Gluten-Free on the Cheap

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
For example:
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. 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 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.

Repurpose protein
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.”

Thanksgiving Keeps On Giving at Cooking2Thrive

Thanksgiving keeps on giving by warming our hearts and our bellies. This week, I’m focussing on the role of food in this process. When we’re hungry, it’s hard to feel anything but tired and irritable. When it’s cold, a warm bowl of pasta can set the stage for gratitude on many levels.
Yesterday, I decided to use some of my Thanksgiving leftovers to create dairy-free pasta sauce. Many Cooking2Thrive recipes begin this way. The process goes something like this:

The idea centered around what was available in my kitchen. For the base, I used two cups of broth leftover from making stuffing. To this I added water, half an onion, a couple of pieces of bacon, two large fresh sage leaves, two sprigs of fresh thyme, garlic powder, salt, fresh ground black pepper, and a dash of cayenne.

When I first cook a recipe, I don’t measure. I just cook. I use sight, smell, and taste to get the proportions right.

I considered thickening my sauce with corn starch but decided I’d rather try using potatoes. I peeled and cubed two Irish potatoes. Once I’d added these to the broth, I brought it to a boil and then let it simmer until the potatoes were falling apart.

I removed the onion, bacon, and fresh herbs and let the broth cool. Of course, I tasted it as well. It was delicious! I considered just eating it as soup with or without adding some leftover turkey. For the ideal soup, I would probably cook the potatoes a little less, add a hint of curry powder, and throw in some frozen green peas.

Once the broth had cooled sufficiently, I put it in a food processor and pureed the mixture. Actually, I just have a small food chopper so I have to do this in stages. At the end, I returned the puree to the pan and turned the heat on low.

While I was doing this, I cooked some gluten-free egg noodles in lightly salted water. This gave me plenty of time to cube two cups of leftover turkey and add it to the sauce to warm. When the pasta was done, I drained it and topped it with the sauce.

The result was hearty, warm, rich and creamy enough to be pleasing without including cream, milk, cheese, or non-dairy substitutes. The flavors are pulled from Thanksgiving, but the combination provides enough variety to prevent leftover flavor fatigue.

Green peas would also be a good addition to the pasta sauce. I almost always have some in the freezer. They cook quickly so adding them into the puree along with the turkey should allow ample cooking time. If I were adding them, I would cover the pan while it simmers.

After tasting a recipe, or eating two helpings, I sit down at the computer and record what I did. To some degree, I’m guessing how much salt I added, but I’ve followed this process for years creating and testing recipes so it’s an educated guess.

I also taste the dish again warm and cold. I note both taste and texture and add notes of things I may want to try next time I cook the dish. This process will be repeated until the recipe is right. Along the way, we get input from tasters and testers. These include friends, family, neighbors, and volunteers as well as professional bakers and chefs.

Sometimes a recipe only requires our minimal triple testing. Other times, it takes more than 10 trials to get it right. If that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes. Yes, sometimes it’s frustrating, but it’s also like solving a puzzle with delicious food as the reward.

We are grateful to have food to put on the table, rework and put on the table again. We are grateful to have input from people who help us improve. We are grateful for those of you who follow us.

And for all of this, we give thanks knowing Thanksgiving keeps on giving!

Avoid Leftovers With Component Cooking

radishesIt’s easy to cook efficiently and avoid leftovers with component cooking. I eat a lot of leftovers. I like them. I like one pot meals cold from the refrigerator. I like them warmed up again. I like to pull a pork chop out of rice, chop it up and turn it into something totally different. Of course I realize not everyone is as keen on leftovers as I am. I’ve dated a lot of men who hate them. Okay, let’s qualify that before you start calling me Fleabag (love that show by the way). I haven’t dated that many men in general, but a high percentage of those lucky gentlemen haven’t liked leftovers.

You may have experienced the same thing. If you’re in the habit of doing most of your cooking on the weekends, a week without leftovers may sound impossible. Luckily, a tiny change in approach can make cooking efficiently while avoiding leftovers easy to accomplish.

Batch cooking for the week requires some planning. If you’re like most of us, you shop with specific dishes in mind, cook those when you have a block of time and then heat them up later. For some people, this makes a dish less desirable. Instead of preparing finished entrées, I sometimes prep in the following ways. The result is my leftover averse guests are happy and I don’t feel overwhelmed.

I like to think of it as Component Cooking.
First, I start with Basic Proteins.
This component is comprised of proteins cooked with simple seasoning – salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs, pork loin, and ground turkey or beef can all be cooked with basic seasoning and then further seasoned later to create delicious “fresh” meals.

