you’re not a fan of coconut, but everyone in my house loves it in all forms, which pretty much saved us when we cut back on dairy. Coconut butter became a spread for morning toast, coconut oil a substitute for regular butter in cooking, canned coconut milk the base for sauces, and refrigerated coconut milk for smoothies, coffee, and other drinks.
Oh, and if you can’t find a plant-based milk that you love, try combining it with some canned coconut milk. Refrigerated almond milk mixed with canned coconut milk was the only satisfying substitute I found for my morning coffee while on Whole30.
5. Experiment with healthy baking substitutes.
Once you find substitutes for your everyday dairy, from milk to butter to cheese, it’s pretty easy to get in a non-dairy groove…until it’s time to start baking. Baking is tricky because it’s not just about taste, but also chemistry that impacts texture too. Check out our list of healthy baking substitutes to find some tried and true ways to skip the dairy and eggs in your baked goods with great success.
6. Skip vegan cheeses.
This may be an unpopular suggestion, but I cannot honestly recommend most vegan cheese products. Maybe (maybe?) once you’ve been completely off of dairy for a while they are more palatable? Or maybe some of you vegans can chime in with recommendations that I haven’t tried? All I know is that I’ve tried quite a few and none are worth it. I’d rather skip cheese all together or, if you’re just reducing dairy in your diet, save it for those meals where it really matters.
And, no, tacos don’t count. Just heap on extra guacamole instead!
7. Invest in pints (and pints) of vegan ice cream.
I don’t know about you, but other than milk in my coffee, the only thing that I missed — like really missed — when we stopped eating dairy was ice cream. I don’t even eat ice cream often, but when I want it, I want it for real.
Even just a few years ago, the non-dairy ice cream options were pretty limited and none quite hit the spot. But these days, all that has changed. Check out our list of the best non-dairy ice creams for some truly amazing options that I bet you’ll continue eating even if cow milk ice cream is still on the menu.
8. But veganaise…try that.
Listen, Hellman’s is the only mayo that ever tastes right to me, but veganaise has come a long way and is definitely on par with all other brands of real mayonnaise. Give it a try and you may be surprised. If you like it as much as I do, it can make dressings creamy, sauces tasty, baked goods moist, and sandwiches on point — even if they don’t have cheese.
9. Experiment with plant-based milks. (They are not all created equally.)
At this point, finding plant-based milk substitutes is as easy as picking up a quart of regular milk. From soy to almond to hemp, there are an endless number of options, even in most conventional markets. That said, I’ve found that not all are created equally. Also, many of the plant-based milks (especially the ones in the refrigerator section) contain additives that some folks prefer to avoid, like carrageenan.
Be sure to give several types and brands of plant-based milks a try before you decide that you have to settle. Also, consider mixing it up. Sometimes, combining two together gets you the taste you want.
10. Try goat milk.
Okay, goat milk is still dairy, but it has a lower level of lactose than cow milk, so if you’re decision to reduce dairy has to do with tummy troubles, you may want to use the suggestions above to cut out cow milk and see if introducing goat milk works better with your system. Our quick primer on goat milk, with some of our favorite goat milk products, can help.