Feb 28, 2013

Gluten Free on a Budget

How do you fill a gluten-free bowl?
A few years back, after a lifetime of stomach woes, I went without gluten for a whole day. Within one meal I noticed a difference, and after a day, my belly felt fine. That may be the way your belly feels every day, but that was definitely not my belly-ownership experience. I never got tested for Celiac disease because that would have required starting to eat gluten again for a few weeks, and there was no way I was going back there again. It was clear that gluten had a negative affect on me. That was all I needed to know.

Here's the thing: gluten is everywhere. It comes from wheat, rye, and barley, and it's in many food additives to boot (and most beers, sadly). People that are extra sensitive (as I am) or allergic have to be careful about cross contamination. That means that my gluten-eating husband can't double dip a butter knife when spreading butter on his bread, and I have to buy special gluten free oats at a premium price.* If it is processed in any way, I try to choose foods that say "processed in a gluten-free facility" or that are batch-tested for gluten. This is really important for those living with Celiac, but it depends on the item for me - some things I can tolerate if they have been processed in a factory that also processes wheat, but some I can't. Eating out fills me with all sorts of worry, because if my veggies are chopped on a cutting board previously used to slice bread, I'm in trouble.

I'll tell you right off the bat that gluten free living isn't particularly easy, and it isn't cheap. But when you have to do it, you do it, and I've found a few things that make it a little easier on the pocketbook. I'll point out here that I'm not a great cook and I have very little patience (previous posts will tip you off to my immediate gratification compulsion). If I loved to make everything from scratch, this might be a piece of (gluten-free) cake. I'm lazy, though, so my tips are geared toward minimal ingredients and minimal prep/cooking time.

No Substitutes
For the first five years or so that I was gluten free, I never ate those substitution products: gluten-free bread, cookies, pizza crust, and the like. The one exception to that was pasta noodles. I found a great noodle that I really liked that I would eat on occassion, and that was made of only quinoa, corn, and salt. But the other items weren't very tasty, were really expensive, and had a list of ingredients a mile long. Instead, I chose naturally gluten-free corn tortillas and developed a fondness for dark chocolate that fulfilled my sugar cravings. A little dark chocolate goes a long way - am I right, people? And a note on corn as an ingredient in anything: I assume that if it isn't labeled "certified organic" then it is likely made of GMO corn. Aside from knowing your ingredient grower, organic certification is the only thing that will guarantee that it was grown without GMO seeds. This is probably the most important reason to me that we don't sit idly by while organic certification standards are weakened. Here's the USDA's fact sheet on what organic certification means, and here's a link to the Just Label It campaign if you are interested in learning more about GMO labeling (or lack there of) in this country.

Recently I discovered a type of gluten free bread that I really like, made mostly out of tapioca flour, cheese, and eggs. This is really useful for making sandwiches to bring to work, but because it is really pricey (and nutritionally underwhelming) I am going to have to limit myself.

Learn to Love Beans and Gluten-Free Grains
Without gluten in my diet, and without using substitutes, I found my intake of both dairy products and sugars decreased substantially. I also had a hard time with what to bring to work or on trips, because most of my meals were cooked and I don't like to use microwaves. So I found myself eating large meals in the morning and at night.

For years my go-to morning meal was quinoa. I like a nice savory breakfast, and quinoa fits the bill. It's quick to make (only 15 minutes, with very little stirring!) and isn't heavy like most grains. I simply added salt, curry, and frozen broccoli or fresh kale to the water. Delicious! Because quinoa requires rinsing, and because I'm not super functional first thing in the morning, I've since switched to quick-cooking gluten-free oats. I think they are cheaper per serving and they are also more filling. The key to good oats is to add salt. I put the oats, salt, and some brown sugar into a bowl, fill with water, stir, and cover for 5-10 minutes. That makes a damn fine breakfast. BONUS: the oat mixture, minus the water, can be put into a travel mug and filled with hot water from a coffee shop later for a hearty lunch or mid-day snack when I'm away from home.

Beans have become a staple for my dinner. Here's a spot in my grocery bill where I could save money and reduce our waste stream if I would start using dried beans (which I plan to once we move into the apartment). At this point, though, my fabulous husband just coats the bottom of a sauce or fry pan with coconut oil, heats it with some red pepper flakes in it, and adds 3 or 4 small cans of black beans, stirring occassionally until the beans are more creamy and less watery. Served on corn tortillas with avocado and maybe some salad greens, this meal is divine comfort food for me (and totally healthy to boot).

Be Ready With Snacks
A piece of  fruit or two a day, a couple of handfulls of pistachios or other nuts, and gluten-free corn tortilla chips now and then (really, old friends, I hardly eat them at all anymore) do the trick for most of my snacking needs. Fresh-popped popcorn is an inexpensive treat, and I usually keep a few gluten-free bars (store bought or handmade) in the cupboard or freezer for days that we will be away from the house over a mealtime. They may be pricey, but they aren't really any more expensive than what you would spend on a meal out anyway. During the growing season, and especially if you have a CSA, chopping up tomato, red bell peppers, and cucumbers and tossing together with some salt is a lovely and reasonably priced snack.

Caution With Bulk
Buying in bulk is a great way to save money, but can be tricky for someone like me. Scooping out of a gluteny bulk bin can create dust that may get into the gluten-free bins. But even if that doesn't happen, some folks say that bulk contamination often happens before it gets to the store - while it is being manufactured and processed. I can tell you that I have found dried barley in my dried popcorn from the bulk section, so no matter how it gets there, I have to be careful. People with Celiac, I've been told, should not shop in bulk departments at all. Some stores will order you your own full bulk-sized bag (which may be up to 25 or 50 pounds). If I find a brand available in bulk that is gluten free and has its batches tested, I might try this since it would make each serving cheaper (especially for things I eat a ton of, like quick cooking oats).

* Oats themselves technically do not contain gluten, but apparently they are often contaminated by nearby wheat fields or when processed on machinery that also processes gluteny grains. I react to regular oats, but not those that are labeled gluten free.

How do you do gluten free on a budget? And those with gluten-free kids - how do you keep the munchkin happy without breaking the bank?


  1. I am now also trying to avoid ALL grains and legumes, because I may have leaky gut caused by problems with lectins. I have no idea how to do this on the cheap.

  2. Emily, that's a tough one I imagine! I've read some posts over on Clean (http://lusaorganics.typepad.com/clean/) that talk about the Paleo Diet and the GAPS diet... it seems like those are grain free and may be legume free as well? I'm not sure though. Here's a link to her grain-free granola recipe: http://lusaorganics.typepad.com/clean/2012/06/grain-free-granola-gaps-and-paleo-legal.html. If you find any other resources that could be helpful for others in the same boat, please consider sharing them here!

  3. Wow. Gluten intolerance is supremely unfair! On the bright side, that husband of yours sounds like a total dreamboat.

  4. You have no idea, Anonymous! I'm the luckiest.