- Lauren Potts, bbc.co.uk/food/articles/gluten_free_budget 1
Eight years ago, gluten and I parted ways. After years of stomach issues, I was referred to a dietitian who advised I try following a gluten-free diet. While I was grateful to see an almost immediate improvement in my symptoms, I missed flaky warm croissants and wedges of buttery toast. So, I did what many a newly diagnosed gluten-freer would do and replaced all the things I missed with pricey free-from alternatives.
I went to a fancy bakery and bought a rock-hard brick of free-from ‘sourdough’ that cost four times as much as a normal loaf. I ordered the gluten-free pizza that was half the size of a regular one but cost £2 more. I bought tiny biscuits that contained neither gluten nor joy.
This was an expensive way to shop and eat – and it was no fun at all. So, in a bid save myself money and disappointment, I started to change my food habits. Here’s what I learned.
Go au Naturel
Instead of buying gluten-free versions of the things I missed, I researched natural alternatives. I discovered that buckwheat flour makes tasty breakfast muffins and pancakes, gram flour is just the thing for crispy onion bhajis and brownies can be whipped up with ground almonds, black beans, or sweet potato. I made my own pesto from scratch and swapped soy sauce for tamari. Where I previously reached for pasta, I opted for potatoes, lentils, rice noodles and polenta.
Eating this way is something gluten-free expert and best-selling author Becky Excell says is key to keeping costs down.
- “It’s about being aware that the majority of what’s the supermarket is naturally gluten free, and that those foods aren’t always going to be in the free-from aisle,” says Becky, who’s been living gluten-free since 2009 when her doctor diagnosed her with IBS.
“People end up buying a free-from pasta sauce which is a waste of money because a lot of pasta sauces in the normal aisle are gluten free anyway. But ideally, you’d go one step further and just buy tinned tomatoes, some spices and herbs to make your own, because you can save so much money.”
Bulk Cook and Freeze
I’d always enjoyed cooking and knew my way around a recipe, but needed to know how to make tweaks to keep gluten at bay. I learned I could still make a chili and a shepherd’s pie simply by using gluten-free stock.
I became savvy about which supermarkets sold sausages made with gluten-free breadcrumbs as standard so I could make my favourite casserole on the cheap. I became very good friends with eggs, experimenting with frittatas and shakshuka.
Though not everyone has the time or inclination to cook from scratch every day, both Becky and I have found it’s one of the best ways to make sure you can eat safely and also cheaply, since you can buy ingredients in bulk.
- “When you go to the supermarket they’re preying on you to buy convenience stuff that costs more money, so if you can cook from scratch you can save a huge amount,” says Becky.
“But if you’re not up for cooking tonnes, batch cook once then bag it up and freeze complete meals – then you’ve got your own ready meals that cost much less. And because you can buy a 750g pack of mince instead of 250g, that saves money per kilo.”
Becky also recommends stocking up on frozen vegetables and fish fillets which are typically cheaper than fresh. Eating more plants and less meat can also help bring the food bill down, she says.
“I would never have gone near a chickpea in the past. I thought every meal had to have meat, but chickpeas cost 41p whereas the cost of chicken is almost laughable. So if a couple of times a week you use lentils or black beans, you can really save money. And meals like curries don’t even need meat, it’s about the flavours – which lentils, for example, absorb so well.”
Learn to Experiment
One of Becky’s most popular recipes is a cheap potato and pea curry which is naturally gluten free and spiced up with store cupboard staples. She recommends keeping cumin, paprika and curry powder to hand because they can completely change a low-cost ingredient.
- “People often feel they eat the same thing over and over again, but once you experiment with basic herbs and spices and have some fun, tiny amounts can transform a meal into something completely different.”
Becky began experimenting out of necessity and launched her blog in 2013. She too had found it hard to adjust to gluten-free life and had fallen into the trap of buying free-from products, repeatedly eating the same things, or simply going without.
“I’d eat a bolognese but not have anything with it, or I’d just have a jacket potato. So I started going to the free-from aisle and it was just so expensive. Everything was just that little bit more rubbish and it felt like I was always having to make a compromise.
“So I started to create recipes in a semi-selfish way because it’s just the stuff I wanted to eat – that’s how the blog started. Then people found these recipes and it became this community.”
Becky now has 340,000 Instagram followers and five books to her name. She also won Best Food Personality at last year’s Observer Food Monthly awards. She is constantly asked by her audience to reimagine gluten-filled favourites they miss and, as such, has created a niche for developing free-from versions of classics. Her Yorkshire pudding recipe is one of her most popular.
Becky’s also asked a lot about bread – a household essential for many but a costly and usually disappointing experience for the gluten-free among us. Her flatbread recipe is another of her most-viewed (and also one of her cheapest) recipes, using only gluten-free flour and Greek yoghurt.
- “Mix those things together and you can make flatbreads, naans, pizza bases and dough balls,” says Becky, who recommends buying own-brand versions of both ingredients to bring the price down even further.
Plan Like a Pro
- On a Sunday afternoon, Becky loosely maps out the week’s meals then does a single supermarket shop to buy exactly what she needs, rather than going to more expensive corner shops multiple times a week.
“Just spending that little bit of time when you’re watching telly, even just five or 10 minutes, can make your meals so much more delicious. It just gives you a basic reference each week and means you’re getting lots of good stuff in your diet. And you’re not buying loads of vegetables you don’t know what to do with and end up wasting.”
Thinking ahead can also help avoid having to make different meals for others in the house.
“A lot of meals, especially at dinnertime, are naturally gluten free and even the ones that maybe do contain gluten you can usually change,” says Becky. “For example, you can use gluten-free flour to thicken a sauce – it won’t make any difference to the taste. The only thing you might have to do differently is make two different pastas.”
Go Energy Efficient
Given the recent rise in energy prices, appliances like air fryers and slow cookers have soared in popularity because they often cost less to run than a conventional oven.
- “An oven is a huge space to heat up, especially for a single portion. But with an air fryer you just switch it on and it’s ready to go,” says Becky. “And a slow cooker can be ridiculously cheap in comparison to putting something on the hob.”
She says the recipe options for both are endless and her family recently did a whole roast dinner by putting the lamb in the slow cooker and the veg in the air fryer.
“The oven wasn’t used at all, so it just shows what’s possible.”
Becky does warn, though, that if you live in a household where others eat gluten, it’s worth being aware of cross-contamination in these kinds of appliances.
For Becky, the ultimate goal is to feel like she’s not missing out by following a gluten-free diet and she hopes her recipes show it doesn’t have to cost the earth, either.
- “When you first go gluten free, it’s easy to think that everything has to change. But when you sit back and relax you realise it’s not like that. I hope I help many gluten-free folk feel like they don’t have to miss out – and can eat on a budget too.”