How to Eat Gluten-Free on a Budget

The gluten-free diet is imperative for your health if you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and many people without "official" diagnoses follow it for a variety of reasons, as well. But it's not budget-friendly at all.

Just consider this one example: a box of gluten-free spaghetti in my local grocery store costs $4.49, compared to $1.39 for the regular gluten-filled variety. That's a 323% markup, just for gluten-free spaghetti, which in my pre-gluten-free days was a pretty cheap meal. Other gluten-free food items (think: cookies, mixes, bread and frozen foods) are similarly budget-busting.

So what can you do if you're wondering how to eat gluten-free on the cheap? Frugal gluten-free living is definitely possible, and involves most of the same strategies as frugal living in general—you can shop sales, find alternative sources for foods, and locate coupons, all of which will help you get your food costs down.

Don't kid yourself: This will take more of your time than just running into your local Whole Foods and loading up your cart with gluten-free baked goods. But your wallet will thank you... and you'll probably follow a healthier diet in the long run, too.

I've listed the steps below from the easiest (use mainstream foods that happen to be gluten-free) to the most difficult (make your own gluten-free ingredients). You can implement one strategy or all of them, but the cost savings tend to be greater on the strategies that take the most effort (isn't that almost always the case?).

One note before we get to the specifics of how to eat gluten-free on a budget: I've seen numerous recommendations (including some from doctors and nutritionists) that you not take the whole family gluten-free when one member needs to follow the gluten-free diet, since the diet is so costly to follow.

It's absolutely true that you can save some money by continuing to feed some family members gluten-containing foods, while one eats gluten-free. However, this only works if everyone in the house is very careful; otherwise, your gluten-free family member might pay for it in continuing symptoms and worse health due to gluten cross-contamination, which is far more likely in a shared kitchen.

Not everyone can share a kitchen successfully (see my article Setting up a Shared Kitchen for more information). It's also a lot more work (and some added worry and stress about potential cross-contamination) to fix two different meals at once. You may be better off using these tips to cut costs enough so that everyone can eat gluten-free, at least at home ... you may even find that some undiagnosed family members feel healthier, too!


Use Mainstream Food Products Where Possible, Like Gluten-Free Cereal

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This is the easiest step of all, and it won't really take any extra time: buy mainstream products that also happen to be gluten-free.

Gluten-free cereal is a great example of this: Multiple gluten-free cold cereals and gluten-free kids' cereals actually are products of mainstream brands and carry mainstream price tags. Your gluten-free options include several General Mills' Chex cereals, such as Post Fruity and Cocoa Pebbles.

Check out your potato chip and corn chip selections, too—plenty of brands, including some really mainstream ones like Frito-Lay, are offering gluten-free potato chips and gluten-free tortilla chips. I've also seen gluten-free crackers (usually rice crackers) in the "mainstream" section of the supermarket, for a reasonable price.

If you crave a sweet snack, there's plenty of mainstream gluten-free candy available, too.

Some yogurt brands have begun to sport gluten-free labels (make sure to check ingredients carefully, since not all yogurts are safe), and other foods, such as some prepared rice mixes, also are marked "gluten-free." Most of these will be less-expensive alternatives to specialty gluten-free food products, such as breads, cookies, and frozen foods—see my overall Gluten-Free Food List article for more information on what's safe and what's not.

By buying only "mainstream" brands and avoiding gluten-free specialty products as much as possible, you potentially can save as much as 30% to 50% every time you buy those types of products.


Sign Up for Coupons for Gluten-Free Specialty Items, and Shop Carefully

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The next step toward frugal gluten-free living is pretty easy, too: sign up to get coupons for specialty gluten-free products you can use on those (hopefully rare!) occasions when you buy them.

There are several sites that specialize in gluten-free coupons. For some, you need to sign up, while others allow you to print coupons directly off the site with no registration. In addition, many manufacturers offer mailing lists with special offers for subscribers. These can be great deals, so sign up for as many as you can.

