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How to Eat Gluten Free, Affordably
It's bad enough that being sick costs money. Getting that diagnosis of "Celiac Disease" doesn't come cheap. While there is a part of your mind celebrating, ("Yay, it's not just stress! And it isn't cancer, either!") another part of your mind is trying to address what the doctor is telling you. Diet changes. Gluten free. Got it.
Then, you go to the grocery store. Gluten free bread costs HOW much a loaf? And noodles? And...well, if you're poor and all you're doing is looking for a gluten free label, there's a good chance that first gluten free shopping trip will either end in tears or leave you penniless. If your grocery budget is precariously balanced against pesky little bills like rent, insurance, and utilities...while you're paying down the debt of getting diagnosed in the first place, the cure for what ails you might appear to be just out of reach.
But you can't give up. The only treatment for Celiac Disease is to follow a gluten free diet. The risks of not treating Celiac Disease are much more costly than the diet itself. If the damage done to your body isn't enough to inspire you to stick to gluten free dining, the costs of osteoporosis, malnutrition and the treatment of cancer caused by intestinal damage from untreated Celiac Disease should be enough deter your from the bread aisle.
The less financially stable you are, the more intimidating the diet can be. After all, they don't exactly provide gluten free bread at the food pantry. And the more hours you're busy working to make ends meet, the less time and energy there is to devote to things like learning how to cook again.
But learning how to cook, and recreating a 'norm' of living is an essential step in learning how to eat gluten free affordably.
Re-evaluate Your Diet
My first advise to anyone starting a new restrictive diet is to sit down and make a list of favorite foods. Make a list of meals you normally eat. Your fast foods, your favorites, and your special treats. Get everything on there from baked beans to ziti.
Now, you get to sit down and take a critical look at the list. Highlight the things that are already gluten free. (Potatoes, peanut butter, chocolate chips, salsa...) Then comes the hard part. Everything not highlighted can probably be made gluten free for a price.
Normally, I say it's worth developing a recipe that works...just concentrate on one favorite at a time. But if you're really on a tight budget to begin with, you might not have the extra to spend. Rather than choosing ways to keep your favorite foods and lifestyle, you need to do something different. You're going to need to think outside the box.
This is the step that drives my husband crazy. Sandwiches are cheap and fast. But the gluten free versions cost a fortune. Ramen, again, touted as cheap fast food. But gluten free soup packets are never available for a quarter a packet.
To eat affordably, and stay under budget, you have to re-evaluate your ideas of quick, cheap food.
Cook full meals ahead and package leftover in single serve containers in your freezer. Instant lunches. No waste. Saves you both time and money.
A Note on Peanut Butter
Peanut butter has long been touted as cheap food. But following a recent crop failure, prices have been skyrocketing. Therefore, although peanut butter continues to be naturally gluten free, I've left it off my current gluten free budget hubs. At least until prices stabilize or return to affordable levels.
New Cheap Food
Gluten free specialty food is expensive, so look for items that are naturally gluten free. Build your basic diet around naturally gluten free products.
A few inexpensive items to get you started:
- Potatoes: Often bought in bulk bags, and they store relatively well. Potatoes make a great carby side for main dishes, and are a wonderful base for veggies. You can mash them, fry them, shred them up for hashbrowns, chop them into a variety of dishes or simply bake them (twice).
- Rice: It's the staple of many ethnic cuisines, it cooks in 20 minutes on the stovetop and it's widely available. Plus, you can buy it in bulk for cheap. Make up a big pot once a week, and use it for soup, frittatas, fried rice and a base for bean dishes.
- Beans: The epitome of cheap eating, beans are naturally gluten free and they're good for you. Just soak them properly. Or better yet, buy the canned version. (It's not quite as cheap as dried beans purchased in bulk)
- Frozen fruits and vegetables: Frozen fruits can be whizzed with some milk and bananas for a quick smoothie. Vegetables will start or top any quick fix meal, add beaten eggs for a frittata or serve them on top of potatoes or rice.
