Defining My Dairy-Free Cooking Challenge

On August 1st, 2012, I plan to stop cooking with dairy for a year.

All meals I make at home for me and Philip (and my mom) will be dairy free for one year.  Philip and I aren’t going dairy free, just our meals at home.  He’s still going to put half and half in his coffee.  We’ll still eat dairy at freinds’ houses and out at restaurants.  We’re still going to eat eggs (which are not dairy).  I’m still baking with dairy.  I don’t intend to become vegan and I don’t intend to ever give dairy up completely.  What I want (and won’t do unless I make a real commitment to myself) is to reduce my dairy consumption by 75%.

I want to learn to cook and enjoy eating food that does not have cheese, butter, or milk in it.  It’s that simple.

I eat “too much” cheese.  I am very fond of saying that there is no such thing as too much cheese but that’s a lie.  I know that for my best health I need to eat a lot less cheese.  Cheese needs to become an occasional treat.  Something I eat with reverence rather than a favorite food I eat at nearly every meal.

I refuse to disclose how much cheese I currently eat a week.

It’s not just about my figure and my arteries either.  In thinking about this whole cooking challenge I talked with a vegan friend and did some online reading about the carbon footprint of dairy products.  Of meat.  Of poultry.  I thought that by eating local dairy I was doing really well as far as sustainable eating was concerned.  I was incorrect.  I was concerned that not eating dairy would result in a less sustainable diet because I know that for me I would need to increase the tropical fruits and nuts in my diet to be satisfied.  (To replace the deliciousness of cheese and yogurt and butter.  Not because it is necessary for nutrition.  It’s not.)

I have often said that a life without cheese is not worth living.

I’ve said the exact same thing about beer.

But I wouldn’t miss cheese half so much if I could make a lot of coconut milk curries.  If I could eat even more avocados than I do.  If I could buy bananas and fresh pineapples.  If I could make sauces using cashews.  Avocados are my only constant tropical splurge.  I only allow myself to buy coconut milk once in a while.  Pineapples and bananas and cashews – never.  I haven’t bought a cashew in many years.  And I LOVE them!  Oh!  And dates.  I haven’t bought dates in years.  I love those too!

I read a lot of vegan food blogs and I’ve got to tell you that the vegan sites that don’t use tropicals do not entice me.  The most enticing vegan recipes feature avocados or coconut milk or cashew sauces.  I could give up cheese for a while for those things.  But then the food I eat will all have traveled more than I ever will and that’s kind of galling.

It turns out that all dairy (local or not) has a substantially higher carbon footprint than any imported produce does.  Did you know that?  It’s a question of how much energy it takes to raise the animals (to feed them, house them, pasture them – if they’re lucky enough to get any pasture time) and then how much more energy it takes to process them and store them.  Animals that are as big or bigger than human beings eat a shit-ton of grain.  That grain has to be grown for them.  There are often lots of pesticides involved.  It’s difficult to measure and compare the carbon footprints of different foods so there are definitely varying reported numbers but one thing is consistent among all the estimates: meat and dairy have a considerably higher carbon footprint than any imported or domestic produce.  Period.

So what I’m beginning to discover is that eating sustainably isn’t just a question of where it was grown or how much poison was used to grow it or how many miles it had to travel but also how much energy it takes to feed your food and then process it in factories.  It’s complicated.

Here’s my new model of sustainable eating practices prioritized:

  • Non-GMO foods – these are just as devastating for the earth’s diversity as directly poisoning ourselves and the soil is.  This is bad-ass evil shit.  If you don’t care about anything else, you should care about this.
  • Major reduction in meat and dairy consumption (including eggs) – because having to grow food for your food takes an extravagant amount of energy.  Produce crops need water, light, and compost but compost is naturally produced by the scraps of other produce.  It’s also free if people (farmers and individuals) are doing it right.  Plus there’s the whole animal treatment issue.  If you are a person who really needs to eat meat then just consider eating smaller portions of it at meals and maybe eating a few more meat free meals a week and buy your meat/eggs/dairy from local and sustainably raised sources.  It really does matter.  Every little bit matters.  You’ll make a difference just within these parameters.  If you can afford organically and sustainably and ethically raised meat then you’re probably rich but you’ve got my automatic admiration for making such awesome choices.
  • Local – this is still important but more flexible than I realized in comparison with the dairy/meat/eggs group.  Every one of us needs to support our local farmers as much as possible so that when China decides to declare war on us we are still capable of feeding ourselves.  Support local SMALL organic farms first, then local small non-organic, then support the big local organic farms, but never support the corporate non-organic ones.  There’s nothing in it for anyone.  Do this: locate all your local farmer’s markets, before you plan your weekly menus or shop anywhere else, go to your weekly farmer’s market every single week it’s open and base as many meals a week as you can on what is available there.  Buy all the produce and other locally produced foods you can from your local farmer’s markets.  That means you’re supporting your local economy FIRST and helping local farmers and food producers to thrive in a tough economy and that means they’ll consider selling to you (a familiar weekly face) before strangers in a post apocalyptic event.
  • Organic – because poison is just killing everything and everyone and everyone’s fertility.  Except for the Duggars.  Yes, organic can sometimes be cost prohibitive.  So pay attention to the dirty dozen list when you can’t buy all organic.  I’m not going to judge you.  I can’t buy all organic either.
  • Cheapness – we spend a larger proportion of our income on our grocery budget than we do on transportation.  We don’t have much money and we have a lot less because we choose to eat good quality food and support local farmers and food producers and we also don’t buy a lot of processed food (except for Max’s stuff).  It is our belief that the most important thing you can spend money on is the food you put into your body.  Food and water are the most necessary resources humans consume.  Without them we die.  Without a car?  You only think you’d die without a car.  But since we’re pretty broke most of the time we try to buy things in bulk, we grow some of our own food, we pick large quantities of produce at u-pick farms to preserve.

