Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Gluten Free and Frugal?

Eating gluten free can be expensive. But when you have to eat gluten free, you have to eat gluten free, and not sticking to the diet can have its own costs. So what's a gluten free cook to do in this lousy economy? Here are some ideas.

Bake it yourself. Yes, it takes time. Yes, not all GF recipes are reliable. Yes, those little bags of gluten-free flour and xanthum gum are expensive. BUT, in the end it is almost always cheaper to make your own gluten-free baked goods than it is to buy them. For example, I figure it costs me $2.71 (actually more like $2.40 lately, because I got an extra discount on my last case of millet) to bake a 1-lb loaf of gluten free bread. The cheapest (and yuckiest -- those tasteless white, vacuum-packed bricks with a 1-year shelf life) loaves of GF bread start at $4 a loaf. When I looked them up on the Internet, Bob's Red Mill bread mix is $5.19, Pamela's bread mix runs $5.89, and Gluten-Free Pantry mix is $5.99 a loaf, but you probably add at least another 50 cents to each in eggs and oil. So find yourself a dependable, yummy recipe and start baking. I recommend Annalise Robert's "Gluten Free Baking Classics." Check out her introduction section for ideas on making more time to bake and streamlining the process.

You don't have to buy all your groceries at the natural foods store. My point is that you can buy plenty of gluten free items from any old grocery store. There's no reason to pay the "boutique grocery" mark-up on items that you can get at Walmart or Smiths. I'm sure there are lots of groceries with GF products, but I buy most of my groceries at Walmart, Smiths and Sam's Club, and then I fill in the GF products I can't buy at those stores from Sunflower Farmer's Market, a great and economical grocery/natural foods store. (I feel fortunate to live close to Sunflower, many natural foods stores are much pricier.) So buy your dairy products, your fruits and vegetables, your meats, and any mainstream product that is labeled gluten free or has a clear label from the cheapest source. (Not to mention that I keep finding more and more gluten-free products at Walmart, and Smith's has a pretty nice little gluten-free section.)

Buy in bulk if it is cheaper. Sunflower Farmer's Market does not carry millet flour, the main ingredient in my preferred flour mix. But they will order it by the case for me. And when I do buy a case they give me a 10 percent discount. (Actually, sometimes they have given me more than 10 percent off.) If you buy in bulk make sure you store your flours properly so they don't go bad before you get them used up.

If you buy on the Internet, don't forget to figure the shipping into your cost. I have not been able to find gluten-free oats in the store, so I order them online from glutenfreeoats.com. After fiddling with their shipping calculator, I realized that the shipping price was the same for 3 large bags, as it was for 1 bag. I regularly order 3 bags per order to cut my shipping costs. I also took advantage of a free shipping offer they had before Christmas, because even though I wasn't low on oats, I knew I'd be able to use up a second order before they went bad.

Try house brand or generic products. Walmart does a pretty good job labeling their Great Value brand for allergens and gluten. Sam's Club is adding more and more Member's Mark products that are labeled gluten free. Many generic products are as good or better than name brands, and can cost much less than what the name brands cost. (For example, a gallon of 2 percent milk from the local dairy cost $4.28 the last time I checked, while the 2 percent Great Value milk cost $2.18.) If a generic comes labeled gluten-free, or has a clear label, and tastes just as good, why pay more? (I don't always chose generic; if the generic does not have a clear label, or a name brand product is labeled gluten free, or simply tastes better, I'll buy the name brand.)And frankly, part of the price difference on a name brand is because you are paying for them to advertise to you!

Buy produce in season. For heaven's sakes, when oranges are cheap, don't buy grapes that are $3.99 a pound!

Frozen or canned produce might be a better buy. I used to buy fresh broccoli, until I finally realized that it'd been trucked from somewhere, sat on the shelf at the grocery store, sat in my fridge for a few days until I found the enthusiasm to wash it and cut it up, and while it might not have gone bad, it certainly had been sitting around losing vitamins for quite a while. Once I realized this I started buying bulk frozen broccoli from Sam's Club. It's always handy, it's frozen shortly after it's picked and retains its nutritional value and I only cook what I need so I don't waste it. Plus, I DON'T have to wash it and cut it up! That said ...

Think before you pay for convenience
It's cheaper to wash and chop your own lettuce, peel your own carrots, make your own mixes, and portion out serving-sized portions, than it is to pay someone else to do it.

