From the time I was in middle school until I was in my second year of university I was sick all the time and, as a result, systemically tested for a whole series of digestive issues and disorders. In my final year of high school and into my first year of college I went through a period of eliminating gluten as part of being tested for celiac disease: thus began my adventure into the deep dark depths of doing restricted diets on a budget.
This all happened slightly before g-free became a trendy foodie hashtag and restaurants everywhere touted a gluten free menu, and so I was tossed into the abyss of learning how to eat gluten-free on a student budget without the option of relying on restaurants. Although it was pretty stressful at the time, in reflection being forced to learn and cook for myself totally saved my budget.
Before I begin I feel like I should add one thing: the notion that gluten-free automatically means healthy is a total lie (unless of course you’re part of the 1% of people who actually has celiac disease or a gluten allergy). Processed gluten-free products are often higher in calories and fat, and lower in nutrients than whole grain alternatives. You could literally just eat potato chips and wash them down with a ‘smoothie’ made out of butter, egg yolk, lard, sugar and salt for every meal, all day every day, and technically have a gluten-free (although super gross) diet.
Anyway, if you do have to bite the wheat-free bullet and give up gluten here are a few ways that you can stick to your savings plan:
1. Buy These Gluten-Free Staples
Rice, corn, beans, potatoes and gluten-free oats are cheap naturally-occurring gluten-free starches. These foods make great healthy staples that can help round out your diet and make meal time a snap. You can still have mashed or baked potatoes, fried rice, rice and beans, and many of your other favourite budget friendly sides.
Please note: unless you have a specific reason for going on a low-carb diet, simply cutting out carbs is not really the healthiest, cheapest, or easiest way to go g-free. If you do want to go low-carb do plenty of research first; like most diets, low-carb diets can be very dangerous if not properly implemented. Be aware that low-carb and g-free are not synonymous.
2. Load Up On Fruits, Veggies, Milk Alternatives and Lean Protein
Don’t forget to continue to eat a well-balanced diet. If your grocery list is normally full of processed foods like ramen noodles, microwave dinners and pizza pockets, switching to gluten-free can seem daunting. On the other hand, you can continue to pick up your favourite cheap whole foods (think eggs, fish, carrots, onions, bananas, milk), minimizing the changes that you have to make to your grocery budget and to your recipe binder.
One of my acquaintances is unable to eat lactose, gluten, onion or garlic. When I asked him what he eats on an average day he responded: “bacon and eggs or meat and potatoes.”
I was actually really surprised by how many of my recipes didn’t have gluten in them in the first place once I pulled myself away from the endless lists of fanciful gluten-free ingredients on the internet.
Don’t believe me? Go to your own recipe book and check it out. I’m confident that you can find recipes for soup, chili, chowder, seared or grilled fish and meat, omelettes and rice dishes that either already are, or easily can be made gluten-free.
3. Avoid Processed Foods
Processed gluten-free foods tend to be very expensive (think $5-$6 just for a loaf of bread), and by my standards, often very sub-par in taste and texture. For those beginning to switch to a gluten-free diet, I would suggest only buying one or two processed gluten-free items at a time to see if you like the taste and texture of these alternatives before seriously investing in a g-free pantry. Making your own meals from naturally gluten-free foods is way tastier and less expensive.
4. Get Crafty With Substitutions
So here’s the deal- as I’ve already told you, most recipes can actually become gluten-free with a few small changes or substitutions. In fact, going gluten-free will pretty much turn you into a gourmet Macgyver.
Lettuce and cabbage leaves, nori, egg, and rice paper (read the package for cross-contamination) all make great, fairly cheap bread substitutions for making homemade wraps. I’ve also made some great sandwich-type things inside of hollowed out cucumbers and tomatoes,and between thick slices of grilled zucchini and eggplant.
Spiralized veggies like sweet potato and zucchini make for a quick and easy substitute for pasta. Also, if you aren’t addicted to spaghetti squash yet you will be soon since it’s so amazingly filling and versatile.
If you’re used to using flour to thicken soups or sauces, switch to cornstarch. Simply use half as much cornstarch as you would flour (1 tbsp of cornstarch instead of 2 tbsp of flour), and enjoy your gluten-free craftiness.
5. Avoid Eating Out
Restaurants will totally break the bank. Trust me. It won’t take very long to get sick of how almost every menu will say something along the lines of *substitute with gluten-free crust/bread/ chips for an extra $3,* and it will take even less time to get sick of forking over an extra fistful of dollars with every meal only to worry excessively that the back of house isn’t set up in a way that prevents cross contamination.
Save yourself the stress and the money and prep your meals in advance.
6. Try Eating A Geographically Diverse Diet
There’s no two ways about it, the western diet is centered around all things wheat. Fortunately there are plenty of delicious dishes from all over the world that do not rely on glutenous mainstays.
- Latin American cuisine tends to center around rice, beans, meat, fish, veggies, tubers and corn (maize).
- Asia is also rich with gluten-free options from curries to kimchi.
- Africa offers a variety of soups and dishes that are or can be made gluten-free as well. The traditional Ethiopian recipe for injera provides an awesome gluten-free base for many delectable dishes when served with a variety of stewed meats, vegetables and legumes (some modern versions use glutenous flour).