A few decades ago, when celiac disease was regarded as a rare childhood disorder and dermatitis herpetiformis — the skin manifestation of celiac — was virtually unheard-of, shoppers found it incredibly difficult to navigate food labels that had little incentive to include the term “gluten-free.” Today, stores dedicate sections to the gluten-free customer, and brands are increasingly making it clear whether their foods contain the prohibited grains.
But shopping for gluten-free foods frugally is not an easy task. The price of gluten-free alternatives can sometimes be double that of gluten-containing products. Without a second thought, the gluten-free consumer could quickly blow their food budget. Here are some suggestions gleaned from gluten-free families and frugal-minded individuals on how to tame your grocery bill:
Set a weekly food budget and stick to it.
By having parameters on how much you can spend, you’re forced to find ways to stay within those limits. Paying with cash helps you to stick to it. Be sure to account for multiple stops if you visit more than one store or a farmers market.
Shop for naturally gluten-free foods.
Meat, fruits, vegetables, and dairy products in their natural form do not contain gluten. Cooking whole foods requires more planning and time in the kitchen, and is certainly less convenient, but is more nutritious and much safer when it comes to avoiding gluten exposure. This also allows you to learn new kitchen skills, such as how to make ice cream, chicken stock and alfredo sauce.
Investigate better buying strategies for gluten-free products.
Online sources, such as Vitacost.com, are often less expensive than your local store for gluten-free breads, pastas, and other products. Buy in bulk and then store appropriately so the food items get as long of a shelf life as possible: freeze breads, empty partly used bags of pasta and cereal into airtight containers, store unopened pantry items in a dry, cool- to room-temperature environment, keep opened bags of bread in the fridge between uses and refreeze unused hamburger buns.
Plan meals in advance.
Shopping according to menu plans limits the temptation to buy food items on the fly. It also means you can plan meals according to sales. Another idea is to create a meal plan with similar ingredients, such as gluten-free lasagna on Monday and gluten-free spaghetti on Thursday, so leftover ingredients — in this case, sauce, cheese and ground meat — can stretch into another meal. Also, purchase produce first; sticking to what’s in season is more cost-effective. Then plan meals around the produce.
Eat in more than you eat out
Eating at a restaurant is much more expensive than making a meal at home. Of course, you can treat yourself to a meal at a safe restaurant on special occasions. Another strategy is to eat high-dollar, gluten-free items on occasion when tempted with a restaurant visit.
Grow foods at home
Plant a small garden in your backyard, or using containers on your apartment balcony, with tomatoes, lettuce, herbs, even strawberries. If space and policies permit, you can even consider getting your own chickens for eggs, bees for honey or goats for milk.
By Rita Brhel, NFCA volunteer