When you have to be gluten-free on a tight budget, it’s good to know how to eat gluten-free on the cheap! As we settle into 2020, those lovely credit card bills arrive to remind us just how generous we were during the holidays. Once that happens, I always feel like I should implement an austerity program to keep me financially on track for the rest of the year. If you’re like me and you’re new to the gluten-free world, you could easily panic over an anticipated increase in household costs.
The internet is filled with articles to multiply your concern and get the adrenaline pumping. Read a few sites and you’re sure to know that gluten-free bakeries charge a premium for breads, cakes, and cookies, and most restaurants upcharge when substituting a gluten-free bun. Continue reading and you’ll discover that gluten-free food is about 86% more expensive. That’s a lot.
While all of this reading may leave you feeling alarmed, it’s worth noting that articles warning of the expense of a gluten-free lifestyle typically assume that all of us will primarily purchase and consume prepackaged convenience food or restaurant substitutions. That seems like a reasonable assumption given that many of us have lives that are often overbooked. But with a few simple tips, even the busiest of us can manage to eat gluten-free on the cheap most of the time.
Soooo…how can you eat gluten-free on the cheap when you’re really busy and don’t have time to spend in the kitchen?
Here are five tips to keep costs down:
Remember that many inexpensive common foods are naturally gluten-free
Brown rice – a 16oz bag costs 78 cents and contains ten servings. Even microwave rice bowls are less than $1 per serving.
Black beans – a 15oz can costs around $1 and contains 2-3 servings. A 16oz bag of dry beans runs less than $1.50 and contains about 13 servings.
Frozen corn – you can buy a 32oz bag for under $2. That’s about 10 servings. A 15oz can runs about 50 cents and has 3 servings.
You can easily throw together a filling burrito bowl using microwaveable brown rice, canned black beans, canned (or leftover) corn with a sprinkle of cumin and a spoonful of salsa. You’ll spend less than 10 minutes in the kitchen and less than $2 per serving. That’s about the price of a drink at a fast food restaurant. You may still have room in the budget to add cheese, rotisserie chicken, sliced avocado or Wholly Guacamole for a more gourmet bowl.
And that’s just one example. A veggie and cheese filled fritatta only takes a few minutes to prepare, especially when you use leftover veggies. Fritattas are great for breakfast, brunch, or dinner.
Fresh fruit is a healthy gluten-free snack. To keep costs down, cut up your own pineapple, cantaloupe, and honeydew. It won’t take as long as you imagine and you can always plant the pineapple tops in pots to grow on the porch or in the window. That’s like getting a free houseplant each time you eat a pineapple.
Get your Omega 3s from canned tuna, salmon, or sardines. All are readily available and less expensive than fresh fish. Tuna salad can be eaten on top of greens, out of an avocado or tomato half, or on a cucumber slice eliminating the need for gluten-free bread.
Potatoes, sweet potatoes, broccoli, carrots, and squash are all inexpensive to purchase and easy to prepare. If you don’t have time for even minor prep, consider frozen vegetables. As a whole, they’re cheaper than preprepped fresh vegetables.
Check the discount store shelves
If you’re looking for gluten-free chicken stock, snack bars, bread, or pizza you may immediately head for a specialty store that charges more for everything. Before you do that, peruse the shelves of your local discount market or dollar store.
The Dollar General by my house has gluten-free labeled items like chicken stock, snack mix, and nut bars plus a variety of raw nuts and dried blueberries, cherries, apricots, pineapple, and mango. They also have corn tortillas. Down the street a few blocks I can get gluten-free frozen waffles, pizza, and pretzels from the regular grocery store.
Walmartgrocery.com carries Bob’s Red Mill® almond flour for a fraction of the cost of a health food store. They also have Great Value Gluten-Free Brown Rice Elbow Pasta in a 16oz bag for $1.96 and Lance Gluten Free Original Crackers in a 5oz box for $3.72. The Tate’s bakeshop gluten-free cookies at Walmart run about $1 per bag less than the Whole Foods Market® price.
