The gluten-free marketplace is booming right now, offering many more choices in the supermarket aisles to those diagnosed with celiac disease. Glancing over the options at the local grocer, though, it's easy to suffer from sticker shock -- many gluten-free substitutes can cost double (or more) the price of traditional foods, which can make this medically necessary diet seem costly. But eating gluten-free doesn't mean having to stick to those expensive, processed options on the shelves. Here's how to make it work on a budget.
Go Gluten-Free Without Busting the Food Budget
It can seem like gluten is everywhere when first beginning a gluten-restricted diet, but fortunately that isn't the case. Instead of heading to the "gluten free" section when entering the store, look for foods that are naturally gluten-free, such as raw fruits and vegetables, as well as eggs and most meats.
Plenty of other naturally gluten-free foods are on the inexpensive side, but use care when shopping for them. Dried legumes (such as peas and beans), quinoa, rice, and dairy products are generally gluten-free, but be sure to read the labels for signs of gluten in packaged food, which is sometimes contaminated during processing. Still, items with little to no processing are good, cheap sources of gluten-free food when compared with fancier products.
By necessity, eating gluten-free means eating more food that's prepared at home. Many restaurants don't cater to gluten-free diets, and if they do, there is always the possibility that gluten-free food will be contaminated (unless you're fortunate enough to live near a dedicated gluten-free bakery or restaurant). Eating at home then, by default, can really save money in the long run.
Not every mainstream item is loaded with gluten, and now that there is more awareness of celiac disease and related gluten-intolerant disorders, more and more manufacturers are taking steps to ensure their products are gluten-free (and free from contamination). So before heading to the specialty food aisle, check to see if your favorite inexpensive breakfast cereal or snack chips are already labeled gluten-free (note: in the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration requires foods labeled "gluten-free" to contain less than 20 parts per million).
Grocery stores routinely have sales on a variety of meats, so take advantage of the discounts to stock up. Meat, generally, is naturally gluten-free, but watch out for marinades, fillers, or broths that may contain gluten -- particularly poultry (also look out for birds that are already filled with bread-based stuffing). If the food label isn't clear, try another brand or contact the manufacturer to confirm whether gluten is present.
Craving bread, pizza, or cupcakes? Instead of splurging on a gluten-free item that is already made, try making it at home. Packaged mixes make gluten-free baking a breeze, and they're often cheaper than ready-to-eat products. (For example, a 9-ounce package of premade cookies is about $4, but you can get a 17.5-ounce cookie mix for a little over $3).
Although homemade desserts and treats are less expensive, there is something to be said for the ease of buying a package of premade cookies for a child's birthday party or when a gluten-free option is difficult to find. Buying prepackaged gluten-free goods only on occasion will help keep costs down.
In households where only one member eats gluten-free, it's easy for food to spoil before there's a chance to eat it all. Take care to properly store unused gluten-free products by wrapping them tightly in foil or sealing them in plastic bags for freezing until they can be eaten at a later time. Storing the food properly will help maintain quality, and save both money and time.
With so many gluten-free products now available, it's easier than ever to make traditional pasta dishes, such as lasagna or macaroni and cheese, by swapping in gluten-free noodles. Making meals at home, rather than relying on prepackaged frozen gluten-free dishes, can save money, free up freezer space, and build confidence in the kitchen.
Many retailers have their own lines of gluten-free items priced lower than name brands. Walmart, for example, offers gluten-free products under its Great Value label, including a five-count box of granola bars for less than $2.50. It sells a five-count box of similar granola bars from the Udi's brand for about a dollar more. Trader Joe's has a similar range of products that are often cheaper than name-brand offerings, such as mac and cheese ($2).