 I will include links to some of the reading I’ve been doing.  I will be doing some more reading.  I’m not starting this challenge to myself right away because I’m maximally stressed out trying to find Max a new doctor on his new lousy insurance so I can get him tested before the end of the school year.  I also need to research vegan cookbooks and find a couple that will be inspiring to me (must have tons of delicious inspiring photographs – why are so may vegan cookbooks skimpy on the photos or have depressing looking photos?) and I need to get my house in better order.

I’m looking forward to expanding my cooking skills and broadening my repertoire.

Maybe in my next post I’ll talk about all the jerks out there who are sick and tired of everyone getting all worried about the earth.  But only if you’re in the mood for a fight.

The Carbon Footprint of Food (Graphic)

A Vegetarian Diet Reduces the Diner’s Carbon Footprint

Food’s Carbon Footprint

The Most Harmful Foods for the Environment

And if you’re interested here’s a link to my previous post on this subject:

Vegan Versus Local and Spring Cleaning

6 thoughts on “Defining My Dairy-Free Cooking Challenge

  1. Chelsea

    Hmm…sounds like a SERIOUS challenge. I’ve recently HAD to go dairy free…well more like lactose free because I’m lactose intolerant. I buy lactose-free milk but I only can use it if I bury it in my coffee or occasional cereal. I need the calcium desperately and they have a fortified version that works well. You can easily substitute almond, soy or coconut milk if it’s fortified with Vitamin D and calcium but I’m not a big fan of any of them- soy tastes greasy to me. I do splurge on milk in my PG Tipps though, it’s worth the sacrifice. If I eat cheese, because, hello? I still crave it, so when I do eat it, I choose feta (our favorite). It must be sheep or goat feta because it doesn’t cause as much painful bloating and other unpleasantries in the morning.

    Ugh…TMI

    Anywho, you may want to go dairy free for 2 days, take a break, then 3 days, break, 5 days, etc before August. See how you can rearrange your favorites without punishing yourself. I agree that eating less dairy is good, but it’s important you train yourself prior to your August challenge.

    Don’t bow to the vegan power pac without a plan!

    Peace out.

  2. NM

    Vegan cookbook with gorgeous photos: The Now and Zen Epicure. You might need to add salt to some recipes.

  3. angelina Post author

    Nicole – I’ve noted this title to check out. Thanks for the rec.

    Chelsea – that’s totally interesting. Did you suspect this for a long time? You never mentioned years ago that cheese and dairy made you uncomfortable. Actually, maybe you sometimes said that too much made you feel bloated or too full or something? Did you take an allergy test for that? (I’m wondering if your nutrition classes inspired you to do this?) I don’t view this challenge as all that serious. It’s not like I’m actually going dairy free for a year. It’s more like all the meals I make at home will be dairy free but I’ll be getting some cheese in at restaurants and at friends’ houses (those who cook with dairy) So my body isn’t going to be completely dairy free.

    However, you’re right that I should train myself a bit first. Mostly I’m going to work my way towards August by making more and more dairy free meals to get some new favorites established that I can look forward to and have in my general rotation. So I agree with you about that.

    And – “vegan” isn’t the word here since I’ll still be eating eggs. It’s just the dairy I want to learn to cook without right now.

  4. chelsea

    No, I did not take a test to find out I’m lactose intolerant, but yes, we did learn that the body begins to naturally reject lactose as we age, in some people more than others. And it also may be hereditary. Many people of Asian, African, Native- American descent are lactose intolerant just because dairy is not part of their indigenous diet.

    I began to feel bloating a while ago but never really knew why. Now, just because I have issues does not mean I’m restricting dairy for my kids, but I am more away of it. I don’t have any interest in going completely vegan, but it is a serious drag on my culinary adventures to have this issue. I had to have regular milk in my coffee yesterday b/c I ran out of Lactaid, as a result, this morning has been utterly unpleasant.
    So…I just tread VERY carefully when using dairy, choosing kefir, yogurt, sour cream, feta in small doses instead of cheese. I do have butter sometimes, and when I made my birthday cake this year (Guiness Chocolate cake with mint butter cream YUM!) I suffered, but I held my ground till it was gone!

  5. Tonia

    I have been reading, “Breaking the Food Seduction”. It is by Neal Barnard, M.D. If your library has it, I strongly recommend reading it. I have been mostly sugar free for about a month, I say mostly, because I did use agave a couple of times at the beginning. I am vegan and seriously thought giving up ice cream and cheese would make life not worth living, but It really wasn’t that hard. I was absolutely addicted to sugar. The kind of addiction where it isn’t even all that enjoyable, just kind of a permanent need. Once I started paying attention to the amount of sugar I was putting into my body in various forms I realized I had to stop. Diabetes and heart disease run in my family so it just makes sense for me to to buck the family trend of lots of dairy, eggs and sugar. I have seen where that path goes and it isn’t pretty.
    I look forward to reading more of your dietary journey.

  6. angelina Post author

    TONIA!!!!! So I guess you’re not working at the doughnut shop anymore? I hope that going without cheese for most of the time won’t be too hard but it’s difficult to imagine. Still, I’m not going vegan so I can have those things out and about. But it’s hard to imagine not cooking with them. Hence, the challenge. It will be good to train my palate to enjoy foods without dairy. Another friend of mine who went vegan said she lost her taste for cheese after a while. How long have you been vegan? And how’s it going?

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