Going Dairy-Free For Beginners (Easy Guide)

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by Alena Schowalter
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Make going dairy-free really easy and fun with our helpful beginner’s guide! Find our top tips, food swaps, recipes, and more in this article.

Whether you are struggling with a food allergy, are looking to transition to a vegan diet, or want to see what going dairy-free can do to your body: this guide is for you!

Having been true cheese lovers for many years, we managed to go completely dairy-free over the course of a few weeks. 

This was over a decade ago, and dairy-free alternatives and restaurants have come a long way since then!

This guide captures everything we have learned and will help you when going dairy-free.

Read more about vegan vs. vegetarian diets and healthy food swaps next!

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What does dairy-free mean

Dairy-free means that a certain product contains no milk or milk by-products. It’s not the same as lactose-free or vegan!

Dairy milk comes from cows and other mammals, such as goats. Female animals produce it for their young, just like we as humans do.

Lactose-free is not automatically dairy-free! It just means that a certain product has no lactose (milk sugar). Lactose can be neutralized by an enzyme, but it still comes from dairy. 

Is vegan dairy-free?

All vegan products are dairy-free. However, the same is not true the other way around!

Non-vegan ingredients, such as meat, fish, or honey, are dairy-free but won’t be consumed by a vegan.

Certain ingredients, such as “lactic acid,” can be found in vegan, dairy-free products because, despite its name, this ingredient is most often derived from plants and not mammalian milk. 

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Why go dairy-free

  • Reduces animal suffering in the dairy industry
  • Fewer negative environmental impacts, such as water use, deforestation, and the production of methane
  • Intolerances or milk allergy
  • Full-fat dairy is high in saturated fat, especially cheese
  • Going dairy-free can improve digestion and skin issues
  • Helps with absorbing certain nutrients or medication

Ditching dairy will mainly be beneficial to the animals and environment but can also result in health benefits for you personally — especially if you are sensitive to lactose or cow’s milk.

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How to replace dairy

When going dairy-free, you can’t simply cut out milk, butter, or cheese. There are a couple of sneaky ways that dairy can find its way into your shopping cart and kitchen!

List of dairy ingredients

  • Lactose, Lactoferrin, Lactoglobulin, Lactulose
  • Whey Protein, Whey Powder
  • Casein or Caseinate
  • Custard
  • Ghee
  • Half & Half
  • Rennet Casein
  • Paneer
  • Pudding
  • Galactose (can also be derived from plants)

Dairy-free milk

This will probably be the easiest swap! Plant-based milk alternatives have become super popular over the last few years, and you are in no way just stuck with soy.

There’s milk made from almonds, rice, oats, hemp, cashews, macadamia, peas, coconut, and more! Each has its unique taste and works for different uses.

We love barista editions in our coffee (especially Oatly), coconut milk in our Asian stir-fries, and cashew milk in our oatmeal. Just try different dairy-free milks to find your favorite!

Dairy-free yogurt

The next most common dairy alternative at the store is probably yogurt. Often made from soy, almond, or coconut, you can opt for unsweetened, plain varieties or go for vanilla, berries, or lots of other flavors.

In our kitchen, we also replace sour cream and cream cheese with plain soy yogurt. Common brands at the store include So Delicious, Kite Hill, Alpro, and Silk.

Dairy-free cheese

Store-bought dairy-free cheese can be a hit or miss. Don’t go out expecting to find something that exactly replicates cow’s milk cheese, but rather look for something that tastes nice and can be used in a similar way.

Common brands are Kite Hill, Tofutti, Simply V, Follow Your Heart, Miyoko and Daiya (depending on your location). 

These vegan cheeses are made with vegetable oils or nuts and come in all shapes and sizes, from cream cheese to shredded cheese, sliceable cheese, or parmesan.

Dairy-free butter

Vegan butter has come a long way. Not only do they resemble the taste of dairy-based butter, but they have also gotten a lot healthier!

Free from unhealthy trans fats and sometimes even featuring nuts, dairy-free butter is really worth a try! Two very popular choices are Miyoko’s Cultured Vegan Butter and Earth Balance.

Many kinds of margarine are also dairy-free and can be easier to find, so just check the labels.

Dairy-free ice cream

No need to add dairy to any ice cream! Find super creamy and tasty ice cream made with coconut, almond, soy, or many other plant-based foods.

You can even find fancy ice cream sandwiches, vegan chocolate-covered ice cream bars, or cookie dough varieties from brands like So Delicious, Tofutti, Ben & Jerry’s, or Häagen-Dazs.

Plus, most sorbets are already vegan and dairy-free!

Another easy and healthy way to have dairy-free ice cream is to simply make it at home. You can blend your favorite frozen fruit into a sorbet or combine it with coconut cream, cocoa powder, and all the delicious add-ins you can think of! 

Tips for going dairy-free for beginners

Start with education

Get clear about why you want to go dairy-free. Write it down so you can remember your reason why to make this change when the going gets tough!

Leaning into animal ethics and the treatment of dairy cows can be a huge motivator to stick to going dairy-free.