For instance, chicken can be cut into strips, additionally seasoned with chili powder, cumin, and onion powder for fajitas, fajita salad, or nachos. Or you can shred it and use the same seasonings to create delicious Chicken Enchiladas.

If you love curry, Basic Pork Loin can be cut into small cubes and added to a curry sauce (the sauce can be prepared in advance as well) along with vegetables and/or rice. Basic Ground Turkey or Beef can be made into lightly baked meatballs that can later be finished in red sauce for pasta or meatball sandwiches. The same meatballs can be finished in Sweet-and-Sour Sauce, or added to gravy for a different flavor profile.

And, of course, Basic Ground Beef can easily be converted into taco filling for tacos, taco salad, enchiladas, chili, nachos, Frito chili pie or stuffed bell peppers.

Other fantastic options for Basic Chicken include: Chicken Alfredo, Lemon Parmesan Chicken, Chicken Caprese, Chicken Spaghetti, Pesto Chicken, Chicken Burgers, or any salad topped with chicken.

squashMy second component is Vegetables.
I sometimes like to prep all the vegetables in the fridge when I have a meal in the oven. Let’s say I’m cooking pot roast. I’ll have already chopped some potatoes, carrots, and onion to cook with the roast. While I have the cutting board out along with the vegetable wash and a good knife, I’ll peel any potatoes I may want to use later in the week, wash the broccoli and remove the large stems, clean and cut some summer squash into medallions, and core a red bell pepper and cut it into long strips. If I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll also peel and chop a couple of onions.

I’m finished in time to clean up my mess and have a glass of wine before the roast comes out of the oven. Then I store the ready-to-use vegetables in airtight glass containers with tight-fitting lids in the refrigerator.

While the oven is hot is also a great time to roast Spaghetti Squash and Butternut Squash, or bake a Sweet Potato. Later, I can combine any of these Basic Vegetables with my Basic Proteins to create dishes like Pasta Primavera with Chicken or I can serve them unadorned steamed, sautéed, or grilled.

Finally, I fill in the blanks with starchy items.
My morning routine is to drink coffee, read the paper, and watch the news. This gives me plenty of time to cook a pot of pinto, black, or navy beans that I soaked overnight. It’s also plenty of time to boil potatoes or cook some rice. By the time I go upstairs to shower, all I have left to do that night is mash some potatoes or add some beans to my chili.

Using only basic seasoning allows me to turn any of these items into anything I want without really planning ahead. The family wants Chinese – I’m ready to stir-fry the veggies and add some pork or chicken; Mexican – I can whip up tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas, chili, or fajita salad; Italian – I have the components for pesto chicken, pasta primavera, and meatball sandwiches at my fingertips.

You could argue that beginning with cooked protein isn’t the same as starting from scratch on the day it’s served. While that’s true to some degree, once I’m finished with the meal most people won’t know the difference and the end result has more fresh ingredients, less additives, and is much tastier than a meal at any chain restaurant or fast casual outlet. And I don’t precook halibut, salmon, scallops, or steak.

If preparing components is the difference between eating fresh food or processed food, components win in my book. If preparing components is the difference between spending $240 per month on lunch (5 lunches at $12 each for 1 person) and a $2880 vacation budget, components win in my book. If preparing components is the difference between me feeling overwhelmed and feeling happy to be in the kitchen, then components win again. And component cooking pleases my leftover averse friends and family.

I love it when a plan works for everyone!

If You Can’t Stand The Heat, Get Out Of The Kitchen or Use the Microwave

bf casseroleFor the past two weeks, it’s felt like 108ª outside and all I can think over and over again is: if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen! Once we hit the middle of summer, it’s always hot in my kitchen, but this year the sweltering started a couple of months early. recipeWhile my west facing kitchen may hold more heat than some, at these temps everyone’s kitchen seems hot.

To avoid the heat, some of my friends grill out, some eat salads, and some flee to the lake. Another summer option is to cook in the microwave. If you’re like me, you only think to use the microwave for a cup of hot tea, heating up left overs, or cooking frozen edamame, but the microwave can be used to cook a variety of casseroles, quick breads, and steamed vegetables. Microwave cooking is also great for dorm rooms or for seniors who no longer trust themselves to remember to turn off the stove.

Of course you can also get out of the kitchen by grabbing a burger on your way home from work. We do this at a burger joint that gives us unlimited French fries. That means I always go home with meat and fries. For years I wondered what to do with those left over fries. Now that I’ve commandeered the microwave for actual cooking, I have a solution that won’t heat up the kitchen. Give this left over French fry breakfast casserole a try. It’s hearty enough for an evening meal. Bon appétit!