How to Eat Gluten Free on a Budget
Our family has been gluten free since 2008. This dietary change was necessary for three of our six family members, so I do not make separate meals or snacks. My husband does cook the occasional frozen lasagna after the kids go to bed, but otherwise, when we are at home, we are all gluten free.
Besides being gluten free, we also are free of things like food dye, artificial flavors, and preservatives. One of my children reacts to food dye, one has autism, and another has ADD. We try to avoid any ingredients that aren't whole food items (like meat and vegetables), or that you couldn't make in your own kitchen (such as cooking down honey and butter to make caramel).
Our dietary changes occurred gradually. We didn't jump from the Standard American Diet to one free of allergens and additives all at once. The learning curve was steep at first, and initially, our grocery budget soared as we tried to replace all of the gluten containing items we were used to with their pre-packaged gluten free versions. The next step was buying special mixes to try to re-create these items at home. That too, proved to be expensive, so I continued to refine and tweak our meal planning.
Now I feel our family not only has a workable grocery plan, but we are eating healthier and better than ever. I am going to share some of the ideas that worked for me, in order of their degree of impact on our budget. These suggestions won't work for everyone, but I hope you can find something helpful to pull from.
Make Sure Your Food Budget is Going Toward Food
By that, I don't mean to nix shampoo or dog food from the list if they are considered “grocery” items for your family. What I'm talking about is non-essentials like soda or pre-packaged snacks or boxes. If every penny counts, and you are scrounging to feed your family safely, it's better to spend an extra buck on the certified gluten free spaghetti noodles than to spend it on the plastic bag that comes around your single serving of baby carrots. Buy the 85 cent bag of big carrots, slice them up, and put them in a reusable container. Drink water. Now you can get the pasta. That sounds simplistic, but you can make major cuts this way if your family is used to snack packs and non-water beverages. When buying gluten free snacks, instead of going for the individually wrapped “Enjoy Life” fudge bar, buy a box of cookies or crackers and repackage them into singe servings at home.
2. Grocery Shop Once a Month and Buy in Bulk
Grocery shopping once a month takes planning- but less than you think! I don't have to meal plan out every day for an entire month, I just need to know the basics. This is how our “monthly” schedule works. Once every two or three months I buy beef and pork from local farmers and I put them in the chest freezer in the garage. I get variety packs of meat and just make my meals based on what we've received. One Thursday a month I do “grocery shopping”. For me, that means going to Trader Joe's and Earth Fare and buying a month's worth of the foods we usually get there. The first couple times you do this, you may underestimate. If you do, try to stick it out for the rest of the month and clear some forgotten items out of your pantry and freezer until your next trip. Or, you can make a few small runs to pick up that extra jar of jelly and another gallon of milk if you have to- just don't over do it! Calculate those items in when you are planning for the next month. For example, once a month I buy 9 blocks of cheddar cheese. When I get home, I keep a few in the fridge, then shred and freeze the rest so it won't mold before the end of the month. If we run out of cheese before the month is up, too bad. I tell the children they ate all the cheese for the month and now they have to pick something different to eat because we're not buying more. This is REALLY good for your budget for a couple of reasons. First, you spend less on impulse purchases. The fewer times you enter a store, the less you will buy overall. No grabbing that “new” item or replenishing your chocolate supply each week. Second, you realize how much you spend on individual items each month. When I saw how quickly we tore through corn chips and how much value we got for our buck, I started a monthly ration. No buying more “next week” and continuing to throw money down the hole on a product that is basically a bag of air. The actual contents can be crushed down to fit in the palm of your hand. My husband keeps a bag or two for chips and salsa, but we don't use them for snack time anymore. Thinking, “Oh- I spend $24 on xyz every month,” helps you determine if there is a cheaper, healthier, more filling, alternative.
Besides the trip to the grocery store, My second Thursday of the month is used to go to Costco and buy chicken in bulk, as well as a few other items. You can get milk from Costco or Sams as well, and to benefit from the low price, you can buy that in bulk as well. I get my milk from a farm so I use a third Thursday to get the milk in bulk, but I freeze our extra gallons . (If you find milk on sale or at Costco and buy it in bulk like I do, remember to open all the gallons and pour some off the top before putting the lid back on and putting them in the freezer.) We used to be dairy free, so if you are dairy free it is easy to buy containers of non-dairy milk in bulk cases and just keep it in the pantry.