Next, research delicious dairy-free foods you want to try. Make a list for your next shopping trip and get excited about the new flavors and textures of food!

Focus on what you can eat

Any time we take something away or restrict ourselves, we can trigger negative emotions. Instead of focusing on what you can’t have any longer, think about everything that you can still eat!

There are fruits, veggies, legumes, nuts, seeds, and other non-dairy animal products (if you’re not vegetarian or vegan.)

Read labels

You’d be surprised at the many items that contain dairy! Forget about milk cartons or blocks of butter.

Anything from cereals to tomato sauce, vinaigrette, breakfast bars, potato chips, margarine, and bread can contain dairy!

This means that your next few trips to the grocery store will take a bit longer than usual because you’ll have to check almost every label — except for those that say “vegan.”

But don’t worry, once you know which items are dairy-free, you can just buy them over and over again without worrying about it anymore.

Step by step

If going dairy-free cold turkey seems way too daunting, simply start by replacing those foods that are easiest for you.

This can be oat or almond milk in your oatmeal or coconut ice cream! Work your way up to your utmost favorite foods and dishes that you think will be the hardest to let go of.

Dairy-free breakfast

Breakfast is usually the easiest meal of the day to change. Typical sources of dairy can include butter on your toast, milk with your cereal or oatmeal, and yogurt in your smoothie.

There are so many easy replacements for these products!

And let’s not forget about coffee. Try our almond milk latte or matcha latte for dairy-free versions, or simply grab a dairy-free creamer at the store.

Focus on nutrition

Granted, some dairy-free alternatives are healthier than others or come with a different nutritional profile.

For instance, if you use unfortified almond milk instead of cow’s milk every day, you might be short on calcium, vitamin D, iodine, or protein after a while.

Make sure that all of your dairy-free milk and yogurt alternatives are fortified with these nutrients, and choose soy or pea-based ones for more protein.

Try new foods

Never had vegan cheese before? Have an open mind when it comes to dairy-free alternatives, and simply try a few before you come to a conclusion.

Especially cheese can be hard to replicate! There are lots of homemade and store-bought versions. The easiest one will always be nutritional yeast which you can use in sauces or to top pasta!

Get the thought out of your head that each meal requires some kind of dairy product — especially Asian dishes are often already dairy-free.

Eating out

This can be one of the trickiest parts when changing your diet! 

Once you’re not the one preparing your own food, you need to make sure that the person in charge of your meals knows that you don’t want them to include any dairy products.

Don’t hesitate to talk to the waiter or chef at a restaurant about your needs — perhaps even check out their menu online ahead of time!

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Clean out your kitchen

If you still have dairy-based yogurt, cream, cheese, or chocolate at home, think about giving it away. The saying, “If it’s in your house, it’s in your mouth,” ends up being true more often than not.

It’s much easier to make this transition and avoid dairy if you can be sure that anything in your pantry and fridge will be “allowed” to eat!

Should you live in a household with others who don’t want to go dairy-free, give them their own boxes in the fridge and pantry to store dairy-based products.

Make a commitment

Challenge yourself to go 100% dairy-free for 2 weeks and stick to it! This mindset can help you get over the hump and be more creative.

Invite others to join you to make it more fun and see how it will become second nature to you.

7-Day Vegan Challenge

Dairy-free recipes

We have tons of delicious vegan and dairy-free recipes on our website! Check them out now and write down the ones you want to try.

More resources

Are you planning to go dairy-free, or have done so already? Share your tips in the comments below and Pin this article here!

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Hi, I'm Alena Schowalter — a Certified Vegan Nutritionist who has been a vegetarian since childhood and vegan since 2012. Together with my husband, I founded nutriciously in 2015 and have been guiding thousands of people through different transition stages toward a healthy plant-based diet. I enjoy discussions around vegan ethics, walks through nature, and creating new recipes. Read more about us here.


  1. I have been dairy milk and egg free for several years and eat a little cheese but rarely. What is difficult for me is how to switch to a completely vegan diet while living with a meat eater. Breakfast and lunch are fairly easy but evening meals are difficult. He is happy to accept a vegan meal every second day but we are both still eating meat on the other days, because I don’t know how to organise a meal that suits both of us without cooking two separate meals, which I don’t want to do. I’d really like tips on how to manage vegan cooking with a meat eater. I don’t seem to be able to find help with this anywhere.

    • Yes I have the same problem. Maybe make some of the vegan casseroles and throw the cooked meat on top…. I mean the casseroles are going to be delicious and full of carbs so he should be just fine. Maybe when he see your health benefits he will want to try it too.

    • My parents had a similar problem with me, but the opposite. When I was younger I refused to eat just about any vegetable that was green. So say in a casserole, like tater tot casserole, they would make 2/3 of it (keep in mind I was a child so I wasn’t eating a lot anyway) for them and 1/3 for me, and just change the topping slightly so we could tell where the change was.

  2. Thanks for sharing! It is so helpful that there are so many different kinds of substitutes in the last few years!


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