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!

Three Great Gluten Free Resources

By: Rachel Sircy

In this post, I thought I would take a break from documenting my own personal gluten free and high cholesterol woes to share with those of you out there with gluten free needs some resources that have helped me through the years.

One of the first blogs that I came across when I was first diagnosed was The Gluten Free Girl blog. This blog helped me understand what it meant to be gluten free in a way that all the medical pamphlets and jargon couldn’t. It really encouraged me to read something written by someone who was a celiac and who wasn’t depressed about it. Shauna James Ahern enjoys life and her blog helped me to realize that my life wasn’t over just because I had celiac disease and could no longer eat fried chicken and doughnuts. I would particularly recommend starting out with her post entitled, “Yes.” It’s about her engagement, but it’s also about saying yes to all aspects of life no matter if they’re good or bad.

You can find her blog at: https://glutenfreegirl.com.

While I enjoy reading The Gluten Free Girl for inspiration and some tips, the truth is, a lot of her recipes have been too expensive and too complicated for me to really want to try. The first cookbook that I received after being diagnosed that had recipes that I wanted to return to again and again was Simply…Gluten Free Quick Meals, by Carol Kicinski. Her meals were, as stated, quick to prepare and pretty easy. They were also fairly easy on the budget, and the ones that were a bit too expensive could easily be prepared with cheaper substitutes and ingredients could also be left out without affecting the overall flavor too much. I love her falafel burgers, but I have never made the tahini sauce that she makes to go with them because I would never use the tahini for anything other than these burgers. The burgers still taste great!

Also, Kicinski’s cookbook had one of the first “stocking your gluten free pantry” sections I had ever seen. This was a huge help to me, and it might be to you, too. I would visit her website first to make sure that you like her cooking and her advice before you go out and buy her book. Her website is chock full of recipes and advice.

You can find her website at: https://simplygluten-free.com.

Last but not least, for those of us who suffer from the expense of a gluten free diet, there is Nicole Hunn’s blog: Gluten Free on a Shoestring. Hunn makes simple gluten free meals that are also affordable. Her recipes have been collected in at least one cookbook and they’ve also been featured in Delight gluten free magazine. She has a section on her website that deals with stocking a gluten free pantry as well. Because going gluten free can mean learning to cook all over again, I highly recommend looking at these resources to help you know what you need (and what you DON’T need) in your gluten free kitchen.

Nicole’s blog is located at: https://glutenfreeonashoestring.com.

Good luck and great reading!

Getting Through the Holidays Gluten Free

By: Rachel Sircy

thanksgiving

Growing up it was Thanksgiving, not Christmas, that was my favorite holiday. Thanksgiving was always a big deal in my mother’s family. All of the family gathered at my great-grandmother’s house which stood at the end of a little holler just outside of Portsmouth, Ohio. Her house was tiny and there were nearly always at least 40 people in attendance at this feast of feasts, so to say that it was crowded and chaotic would be an understatement. People ate in the kitchen, the dining room, the living room, one or two would stand up next to the washer and dryer and used them for makeshift tables, and there were always people on the porch and porch steps and scattered around the yard. It was too much for the adults to try to control the kids, so we generally ran around the house like wild hillbillies (which is in truth what we were). The food was always good and plenteous. There was enough for 40 people to eat it for at least two days (because Thanksgiving then was the entire weekend, not just one day). All that running, playing, screaming and eating were so much fun that Christmas day (which was spent at home with just my parents and sisters), even with all its toys, just couldn’t compare.

The first Thanksgiving after I was diagnosed as a celiac, I divided my time between my mother and my grandmother’s houses trying to smile while I choked down a gluten free version of my mother’s homemade chicken noodles. Chicken noodles or beef noodles is the Northern substitute for macaroni and cheese at Thanksgiving. The only version of this dish worth eating is the homemade version where someone has made the egg dough and cut and dried the noodles a day or two ahead of time. When put in with the chicken and the broth, the noodles puff up and are essentially just thinner and longer versions of dumplings. My mother’s noodles were sort of famous in our family, and they were my favorite thing to eat. No one in my family had ever heard of celiac disease or the gluten free diet before my diagnosis and our early efforts to work with gluten free flour often went awry. Case in point: in an effort to not leave me out, my mother made a small batch of gluten free egg noodles and set aside a bowl of chicken noodles just for me. They were horrible. Despite the fact that the noodles were really gritty, they were melting into the chicken broth and becoming one big pile of goo. As a celiac who has loving, helpful family members I have had a lot of practice pretending that food made specially for me – food that’s just oozing with love and is also just oozing – is delicious. You can develop the ability to smile so hard that it stifles your gag reflex. Unfortunately, I wasn’t very good at hiding my disappointment that first Thanksgiving and I think I ended up crying into my sad little bowl of egg noodle ooblec.