If you can find coupons for gluten-free products or a sale on gluten-free products stock up. I've never been super enthusiastic about coupons, mostly because they are usually for processed foods that are full of gluten or sugar, but my friend Britt recently introduced me to a web site called Grocery Smarts. They match up what's on sale at your store with the coupons from your Sunday paper, and printable coupons on the web. It's magic. The other day I noticed that Smith's had Progresso soup on sale 10 for $10, so I checked, and sure enough there was a printable manufacturers coupon. With multiple coupons (I was able to print two off of each computer) I ended up buying 12 cans of their GF soups for 67 cents each, I normally pay $1.50 a can. Here's a link to GrocerySmarts.com, but there are other sites that have this same service.

Eat lots of meals based on carbs that are naturally gluten free. At our house we eat lots of rice, lots of potatoes, and lots of corn tortillas and beans. They are cheap and naturally gluten free.

Drink water. It good for you and the cheapest drink around.

Watch your portion control. Eating a proper portion of meat or protein (usually 6 oz. per day for an adult) means that you probably don't need to buy a giant chicken breast or a whole steak for each person. While you are at it watch your milk consumption, three 1-cup servings of lean dairy are what is usually recommended. But most milk drinkers I know drink big glasses (more than a 1 cup serving). If you drink more than a 8 oz. of milk at each meal, you are already getting more than 3 servings of dairy, even before you count cheese, yogurt, or ice cream. Bringing your dairy consumption in line with recommendations is healthy and can save you money in the milk aisle. For more information on proper portion size and a healthy diet check here MyPyramid.gov. And of course, eat more vegetables, fruits and gluten-free whole grains!

The whole family might not need to be gluten free. I know this is controversial and it is certainly a decision that each family will have to make for itself. But in the end the fact is that GF food is usually pricier than regular food and the more people you feed GF, the more it will cost you. Yes, you do have to be careful about contamination, but it's doable. (I'll address how and why my family deals with this issue in another post.)

How do you keep costs down?


  1. In addition to what you suggest, I shop the Asian market in town - HUGE savings on a lot of items that I need to buy GF.

    Also, in truth, its actually cheaper for me to cook GF for everyone. My husband (very lovingly) decided right out of the gate that at home he would be gluten free as well so it was easier on me. If I had to cook separate meals - I never would be able to keep our grocery bill at $50 a week for the two of us.

    Lots of fresh and in season produce. I pretty actively look for recipes from cultures that don't have wheat as a huge staple (Mexican, Thai, Chinese - all big players on our dinner table).

    One last thing? I got a grain mill for my birthday this year - and its already saved me more than it cost. HUGE difference in what I was paying.

  2. Hey Jenna, good ideas! I forgot that I hit the Japanese market for sweet rice flour, what do you get there? And I want to hear more about your grain mill! What do you grind? and where do you get it? and how fine does it grind?

  3. Absolutely -- love my Asian market for specialty flours, bulk rice, rice sticks, soy wrappers, inexpensive veggies, etc.

    Another saving tactic I use is to join a local support group or go to GF "fairs" to sample products -- much cheaper to taste test it that way than having to order and ship a whole box of something that ends up being totally N.A.S.T.Y.

  4. At the Chinese market, I buy two of the starches I use - potato, tapioca - at a fraction of what the other stores want (Tapioca starch is $0.79 a pound at the Asian market - the health food store wants $7.29!). I also get rice noodles, spring roll sheets, sweet rice flour, and far too many seasonings, condiments, and "Hey, THAT looks nifty!" that my husband (or I) toss into the basket!

    As for the grain mill - I can't say enough nice things about (No. I don't work for them.) it. I got a Blendtec grain mill (same folks who do the Will It Blend? - extreme blender ads online) and use it all the time. Beans (garbanzo's mostly), brown rice, millet, oats (gf)and quinoa, all go through beautifully. It has an adjustable grind - and mills brown rice down to almost, if not as, fine as the sweet rice flour you can buy. MUCH finer than Bob's red mill, or any of the other rice flours I've tried. As for where I get the things to mill? I'm very lucky - there is a bulk food Amish run store about 45 minutes from me that I can get a lot of items (millet, amaranth, and dried beans are biggies) . The brown rice I get whenever it goes on sale at one of the local stores.

    Let me know if there is anything else I can tell you - I LOVE having the mill. Its loud and on grinding day I'll cop to feeling a wee bit Little House On the Prairie for needing to use it... but its already saved me more than it cost, and continues to make a BIG difference in what and how I cook.

  5. yahoo for grocery smarts! enjoy your fabulously cheap soup. GREAT post. loved every minute of it. thanks for sharing. i always need new cheap ideas.