drive through at a fast food restaurant

Your Guide to Dairy-Free McDonald’s Meals

We’ve all been there, right?  You’re on a road trip, driving merrily along and hearing only the occasional “Are we there yet?” when suddenly it hits: everyone is hangry.  It’s time to find some food…and fast.  Then you see the sign: the famous golden arches rising over the expressway.  McDonald’s to the rescue!  The kids cheer and you breathe a sigh of relief…sort of.  You wonder – are there any dairy free McDonald’s menu items for my family?!

Mcdonald’s is an American staple.  It seems like you can find a McDonald’s in almost every town across America!  But if you can’t eat dairy or need to avoid it, what can you eat there?

Well, you might be surprised at the fast food you can or can’t eat!  Restaurants sometimes use unexpected ingredients.  You also need to be cautious about food preparation procedures, especially in fast-food chains.  Let’s take a look at some general tips that will serve you well, along with the list of McDonald’s items.

General Tips for Eating at Fast Food Restaurants

Not all fast-food restaurants are created the same.  The type of food and the restaurant’s target market greatly affects if the restaurant is sensitive to food allergies, intolerances, or special dietary needs.  Many rely on pre-made, pre-packaged items, while others do more food prep on the spot.  The quality and accessibility of allergen and food preparation information varies widely across the restaurant industry.  

Here are three points to keep in mind every time you eat out (fast food or not):

1. See if there is an allergy menu or nutrition guide available 

  • When checking online, be sure that you are looking at the most recent information available, directly from the source (the restaurant website or the website of the official franchise).
  • When you are at the restaurant, ask to see an updated food allergy menu or nutrition and ingredient information chart.

2. Be aware of possible cross-contact issues

  • Know where and how the items are prepared. For example, many restaurants will have dairy-free items, but they will be fried in the same oil and/or cooked on the same equipment as items containing dairy.  For someone with a dairy sensitivity or allergy, even touching equipment that came in contact with dairy could cause serious digestive issues or life-threatening reactions. Look for things like dedicated fryers for french fries, for example (which as you’ll see below – McDonald’s does not have, and their fries themselves actually contain dairy – mind blown, right?!).
  • Check how food containers are positioned or stored. This is especially important at buffet-style restaurants, or places where food is assembled while customers choose their toppings.  Think of a submarine sandwich shop or a build-your-own-pizza place.  If the cheese sits right next to the meat, there’s a good chance it has fallen into that container of ground sausage.  The station where the tacos are made may have the nacho cheese sauce sitting right next to the taco filling, dripping off the ladle every time an employee rushes to make an order.

3. Tell employees about your food sensitivity or allergy when you order 

  • Restaurants should have some way of marking your order so employees are extra careful in preparing the food. The employees need to follow any safety procedures required when making food for a customer with special dietary needs.  For instance, some places will automatically wipe down the food assembly line, use clean utensils, and swap out new containers of food when cross-contact is a concern.
  • Make sure the employees fully understand your food order and have it correct! If they look confused when you place an order, be sure to clarify with them. If you ask a question and they don’t seem confident in the answer, gently ask to speak to someone who can answer questions about food preparation conditions or ingredients.
  • Consider making chef-cards: small, business-card sized papers that list food sensitivities, allergens, or dietary needs. You can hand one to the server or cashier when you order.
  • Don’t be afraid to speak up! Restaurants need to know about the kinds of foods that their customers desire and need. The more customers vocalize special dietary concerns, the more the market will adapt to those needs.

You’ll want to be vigilant about these things every time you eat out.  Restaurants can (and often do!) change menu items frequently and seasonally.  Restaurants can also change food suppliers, ingredients, or food preparation steps and you would never know unless you check the fine print.  You may have a great experience with knowledgeable staff at one visit, only to find completely new staff the next time you stop. 

Lastly, be mindful: if you have an allergy or extreme sensitivity, there is always a risk when others prepare your food.  Most restaurants (and McDonald’s is no exception) will have a disclaimer stating that the restaurant cannot guarantee a kitchen completely free of cross-contact risk. 

a drive through sign on the road

McDonald’s Dairy-Free Menu Items

So…back to the road trip and that emergency stop at McDonald’s for dinner.  If your family needs to eat dairy-free, what are your options?