Limit premade ingredients to the basics
Instead of buying a loaded frozen gluten-free pizza, I choose a plain cheese pizza then add toppings like pepperoni, salami, spinach, or bell peppers at home. On average, this method saves me $2-3 per pizza. You can even create a cheeseburger pizza by adding seasoned, browned ground beef and cheddar cheese to a plain cheese pizza.
If you keep pizza sauce on hand, you can buy premade pizza crusts instead of pizza. There are many gluten-free frozen crust options available from cauliflower based to balls of dough you roll yourself. The selection may be limited in your area, but keep an eye out because stock changes frequently. Near my home, the constant change is frustrating. About the time I find something I like, it gets rotated out. The good news is this allows me to sample a wider range of products.
It’s also easy to create soup from basic ingredients rather than paying more for a complete gluten-free version. Make simple chicken and rice soup in the microwave using dollar store gluten-free chicken stock and Minute Ready to Serve brown or white rice. Add a snack pack of veggies from the convenience store for more flavor and nutrition.
Pomì strained tomatoes can serve as a base for tomato soup, chili, pasta, and pizza sauce. A 26.46oz box costs $2.96 at Walmartgrocery.com. With nothing more than a tube of Italian Herb stir-in paste, honey (or a sugar packet from a restaurant), salt, pepper, and garlic powder, you’ll be amazed at what you can create. Simply measure to taste, stir everything together, and heat.
Instead of buying protein or snack bars, make your own trail mix with nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and chocolate chips or gluten-free pretzels. It’s fun to play with these combinations and you won’t have to pull out the nuts you don’t like. For less waste and fewer arguments, each family member can have a refillable jar of personalized mix in the pantry.
Check out fast food websites
I’m not recommending fast food as a regular part of any diet, but when you’re in a hurry or traveling and are on a budget fast food can be a viable gluten-free option. Most fast food chains list nutrition information on the web.
Wendy’s small chili, a baked potato with butter, and small iced tea costs around $6 and doesn’t require you to ask for any modifications. A half apple pecan chicken salad costs less than $5 and is also gluten-free as is the taco salad. And you can top off your gluten-free meal with a small frosty for $1.
You can be sure that I’ll stop at an In-N-Out Burger® at some point when I’m in LA. My whole family loves the protein-style burgers and fries. If I want to consider other menu options, I can easily pull up or print out their handy allergen information PDF and carry it with me.
Other fast food restaurants and build-your-own pizza chains offer gluten-free choices. There may be a risk of cross-contact on prep surfaces and in fryers so it helps to be familiar with a particular location in order to feel comfortable you won’t be exposed.
Take home leftovers
If you’re paying a premium to order a gluten-free meal, don’t be shy about taking home a couple of ounces of steak, half a chicken breast, or a couple of spoonfuls of chicken salad. These can be repurposed as the protein in tacos, burrito bowls, and salads. Even leftover French fries can become part of a microwave breakfast casserole.
Leftovers aren’t the only thing that can be repurposed. Rotisserie chicken from the grocery store or smoked meat from a BBQ joint can be turned into quick, delicious gluten-free entrées that no longer resemble baked chicken or BBQ.
Chicken can be made into chicken salad, used as a topper for a green salad, and put into stir fry, curry, enchiladas, tacos or quesadillas (with corn tortillas, of course). Rotisserie chicken is also a great protein addition to pasta primavera and chicken tortilla soup.
Pulled pork can be added to pasta or nachos and used to fill tacos, tamales, baked potato shells, and shepherd’s pie. Chopped brisket can be turned into stroganoff, cottage pie, or chili, and can be added to baked beans.
At times you may end up buying some overpriced, less than delicious gluten-free product, but following these simple tips will help you hold down the overall costs without lots of extra time in the kitchen.
Choosing items that are not marked-up because of a gluten-free label saves money. Buying already cooked protein reduces cooking time immensely and, as you can see, a few basics give you a great deal of menu flexibility. Just be sure to read the label on grocery store items and ask the BBQ joint about seasoning to determine whether anything contains gluten.
With a little practice, you can easily live within a budget while remaining gluten-free…and you don’t have to spend hours in the kitchen!
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”