Almost three years ago, I gave up foods with gluten. I wasn’t diagnosed with celiac disease, but I had heard that gluten could be triggering my migraine headaches, so I gave it a shot. It didn’t do much for my headaches, unfortunately, but I felt much better overall, and as a result decided to ditch it for good.
While I felt going gluten-free was good for my health, it wasn’t good for my pocketbook. Not at all. Loaves of bread now cost $5-$7. A pound of pasta jumped to $4-$5 or more. And without those cheap, fast staples I now found myself spending more on other foods. My teenage daughter joined me in giving up gluten, and so now I had to come up with recipes she’d eat as well.
I thought I was eating pretty healthy before, but for the first few months I was in shock when I realized how much I had relied on inexpensive wheat-based foods: bagels, sandwiches, pizza, cereal and more.
The gluten-free food industry is expected to become a $6.6 billion industry by 2017, according to Packaged Facts. That’s just a fraction of the $117 billion fast food market (Fast Food Marketing), and the $18 billion consumers pay in credit card late fees (R.K. Hammer), but it’s not a drop in the bucket.
So when I had the opportunity to review Jennifer Fugo’s new book, The Savvy Gluten-Free Shopper: How to Eat Healthy Without Breaking the Bank, I jumped at the chance. Fugo stopped eating these foods due to health problems, and shortly after, her husband lost his job, and their income was cut dramatically. So she had to learn firsthand — and quickly — how to make this way of eating affordable.
Here are some strategies she shared.
1. Stop Wasting Food
The average U.S. household wastes about one-quarter of all the food they bring into their home, adding up to about $2,300 a year. But for those eating gluten-free, it’s worse. That diet can be 242 percent more expensive to begin with. “Since 25 percent waste of gluten-free food could equal upwards of $5,500 a year, it underscores why 'hacking' your gluten-free diet to saving hard-earned money is important,” says Fugo. “Imagine what you could do with an additional $5,500 each year?”
That money could go into a savings account, or be used to pay down debt, or even to take a nice vacation. If you use it to reduce your credit card debt, you may also see a boost to your credit scores, which will make you feel healthier financially! (You can get two credit scores for free at Credit.com and checking them won’t hurt your credit.)
The Savvy Gluten Free Shopper is designed to help readers shop and cook smarter, which includes avoiding waste, and reading it has given me new ideas for ways to avoid throwing away food. For example, Fugo recommends buying salad greens on the stem, not pre-chopped, and storing them in plastic bags with as little air in them as possible. I like to use a product called FreshPaper, which I throw into my veggie bin to keep vegetables fresh longer. It really seems to work.
2. Stop Eating Gluten-Free Junk
“Allow me to spare you years of confusion: the ‘gluten-free’ label does not necessarily mean that a product or item is ‘healthy’,” Fugo writes in the introduction to her book. I’ll admit in my early days of this diet, I loaded up on way too many gluten-free substitutes for foods that probably weren’t that healthy to begin with. But even when I did cook from scratch with items like Pamela’s Gluten-Free Baking Mix (which makes delicious pancakes!), I was still overspending.
More recently, I’ve found that limiting gluten-free chips, breads, pastas, cookies and other goodies has helped my grocery budget substantially. I still splurge on KIND bars at Costco, but I also often whip up homemade LARABAR-inspired bars that I can now make in 10 minutes or less with whatever I happen to have on hand.
3. Have a Plan
This is the crux of Fugo’s approach: Plan your meals. “I know it’s not sexy but it is a life skill that is not taught anymore,” she says. “With the rise in two-parent households where two people work, (they) don’t have any organizational skills around meals.”
Fugo recommends putting a “cooking day,” on your calendar — hers is typically Sunday — where you cook several meals, including enough to freeze some leftovers for busy days. Then mid-week she cooks a 30-minute meal. (Her book offers recipes to get you started.) While I haven’t yet tackled this approach, I can see how it can work, and it’s my next project to tackle.
“Meal planning is the key,” she tells me. “It helps keep costs down because you know exactly what you need. It also helps you figure out how to cook two to three times a week instead of every day.”
4. Make the Freezer Your Friend
Buying frozen foods as well as freezing foods for later help keep Fugo’s budget down. For example, she’ll stock up on frozen veggies when they are on sale for as little as $1 a bag, and then throw them into soups or stews or use them as side dishes. The cost can be half that of buying fresh veggies, and they can ultimately be even fresher, since they are often frozen as soon as they are harvested.
Similarly, if her grocery store has a sale on grass-fed beef or pastured chicken that’s about to expire, she’ll buy it all and freeze what she can’t use immediately. She will also avoid waste by freezing food before it goes bad.
I’ve been surprised to learn how many foods can be frozen: guacamole, gluten-free grains like quinoa, fresh herbs like basil (freeze in ice cubes), and cooked legumes (beans) are just a few examples.
Fugo recommends picking up copies of the “Gluten-Free Grocery Shopping Guide” from Cecelia’s Marketplace and “The Essential Gluten-Free Grocery Guide” from Triumph Dining to help identify which items at the supermarket — including less expensive store brands — don’t contain gluten.
5. Make Your Own Fast Food
A survey by VoucherCloud.net found that Americans spend an average of $162 weekly on fast/convenience foods, and only cook an average of one-third of their meals at home. If you want to save money on this diet, you will have to learn to cook real food, but Fugo insists it’s not as hard as you think — and it’s one of the main reasons she wrote the book.
“Pre-packaged foods, in general, are more expensive because you are paying for convenience,” Fugo warns.
For me, the best tool in my arsenal here has been an Instant Pot electric pressure cooker. It allows me to turn meat from the freezer into a meal in less than an hour. Two of my favorite recipes are a Beef Barbacoa that I swear is just as good as Chipotle’s, and Alton Brown’s chicken wings that are steamed (I use the pressure cooker for this step), then baked or grilled.
Learning to cook and plan wisely are skills most of us aren’t taught anymore, and we’re paying the price with our health and the damage to our finances. But that’s not the whole story, Fugo says. “It’s not just a journey about saving money, it’s also about enjoying the food you’re eating,“ she remarks.
Have you gone gluten-free? What are your tips for keeping your food budget in check? Feel free to share them in the comments below.
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