- Chips: Chips have always been inexpensive and comforting junk food. Now you have a great excuse to include them in your diet: Cheap and gluten free. Top with beans and cheese for pseudo nachos, shred up leftover meat, or use them for a crust for quiche.
Instead of a sandwich, cheap lunches can begin with a scoop of leftover rice, or some leftover pasta or an extra baked potato. Add beans, or veggies and sauce or cheese for a filling meal that might just be even more appealing than that peanut butter sandwich you're used to.
The prices on bulk bins might be tempting, but there is a high level of cross contamination between bins. Instead, ask supermarket personnel if there is an unopened package they can fill for you in the back. Otherwise, buy packaged varieties. It's cheaper to avoid getting sick than to save a few dollars.
Bulk Up Your Pantry
Buying in bulk is a budgeter's dilemma. It costs more up front. But then it saves you per item. It's only worth doing if you do it sensibly. You need a place to store extra food (out of the elements and in a way that makes it difficult or impractical for bugs and rodents and family pets to access it) But it works. The more you buy of any item, the less expensive it tends to be per ounce (or per unit, or per lb, depending on what it is). There are, of course, exceptions to any rule. So, before you fill your pantry with rice and beans, chocolate chips and salsa, stand there with your calculator and divide the final price up by the number of servings in the container...then compare it to the regular price.
It's worth the effort, at least if you're on a tight gluten free budget.
Buying in bulk is only sensible if you use up the products before they expire, and are buying a similar amount of products that you'd be buying anyway. So, buying snack bars in bulk and then indulging in them nightly for the next two weeks when you'd normally only buy 2 or 3 a month is going to end up costing you extra money (and calories) in the long run.
Buy the snack bars. Take 2 out. Put the rest in the "keeping cupboard". And label them for when you will restock your pantry. Sticky notes work perfectly.
Better bulk buys include dried beans, rice and canned goods. Applesauce and juice can be good bulk buys (Be careful with the juice) Snacks can be purchased in bulk and then portioned out in individual serving sized bags to prevent them going stale too soon, or getting mindlessly devoured by some young family member who was gauging their consumption by the size of the box they're used to munching out of.
Don't limit your bulk buying to kitchen staples like those rice and beans I keep touting. Cereal, gluten free crackers, potato chips, nuts, and dried fruit are all available in bulk. And you can buy cases of gluten free cookies and snack bars from allergen friendly companies like Enjoy Life and Kinnikinnick as well. Figure out what you want, how often you use it and whether or not buying in bulk makes sense for you. We buy Annie's gluten free mac and cheese in bulk once every 3-6 months, and consider it our splurging fast-food night dinner. For fast food, it's cheap. But it's not quite as cheap as dinner from scratch. Buying it in bulk makes it an affordable alternative.
Before buying in bulk, search around. You can shop at Costco or Sam's Club for bulk bargains, but you can also find them at manufacturer websites and even on Amazon.
Sometimes you can find rice, dried beans, and specialty gluten free flours for exceptional prices in Asian supermarkets.
Where you shop makes a difference. Become aware of prices, and how they vary at different stores. Keep your grocery list on the fridge, but make different columns for different stores...then shop at the one that will cost the least overall.
For gluten free food, Whole Foods seems like a safe bet. And it is full of gluten free specialty foods. But Sprouts and Trader Joe's have gluten free offerings that are often much more affordable. All 3 stores offer a gluten free dining guide. Use it, and mark in the price of your favorites down for future reference. Make your purchases at the store (or stores) that make the most sense for your personal budget and lifestyle.
Consider buying in bulk at these stores too. Some offer a small discount for purchases made in bulk. Whether it's gluten free rice pasta or naturally gluten free canned beans, that 10% or 15% starts to add up, helping you to stay on budget.
Take advantage of sales and stock up, too. Every so often the frozen foods aisle will put fruits and veggies on a loss leader sale, and you can buy several bags for under $10. They aren't as 'healthy' as fresh, but they retain plenty of flavor and nutrition. And, they're naturally gluten free. The more you save on naturally gluten free items, the more you have left to spend on gluten free specialty foods.