Well, now that I’ve gotten that depressing little story off of my chest I’m going to share some helpful hints for gluten free holiday cooking and eating:

  1. DON’T forget to remind everyone of your specific dietary restrictions. If you’re a celiac, make sure that everyone who is bringing food is well aware of what that means. There are a lot of people who are on the gluten free diet because it’s the latest fad, and this is bad news for celiacs because it makes the disease seem less serious. However, if you’re a celiac this is your life at stake. Don’t take it too lightly just because you don’t swell up and go into anaphylactic shock any time you eat something you shouldn’t.
  2. DON’T budge from your diet. Sometimes you eat things because you don’t want to hurt Aunt Martha’s feelings or because Nana makes the best banana pudding there is. Remember, your health is worth more than someone getting all huffy because you snubbed her dish and, despite what you may feel at the time, there is more to life than banana pudding.
  3. COOK your favorite dishes yourself. I bring my own dressing and pies to Thanksgiving. It’s just easier that way. I know that my kitchen is totally gluten free and safe. Your friends’ and relatives’ kitchens are not totally gluten free and therefore their dishes will never be totally safe for a celiac. (I will share some tips for gluten free stuffing/dressing. And you can make any family recipe for macaroni and cheese gluten free simply by substituting gf pasta for regular pasta). If you are able, you might offer to make all of the questionable dishes for the dinner (by questionable, I mean anything that contains bread, breadcrumbs, pasta and any pastries.)
  4. BE SURE that gluten free serving utensils are kept separate. Again, I bring my own. Mine are distinct enough from everyone else’s that they’re not easily mixed up. I hate to break it to you, but if your little sister removes the serving utensil from the regular dressing and sticks it in your gluten free dressing, you can’t eat that dressing anymore. A real gluten free diet is beyond strict, but remember, you are doing this to keep on living and being well. This isn’t a hippie health food craze. It is your life.

Most of all, remember to be grateful. That can sound totally stupid on your first or second Thanksgiving as a celiac, but, in time, when your body has healed itself, the gratitude will come more easily. You will look back on the years of sickness and understand just how blessed you are to have a disease that can be cured simply by eating differently. I always think to myself that I could be lying in a hospital receiving chemotherapy, but I’m not. I am just eating food made from funky ingredients. Those funky ingredients have made me well and whole. Thank God.

Tips for Gluten Free Dressing:

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Lately, gluten free ingredients are really holding their own against what we call “regular” or “normal” food. You can purchase gluten free flour that can be substituted cup for cup for wheat flour in any recipe. Only people who have been gluten free long enough to remember the umpteen-gazillion little bags of Bob’s Redmill flours (almond, rice, amaranth, soy, etc) and the 8oz bags of Xanthan gum that sold for 12 bucks can really appreciate how amazing that is. So, if you like to make your own pie crusts (I never did), it’s now easier than ever to do it gluten free. You can also buy pre-made pie crusts from Whole Foods that are pretty decent. (I recommend the Whole Foods brand.)

For dressing or stuffing (whatever you want to call it), gluten free bread works pretty well. I think that you could use pretty much any family recipe that you have for dressing. The only thing I would suggest is if you don’t toast the GF bread before using it, watch the liquid to bread ratio. While GF bread is so dry that it’s impossible to eat right out of the bag, it also has a tendency to fall apart and melt in too much liquid. I don’t mean get soggy, I mean it can melt in too much liquid. So, if you want to make a really moist stuffing, you might want to lightly toast the bread first, just so it holds up to the liquid a little better.