If your computer privacy settings allow it, you'll also find that searching for, well, pretty much anything with the words "gluten-free" in it will generate a few ads with offers for coupons (you easily could keep yourself in discounted gluten-free bread with those coupons).

Gluten-free support groups and food fairs also represent great sources of coupons... and better yet, the larger meetings frequently have manufacturer representatives present who will let you try samples of the foods before you buy (it's annoying, to say the least, to spend $6 on a loaf of gluten-free bread your family won't eat).

Don't discount your doctor or nutritionist as a source of coupons or samples for gluten-free foods—some physicians and nutritionists who treat lots of celiac and gluten-sensitive patients distribute those types of freebies. It never hurts to ask (and maybe you'll give your doctor an idea!).


Eat Mainly Naturally Gluten-Free Foods from the Store Perimeter

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When you're eating gluten-free, you no longer have the option of using cheap spaghetti (or another inexpensive gluten-containing food product) to make dinner. Therefore, if you want to avoid breaking your budget completely, you'll need to focus your shopping on naturally gluten-free foods rather than processed grain products.

Shop the perimeter of the supermarket—in other words, buy fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, fish and poultry, plus dairy and eggs (if you can have them). These foods are all naturally gluten-free in their unprocessed forms.

Many of these foods are relative bargains, too—a 10 lb. sack of potatoes is around $5, for example, and provides as much starch as about 15 loaves of gluten-free bread for about 1/15th the price. Fruit may seem expensive—apples are 75 cents each in my local store most of the year—but if they're replacing gluten-free energy bars at $1.69 a pop, they suddenly seem like a deal.

Buy your meat in bulk if possible—I get good deals on beef (often saving $1 a pound or more) when I purchase it in large quantities and cut it into smaller pieces myself. If you prefer grass-fed beef (along with free-range chicken and pork), you should invest in a freezer (it will pay off), and talk to farmers directly about buying in bulk—1/4 or 1/2 of a cow at a time.

Beans and rice should be naturally gluten-free—just watch out for "shared equipment," "may contain," and "shared facilities" warnings on the package, since gluten cross-contamination in packaging still can be an issue. Dairy section products, such as eggs, milk, and cheese, are almost always okay (see my article Is Cheese Gluten-Free? for a couple of caveats).


Shop Farmers' Markets and Farm Stands for Bargains on Fresh Produce

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It's true that my wallet cringes at the prices for decent produce at the supermarket, especially in the middle of winter (even if eating produce still is cheaper than eating gluten-free specialty products). But this is where some time spent planning ahead really pays off: you can shop farmers' markets and farm stands in season to buy that naturally gluten-free produce in bulk. With your careful planning, some of it even will last through the winter until the next growing season.

As an added bonus, if you're particularly sensitive to gluten cross-contamination, the chance of problems with farm stand products is far lower than the (already low) chance of problems with supermarket produce (on rare occasions, you may find that pre-packaged supermarket produce was packaged on equipment that also processes wheat).

If you can eat nightshades, the tomatoes and peppers you'll find at your local farm stand are far superior to those you'll find at the supermarket, and cheaper, too. I buy packing crates full of tomatoes and peppers for $20 a crate in August; we eat some right away, and I use my dehydrator to dry some for use over the winter (those "sundried" tomatoes make a great sauce, and rehydrated peppers work really well in stir-fry dishes).

I've also bought sweet potatoes in bulk in the fall for less than 75 cents a pound—kept in a cool place, they'll last five to six months. Regular potatoes (usually around 33 cents a pound or less when you buy a crate of them) will begin to sprout more quickly, but I've kept boxes of those for several months as well (if you have one, your garage is a good storage space, especially if you live in a cool climate). If you have refrigerator space for them, regular potatoes might last quite a while without sprouting.

Unlike supermarket squash, farm stand squash isn't normally coated with wax to keep it fresh longer. However, I've had good luck keeping winter squash for several months even unwaxed ... and you may be able to negotiate a deal on a bulk buy. Pumpkins are a bargain if you buy them right after Halloween—you can dry the seeds for trail mix and use the flesh for all kinds of recipes (see my article on Gluten-Free Pumpkin Recipes for ideas).

