Some people go dairy-free when struggling with an allergy or lactose intolerance; others go dairy-free for health or environmental reasons. In this post, I’ll be focusing on the particular challenges of how to go dairy-free as a vegan. But much of the advice should resonate, whatever your individual motivations.
I went fully plant-based nearly two years ago. And I’ll just start by saying that I loved cheese – like, really loved cheese – so I understand how daunting a prospect the thought of giving up dairy can be. That said, once I made up my mind, I also made the switch effectively overnight. So while it’s challenging, it’s definitely possible for anyone to do.
It’s a great time to go dairy-free in 2023, as there are so many more options now available in supermarkets, even compared to just a couple of years ago. Lots of new brands are popping up, and there are also plenty of mainstream brands now catering for vegan alternatives, too.
So whether you just want to learn more because you’re curious or you’re struggling to go cold turkey, this is my vegan guide for anyone attempting to go dairy-free!
Why Go Dairy-Free?
If you’ve read my post on the problems with the dairy industry, then you’ll have a good understanding of why vegans don’t touch dairy products. However, TL;DR, switching out your cow’s milk for plant-based alternatives is better for animals, the environment, and your health. Ditching dairy helps to:
- Minimise the unnecessary suffering of dairy cows and their calves
- Veto the veal industry
- Reduce your environmental impact, e.g. methane production that contributes towards global warming, water pollution, and deforestation
- Lower your intake of cholesterol and saturated fats that can lead to chronic diseases
- Reduce your intake of carcinogenic hormones
- Improve digestion issues and skin health
First Things First: Preparing to Go Dairy-Free
If you’d prefer to skip straight ahead to my favourite dairy-free alternatives, then feel free to do so. However, it’s worth remembering that more than half the battle with veganism is preparation and mindset. So here’s how to set yourself up for success!
Clear out non-dairy items
Firstly, don’t leave anything to chance! Have a purge of all the dairy items in your home (yep, even that sneaky bar of Galaxy) and gift unopened items to other family members. It goes without saying that you’ll also need to stop buying dairy when you go to the supermarket. If it’s not in your house, you’re less likely to cave in moments of weakness.
Of course, it can be trickier if you live in a household with dairy eaters. Try to separate your food as much as possible and let them know that you’re going dairy-free. This not only helps you to stay accountable, but also stops them from accidentally making you a cup of tea with cow’s milk!
Understanding food labels: vegan, dairy-free, lactose-free?
‘Vegan’, ‘dairy-free’, ‘lactose-free’ – it can all get a bit confusing.
In short, dairy-free and lactose-free don’t necessarily mean vegan. Dairy-free simply means that a product contains no milk or milk by-products, but it could contain other animal-derived ingredients. For example, mayonnaise is technically dairy-free, but it isn’t vegan because it still contains eggs.
On the other hand, lactose-free means that the lactose in cow’s milk has been neutralised by an enzyme (but it still always comes from dairy products, so it isn’t vegan).
The safest bet is therefore to look for items specifically marked as ‘Vegan’ because these will always be dairy-free. Alternatively, if there’s no vegan certification, you’ll need to check the list of ingredients.
What to avoid
The obvious answer when going dairy-free is to cut out all cow’s milk, butter, cheese, yoghurt, etc. But some sneaky dairy ingredients are more difficult to spot. The main culprits include:
If you’re ever unsure, Veganuary have produced this handy label-reading guide.
Where to find dairy alternatives in the supermarket
Rather than checking the label of every single item you pick up, it can be easier to look for the dedicated plant-based section in a supermarket. This might be a fridge/freezer, or in larger supermarkets, it may take up a full aisle.
There’s still room for improvement in some supermarkets (e.g. dairy-free can often be mixed in with traditional products), but as vegan demand grows, it’s getting easier to spot and navigate!
Getting Into the Right Mindset
How many times have you dived headfirst into a new weight loss regime, only to inexplicably find yourself stuffing your face with crisps a couple of weeks later? The answer is rarely as simple as making the change, otherwise we’d all stick with the things we say we’re going to do.
