How to eat less dairy as a climate-conscious cheese lover

For many people who want to eat more sustainably, the big challenge is reducing dairy, especially cheese. What is the best way to do this and what is a sustainable amount of dairy?

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Mareike Brühl | 03-16-2023

I remember the moment I found out that the climate impact of cheese and chicken is roughly the same. For years I patted myself on the back that I no longer ate meat. Somehow I never wondered about cheese. As lots of meatless options go heavy on cheese, it was like taking two steps forward and one step back.

Find out why Frank was a weird Dutchy: read about his journey in eating dairy in the Fork Ranger book (page 103).

Beef is one of the foods with the highest impact. And nowadays more and more people realize that other products from cows – whether it’s ice cream or cheese – also have a high climate impact. As our Compass shows, eating less dairy is much more important than eating no meat at all.

When we asked people about their no 1. struggle with eating more sustainably, the most popular answer was eating less dairy. Probably because it’s part of so many different meals and tasty dairy alternatives aren’t at the same point as meat alternatives.

If you – like me – want to eat less dairy, where to start and how to do it? Here are a few steps that helped me get started. And it helped me to know when I reduced enough to reach a sustainable level.

1) Think about when you consume dairy

Milk products can easily be part of every single thing or meal you eat. For example:

  • yogurt at breakfast
  • a glass of milk at meals
  • cappuccino for brunch
  • cheese sandwiches for lunch
  • a piece of milk chocolate
  • lasagne with a cheesy crust
  • a scoop of ice cream as dessert
  • a cheese platter to pair with a glass of wine

We all have different habits. It helps to sit and write down at which moments you consume dairy. Walk through the day, and think about what you eat. If you have a varied pattern of what you eat, write down the various options. Becoming aware is step 1.

Of course there are also lots of processed products which to many people’s surprise contain milk products, like bread. But we’ll leave them aside for now, as the amount of milk in those cases is often extremely low.

2) Ask yourself: which moments do I value most?

Of all these moments, which ones do you enjoy most? What are really cherished moments? They’ll be the hardest to reduce or replace as you’ll be most tied to the experience. It’s probably the exact flavor that is most important to you.

Once you’ve picked the most important moments, let’s take the bottom 3. These are the least important moments and are ideal to start with.

You might have expected a more rational approach like ‘pick the one with the highest impact’. But we’ve learned that to get started, it’s more important to pick the easiest one. Because if it’s easy you will actually succeed at it. And that’s better than picking the one with the highest impact – which might be much harder.

But if you want to go for impact, you would pick cheese. Cheese is often the milk product causing the most CO2 emissions among dairy products. That’s because it requires a lot of milk and also because we eat much more of it than butter. Read more about different cheeses here. Unfortunately, cheese is also the hardest to replace. The dairy product with the lowest footprint is yoghurt.

3) Find solutions: what can be replaced easily?

I don’t know which bottom 3 moments are on your personal list, but let’s have a look at some options. There are multiple ways to go about it.

a) Completely leave it out

The first option would be to simply leave it out completely. Don’t try to make everything plant-based overnight, but focus on having more meals that don’t contain dairy.

Is your pasta also tasty without the sprinkled cheese on top? And if not, go for a completely different food experience. The easiest way to cook without dairy is to make more Asian dishes like curry.

Expand your favourite recipes with new ones without dairy. The Fork Ranger book and seasonal calendar include many recipes to give you some inspiration.

b) Reduce portion sizes

If you only use half the amount of cheese, you’ve also cut the footprint in half. It’s such a logical step we often overlook when it comes to reducing meat and dairy.

One of our tips for reducing the portion size is about parmesan: buy the most expensive and organic version, this way you automatically buy less and treat it more carefully. Then grate it yourself on the finest grating structure. This way you get lots of particles and cheese flavor without actually using much cheese.

c) Replace with a dairy alternative

Alternatives are easy solutions, especially when they replace a dairy ingredient that isn’t the center of the meal.

  • cream is easy to replace
  • yogurt is easy to replace
  • milk is easy to replace, except for some cappuccino lovers
  • cheese is the hardest to replace

The fattiness, umami taste, and texture of cheese when baked in the oven: all these characteristics combined make cheese much harder to replace. In our recipes, we use different ingredients to replace those characteristics. For example, soy sauce for umami, coconut milk or (soy) cream for fat, and sun-dried tomatoes or nuts for texture. And if I see how far meat replacements have come in the past 10 years, I trust that we’ll figure out cheese alternatives too. It just needs a little patience.

The climate impact of dairy alternatives is similar to reducing portion sizes, as you can see for this Sahnige Birnen-Pasta.

4) Create a dairy budget

Repeat the steps above step-by-step until you’re at a sustainable level. Take a few weeks once your new way of eating has become your habit before you tackle the next product or meal.

But at some point, you might reach a level where you’ve covered the quick wins but you’re still eating a lot of dairy. For me, that was when I was eating soy yogurt at breakfast and would order my cappuccino with oat milk. The next step would be cheese, but I couldn’t imagine letting go of my beloved cheese sandwich or oven-baked pasta. Cheese alternatives didn’t excite me enough.

So I came up with a different solution: giving myself a weekly cheese budget. Based on the amount of other dairy I eat, I calculated a sustainable amount of cheese. For this, I used the numbers from the EAT-Lancet report, which calculated what a healthy and sustainable diet would look like. Their dairy recommendation is 250 g whole milk equivalents a day. This translates to one glass of milk or 1-2 slices of cheese. Basically, it comes down to one portion of dairy per day, in whatever shape or form.

In my case that was 7 times 25g so 175g per week. Then I decided to just buy that amount of cheese each week. Once it was gone – even if the week wasn’t over – that was it.

The ironic part is that it actually made me value the moments that I do eat cheese more. It really feels like a treat now! Overall, that’s also our main advice: treat dairy products like a luxury and enjoy it for special meals instead of using it as a daily staple.

Frank found out which other products we need to treat as a luxury. In the Fork Ranger book he shares this discovery journey and invites you.