Also, I know that the holidays can be expensive no matter how you cook, but gluten free cooking is really expensive. I used to pay about $6 for a loaf of gluten free bread because I thought that the cheap stuff just wouldn’t taste as good. Cheap gf bread is about $3.50 a loaf, and keep in mind that the bread slices are about 2/3 the size of a regular slice of bread and the loaf is maybe half as many slices as a regular loaf. I was buying two loaves per week at $6 each for myself at one point – that’s a staggering $12 per week on bread for just myself. At the time I didn’t make $12 an hour at work. For those of you trying to do a gluten free diet on a shoe string budget, I feel you.

Good news, though. Aldi actually makes gluten free bread now. Their slices of gluten free bread are actually bigger than most other brands, though the loaves are still kind of small. BUT, the best part about this news is that Aldi’s gf bread is actually the best gf bread I have ever tasted. It still has to be toasted before being eaten, but after it’s toasted it’s softer than any other gf bread I’ve tried. That six-dollar-a-loaf bread was so thick and cardboard-like that after I toasted it, it would dry my mouth out and sometimes cut my gums in a way that looked like I had somehow scraped the inside of my mouth on the sidewalk. I have also made some of the best dressing with Aldi’s bread. The stuffing for the chicken pot pie casserole that I made a while back was with the Aldi’s bread and it was by far the best part of that dish.

gluten free breadcrumbs

Another cost saving measure that I started a while ago was saving the heels and crusts of my bread. I have never eaten heels of bread and gf bread crusts (even Aldi’s) can be seriously dry and unpleasant. So, after a while of getting physically ill over the money I was wasting throwing those heels and crusts away, I decided to start grinding them down to make breadcrumbs and cubes that I have used in other dishes. No more waste and no more buying packaged breadcrumbs and whole loaves of bread just to make dressing. I stock quart freezer bags in my pantry and whenever I cut crusts or grind up heels, I just toss them into one of the bags (I often measure them as I put them in the bags to make recipes more precise) and put them in the freezer. They keep really well and are such a handy cost saver!

Well, those are all my holiday food tips for this post. If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments section and I will be more than happy to answer them or find an answer for you!

Suggested Reading: “Simply…Gluten Free Quick Meals” by Carol Kicinski. It’s not literature, but it’s so amazing for any gf cook. She does a whole Thanksgiving meal in this book with really simple recipes and ingredients, plus she has a section about basic flour mixtures and how to stock a gf pantry. This is my go to recipe book.

Necessity, Insanity and The Road Less Traveled

By: Rachel Sircy

If necessity is the mother of invention, then I think that insanity must be invention’s father. Below is a picture of a gluten free chicken pot pie casserole that was invented (sort of) by yours truly in an attempt to recreate a favorite dish from my childhood.

gluten free casserole

The inspiration for this concoction was a casserole that my mother used to make on busy weeknights and that my sisters and I always looked forward to. The casserole consisted of a chicken pot pie-like filling and it had stuffing on top instead of a pie crust. I am not sure where she got her recipe – probably The Pampered Chef. That was her main source for everything culinary in those days. In any case, it seemed easy enough for her and it was just delicious to me.

My version of it looks pretty good if I do say so myself. And it ought to look pretty good since it took me 3 ½ hours to make it. It took 3 ½ hours of mostly active cooking time even using rotisserie chicken as a short cut so that I didn’t have to cook my own chicken. What I would love to tell you is that I got carried away by my own creative genius and just lost track of time, but about halfway through I started to despair. My feet hurt and I wondered what kind of world it would be even if I did make it to the other side. Would the world be one whit bettered by the invention of a gluten free chicken pot pie casserole? Probably not. But here I was, every surface of the tiny galley kitchen in my tiny apartment was covered with food, measuring equipment, pots, pans, mixing bowls…

gluten free casserole

I had to press on and finish for my own sake. I don’t know how soon into the project I realized that I had bitten off (so to speak) more than I could chew. I think I told my husband pretty early on that he should go get us something to eat and that the baby could have a peanut butter sandwich for dinner.

gluten free casserole

gluten free casserole

gluten free casserole

You might wonder what would make such a simple-looking casserole dish take so long and cause a grown woman to despair of life and her aching feet. The answer to that question is precisely why I chose to tell this seemingly pointless story of domestic failure. The answer to that question is that living and cooking gluten free is HARD. A lot of gluten free literature will tell you that gluten free living doesn’t have to be hard and that you can have (almost) all your old favorites, just in new forms. And I appreciate what that literature is trying to do. It is trying to keep newly-diagnosed celiacs from curling up into the fetal position and weeping. Most newly diagnosed celiacs will do that at some point anyway – say – the first time a loved one eats a hot Krispy Kreme doughnut in front of you and says, “Wow, this is so good. I mean, like SO good. Do you want…oh no, you can’t have any. Sorry.”

