Food allergies are a growing concern, currently affecting about five percent of children and four percent of adults in the U.S. Milk is one of the eight most common allergens; peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish also made the list.
Not all dairy allergies are the same; cow milk allergies – often found in younger children – cause an immune reaction that can result in hives, vomiting, trouble breathing and wheezing. Allergies differ from lactose intolerance. Some people can't fully digest lactose, the sugar found in milk, which can result in gas, bloating, abdominal pain and diarrhea.
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If you or a family member were recently diagnosed with a dairy allergy or intolerance, there are plenty of milk-free meals and snacks your whole household can enjoy. To round up some of the best, and help you avoid sneaky sources of dairy, we enlisted the help of Lauri Watson, a registered dietitian.
To get you started on your milk-free grocery haul, Watson says, "Nuts, fruits and veggies are going to be naturally dairy free." As with any prepackaged food, it's always best to check the label to be sure.
Sneaky sources of dairy
Milk and milk byproducts can be hidden in foods you might least expect, like oil-based salad dressings and tomato sauces, so checking labels is important.
Milk is one of the eight major allergens required by federal law to be listed on a product's packaging, according to Watson. But it doesn't hurt to give the ingredient list a scan for items like casein, whey, curd, cream and butter.
Watson reveals a number of sneaky dairy sources, including:
- Creamy dips and dressings, like ranch and bleu cheese
- Vinaigrettes that contain grated cheese
- Some flavored potato chips
- Frozen fish sticks
- Granola and breakfast bars
She also recommends asking questions at restaurants and deli counters, where meat may be sliced on the same machines as cheese, causing cross contamination. "Be careful with steak and other meats in restaurants, which often come topped with butter that may not be listed on the menu," she says.
Ingredients in store-bought products can change without warning, so it's important to check the label before each purchase. If you're unsure about a food's ingredients, don't hesitate to contact the manufacturer.
Soy, almond and coconut milk
One simple way to avoid dairy is to purchase plant-based milks and products, like soy milk, oat milk or almond milk-based yogurt and cheese. These seamlessly replace some of your favorite milk-containing foods and can be swapped into most recipes.
Whichever milk you choose, be sure to look at the sugar content. "Flavored milk, like strawberry or chocolate, often contains added sugars," Watson says. Instead, choose an unsweetened variety, she advises.
Here are a few dairy-free recipes you can make at home:
- Coconut milk yogurt and fruit kabobs
Whether you're allergic to milk products or not, fruit is a sweet staple to include in your diet. In addition to being naturally dairy free, it's also loaded with vitamins and minerals and many varieties are low in calories.
To whip together a dairy-free and guilt-free snack, follow these directions:
- Dice your favorite fruits and thread the bite-sized pieces onto a metal or wooden skewer
- Stir together a cup of plain yogurt – made from coconut or other non-dairy milk – the juice from half a lemon and a drizzle of honey, about 1 tablespoon
- Dip your skewers into the yogurt and enjoy
- Milk-free macaroni and cheese
Food doesn't get more comforting than macaroni and cheese. But if dairy is dangerous to your body, it may feel like a real bummer to turn down a serving. This hearty pasta dish combines the flavor you know and love, with dairy-free alternatives and even a boost of added nutrients.
- In a large pot, sauté a medium diced white onion and three cloves of garlic in 2 tablespoons of olive oil
- Once fragrant, add 2 cups each of diced butternut squash and cauliflower florets with 1 ½ to 2 cups of low-sodium broth and bring to a boil
- With your ingredients simmering, cover your pot and cook until the veggies are tender
- Transfer your mixture to a blender, add a small dollop of Dijon mustard, about 3 tablespoons of nutritional yeast – which gives the dish its cheesy flavor – and a dash of salt and pepper before pureeing
- Stir your "cheese" sauce into a pound of cooked and drained whole wheat pasta and serve with an extra sprinkle of nutritional yeast
- Fruit strips
Many sweet treats, like candy bars, cakes and cookies contain milk or milk products, and they're typically pretty unhealthy. It's possible to sate a sweet craving, without consuming dairy or spiking your (or your kid's) blood sugar levels. Watson's recommendation: Pureed fruit bars or fruit leathers.
- Blend three cups of your favorite fruit with a tablespoon or two of lemon or lime juice and two pitted dates (for added sweetness)
- Spread your mixture onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake at 150 degrees Fahrenheit for six to eight hours
- Allow to cook and cut into strips
- Dips and sandwich spreads
Mayonnaise is a staple in many households and is often used as a spread on sandwiches, mixed with a can of tuna or stirred into a creamy dip. Although it doesn't contain dairy, mayo adds 90 calories per tablespoon and a whopping 10 grams of fat. Luckily there are much healthier options, like hummus and mashed avocado.
- Dairy-free ice cream
Ice cream may be one of the most devastating dairy products to miss out on, but now you don't have to. Supermarket freezers are loaded with pints of non-dairy options, made from almond, coconut and cashew milks and swirled with the same blend-ins you've always loved.
Unfortunately, these ice cream alternatives are still anything but healthy. Many contain 200 calories or more per half-cup serving, not to mention loads of saturated fat.
Thankfully, creating dairy-free and healthy ice cream at home is simple. Dice and freeze a large banana in a zipper bag or airtight container and blend with your favorite flavors, like cocoa, chopped nuts or other fruits.
- Homemade party mix
Pre-made snack mixes are great grab-and-go nibbling options, but some contain unhealthy additives and dairy, especially the bags with candy-coated chocolate morsels. By making your own, you can customize the mix to your dietary needs, and probably save some money in the process. Begin with about 3 cups of plain toasted rice cereal and mix in your sweet or salty ingredients.
A sweet mix:
- 1 cup of whole unsalted almonds
- 1 cup unsweetened coconut flakes
- 1 cup mini pretzels
- Cinnamon to taste
A salty snack:
- 1 cup mini pretzels
- 2 cups air-popped popcorn
- 1 cup of dry-roasted unsalted peanuts
- Garlic powder and cayenne pepper to taste
Unsweetened dried fruit and dairy-free dark chocolate chips also make great additions. When mixing up a snack like this, keep track of the calories in your add-ins and mind your portion sizes – it can be easy to overdo it. Pro tip: Measure your mixture into individual baggies for easy snacking anywhere.