The first time a gluten-free newbie picks up a loaf of gluten-free bread and looks at the price tag, there's an inevitable moment of sticker shock. These people want how much for basic sandwich bread? Did they replace the wheat with ground-up diamonds?
It's a lot to deal with on top of a sudden change in diet. But the good news is that just like with anything, there are ways to save money if you know how. Here are 4 tips for managing the transition and keeping that grocery bill to a more reasonable level.
1. Stop buying wheat replacements
Stop buying gluten-free bread and gluten-free muffins and gluten-free pancake mix and gluten-free crackers and gluten-free pasta. You don’t need any of that stuff.
- It’s incredibly expensive.
- Most of the time, it’s full of sugar and junk carbs - just like the regular, gluten-loaded version. “Gluten free” does not equal healthy.
- It’s 100% unnecessary.
Instead of buying gluten-free bread to replace the Wonderbread, just make meals that don’t require bread. It’s OK to not have bread at all! Instead of buying gluten-free pasta to eat with your meatballs, just roast some vegetables and eat those with the meatballs instead. There's no Vitamin Pasta that you're missing!
You do not need a 1:1 replacement for all the gluten foods. You can just structure your meals to incorporate foods that are naturally gluten-free. Use very loose substitutes - like spaghetti squash for pasta - or just stop substituting and enjoy the foods you’re eating for what they really are.
It’s an adjustment. It takes a while to start conceptualizing what a meal looks like when it doesn’t have a big pile of grains somewhere in it (here's a template to get your creative juices flowing). But it’s totally worth it - who wants to be eating second-class substitutes for wheat products their whole life? Wouldn’t you rather eat real foods and enjoy them for what they actually are, instead of pretending they’re something else?
2. Master Grocery Shopping 201
On any kind of healthy diet - Paleo, keto, vegan, whatever - your grocery cart should be 90% perishable foods. But that 10% of nonperishables can take up a disproportionate amount of the budget. Staples like good cooking fat (olive oil, coconut oil, etc.), spices, herbs, and other nonperishables can be pretty pricey.
Buying the right things at the grocery store is Shopping 101. Shopping 102 is when you're still getting the right things, but branching out a little to get them cheaper.
If you want a bargain on really good nonperishables, you’ll probably find your best options either at a bulk store (like Costco), an ethnic grocery store, or online. If you absolutely must buy gluten-free wheat replacements, online is definitely the place to get them. Find a favorite online marketplace - there are several, and we're not endorsing any particular one - and embrace that "buying cinnamon by the pound" life!
3. Seize your chance to make new grocery habits
Going gluten-free for the first time is a pretty big shift in most people’s grocery shopping experience. You might find that shopping is suddenly exhausting and time-consuming as you have to stop and re-evaluate all the stuff you normally buy. No more filling the cart on autopilot; now you have to actually think about everything. It makes you realize exactly how much mental energy we save by doing things on autopilot all day long.
Well, while you’re in that uncomfortable stage of high-effort shopping, you might as well get maximum gain for your pain and set yourself up with all the best grocery habits:
- Make a meal plan and shopping list before you go, to avoid wasting food or getting stuck with nothing to eat.
- Stick to the outer aisles instead of buying junk from the middle.
- Shop sales and specials to stock up.
These aren’t tips unique to gluten-free diets, but you can use the transition as your opportunity to make a change here, too.
4. Eat more fat and/or carbs
If you’re eating gluten-free, you might be tempted to eat a lot of lean protein (yogurt, chicken breast, egg whites, pork tenderloin) and vegetables. Which is fine, in theory, except that lean protein is expensive and it’s not the only healthy way to eat.
There’s nothing wrong with fat.
The right kind of fat is actually super good for you - fats like olive oil and coconut oil have major health benefits and the much-maligned animal fat doesn’t deserve all its bad press. It’s fine to eat egg yolks, fatty cuts of meat, and lots of delicious avocados - they’re actually very nutritious and (except for the avocados) cheaper than the low-fat alternatives. Win-win! Eating all the fat won’t cause weight gain if you use them to replace junk carbs. If you try to eat a bunch of junk carbs (potato chips, cookies, candy) and then just add a bunch of fat on top, then yes, weight gain is pretty likely, but that's not the Paleo model and nobody's claiming it's the way to go.
Eating more fat doesn't have to mean going keto - you have a lot of wiggle room between "egg white omelette" and ketosis. For example, if you ate…
- 3 whole eggs
- 2 tbsp. of butter
- 1 banana
- A few handfuls of spinach, some onions, and some red pepper, fried up to go with the eggs
That's a nice, high-fat breakfast, but not remotely keto-friendly.
There’s also nothing wrong with carbs.
If you tolerate carbs well, and not everyone does, this is an easy way to make the grocery budget go further. There are plenty of gluten-free and Paleo-friendly carb sources - sweet potatoes are the poster children here, but white potatoes are totally fine and even cheaper. Bananas are also pretty affordable, and depending on where you live, there are other options like plantains and other fruits.
Every few years, there's a new surge of interest in low-carb and keto diets - after a brief low-carb spell in the early 2000s, we’re back around to low-carbing again in the late 2010s. Which is fine! A lot of people get great results on low-carb diets, but not everyone needs to limit carbs and some people even do better with more carbs.
Plus, carbs are cheap. Foods like potatoes can really stretch out a meal and make it satisfying with less animal protein, and at a much lower cost. If you're spending big bucks on skinless chicken breast all the time, consider adding more fat (possibly up to keto levels, but not necessarily) and/or carbs.
Going gluten-free doesn't have to break the bank.
It is 100% possible to eat a reasonably affordable gluten-free diet. Granted, it's never going to be as cheap as you can get with pasta and rice, if you're a very disciplined shopper and incredibly savvy about sales. But it doesn't have to be absurd.
What are your best tips for saving money on a gluten-free diet? Let us know on Facebook or Twitter!