Ask the grumpies: How to eat gluten free frugally

We’re totally stealing this question from delagar.

Delagar asks:

I’ve been sick for about six months now. My PCP has no real idea what’s wrong — she thinks maybe a parasite, though two long courses of antibiotics have not really cleared up the issue. Her next move is to send me for (expensive) tests.

These tests will mean $$$, and that will be $$$ out of my pocket, obviously, since my health insurance has a huge deductible. (It’s something like $5000, though I’ll admit I haven’t checked the exact number yet. I don’t even want to know at this point.)

So before I agree to the expensive tests, I’m think I’ll try other things. According to Doctor Google, one other thing that might be wrong is a gluten allergy. I know going gluten-free is very woo, but I’m trying it. It’s better than putting a couple thousand dollars on the credit cards.

On the other hand, my current diet is very gluten-heavy.

So! Recommendations for gluten-free foods?

Cheap gluten free foods, if possible. (Currently I am living on oatmeal, oranges, and potatoes. I can see that this diet will get old fast, however.)

Here’s a thread from when I was allergic to wheat during pregnancy:

Words of wisdom:
Don’t think of it as you *can’t* have wheat things, think of it as you get to try new things you wouldn’t have had before.  (It’s hard, but… )

Non-wheat versions of things that are normally wheat are generally pretty expensive.  There are a lot of inexpensive foods that aren’t “new-American” that never had wheat to begin with.  Focusing on these feels less like deprivation.  (Much like eating things that are naturally sugar or fat free feels less like deprivation than their artificial versions.)

Arepas are one of those new things you should absolutely try.  They’re wonderful.  If you can do cornmeal there are many amazing inexpensive things you can do with it.  Arepas are my favorite.  Super simple to make from scratch too– easier than pancakes.

Most fancy noodles that mimic Italian noodles are expensive.  Cheaper option:  Chinese rice noodles.  These are usually naturally gluten free and they’re kind of like angel hair (and reasonably priced).  They’re better with Asian food than Italian sauces, but they do help with a noodle craving.

When I wanted Italian, instead of rice noodles, I would often use beans.  This didn’t spark joy, but it also allowed me to eat spaghetti sauce with the rest of the family and wasn’t weird like trying the rice noodles.  Polenta is also a reasonable substitute for putting under Italian sauces.

Rice is great.

Veggies and stews and soups are good.  Just don’t focus on the lack of rolls or crackers.

Corn tortillas are helpful– but make sure you read labels and the ones that have no gluten you usually have to double up on (two tortillas) or they fall apart.

Rice cakes with melted cheese on top are pretty good.

Real labels very carefully– wheat/gluten shows up in the oddest places.  Like Worcestershire sauce.  Or frozen sweet potato fries.  (I would throw said object up and be unable to eat it again for another 12-15 months, even after the pregnancy and allergy had passed.)

There are some pretty good and reasonably priced gluten-free toaster waffles out there.  But most other stuff is expensive or yucky (or both!).  Even the best gluten-free pizza (expensive, small, not as good as real pizza) is only good while it is still hot and turns disgusting as a leftover.

For desserts– things naturally made with oats or rice flour tend to be better (and less expensive) than things made with gluten-free mixes.  Almond flour tends to be a bit more expensive (best price for us is TJ’s in the city), but makes pretty good cookies if you need a cookie fix and like chewy cookies.  If you google gluten free oat bars, there are a lot of options that mix oats and peanut butter.  I liked adding jam and chocolate to these kinds of recipes (or you could just flat out make dump cookies, though they are far too sweet for my palate these days).  And, of course, you still have a wide range of fruit and milk desserts available to you.

Larabars, at around a dollar a piece, are ~200 calories of life saving goodness.  I wanted to kiss my OB after she recommended them and I was full for the first time in what seemed like forever.

Good luck!  Restricted diets are no fun, but once you figure things out they become more bearable.

Do you have any advice for Delagar?  Recipes for cheap, easy, gluten-free goodness?

18 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: How to eat gluten free frugally”

  1. First Gen American Says:

    What about cutting dairy first? It might be easier than doing gluten and it’s one more potential offender checked off the list.

    I made GF brownies with almond flour this week and they were really good. I had flour to use up and gave it a try. Yum. They did have a bit of a mealy texture but I didn’t find it bad because the flavor was delicious.

    In other news, I laughed the other day when my tuna fish can was labeled a “gmo and gluten free food”. So cheap and long shelf life. Canned tuna, beans, peanut butter, nuts, dried fruit, I like the progresso veggie soups with barley in them. They are more filling and you can get them for $1 when they are on sale. BJs has these quinoa and also rice and quinoa blends that are really tasty. My fancy $10 organic blend has 36 servings in it which is still cheaper than pasta. Visit a Chinese or Indian grocer if you are lucky enough to have one in your area (sadly I do not). Frozen peas are cheap, nutritious and easy to make. My fresh veggies and fruit I check what’s cheap at the grocer.

    All that being said, I still spend a fortune on food.

    I have had IBS since college and the doctors have been useless. If it bothers you, avoid it. I was pretty much on my own to figure out what foods were triggers. I do find that my stomach is more forgiving when I am exercising a lot and my weight is in the normal to underweight range. (It is not currently).

  2. Leah Says:

    You can also look for Whole30 recipes. They cut out more than you’re looking to do but would bring in variety. I’ve never done it, but I read a friend’s blog who did. My favorite item she made was sautéed cabbage. That’s another thing to replace noodles. It’s actually really good.

  3. Dame Eleanor Hull Says:

    Rice and potatoes. I’ve been low-FODMAP for a couple of years and it works wonders, but it does require a completely different orientation to food: that is, it’s fuel, not entertainment. Gluten-free substitutes such as bean flour can be worse than wheat. Every week I make a big pot of rice with chicken, carrots, and green beans (or spinach), which can be flavored with Italian herbs, curry spices, or Mexican flavors. No onions, no garlic. That’s my main meal every day. If it turns out FODMAPs are your problem, there’s no substitute for the app from Monash University, where they do the research on what foods have which carbohydrate chains in them. The good news here is that if you find that certain carb chains are a problem, thanks to Monash you can avoid all the foods that have them, rather than testing foods individually. Non-wheat flours don’t work great for most baking (particularly since I can’t have dairy either, or nuts), but I’ve worked out an acceptable cookie recipe, and they behave better in pancakes/crepes than other bread or cake-like creations. Next I’m going to try to develop a pie crust, though my filling options are limited.

  4. Dame Eleanor Hull Says:

    (my first comment appears to have been eaten; apologies if it shows up later and I’ve doubled.)
    Rice and potatoes. I’ve been low-FODMAP for a couple of years and it works wonders, but it has required a different attitude to food: it’s fuel, not entertainment. FODMAP stands for fermentable oligo- di- mono- and poly-saccarides, carbohydrate chains of various lengths and complexity (I had no idea there were so many different types of sugar). Wheat has fructans chains, as do many other grains, so you might want to see how you do with substitutes such as oats and corn; they can also be problematic if the problem is carbs rather than protein (gluten is wheat protein). Plain table sugar is fine! Every week I make a big pot of chicken, rice, carrots and green beans (or spinach), which can be flavored Italian, Mexican, or India. No onions, no garlic. That’s my main meal every day. Spuds can be baked, boiled, or fried, for a little variety. Some non-wheat flours, such as garbanzo bean flour, can be worse than wheat for my gut. None of them behave super well in baked goods, especially without dairy, which I don’t tolerate either, but I have worked out an acceptable cookie recipe, and pancakes/crepes work better than bread or biscuits.

    • kt Says:

      Cassava flour is touted as a great baking replacement for wheat flour, but the few times I’ve chowed down on that it also has given me stomach problems. Chickpea flour just tastes weird to me and it seems like baked goods made with it don’t age well (they taste fine out of the oven but weird an hour later and worse in two days).

      For holidays I spend the money for almond flour or other nuts and make a variety of almond cookies (like those jam thumbprint cookies), meringues, “ugly but good” Italian cookies, macarons, macaroons, etc. If one would like a good chocolate chip cookie and you want a chewy-but-not-spready cookie, I like this one: It works fine with regular sugar and butter instead of coconut oil, although it sounds like you’d skip the dairy….

  5. Linda Says:

    Seconding the recommendation to find Asian grocers to get ideas and supplies. Chickpea flour (besan or gram flour) can be used to make fritters and flatbreads. Socca is an Italian version of chickpea flatbread, but there are traditional Indian or India inspired recipes.

    Shirataki noodles are made from a type of yam and should be gluten free. Chickpea flour and yam noodles are sold at most major grocers, but will be more expensive than grocers targeted toward Asian or Indian customers.

    The arepa recipe looks amazing, and many Central American cuisines have corn-based foods you can make or buy cheaply. Things like tamales and pupusas are gluten-free. Tamales are made in batches that can be easily frozen for reheating later. Have fun!

  6. delagar Says:

    Thanks for running my query! And I’m reading everyone’s advice eagerly!

  7. Jenny F. Scientist Says:

    Delagar, your comments are closed, but: I *developed* a gluten intolerance (as part of a wicked case of pollen-food allergy) after a long course of antibiotics. It apparently happens, once in a while. For a while I was down to spinach, salmon and rice while I figured out what I could eat. If you have the time and energy to do a real elimination diet it can help but it is a right pain.