Veganism, more than anything, is about shifting your identity. It involves a sincere transformation of your thoughts and beliefs to bring about lasting change. So here’s how to stick with it – even after the initial flame of motivation has fizzled out.
Make a commitment
It may help to pledge your commitment so that you’re held more accountable to your dairy-free goals. Why not try a 30-day challenge like Veganuary? Alternatively, if you have a friend who is also curious about going vegan, you could take the plunge together. After all, research has shown that you’re 65% more likely to meet a goal after committing to another person.
Keep an open mind
You should approach your new lifestyle as open-mindedly as possible. Don’t go in too negatively, e.g. “I’ll never be able to give up cheese.” Similarly, don’t wear your rose-tinted glasses, e.g. “Vegan cheese will taste just as good as normal cheese!”
Try to park all your preconceptions about what dairy-free products will taste like and simply accept that there will be some hits, and just as many misses. It’s a trial-and-error process. For instance, oat milk was a revelation for me (and I would genuinely choose it over dairy now), but finding a good vegan cheese has proved more challenging.
Sometimes, an alternative will never ‘replace’ the original, but can still be tasty in its own way. Plus, an even bigger mindset shift – not all meals even need a dairy replacement!
Expect & manage cravings
Ah, my old friend… cravings. Going dairy-free is truly a lesson in self-discipline and delayed gratification. It does get easier, but you need to give your tastebuds time to adjust.
My personal weakness is Dominos’ cheesy garlic bread. Two years in, and it’s still hard to sit and watch other people tucking in without a care in the world.
This is why, in these moments, it’s so important to know your why. Watch documentaries, read books, and generally have a rock-solid understanding of why veganism matters to you. Reassure yourself that long-term fulfilment doesn’t come from the instant gratification of your tastebuds.
Also, don’t forget to stock up on your favourite dairy-free alternatives so that you never go hungry in tempting situations!
How to Go Dairy-Free: Replacing Dairy in Your Diet
Now that you’re feeling a bit more prepared, let’s take a look at how you can easily swap many of your favourite dairy products for plant-based alternatives.
This is one of the easiest swaps if you’re looking for a good place to start! Once upon a time, soy milk was largely what you were stuck with as a vegan, but now there is an abundance of dairy-free milk options!
Oat and almond are probably the most popular choices (oat being my personal fave), but do experiment to discover your own.
Depending on your preference, you’ll find sweetened and unsweetened varieties, as well as different flavours like chocolate, vanilla, etc.
You can also find plant milk in the refrigerated section or long-life packaging. Unlike dairy milk, I find that the long-life stuff tastes just the same as fresh. Even better – it has a shelf life of more than a year or so. This means that you can stock up and make the most of Subscribe and Save offers.
Pro tip: keep an eye out for ‘Barista’ editions if you’re looking for a creamier finish for your coffees – the light grey Oatly is my go-to. Oh, and don’t forget to give the bottle a good shake too (trust me, it makes the world of difference!).
- Nut milks like almond, cashew, hazelnut
- Cereal milks like oat, hemp, rice
- Legume milks like soy or pea
- Potato milk
- Minor Figures
Make your own homemade nut milk
Supermarket plant milks are a great way to get you started and work out which varieties you like.
However, once you become a plant milk aficionado and are drinking it regularly, it can get expensive. Plus, you don’t have full control over what ingredients go in, and the cartons aren’t so great for the environment either.
To save up to 60% on your dairy-free bill, consider making your own with a plant milk-making machine. This only requires the raw ingredients, tap water, and the click of a button. If you’re interested, I’ve written a more in-depth guide on the topic.
Vegan cheese is typically made with vegetable oils and nuts. It can come in different varieties, from soft cheese to grated packets to blocks.
Dairy-free cheese has been a trickier one for me. Unlike milk, I’ve found that vegan cheese can have a weird aftertaste, doesn’t melt as well, and overall has a different texture to real cheese.
As such, no matter how much anyone tries to convince you that veganism is easy, I wouldn’t go in expecting a product that mimics real cheese, as you’ll likely only be disappointed. That said, after a lot of taste testing, I have found a few vegan cheeses that I can get on board with (start with Nush, Applewood and Cathedral City). Plus, more options are thankfully becoming available all the time.
100% Vegan Brands
- Green Vie
Brands With Vegan Options
- Applewood (nice and smokey!)
- Cathedral City
Secret Ingredient Alert: Nutritional Yeast
Whilst we’re on the subject of vegan cheese, it would be impossible not to mention nutritional yeast. A long-time cheese substitute for those in the know, this is something I’d never even heard of before I went vegan!
Nutritional yeast is a cheesy, umami-flavoured, savoury topping in the form of golden yellow flakes. But don’t be put off by the neon colour – this stuff definitely has a place in your vegan kitchen!
It packs a nutritional punch, containing more protein per calorie than real cheese. It is also rich in B vitamins (fortified with B12), selenium, and contains no fat, gluten, sugar or sodium. You can use it like parmesan cheese to sprinkle onto dishes, as a finishing spice when roasting or baking, or else blend it into dips.
It can be a little tricky to get hold of (I received a perplexed look when I asked where I could find it in Morissons!), but I managed to order some via Holland Barrett.
Margarine & Butter Alternatives
There are plenty of plant-based spreads, so this is another easy way to make your first dairy-free swap!
You can safely use these as baking substitutes with no real noticeable taste difference. Many vegan butters are also healthier than traditional butters, being free from trans fats and sometimes containing nuts.
Before going vegan, I often used to buy an olive spread, which just so happens to be accidentally vegan! As such, this wasn’t really so much of a swap for me as simply making more of a conscious decision. Supermarket own brands are generally nice and budget-friendly, too.
Accidentally Vegan Spreads
- Sunflower spreads
- Olive spreads
Dairy-free yoghurts are generally made from soy, oat, almond or coconut. There is a huge variety now available in supermarkets, so why not try some out for a quick breakfast swap?
The only criticism I have is that currently, it can work out quite a bit pricier than traditional dairy yoghurt.
- The Coconut Collaborative (my fave!)
- Classic/Greek style
- Fromage frais (perfect for lunchboxes)
Confession time: I’m not a big chocolate lover (controversial, I know!). So if truth be told, this one wasn’t a big deal for me. But I totally understand how this could be a major stumbling block for those with a sweet tooth!
Fortunately, there is tasty dairy-free chocolate out there, I promise. You just need to know where to look.
Vegan chocolate can be harder to pick up in the supermarket than other dairy alternatives (like oat milk, for example). Dark chocolate often happens to be accidentally vegan, but if you’re after the taste of milk chocolate, then creamy nut milk chocolate is your best bet! There are lots of lovely vegan brands that you can stock up on and support (see below).
Ice Cream & Dessert for Vegans
If ice cream is your sweet treat of choice, then head over to the plant-based frozen aisle for some delicious creamy alternatives made from coconut, almond and soy. You could even make your own healthier version by blending frozen fruit and combining with coconut cream.
You can also find vegan desserts like mousse, cookies and pies. Top off with a drizzle of vegan custard or cream.
- Ben & Jerry’s
- Haagen Dazs
- Wicked Kitchen
- Swedish Glace
Dairy-Free Finishing Touches
- The Coconut Collaborative
Begin Your Dairy-Free Journey Today!
I won’t sugar-coat it – going dairy-free can be tough at first! In fact, I found it much harder than giving up meat or fish. However, as with anything, the more you practice, the easier it gets. In the end, a dairy-free lifestyle becomes second nature and you’ll eventually find you barely even need to look at food labels.
Sadly, many people don’t realise just how cruel the dairy industry is. They believe it to be an innocent by-product, but the truth of the matter is that it still involves suffering and ultimately slaughter.
There are so many wonderful benefits of going dairy-free – whether for animals, the planet or your health – so why not give it a go? You may also find it useful to check out my complete beginner’s guide to going vegan. Oh, and don’t forget to let me know how you get on! I’d love to hear all about your progress, achievements and challenges.