Well, the short answer is not much.  According to the most recent McDonald’s restaurant allergen information for the United States, below is the list of completely dairy-free items. 

These items have no dairy ingredients, and McDonald’s current allergy information (at the time of this posting) does not indicate any specific cross-contact warnings for dairy.  I’m noting other potential allergens for those of you dealing with multiple allergies, but be sure to double check these.

*Disclaimer:  This post is for informational purposes only.  Manufacturer formulations can change at any time, so always double check the most up-to-date allergen information on McDonald’s website (linked below) as well as asking at the restaurant.

Dairy-free menu items:

  • Apple slices (kid’s meal)
  • Baked Apple Pie  [contains wheat]

Dairy-free beverages:

  • All the sodas, unsweetened and sweetened iced teas, slushies, orange juice, and apple juice
  • Plain, black premium-roast coffee
  • Plain, black Americano coffee drink

Side salads used to be included in the dairy free list above, but as of 2020, they were removed from the menu in the US.  It’s unclear whether they’ll return at any point.  (If they do return – note that for dressings, you’ll have to read the ingredients on the individual packages. McDonald’s uses Newman’s Own brand salad dressings and does not disclose official allergen or ingredient information for pre-packaged condiments.)

Dairy-free menu items that may be cross-contaminated with butter on the grill:

  • Plain hamburger [contains wheat]
  • McRib [contains wheat and soy oil]
  • *Big Mac only when ordered without cheese [contains wheat, egg, soy]
  • *Quarter Pounders only when ordered without cheese [contains wheat]
  • *Double-cheeseburger only when ordered without cheese [contains wheat]
  • *McDouble only when ordered without cheese [contains wheat]

McDonald’s started using real butter on their grills a few years ago, which seems to be mainly for prepping breakfast items and grilled chicken.  However, obviously if a burger patty is placed on the grill after or next to these items, cross contamination is a very real possibility.  As such, tread carefully depending on your medical condition.

Also keep in mind, when burgers are ordered without cheese, the person assembling them has often touched cheese with their current gloves.  If cross-contact is a concern, inform them of your allergy and ask if they can change gloves.

Dairy free menu items that may be cross-contaminated in shared frying oil:

While these do not contain dairy ingredients themselves, it is a definite cross contamination risk as they are fried in the same oil as the buttermilk crispy chicken products which DO contain milk.  This may not bother you if you avoid dairy for minor intolerances, but those with allergies would need to avoid these:

  • McNuggets – [contains wheat]
  • McChicken sandwich – [contains wheat, egg]

Surprising items that contain dairy (avoid!)

Last but not least, there are a few items containing dairy that you would never suspect!  Here are some of McDonald’s menu choices that include sneaky dairy ingredients – avoid all of these!

  • Fries – Who would’ve thought, right? Indeed, the famous salty McDonald’s french fry is made with beef flavoring, which contains hydrolyzed milk.
  • Hash browns – Same story here, folks. McDonald’s likes its beef flavoring on more than just fries.  Watch out for the hydrolyzed milk in the hash browns!
  • Artisan Grilled Chicken items – Weirdly, none of the grilled chicken items at McDonald’s are dairy-free! The chicken is grilled with clarified butter.  You’ll want to avoid all the sandwiches and salads containing grilled chicken. 
  • Filet-O-Fish sandwich – Many fish batter recipes don’t use milk, but alas, McDonald’s uses milk in the coating!
  • Fruit and maple oatmeal – A lot of restaurants make oatmeal with plain old oats and water, letting the customer add extra toppings like milk, raisins, and brown sugar. Not so at McDonald’s, where the oatmeal contains light cream.
  • Egg McMuffins – Think you can order a breakfast sandwich without the cheese?  Unfortunately, that’s not the case.  The muffins themselves are coated with butter.

So there you have it.  It is possible to eat dairy-free at McDonald’s – but it can be quite limiting.  Eating out with a food sensitivity or allergy is challenging, to be sure.  But by doing a little research ahead of time, ordering food carefully, and asking the right questions, you’ll be able to enjoy at least a handful of fast food items safely.

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