    I do a lot of meat-and-veg. Like I’ll roast a whole chicken and take chicken and shredded cabbage and salsa and corn tortillas for lunch for a whole week. Lots of soups without wheat noodles. If I want a starch I’ll do rice. I’m not fond of most GF pasta; even the high end stuff is a lot more friable than regular.

    These (few) recipes are mostly though not all gluten free, including a couple cookies and a couple main dish type things ( Our local Walmart sells rice flour and millet flour; if you live near any kind of Amish/Mennonite bulk shop they also do, and rice flour can be had cheaply at Asian markets of all persuasions.

  8. Debbie M Says:

    I don’t have much to say. Just “flourless chocolate cake.” The recipes look like chocolate scrambled eggs, but they taste like brownie-leaning cake.

    Oh, also crustless quiches are still good. Or you can use thinly sliced deli meat for the crust in mini-quiches, using one slice per cupcake holder. Also crustless pumpkin pie.

    Can you give us a better idea of which glutenous foods are your favorites and why? By “why,” I mean can you describe what it is that you like about them? Like, I love bread for sandwiches, so I could make lettuce wraps or use corn tortillas instead. But I also love biscuits and pancakes and muffins for melting butter on–that’s hard to think of a sub for. Maybe I could make do with mashed potatoes or baked potatoes sometimes? I also love things like cheeseburgers and lasagna and pizza for eating hot melty cheese with–bunless burgers and zoodles (zucchini instead of noodles) could help with those.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Don’t forget that corn on the cob and popcorn are also vehicles for melted butter! As is lobster (though that’s probably not cheap in Arkansas).

      • Debbie M Says:

        Not to mention those arepas for which I finally looked at your link.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        OMG, they’re so good. They’re crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside and you can break them open and make little sandwiches. My favorite are the (Venezuelan?) kind with chicken salad and avocado (reina pepina). But they make great cheese sandwiches, or just honey-butter. Mmmm. I may need to put this on our menu planning list for the week (now that the turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie are gone and the rest of the meal is getting picked over).

  9. kt Says:

    For good recipes that also are wheat-free, check out Elana’s Pantry by Elana Amsterdam, Nom Nom Paleo (Michelle Tam?), and Mel Joulwan’s blog and Well Fed cookbooks. They all have good food with a range of fanciness.

    What did I eat in the last week? Hm. We tend to get cheap cuts of nice beef and use a crock pot or the oven to just make a big low&slow brisket or something, then repurpose that for 3 meals. Switch out rice, potatoes, Jovial brown rice pasta (we get it on sale; it’s the only decent GF pasta in my personal opinion), spiralized zucchini or just vegetable-peeled-into-fake-linguine zucchini, and winter squash. Risotto is cheap and fancy. Congee is not to our taste. In the summer I push myself to shop for veggies at the farmer’s market because here that means cheap (I realize this is not true everywhere, surprisingly!) and then try new recipes. In the fall we load up on squash, and so dinners are mostly veggie-squash-meat right now, with ‘remixes’ like squash mixed into risotto with different meat, roasted root veggies/cauliflower/broccoli topped with leftover meat, stewed chicken thighs on one of the above starches, coconut-milk curry with odds and ends of veggies and chicken, bean thread noodles & tofu & veggies for a change now and then. Cabbage is really good prepared a number of ways (from slightly charred to stir-fried to cabbage rolls or cabbage chunks with kielbasa).

    We’re approaching our Thanksgiving turkey like a Peking duck: had the main version Th-F-S, have soup on the stove now & will bulk it up with wild rice, will use the remaining scraps and skin to make turkey fried rice. My spouse has truly mastered the art of using leftover rice and leftover random crap from the fridge to make amazing fried rice. That is a low-budget luxury.

    I don’t think wheat-free is woo, although it is marketed that way. After a trip to a developing country that gave me food poisoning that didn’t stop, going wheat-free ‘fixed’ me. (I can eat very fermented wheat, rye, barley in moderate amounts without a problem it seems.) There’s no pill that helped. My doctor family member said hey, if you don’t have intestinal problems when you don’t eat wheat and you do when you do eat wheat, then just don’t eat wheat — what’s the point of stressing about it? I did do a whole elimination diet to figure this out. I also did a Whole 30 once and learned a lot about food & cooking & my energy requirements.

    Closer to woo but having some scientific validity is using food-grade diatomaceous earth to kill intestinal parasites. It’s used in animal feed for that purpose and has been studied (for instance, It hasn’t been studied much in humans but doesn’t have any ill effects, so you might try just buying some food-grade stuff and putting some in your coffee for a month or something. I did it and have survived to tell the tale. I don’t think it helped me, but it was also not hard and was fine in coffee. If it works, you win! If it doesn’t, it was good for your nails and you’re out $7. Once you’ve tried it you can use it in your basement or garden as an insecticide and as a soil amendment.

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