Sticking to an affordable gluten-free diet is easier than ever, but it still can be pretty expensive, particularly with soaring food prices.
Wheat, barley and rye grains contain gluten, so anything they are in can cause distress to some people. Wheat byproducts are often used in other foods to coat or thicken, so developing the habit of reading labels is essential for healthy eating.
Approximately 6% of the population is affected by gluten. Manufacturers have responded by making more products for those people. The products cost more, and generally gluten-free eating requires more attention, and cash, than traditional diets.
According to the National Library of Medicine, a 2019 study correctly titled “Persistent Economic Burden of the Gluten Free Diet” found that gluten-free products were 183% more expensive than similar wheat-based items.
Getting started with an affordable gluten-free life involves some planning, but we’ll help you find where to shop and how to stock your pantry.
How to Eat Gluten Free on a Budget
You don’t have to drain your bank account to fill your stomach when you’re eating a gluten-free diet. Here’s what to consider if you’re making the switch.
You might be able to deduct some of your gluten-free food purchases on your taxes as a health expense, so save your receipts — and ask your tax adviser.
What Can You Eat?
The good news is that the majority of what we eat is naturally gluten free. Meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, beans, rice, most cheeses, milk, eggs and, of course, chocolate don’t contain wheat products. While a gluten-free diet is different, it doesn’t have to be completely new or weird.
Making a grocery list can be incredibly helpful for sticking to a budget. Write down brands that carry gluten-free versions of your staples. Planning your meals ahead of time helps a lot. This is especially true if you start shopping at some of the immigrant food stores, where unfamiliar names might disguise familiar flavors.
If you are already feeling intimidated by all the planning, the Celiac Disease Foundation has several meal plans that can get you started. Here is a helpful article from the Mayo Clinic about what foods to avoid.
Should the Whole Family Go Gluten Free?
Gluten isn’t necessarily bad for people in general. The grains it is in have a lot of required nutrients, and those starting a gluten-free diet have to make sure they still get those nutrients.
When planning meals for several people, consider meals that can be assembled with or without gluten-containing ingredients. You can get some gluten-free basics for the house to make life easier. Look for gluten-free soy sauce, chicken stock or broth, and check bags of frozen food (like french fries) to make sure there’s no wheat in the ingredients.
Gluten-Free Budget Pantry Staples for Every Meal
You can start your gluten-free plan by getting some pantry staples.
If you are a breakfast cereal fan, it will take a little sleuthing to find gluten-free options. Double check the label on oats. A lot of cereals (and other foods) contain malt, which is made from barley. Aldi’s version of crispy rice cereal is gluten free. Trader Joe’s has less-expensive gluten-free bagels.
There are a lot of gluten-free granola recipes online. You can save a bundle by making granola at home.
If you are used to sandwiches, there are plenty of gluten-free bread options. None of them are especially tasty or cheap. However, corn tortillas and tacos are naturally gluten free, and there are zillions of ways to make tacos. Thank goodness cheese is gluten free.
Check your condiments to make sure they are gluten free. Keep your eye out for barley malt. Most salad dressings are fine. Be careful when buying soup because broth and stock often contain wheat.
Rice is your new best friend. Rice noodles can be used as a substitute in a lot of noodle dishes. Rice noodles absorb flavor and liquid a little differently than pasta, but after a few attempts you will find them versatile.
Yellow, white or sweet potatoes can cheaply provide the bulk and cohesion that wheat products typically supply. If you are buying frozen products, double check that there is no gluten in the preservatives.
Nuts and dried fruit are great snacks. Ice cream is often gluten free, as long as it doesn’t have cookie or cone bits in it. Most stores sell nut-based crusts for pies, which work wonderfully with cream-based fillings.
You don’t have to stop using all convenience food to stay gluten free, but be vigilant. It is pretty easy to make basics like chicken broth without wheat. Other items you might want to make at home are shredded cheese (check the package — if potato starch is used it is OK to eat) and gravies. If you love gravy you can still have it; just use cornstarch instead of flour.
Places to Find Cheap Gluten-Free Food
Stores don’t have gluten-free items on sale often, but it is always worth checking your favorite grocery stores. Trader Joe’s and Aldi’s markets consistently carry some gluten-free items that are cheaper than at other grocery stores.
Trader Joe’s has a list several pages long of gluten-free items. Aldi’s has its own gluten-free brand, LiveGFree, with items costing about 33% less than at grocery chains. Coconut and almond flour, as well as gluten-free snack bars, show up pretty frequently at discount retailers like TJ Maxx, Big Lots and Ross.
One regular source of gluten-free grocery staples are the immigrant food stores in the area. Asian markets will carry an array of noodles, including rice, tapioca and vegetable noodles. Stores catering to local Latinos will have corn tortillas, rice and beans, cassava, avocado and lots of sauces and meals available without wheat products.
A lot of websites warn against buying gluten-free products at bulk food stores because of possible cross-contamination. Ask the store about their policies for keeping foods separate. Pricing can be better at these stores, if you feel comfortable with their practices.
Tips to Shop for Gluten-Free Food on a Budget
Rethinking your eating habits can save money and be healthier without sacrificing enjoyment. You can slurp zucchini noodles instead of pasta with the same satisfaction, and splurge more with sauce and cheese. Baking cheese crackers is super easy with shredded cheese, and it costs much less than in the store.
Figuring out how to shop, cook and eat gluten free will save you a lot of money, with a bonus health benefit.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What Are Some Staples for a Gluten-Free Kitchen?
Corn tortillas, gluten-free flour, rice/rice noodles, tamari sauce, cornstarch, snacks like dried fruit and nuts.
Is It Better to Buy for the One Gluten-Affected Person or the Whole Family?
It’s mixed. Making meals that can be eaten by everyone is easier, but sometimes one part of the meal can be substituted for one person.
What Foods Should Be Double Checked for Gluten Before Buying?
Broths, condiments, potato chips, most convenience food, blue and shredded cheeses, liquor.
Where Can We Get the Cheaper Gluten-Free Food?
Trader Joe’s and Aldi have decent selections and prices. Immigrant food stores also have a lot of gluten-free basics, usually cheaper than at supermarkets.
The Penny Hoarder contributor JoEllen Schilke writes on lifestyle and culture topics. She is the former owner of a coffee shop in St. Petersburg, Florida, and has hosted an arts show on WMNF community radio for nearly 30 years.