It’s probably the biggest sacrifice for people who have made or are currently making a transition to a whole-food, plant-based diet -- eliminating cheese.
Few can imagine living life without that ooey-gooey delicacy we’ve come to enjoy on our pizza, salads, sandwiches, dinner entrees … well, just about everything. When I made my first but very weak attempt at giving up dairy (failing miserably at the first Starbucks sighting) the thought of never enjoying a piping hot slice of cheese pizza seemed like a "no-can do." I even started bargaining with MYSELF: “Well if I give up all meat, fish, eggs and milk, I should be able to enjoy a slice of pizza once a month, right? What’s one slice a month! Michael Pollan advocates dairy.”
Truth be told, a monthly slice of pizza wouldn’t hurt me but why would I continue to eat something that decades of scientific research has proven isn't good for me? After all, I wouldn’t choose to smoke or take drugs once in a while. Eventually I did the grown-up thing and said good-bye to my cheesy friend. And you know what? I’m here to write … there IS life after cheese!
So how did I do it?
At first I tried to replace it. A number of plant-based cookbooks wrote of two vegan brands -- Daiya and Follow Your Heart. I’ve tried both. The former melts better. Insofar as taste, I had to acquire it. I recall the first time I ate it. I turned to Matt and said, “I’d rather eat anything else but this. It tastes nothing like cheese.” And why would it? It’s not cheese.
I can say from personal experience that your taste buds do change after adopting a whole-food, plant-based lifestyle. Food that once appealed to your palette eventually stops and food that didn’t appeal to your palette eventually does. That happened to me with Daiya. I tried it again about a year later and it wasn’t bad. I actually enjoyed it. But if we put taste aside for a moment, Daiya cheese is simply not healthful. The company prides itself on what it does NOT contain rather than what it DOES contain. Remember, the primary focus when transitioning to a whole-food, plant-based diet is to keep the “whole” part top of mind. Vegan cheese substitutes, like Daiya and Follow Your Heart, are NOT whole foods. Therefore, I recommend avoiding them.
Which brings us to our headline -- how can we successfully replace cheese? The answer lies in creativity and whole food.
Looking to spice up a panini or make a grilled sandwich? Hummus is your new BFF. It’s quick and easy to make or can be bought in any local grocery store. Best of all, it’s absolutely delicious and you can make it in any number of flavors such as roasted pepper, eggplant or zesty garlic. And when you heat up a sandwich with hummus, you’ll definitely find yourself reacquainted with that ooey-gooey feeling you thought only cheese could provide.
How about dressing up a salad? I think the first time I ever really tasted a salad was after I made this transition. Prior to that, my lettuce always seemed to be swimming in some sort of dressing. Remember what I said about our taste buds changing (or maybe it's reawakening!) Here’s where I really experienced that feeling because I now enjoy my salad in its raw state -- without dressing and without cheese. On occasion I may add a splash of balsamic vinegar or a few dashes of the Indian spice chat masala, but for the most part I let the fruits, tomatoes, olives, nuts, seeds, peppers, etc. put the BAM! in my salad.
If you’re looking to capture the consistency of cheese, a healthful substitute is avocado. You can slice it, dice it or mix it in with your fingers to ensure that it’s wrapped perfectly around every bite-sized piece of lettuce. This is a wonderfully delicious way to optimize the nutritional benefits from a greens salad without sacrificing any flavor whatsoever.
Pizza, pizza and pizza! Matt and I love making pizza and dare I write we still find it as enjoyable to eat “cheeseless” as we did with cheese. The secret is in the base. Try a little basil pesto, white bean garlic spread or caramelized onions. Top that with your favorite tomato sauce and a bit of fresh garlic and then go crazy adding vegetable toppings such as sliced tomatoes, fresh basil, eggplant, broccoli, spinach, mushrooms, roasted peppers, etc. The possibilities are literally endless and the result is always a to-die-for pie.
If you’re ordering pizza out, ask for it "cheeseless" and have the chef add a bit of extra sauce, fresh garlic and a variety of veggies. Talk about “healththifying” a comfort food that traditionally carries little if any nutritional value.
These are just a few ideas for replacing our beloved cheese. If you’re looking for more, I can’t stress enough how helpful the Internet is. Use it to Google plant-based recipes; whole-food, plant-based pizzas; cheese alternatives; etc. There’s a wealth of information waiting to be discovered every day. Remember, every question you have has been asked and answered hundreds of times online, so let your fingers do the walking and have fun exploring.