Greens are incredibly cheap at the farmers' market, too—kale, mustard greens and collards are 75 cents a (generous) pound in season. I wash the greens and freeze them in large zip-lock baggies (no need to blanch them or otherwise process them), and pull them out when I need them.

It's certainly possible to find overpriced produce at farmers' markets—some of the particularly trendy organic farms place a pretty high premium on their goods, I've found. But you should be able to find vendors with very reasonably-priced fruits and vegetables if you look around.


Buy Gluten-Free Grains In Bulk to Make Your Own Gluten-Free Flour and Mixes

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Have you checked out the price of gluten-free flours? You're looking at between $3 and $5 a pound—ouch! Mixes are even worse—in my local supermarket, gluten-free all-purpose flour mix is $4.19 and a gluten-free cake mix is $4.69. There's no way to keep to a budget with those kinds of prices. So what can you do?

It's a lot of work, but you can consider purchasing gluten-free grains in bulk packages (think: 25 pounds of white rice in a giant burlap sack) and making your own gluten-free flour blends. By doing this, you can reduce the price of your gluten-free flour to about $1 a pound—a 75% discount.

You can find large bags of rice at warehouse clubs or at oriental markets for less than 50 cents a pound (sometimes a lot less). Twin Valley Mills sells a 30-pound bucket of whole grain sorghum for $15 plus shipping (with the shipping, it's about $50 to my house). And you can purchase a 25-pound bag of Ancient Harvest quinoa for about $3 a pound, including shipping—far less than the $4.29 my local supermarket charges for a 12-ounce package.

One warning: you want to buy grain in bulk, but never purchase it (or anything else) from the bulk bins at the supermarket or health food store. The bulk bins are a leading source of cross-contamination. People switch the scoops from bin to bin, and the stores don't always clean them thoroughly—you could wind up buying rice from a bin that previously held wheat, which is a really scary thought.

Once you've got your bulk grains, you'll obviously need some way to grind them up. If you're not grinding much grain at a time, you can use a coffee grinder—just be aware that these will burn out after a couple of months (or sometimes less) of regular grain-grinding. You also can use a grain-grinding attachment on a high-end blender or mixer, or a stand-alone grain grinder—if you choose any of those options, your up-front investment will be at least $100 for the grinding attachment, or $300 and up for the appliance itself.

Combine your grains using a gluten-free flour blend recipe. You'll spend some money on the necessary gums for the flour blend (gluten-free guar gum is about $16 a pound), but those ingredients last a long time, and you only need a tiny bit for each pound of gluten-free flour.


Make Your Own Gluten-Free Ingredients, Including Baking and Cooking Supplies

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When you're doing a lot of cooking and baking (and if you're eating gluten-free, you'll cook and bake more than you ever thought possible), the cost of the specialty ingredients—things like vanilla sugar or herb-infused oil—really can add up quickly. In addition, it can be difficult to find gluten-free versions of every type of specialty ingredient you might need... especially if your grocery store options are limited.

All in all, it's nice to know how to make some of these ingredients for yourself—and you can save significant money doing so.

While it may seem daunting to try some of these (it never would have occurred to me to make my own mayonnaise before I went gluten-free), many of them are pretty easy to make, and they really do taste better than the store-bought versions.

Also, if you can't have some ingredients in store-bought products (if, for example, distilled vinegar is a problem for you), you can use these recipes with safe ingredients you source yourself to make versions of those store-bought products that you can enjoy without getting sick.


A Word from Verywell

Living gluten-free can be an expensive proposition if you eat mainly gluten-free prepared foods. But it is possible—albeit a bit of work—to reduce your food budget significantly.

Obviously, it's a bit of a leap to go from living off of prepared foods to making your own vanilla sugar. However, you can start out by actively shopping for bargains (and signing up for coupons), which shouldn't take you that much time. If you want to take your money-saving project further after that, you can consider some of the more advanced steps outlined above.

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