Gluten Free and Not Broke

By: Rachel Sircy

When my husband and I first got married, I was a grocery-budgeting wizard. I could easily keep our food expenses under $100 a month. I shopped sales and bought store brands. I figured out meals made from ingredients that were inexpensive but that were also delicious. Unfortunately, none of these inexpensive delicious meals were gluten free. My dinners relied a lot on processed convenience foods like the just add water pizza crust mixes you can get for 1.00 each in some stores.

When I was first diagnosed with celiac disease, I had to give up all the basic knowledge that I had about how to shop for and prepare food. And my grocery bill quadrupled (that’s not an exaggeration). Suddenly inexpensive bleached wheat flour had to be replaced with countless tiny 1lb bags of bizarre powders – things I would never have considered edible before had I not been forced to turn to them. I learned a new vocabulary and new price tags. Amaranth, Teff, Xanthan gum were now words I knew and things I ate. Sickness forced me to eat some pretty horrible things in those days (thanks Bob’s Red Mill for your experiments with bean flours, but your beany bread was puke-worthy) and sickness also forced me to get over the sticker shock. The first bag of xanthan gum that I bought was 8oz and it cost me over $12. After a while, things stopped tasting like cardboard, and I stopped tearing up every time the cashier said the grocery bill total out loud to me. Sooner than I realized, $6 for a half-sized loaf of bread seemed normal to me. After all the terrible mishaps I made in the kitchen playing mad scientist with these tiny bags of ridiculously expensive flours, I was relieved to find a 4lb bag of all-purpose gluten free flour for $16. I was going into the grocery store trying to stick to a budget, but I was so clueless that if someone had told me that a bunch of bananas was $10 I might have believed them.

So, I’ve been broke for a while now. I guess that’s what I’m trying to say. But the good news about that is that after several years of trial and error, I am finally learning how to be gluten free without breaking the bank. And now, I can take all of my mistakes and turn them into helpful knowledge for all of you out there reading this. Here are 5 tips that I hope will help you go gluten free without going broke:

  1. Keep it Simple: If you’re starting out on any kind of diet, the cravings for all the delicious food you used to eat will intensify. At least that’s what happened to me. I wanted doughnuts, fried chicken and Swedish meatloaf with gravy. Unfortunately, learning to cook gluten free was, for me, like starting all over at square one. I had no idea how to make these things with gluten free flours. Things are a bit easier now than they were nearly 8 years ago, but still, it’s hard to learn a whole new way of cooking and thinking about food. So, to keep you from making a bunch of expensive messes in the kitchen, do what I didn’t do: keep it simple. Realize that you will eventually figure out ways to make gluten free versions of your favorite foods. If you’re a beginner, start out like a beginner. A dietician gave me some very helpful advice when I was first diagnosed (and I should’ve listened, but I didn’t). She told me to just concentrate on making a balanced plate using foods that I was already familiar with. For example, have a piece of lean meat, two or three non-starchy vegetables that I already know how to make in a way that’s gluten free (i.e., steamed broccoli) and a starch like rice, or a starchy vegetable like a baked potato. You can get simple ingredients for a whole lot cheaper than boxed gluten free convenience foods and these basic meals will keep you fed and healthy while you figure out the more complicated dishes.
  2. Go Big or Go Broke: When I was diagnosed, there weren’t many gluten free all-purpose flours available on the market. And, as I said above, you had to buy a bunch of little 1lb bags of flour for anywhere from $3-$12 each and experiment by mixing them together to create different flour combinations. Each thing I wanted to make needed a different combination of flours. The flour mixture I used for dredging meat was no good for baking and the baking mix I had was no good for gravy. The gravy thing really hits home for me. Once I made the mistake of thinking that white rice flour and sweet rice flour were the same thing (who does that, right?) and ended up making a pan of stuff that was supposed to be gravy, but was really just salty, gray wet sand. Gross and costly. Anyway, my point here is that today there are more and more all-purpose gluten free flours on the market, and they are worth it! Don’t get me wrong, they’re still expensive. My favorite brand, Pamela’s Artisan Flour is $16 for 4lbs. Still, $16 for a bag of really versatile gluten free flour is SO much cheaper than having to have a separate mix for each dish that I want to make. So, skip all the cake mixes, cookie mixes and boxed gravy. You can usually substitute these all-purpose flours for wheat flour in almost any recipe. That not only means you save money, but it also means that your grandmother’s prize-winning cookie recipe is back on the menu!
  3. Make it Yourself: We all know that eating at home is cheaper than eating out. That is especially true for eating out gluten free. Most restaurants are not celiac safe anyway, but even if you’re not a celiac, you will pay more for gluten free options when you go out to eat. A few restaurants now offer sandwiches on gluten free buns, but be careful, you’ll be paying sometimes up to $2 more for that sandwich than if you purchased it with a regular wheat bun. As much as possible, cook at home. It’s cheaper and it’s healthier. I know that some of you are thinking about how much you hate to cook, and I don’t blame you. I used to hate cooking too, but now I really enjoy it. I found that what I really hated was coming home from work tired and hungry and having to put an hour or more into preparing a meal before I could eat it. The trick for me was to learn to cook on my days off – which took off most of the frustration that sapped the joy of cooking for me – and then freezing the meals in individual containers for later in the week. Now when I come home from work, there’s usually a home-made meal ready for me in the fridge or freezer. Also, let your crockpot be your guide. There are thousands of crockpot recipes floating around on the internet, many of them naturally gluten free. Throw everything into the slow cooker and let it do the hard work for you.
  4. Just Because It’s Expensive Doesn’t Mean It’s Good: Remember that. I can’t stress that enough. I mentioned above that I used to spend $6 for a small loaf of whole grain gluten free bread. The loaf was so small and my bread consumption so massive at the time that I would go through two of those little loaves per week. So, that’s $12 a week I was spending on this bread. I thought it was a really great deal at the time because the bread was at least edible – and believe me there is some gluten free bread out there that definitely isn’t – but I was settling for this expensive bread. It was thick and dense and so tough that sometimes it actually cut the inside of my mouth when I ate it. But then, one day, my mother-in-law gave me a loaf of gluten free bread from Aldi’s that was about half the price of the other bread I’d been eating. And I found something amazing. Aldi’s bread was way, way better than the other bread. Each slice was roughly the size of a regular slice of bread and the bread was actually soft! I am totally going to shill for a grocery store here, but if you want to know where the best gluten free bread is, it’s totally at Aldi. They also have some of the best gluten free crackers. So, don’t get stuck on one expensive brand and think that it must be better because it costs more. You might be pleasantly surprised by a cheaper product.
  5. Cut Down on the Cost of Other Groceries: This seems really obvious, probably, but it isn’t always. I used to tell myself that I was just going to stop into Whole Foods or Earthfare for one thing, but it was never just one thing, it was always ended up being at least 5 things. If I stopped in to grab some GF crackers to go with a pot of chili that I was going to make, I ended up getting my chili beans there. Now, the only thing wrong with the bean selection at higher end grocery stores is that they can be $3 a can. I use two cans of kidney and one can of black beans in one pot of chili. That’s $9 just for the beans to go in my pot of chili. I have since switched to purchasing store brand beans at another store that I can get for less than $1 per can. Truthfully, I really don’t notice a difference in the quality of the beans. So, be a smart shopper. When it really matters, go for the best quality you can afford (and remember, like I said above, price isn’t always and indicator of quality). However, when it comes to something like chili beans, my book says it’s okay to go with the cheapest can.

Well, I hope this lesson taken from my mistakes will help some of you avoid the pricey pitfalls of going gluten free!

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