Going gluten-free can drive you into the poorhouse if you let it. Here is the lowdown on how to eat gluten-free in a way that is both healthy and economical.
If you have tried going gluten-free or cooking for someone who needs to eat food without gluten, you probably know that this diet can be seriously unhealthy for your budget.
However, as I learned after switching to a gluten-free diet 12 years ago, spending wads of money just isn’t necessary to avoid foods with that protein, which for some people can cause health problems.
1. Accept it: Your world has changed
Gluten-free eating becomes easy when you accept there’s really no substitute for wheat. Just let it go. Store-bought gluten-free baked goods aren’t just expensive, they’re also:
- Disappointing. It’s crushing to spend $15 on a pie “that tastes like gravel,” says Roberts, author of several acclaimed gluten-free baking books. A few local artisan bakeries are setting the bar higher these days, but “not bad” is still high praise for most store-bought gluten-free products.
- Fattening. Fat, sugar, eggs and salt are used to pump up the blandness of rice flour, a primary ingredient in baked goods.
- Prone to go stale fast. These baked goods dry out much more quickly than wheat-based foods.
2. Embrace new habits
Stop trying to replace all the bread, bagels, muffins and cookies you used to eat. Make bread and cookies occasional treats. Eat burgers and sausages without a bun. Switch to open-faced sandwiches, lettuce wraps and crackers. Enjoy dips, hummus and peanut butter with vegetables and fruits. Cornbread (read the labels on mixes) is a quick, easy bread substitute.
3. Cut back on restaurants and takeout
Eating at home saves tons of money and reduces your chances of accidental gluten poisoning. I once got ill from a chicken dish the waitress had assured me contained no wheat. I later found out that she’d known the dish had flour, but she hadn’t realized that flour (typically) is wheat.
4. Cook from scratch
Most rules for budget eating apply, with gluten or without. Cooking from scratch is one of those rules. It eliminates the premium on restaurant and takeout food. Author Mark Bittman’s soup tutorial is a thrifty, easy way to start (omit the croutons and bread). Our creamy polenta is another good starter dish. The Web and public libraries have loads of recipes and guidance.
Start gradually. Personal finance expert Donna Freeman advises cooking just twice a week at first, making the meals “big ones so you’ll have leftovers to carry to work.”
After a day — or maybe two — wrap fresh gluten-free baked goods tightly in plastic and foil and store in the freezer so they won’t dry out. Slice breads before freezing so you can thaw slices separately. Roberts told me in an interview that she microwaves frozen slices for 6 to 8 seconds before popping them into the toaster.
Gluten-free flours have a short shelf life, so buy in small quantities or keep out enough for four or five months and freeze the rest.
6. Use whole ingredients
The biggest expense in a gluten-free diet is the cost of specially processed foods. Fruits, vegetables, meat, seafood, eggs, beans, rice, quinoa and corn are naturally gluten-free, are healthier and cheaper than processed foods, and help you avoid products with hidden gluten.
From Roberts’ “Gluten-Free Baking Classics,” I’ve produced cakes, cookies, muffins and scones far better than store or bakery products and usually indistinguishable from wheat-based goodies. Oh, and they cost a fraction of store prices.
I haven’t tried much bread-making, but with the right recipes it’s not difficult, Roberts says. “Gluten-Free on a Shoestring” shares top 10 secrets to bread-making.
8. Find your favorite flour blend
Most gluten-free baking requires a balance of several flours (grain, bean and legume), starches (potato, tapioca, corn and arrowroot), and gums (guar gum and xanthan gum). To bake bread, you’ll use different blends (known as flour mixes) from those used for cakes and cookies.
Popular flour blends are made by King Arthur, Authentic Foods, Cup4Cup, Better Baking and Bob’s Red Mill.
While you can substitute rice flour for wheat in a few recipes, you won’t find a single flour or blend that works dependably as a “cup-for-cup” substitute for wheat flour, says Roberts. Hunn blogs here about the problem.
Each grain, each company’s milling techniques and each flour blend absorb moisture differently, creating divergent results. Roberts says you should find a bread flour mix and pastry flour mix you like and stick with them for dependable results.
9. Make your own flour blends
Cut costs even further by blending your own flour mixes. It’s easy. Hunn, author of the “Gluten-Free on a Shoestring” books, also tests and reviews commercial flour blends. She’s even developed formulas for replicating two commercial blends.
Roberts shares recipes for her homemade flour blends here.
10. Use gluten-free-tested recipes
Use recipes developed for the flour blend you’re using, Roberts says. Milling companies offer plenty of tested recipes on their packaging and websites. When following recipes developed by cookbook authors or bloggers, use the flour blends they recommend.