My Dairy-Free Journey: A Year in Review


A couple of years ago, I worked at an ice cream shop. I absolutely loved it. How could I not? The Monon, the summer weather, slinging the scoop, creating craveable concoction. Ahh… Not to mention, it is hard not to love a job where you are handing people ice cream; it never fails to make someone smile.

I digress.

After my time dishing out that dairy goodness, I became quite the ice cream connoisseur — if I do say so myself. My first pregnancy was no exception to this new lifestyle of mine. Heartburn? Ice cream. Morning sickness? Ice cream. Latest rom-com on Netflix? Ice cream.

So, when I found out that my exclusively breastfed baby had a dairy intolerance, only one month into my motherhood debut? Yikes. 

However, here I am, one year later to share some things I have learned on this dairy-free endeavor… and, perhaps, shove as many dairy puns as I possibly can into one Indianapolis Moms blog post. (I hope none of them are too cheesy.)

Sometimes, chain restaurants are the easiest.

I’m all for supporting local; I really am. However, towards the beginning of this journey, I figured out that chain restaurants are sometimes the most convenient for dairy-free eating. A quick Google search for the establishment’s “allergen menu,” and typically, you can see what is dairy-free alongside many of the other common allergens. Now, this is not a perfect system, and yes, there are plenty of franchised places that do not have many or any, dairy-free options still. I just found this was a quick way to research what I can and cannot eat when we are on-the-go or eating take-out. 

From the other DF moms I talked to in the beginning, though, most of them shared that eating at home was your safest bet. I just know that, for us, eating at home 100% of the time was not realistic, and I am all about being realistic. When in doubt, play it safe, and for the love of all that is good, do not rely on the teenager taking your order to inform you about whether or not the ingredients include dairy. Most of them do not definitively know, and that is a “recipe” for dairy-filled disaster. 

When eating somewhere local, it is best to research ahead of time.

With that being said, I do try to support local restaurants when I can. It does involve a little more research and planning, which is not my strength. Again, though, throughout this time, I wanted to be safe versus sorry. 

Social media was a great way to reach out to restaurants in advance that did not have their allergen menu available digitally. I would message their Instagram or Facebook, or even send an e-mail (contact information was usually on their website), with questions about what was dairy-free or could be dairy-free with the correct accommodations. 

Occasionally, when my social anxiety was not through the roof, I would actually call the restaurant like a 1990s soccer mom ordering Friday night pizza, but in this case, modern technology truly made it easier to communicate in advance when planning to dine out.

I would like to take this time to shout out some of my favorite Indianapolis places that have a nice selection of dairy-free options, or really took the time to help me figure out what I could eat while dining!

There is no shame in doing what is best for your baby and yourself.

When the doctor first suggested dropping dairy, I nodded in agreement pretty quickly. He hesitated. “Are you sure?” he asked. “Dairy is in pretty much… everything.” “Sure,” I thought, “So, I don’t eat ice cream? No cheese on my hamburgers? Probably a solid health choice anyways…”

That is, until we tried to get hamburgers on the way home. I checked the website. “Dairy… in a bun?” Little did I know that was just the beginning. As I will explain later, dairy really is in almost everything.

However, at no point did I feel pressured to continue my breastfeeding journey if the responsibility of remaining dairy-free ever became “too much” for the already stressful life of a new mother. (Consumption of cow’s milk proteins are an interesting topic, but I will spare you those details for this post.) 

My husband, the pediatrician, friends who also had similar situations — no one had any judgment towards my choice either way. I knew I always had formula “in my back pocket,” if I needed to jump off the DF train.  Fed is best, and I knew it was important to remember that. 

Use being dairy-free as a chance to explore your palette.

I would be lying if I said I was super enthusiastic as we left the pediatrician’s office that day we discovered her intolerance — on the contrary, really. I had just spent nine months surviving off of fruit cups, toast, and Tums with a side of ice cream. 

Not to mention, I looked forward to meals each day because it was the one thing, as a new mom, over which I truly felt like I had control. I felt like a Golden retriever in a science laboratory (we all know that meme, right?) day-in and day-out after spending the last 32 years of my life — for the most part — knowing what I was doing in most situations. Then, bam! Motherhood! But hey, I thought, I know how to make macaroni and cheese on the stove, and right now, that seems like an accomplishment

I was frustrated, guilt-ridden, and overwhelmed. How could I not know? What if I mess up again? How come men cannot breastfeed? (I mean, we have all asked that one, right?) CAN I EVEN DO THIS? AM I SELFISH IF I DECIDE I CANNOT? (The answer is no, by the way.)

Yet, several dairy-free dishes (Indianapolis Moms has tons of delicious vegan recipes — like this one), a few swapped out ingredients in other recipes, and my very first vegan restaurant (shout out to 10th Street Diner for that brunch, ttttthhhhhoooouuughhh! *Mic drop*), I realized this is just a new experience. A learning one. One in which I can explore all this world has to offer flavorfully, especially the things I had been too timid to try earlier. 

Be prepared to bring your own food. 

As far as mother-in-laws go, I was already pretty certain that I have the best one, yet my dairy-free journey confirmed that. Every family dinner, holiday, etc., she had dairy-free options or meals prepared, as well as a pack of Oreos (yes, dairy-free, phew) on hand, for me to partake and enjoy. 

I knew, though, I should never expect anyone to do such things. I never wanted to be a burden when it came to social gatherings, so I was always prepared with Plan B… or Plan DF, if you will. Whether it was bringing my own personal cheese-less pizza, or even just a protein bar and some fruit, I kept things on-hand in the case that I could not eat what was available. This brings me to my next lesson… 

Dairy is in everything.

Our pediatrician was not kidding. Almost everything can have dairy. Here is a list of things I was shocked to hear can or do contain dairy: Beer/wine, American McDonald’s french fries (yes, the “American” adjective is necessary here), bread, deli meats, some over-the-counter medications, chewing gum, and hot-dogs. This is why it is super important to understand, read, and question nutrition labels. 

Ingredient lists, allergen statements, FDA policies – oh my!

I am not a professional whatsoever, as you probably would have guessed several times already throughout this post. I will say, though, after this experience, I feel like my eyes are more open now to the dietary world of ingredient lists, allergen statements, and other FDA policies. I will not go into details — mostly because, again, thanks to Google, no one needs to hear me ramble about them on this forum, but I do feel the need to touch on it briefly.

You know the phrase “Ignorance is bliss”? Yeah, that certainly does not apply here. I have gone most of my years with blinders on, trusting the advertisements and packaging that lined the grocery store in front of me. After getting out there and becoming more knowledgeable than I was before (growth mindset here is key), I definitely look at these things a lot differently.

Am I perfect? Goodness, no. Do I still eat Taco Bell? Absolutely. Occasionally, but still, absolutely. Like I said, though, growth is key. Never stop learning. A little research can go a long… whey.

Accidents will happen, and that is okay.

Now, I can NOT speak for allergies. Remember, my baby has a dairy intolerance, which is different from an allergy. Allergies can be life-threatening; intolerances are uncomfortable. VERY BIG DIFFERENCE.

I remember my first accidental dairy consumption. It was July 5th. We had just returned from a relative’s house for a 4th of July celebration. Burgers, brats, potato salad — the whole ordeal. I could not wait to dive into the leftovers we brought home. Several bites into my burger, no bun, and I hear, “Wait… which one did you grab?”

Uh oh. I did not know that some of the burgers had cheese mixed inside the patty (YUM, in any other circumstance). Of course, I had selected the one with cheese mixed into it, and in my hasty hunger, I did not notice. 

I will spare you all the details, but the next week or so was rough for my poor daughter. The face rash came back, her tummy was upset, and sleep was nonexistent. I felt awful, as any person would, but what could I do? Damage was done. Just had to be more vigilant next time, which brings me to my next lesson. 

Advocate for yourself.

Do not be afraid to speak up and ask questions. There is no shame in double-checking if something contains dairy. Remember, your little one’s health and comfort relies on you, and although accidents can happen, that does not take away from the mom guilt faced when you see the udder-ly heart-breaking consequences of consuming even a tiny bit of cow juice.

A lot has been done in the world of dairy-free — except cheese.

Not much more to say about this one. Meats, bread, desserts, butter, milk… all pretty comparable to “the real stuff.” Other than, if you are like me and have already Instacart-ed three bags of dairy-free cheese on your first night of this new adventure, pizzas will become your best friend. Melt those shreds of sham onto some dough with some tomato sauce and veggies, and call it a day. It is the best you can do with the texture of dairy-free cheese. *Shrugs*

*I am not a dietary or medical professional. This list is simply from my experiences as a mother who went dairy-free to continue breastfeeding her baby.*