When I first started following a gluten free diet, I realized quickly that my graduate student stipend was not really going to get me far. But instead of depleting my body of nutrients and losing fifteen pounds from starvation, I quickly learned how to keep my 3500-calorie-a-day diet steady while not depleting my bank account (at least, not with grocery bills!).
Here’s some more tips for newbie-gluten-free folks to watch the wallet and the ingredient labels.
- Learn how to cook with rice. I can’t say this enough. It’s so cheap. But other than the fact that rice is cheap, it’s typically fortified. Food fortication was set in place by the government to make sure that our food has “minimum dietary requirements”. Adding micronutrients, like Vitamin B and iron, to rice is common and is especially important for developing countries where food stuffs are not very varietal or come with a high cost. The US mandates that all fortified rice contain folic acid, which was adopted due to “public health concern over low folate levels in the diets of young women and related increased risk of neural tube defects in infants born to folate deficient mothers.” 
- Making rice is pretty easy, and if you make a lot of it, it can last the whole week.
- Brown rice has more fiber and protein than its white counterpart, but comes with a slightly higher price. If you buy in bulk and store it well, it’s not much of a problem.
- Use coupons. General Mills does a great job of labeling their cereals gluten free if they are. General Mills also has coupons in the Sunday paper (usually!). Just like you’d be frugal with your grocery shopping if you weren’t gluten free, it helps to do the same when you’re on the diet. Hard to find coupons for gluten free foods? Send an email to the company you buy your stuff from or check out their website to see if they have a mailing list. I am on the Bakery on Main’s e-newsletter “club”, and every month or so get one email from them with a $1.50 off coupon for their granola. Definitely helps! Bob’s Red Mill has product giveaways on Twitter (today their giving away hemp seeds!), as do many other companies. Put your feelers out! You might even score some free samples from companies you’re hesitant to try out. Nothing is worse than spending $10 on a loaf of bread that tastes like cat food (trust me, it happens).
- Plan your meals for the week. You’ll spend less time at the grocery store if you make a list, and you are less likely to get stuff that isn’t on there if you have a plan.
- I like to plan meals that turn into other meals (and make good leftovers)
- I also like to make enough of something that can last a few meals (rice or potatoes that will carry-over to being the base of another meal)
- Making lasagna is a lot of work, but its something that can be enjoyed for a few days (lunch or reheated at dinner). You can make two batches of ‘zag and freeze one, too. Same with spaghetti sauce, chili, and meatloaf!
- Get involved with a CSA. I spent $350 on vegetables from June-October. I basically went to the grocery store for milk, rice, eggs, and meat. Every week from my farmer, I got more than enough spinach to not want to eat any more spinach between October and New Years (or even longer). Plus, I knew where my veggies were coming from, another one of those eco-friendly yet-still-being-cost-conscious things I LOVE about where I live. No CSA (that you know of)? Visit the farmer’s market. Winter usually shuts down markets, but hit the ground running at the first one this spring. Who knows, you might even find a local farmer that can slide you into their CSA for the summer. It’s worth a shot.
- Make hearty (and heart healthy) soups. Especially in the winter, I really like soup. We often make a big stock-pot of soup that will make dinner for a few nights. The bonus part is, starting with water and vegetables, making a really hearty soup is not difficult (it just takes a little extra time). Add some sausage for a protein boost, or egg whites for an egg-drop-soup rendition of veggie soup. Watch the labels on premade chicken/beef stock, though. Sometimes that darned gluten will sneak in there. When in doubt, it’s best to buy stock labeled gluten free (cheap version: Steiner Foods Kitchen Basics chicken stock! Cheapest at the grocery store and labeled Gluten Free).
- Get a crock-pot. Chili = 1 can kidney beans, 1 can diced tomatoes, 1/4 can tomato paste, and 1lb cooked meat (if you like). Add salt, pepper, and cayenne, and let it cook on low all day. Miss eating chicken wings? Make them yourself. Chicken parts are cheap compared to chicken breasts, and you know what your getting is gluten free because you’re making it yourself (if you didn’t know this already, most chicken wings at “wing night” aren’t gluten free. Nor are they actually wings… but lets not go there).
- Like meat? Get a chest freezer… and buy yourself a side of beef. Heck, when I was growing up, my parents had an entire cow processed each year to feed the five of us. Not only will it be cheaper by the pound (imagine a T-Bone steak that costs $2.50/lb…), but you have a seemingly-limitless supply, and there’s a good chance that the cow is from a local farm. You can do the same with pig, too. Knowing your farmer and getting meat processed greatly reduces the chance that the meat is injected with any “tenderizing” chemicals, which could be just a word for ‘gluten-pumping garbage.’ Another option: Contact your local 4H chapter and see if they’ll put you on the list for chicken, pork, or beef after their shows. What cow has better TLC than one raised by kids?
- Buy in bulk. I love Larabars, but at $1.89 a pop, it adds up. So, I go online and order a box of them. Brings the price down to $1.50. With a membership to Costco or Sam’s Club, the cost is closer to $1/bar. I know I’m going to eat them, so why not buy them in bulk?
- Other things to buy in bulk:
- gluten free flours– rice, sorghum flours from Bob’s Red Mill are some of the best priced gfree items on the market
- granola– I LOVE Bakery on Main, but its hard to pay $7 for a bag of granola that I can eat in two days…), mixes (Chebe, Gluten-Free Pantry
- pasta– if you’re an endurance athlete, you know you’re going to eat it, and pasta doesn’t really go bad, does it?
- pretzels– but only if you take the time to package the pretzels into single-serving bags after you buy the big bag. Don’t want those million-dollar pretzels going stale!
- Peanut butter- I buy a big tub of it sometimes from my local Co-op. $3/lb is a pretty good deal for organic stuff, and it has no chance of expiring in my house (I eat it on just about everything)
- Things to you don’t necessarily need to buy in bulk:
- xanthan gum– unless you are planning on baking a boatload of bread. A little goes a long way in g-free baking, and the shelf life of xanthan gum is about 1 yr.
- bread-unless you have a chest freezer and you have room for it! Bread in the kitchen’s freezer doesn’t last super-long, unless you have a non-frost-free freezer – one that is snowy on the inside and doesn’t have go through a defrost cycle. Once the bread goes through a few freeze-thaw cycles, it starts to get dry and ends up having a worse texture than it started with… which isn’t very good.
- That being said… We were recently stocked up on a bunch of pre-made gluten free goodies from the Silly Yak Bakery in Madison, Wisconsin, thanks to Baberaham’s mom. Luckily, the stuff didn’t last more than a month or two in our freezer, so we weren’t worried about it getting freezer burned. Their stuff is by and large the best ready-to-eat gluten free baked goods I’ve ever tried. They will ship fresh-baked goods directly to your door, which is uber-convenient for the busy-as-a-bee-grad student like me. They offer special Bakery Bundles for quick orders and a reasonable price.
- Other things to buy in bulk:
- Explore the interwebs.
- To find recipes on a budget, learn how to use Google! keyword searches can bring you lots of success. You can also start with helpful sites like these:
 Dexter, P.B., “Rice Fortification for Developing Countries.” Opportunities for Micronutrient Intervention, Aug 1998.