As a kid, I had an allergy to dairy products that made attending all of the pizza and ice cream parties that my elementary school friends threw almost torturous. Luckily, I outgrew this allergy by my teen years, but the time I spent avoiding dairy products as a kid made me very aware of what it’s like to eat (and through my mother, to cook) a restricted diet.

restrictionsI have a few thoughts about cooking for a specific diet:

1) I’m usually more pleased with dishes that are conceived in a way that’s consistent with the diet than I am with dishes that require substitutes.

2) When substituting, I believe in using “real” ingredients rather than mock-ups. What I’m saying is, I’ve never been happy with soy cheese, for example, but in many instances, an avocado can satisfy some of those same cravings… it’s creamy and fatty and rounds out an otherwise incomplete-feeling sandwich or entree. My advice for cooking with a dietary restriction is to think about the qualities you’d have in the dish you want—taste, texture, mouthfeel—and think of other ingredients that will get you there.

With the increase in our culture of allergies and dietary restrictions, the prospect of throwing a dinner party can be quite daunting to the host. So when friends of mine recently agreed to come over for dinner, I embraced one of their dairy allergies wholeheartedly and wanted to make something rich, satisfying, and indulgent—something that didn’t feel restricted.

shortribsI turned to my latest cookbook purchase, Deb Perelman’s The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, for inspiration, and found many dairy-free options that fit the bill. But when I saw the following recipe, I knew I would be cooking Balsamic and Beer-Braised Short Ribs this weekend. They sound decadent and fabulous, and I can’t wait to make them.

The cookbook suggests pairing it with a Parsnip Puree that was fraught with dairy (cream, butter… yum!). Instead, I plan to make some Dairy-Free Mashed Potatoes. I’m going to swap in chicken stock and roasted garlic to keep the mashed potatoes creamy without the usual cream/milk and butter. Finally, for dessert, I’m planning a Blueberry Crisp with a pecan, oat, and brown sugar streusel topped with some lemon Italian ice.

Whatever your diet, there are always ways to make the flavors pop or to create an indulgence… you just might need to be a bit more creative!

What savvy substitutions do you use when cooking for people with dietary restrictions?