You will run out of items like bananas or produce. I have my husband pick up extra bananas for us when he is already out running his own errands. He will not impulse purchase. I also get a produce box delivered every two weeks to fill in the gaps between our monthly grocery trips, and sometimes go to the farmer's market and pick up local, seasonal produce. This may not be dirt cheap, but once again, it reduces impulse purchases. Just set aside a specific amount each week for farmer's market veggies and take it in cash when you go. At least you won't be lured to spend money on new shampoo, cookies, or more blocks of that cheese the children were pining for earlier.
Cut Back on Bread Items
Once again- sounds simplistic, but makes a difference. If you are used to eating a bread item at every meal, replacing it with a gluten free alternative can be expensive. Just get used to getting your carbs from a different source. Use rice or or potatoes instead of bread. Almost all veggies have a percentage of carbs- ever think of carrots and squash as a carbohydrate? Instead of $6 gf waffles for breakfast, eat eggs and bacon. Replace cereal with a banana served with peanut butter or sliced into yogurt. Don't feel like your new “gluten free” meals have to look like your old meals. Save the pricy breads, cakes, and cookies for special occasions- or when you need something to go with cornbread or soup.
Make Use of Amazon Subscribe and Save
Using Amazon's program (or other similar grocery sites), you can save money by buying items in bulk. By enrolling to have the item shipped on a periodic basis, you forgo shipping and get a percentage off the actual product. You can cancel any time, even after only one shipment- so there's nothing to lose. This is what you do after you've done all the steps above. Now you know what gluten free packaged items you can't do without and you are really willing to spend your money on. You also have more money to spend from re-evaluating your eating and shopping habits.
What do I buy from Amazon? It changes from time to time, but currently I buy things like coconut flour (used in gluten free baking), and certified gf peanut butter (because we are sensitive to cross contamination and we eat a LOT of peanut butter). You can get a lot of Bob's Red Mill products here. And if you can't live without having a bowl of cereal from time to time, this is a great place to find some gf cereals. We used to get gf corn flakes here, which once again helped me realize how much we were spending on cereal per month, and ultimately led me to switch the children over to other, more hearty and economical, breakfast items.
Make Your Own Treats (But Avoid Complicated Recipes)
Now that you are cooking and shopping like Little House on the Prairie (Ma, guess we'll pick up another bag of grain next spring when we can make the trip to Independence...), there's one last tweak you can make. Instead of buying gluten free goodies, you can make them at home. It's cheaper and healthier. It's more time consuming, too, but hey- you're cutting back on eating food items that aren't naturally gluten free, remember? So you shouldn't spend a lot of time doing this every day. Now you should just be baking for that weekly desert or that upcoming birthday. And when you do make a batch of cupcakes, make a double batch and put some in the freezer. This is a lifesaver when you realize you need something to send with your child to the family Fourth of July celebration and you forgot to bake anything special last night and you're supposed to be in the car in 15 minutes. Frozen cupcakes have saved many a day. They're better than superman.
The only pitfall to this is when you invest a lot of money on special flours, expensive gums, $10 extracts, and a brand new Kitchen Aid stand mixer- and then realize you will not use half of these items again until Christmas. What's even worse is when you realize your special flour mix has expired, and now you have to throw it out and waste all that money. Not to be a spoil sport- you can go ahead and buy a lot of special ingredients if you think you will use them up quickly- but sticking with simple recipes are best. I just pulled a yummy desert out of the oven that involved very few ingredients. The only flour I used was almond flour, which I bought in bulk online. Bet you can't guess where I store it. Yeah. In my freezer. Anyway, the point is, have fun making those special treats for special occasions. But if you find yourself regularly bogged down in recipes that involve 20 ingredients (10 of which are different flours or gums), maybe you should try to find something a little simpler. I don't have the time or money to spend on those kinds of endeavors. But hey- my mom makes stuff like that for us and I really appreciate it. She has the extra time to piddle in the kitchen, and she's not trying to budget for 6 people!
I wish I could tell you there's a special store somewhere that gives away gluten free foods and ingredients for free. I wish I could tell you you can save money while still eating and shopping in exactly the same manner you are used to. I wish I could link you to awesome coupon websites you've never heard of before. Unfortunately, I can't do that.
What I can do, is promise you that you will be happier and healthier once you become more aware of how and why and eat, and that, in the long run, you may even be glad that you've entered the world of food allergies and intolerances. You view food with new glasses. You're conscious of what you put into your body. The benefits that come from that are something I wouldn't trade for a lifetime of munching on BoBerry Biscuits.