It’s hard to live without the things that you love and have grown accustomed to. And the truth is, you just can’t have all your old favorites in new forms. No matter how many GF doughnuts you unwrap and thaw, you’re not going to get that same airy, fatty, perfectly textured doughnut that you once took for granted. And celiac disease can make you feel lost in the kitchen, even if you once knew your way around pretty well. All your old short cuts and easy substitutions are suddenly gone. For the first few years, it feels like you are reinventing the wheel every time you attempt to put any kind of a meal together. I used to have a small, but tried and true repertoire of dishes that I loved both to cook and eat. I loved inviting people over for dinner and feeling like I had nailed the meal. But when I got my diagnosis and the very, very long list of things that I could no longer eat, I panicked. It was as if I had suddenly lost my sight and was going to have to figure out how to navigate the world in total darkness. For my first few years, I clung desperately to a cartoonish picture of a healthy plate that a dietician had given me. She had said to take the starches and grains you know are safe and just insert them into this picture. So we had rice and boiled potatoes with every meal for longer than I care to remember. I used to really like rice and boiled potatoes. But I got to a place where I was eating just to survive. All the food that I loved seemed off limits to me. Even acceptable foods could not be cooked the way that I used to cook them, the way that I used to like them. So, eating became another chore to be checked off at the end of the day. Sometimes I even ate vitamin-fortified, gluten free cereal instead of having to chew my way through one more tasteless meal.

But, to any new celiac out there reading this, things get better. Not easier, but better. I made a pretty good casserole. It didn’t taste like Mom’s, but that is both bad and good. In some ways, it tasted better. My mom used to make this stuff using canned chicken, canned vegetables, canned cream of chicken soup and Stove Top stuffing. That’s what made it such a perfect dish for weeknights. You just open a box and a few cans and you’re already halfway done. That’s just not possible for a celiac. This recipe took me over 3 hours because I had to make gluten free stuffing from scratch for the casserole’s topping. I chopped chicken, potatoes, celery and carrots to go inside the casserole, I had to cook them down to the right consistency in a cream sauce that I made from scratch before assembling the casserole to go into the oven. Each of these tasks is time consuming, especially when you’re looking at two different recipes and using them as guideposts to make a completely new recipe. But, in the end, homemade stuffing beats any of the boxed stuff by a mile. And no can-o’-partially-congealed chicken soup could beat a homemade cream sauce. Mom’s stuff was cheap, easy and the processed food that bound her casserole together satisfied my cravings for fat and salt – which is something that my casserole didn’t quite do. My casserole was good, but in a real food sort of way. It didn’t give me that junk food high. But, there is something about eating real food that you worked hard for. This casserole of mine wasn’t the best thing I’ve ever eaten (neither was my mom’s version), but it was pretty good. More importantly than that though, it is something that I’m proud to have made. It took some time and attention to detail and some real nuttiness to come up with it in the first place, but it was all my own.

Celiac disease is not fun, but I am thankful that the damage it causes to a human body can be controlled without medicine. In fact, the damage can be reversed by a change in diet. It’s not a simple change, for sure, but it is something that an individual can control. Celiacs don’t have to rely on expensive medication or treatment by a specialist. Each celiac is in control of her own health. That feeling of self-sufficiency is one of the great gifts of celiac disease. It comes only with time and perseverance, as does anything worth having. I can tell you that I would never have left the rut of eating processed food or cooking without the aid of boxed and canned everything if I had not been forced to do so. If I hadn’t been forced out of that rut, I would never have known what it feels like to think up a dish and then figure out a way to create it on my own. That feeling, by the way, is awesome.

gluten free casserole

If I ever remember exactly what I did to make this casserole, I will share the recipe. Until then, get in your own kitchen (gluten free or not) and get in to a recipe that is over your head. It may turn out, or it may not. But the food isn’t the point. Independence is only achieved through practice, and it is well worth a few botched dinners.

PS: It may be a hammy suggestion, but the suggested reading for this post is Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken.