2014 is hopefully the year of many positive changes in my life, but one of these changes is also learning how to properly budget for groceries while on a strict gluten-free and vegetarian diet. It can get very expensive really fast if I’m not careful, and every week I allot myself a certain dollar amount that I do my best to stick to, and so far it has proven to work well. Sometimes it takes a little organization and planning with shopping, and sometimes I have to make multiple stops for just a couple things.
Now I will be the first to admit I am not huge on Extreme Couponing, but I do occasionally clip a few coupons…very few are even helpful, to be honest. Generic sometimes still is cheaper than name-brand with a coupon, so you sometimes have to just use judgment. Sometimes there are cross-contamination concerns with generic, so read labels carefully. Clipping coupons is the obvious way you can save money, so I won’t even get into that. But there are some other things I have found really help with budgeting, and I think it’s important to share them:
Produce Markets are a Must
Produce in grocery stores can sometimes be a good deal, but I have never found better deals than at local produce markets, even when produce is on a good sale at the supermarket. When I go to the produce market I can walk out with pounds and POUNDS of fresh fruits and vegetables and maybe spend around $20.00, and a lot of this stuff easily will last longer than a week. Expensive foods like avocados are usually on sale at a grocery store, at best, for 3 for $5.00. At a produce market I can get 6 for $4.00 (and trust me, I go through them!). Rather than buying bagged salad mixes I just get fresh heads of romaine or bags of baby spinach, and it goes much, much further. I realize that some produce markets force you to buy something like 5 lbs. of bananas for $2.00, but whatever we can’t consume in time will go towards baking/pancake mixes or be frozen for future use, like smoothies. Never any point in having things go to waste, I try to consume or freeze whatever I can to ensure nothing gets thrown away. That even goes for things like carrots, berries or zucchini.
Learn to Make Things From Scratch
Certain things can be quite costly when bought pre-made, such as hummus, pesto, or guacamole. With a food processor it’s easy to make a lot of these items from scratch for a fraction of the cost, it definitely just takes a little extra work. Hummus can usually cost $3-$5 for an 8-12 oz. container, but making it from scratch can easily cost less than a dollar once you have all the ingredients on hand (tahini is usually the most expensive ingredient, and plenty of hummus recipes don’t even use tahini). Pesto is something that can easily be made in large batches and frozen for future use, but it’s definitely crucial to use good quality olive oil, you can’t cheap out on that, but it will last a LONG time if prepared properly. I always crush a vitamin C tablet into powder and blend it into the pesto as a preservative, otherwise it can go moldy unless you freeze it. My mom has actually taught me how to make jams, and she can crank out tons of preserves that will last for a LONG time if preserved properly.
Gluten-free granola can be VERY expensive, but making a batch by hand takes very little prep work. Even things like French fries can easily be made from scratch rather than buying bags of frozen Ore-Ida fries, and I can guarantee they will be much healthier for you! I’m hoping to get more into some of my favorite recipes and foods for future entries, so stay tuned. Obviously treats like cookies and brownies are always cheaper when made from scratch, even pre-made cookie dough in the refrigerated section (yes, GF versions of this DO exist) is going to cost less than a dozen GF cookies in a box, plus it’ll taste ten times better!
I also make my own soup. I find canned soup to be outrageously expensive, close to $2-$3 a can for GF soup. It’s easy enough to buy a quart of certified GF base (potato, corn, vegetable broth, etc.) and throw in all fresh ingredients for a hearty soup that will yield tons of leftovers. I have yet to make my own broth, but I imagine in time I can experiment with that as well.
Even snacky foods like popcorn, flavored almonds, and chips, can all easily be made from scratch for a fraction of what you’d spend in the store with far less preservatives and unpronounceable ingredients. I recently just got a bag of chocolate-drizzled popcorn in my Taste Guru delivery, and can’t wait to try to make it on my own. Sure it takes a little work, but it will cost less than a dollar for probably three times what a 6 oz. bag would offer. The internet is obviously a fantastic resource for finding good gluten-free recipes, and if you seek, you shall find more than you need.
Buy in Bulk (Subscribe and Save)
While I do make plenty of foods from scratch, I still buy my baking and bread mixes online and make bread at home using a bread maker. I have yet to play Mad Scientist with mixing five different kinds of flour, xanthum gum, etc., and usually just buy mixes and throw everything into the machine and walk away. Two and a half hours later, a fresh loaf of bread is ready! A good bread maker with a gluten-free setting is usually around $100, and I can assure you that you’ll get your money’s worth from it.
Pretty much any GF baked good is cheaper when made at home. I have always found pre-made GF foods to be outrageously expensive. A loaf of GF bread can easily cost $5, gluten-free hamburger rolls usually can cost around $1 for ONE roll, a small bag of GF cookies sometimes costs close to $8.00 (what’s in them, diamond dust?), and pre-made pizza crusts can be astronomical in cost, I’ve seen two pre-made crusts in the freezer section for around $7.00. I can promise you will always save if you just roll up your sleeves, and you will almost always have plenty left over to the point where you can freeze half of it for later. I do this often with pizza crusts, I will make one for now and another will be stored in a freezer bag providing quick and easy access for a future meal.
I usually order my bread, pancake and pizza crust mixes from Amazon using their Subscribe and Save program, and I assure you it is quite economical to go this route. Another place you can find things at a reduced price are places like Big Lots and smash-and-ding grocery stores; many people have told me they’ve found good gluten-free products there, but obviously you need to keep an eye on the expiration dates and make sure the bags are sealed and haven’t been tampered, etc. You can pretty much find any GF company’s products on Amazon, and I’ve easily saved close to 50% on buying in bulk. What’s good about a lot of GF products is that they freeze very well, and that’s a plus when you are only cooking for one or two people in your household.
I am a vegetarian, and even though my husband is not, he still eats vegetarian quite often. One of his favorite meals is simply beans and rice with salsa, fresh avocado and a huge side of grilled veggies. I’m not kidding when I say this meal is quite cheap to throw together, and very delicious. The sky is the limit when it comes to what I can throw together. I often make penne corn pasta tossed with lots of veggies, white beans and olive oil or pesto. Throw in a side salad or steamed vegetables and some fresh bread and olive oil and it’s a quick and easy meal. We eat salad a LOT, and if I am feeling lazy it’s quite easy to throw together a salad and a veggie burger for a well-rounded meal.
Even if you aren’t a vegetarian, it’s easy enough to plan a few vegetarian meals throughout the week and it will definitely ease the strain on your wallet. A pound of tofu is less than two dollars (I get it at Wegman’s for $1.69), and even cheap meat often involves a lot of waste by trimming away fat, bones, etc. In the end, vegetarian is much less wasteful, affordable, and healthier.
Gluten free rolls for sandwiches are pretty expensive. I have learned to use corn tortillas as a substitute for rolls, and it not only saves you money, but calories and sodium as well. Best to warm them up on a skillet and then fold them over and then just cut the sandwich fixin’s in half. A pack of 30 tortillas is usually around $1.50 or less…compare that to 4 GF hamburger rolls for $4-$5! They also have less preservatives and sodium, things I like to look out for when label reading. Stale bread can easily be turned into bread crumbs or croutons, which is far better on your wallet than buying them pre-made. Oftentimes when you have a gluten-free diet improvisation is just part of the game, so you may as well make it worth your while.
Another way to improvise is simply take items in your fridge and experiment. For example, earlier I had a decent sized batch of quinoa, so I tried my hand at making veggie burgers with them. It wasn’t even a matter of trial and error, but I just thought back to old recipes I had used and decided to try making some spur of the moment. Surprisingly they turned out pretty good!
Make Things Stretch
I am by no means an extreme cheapskate (that show appalls and fascinates me on so many levels), but I really like to get my money’s worth out of food. I love to stretch out a meal so it will last a couple days, and usually it just means bulking it up a little. I can easily take a batch of fried rice from P.F. Chang’s, add extra cubed tofu and steamed veggies and stretch it out for several lunches’ worth of meals. Same goes with something like soup, I will simply add more veggies, extra broth or water, and bulk it up so it lasts longer.
Brown Bag It
Such an obvious one, but this really needs to be reiterated. It’s very easy to spend $40-50 a week minimum on breakfast and lunch for a 9-5 job, but I find it’s far more satisfying to pack meals from home, and it costs you no more than you’d spend that would already be allotted in your grocery budget. When preparing dinner I usually make one or two extra servings and pack them in Tupperware so I can just grab them and go later that week. When you’re on a strict GF diet, brown bagging it is the only way to go most days, I think. No matter what, buying meals means risking exposure to cross contamination even if it’s claimed as being GF.
I hope these tips helped steer you in the right direction when meal planning on a budget. I know when I first started on my GF diet I spent a LOT of money on pre-packaged products simply because I had no idea what I was doing and still had a lot to learn. My 3-year celiac anniversary will be here in a couple months and I found I have learned and evolved in many positive ways. I can only hope these suggestions can help you as well! The bottom line is, it does involve a little extra work, but in the end you will reap the rewards and lessen the pressure on your wallet.
Do you have any tips for people trying to eat gluten-free while on a budget?