“You spend how much on food each month‽”
I can’t tell you how many of my readers have written to me about our family’s grocery budget. If you have ever read one of my monthly spending reports, you would know that we spend between $500-$800 a month on groceries for our family of five. That’s less than the USDA thrifty meal plan of $833.60 (and the USDA budget is not even gluten free). Many readers simply can’t believe that it’s possible to develop a gluten free meal plan and stay within this budget.
In this post, I’m going to walk you through our framework for eating both gluten free and cheaply.
Many of the top pages on Google for “gluten free meal plan on a budget” are just a few recipes. That’s great if you only want to eat the same 5 meals on repeat for the rest of your life. But I don’t think those pages really help you develop a food budget.
Instead of sharing recipes, I’m going to share our food philosophies so you can develop your own strategy for a gluten free meal plan that works for you on your budget.
Table of contents
- What is a “cheap” budget for a gluten free meal plan?
- 1: Eat naturally gluten free foods
- 2: Avoid any product advertised as “gluten free”
- 3: Make everything from scratch
- 4: Eat seasonally
- 5: Buy gluten free flours in bulk
- 6. Shop closeouts
- Summary- budgeting gluten free meal plans is our lifestyle
Note- this post may contain affiliate links. If you click on an affiliate link I get a small percentage of the sale at no additional cost to you.
What is a “cheap” budget for a gluten free meal plan?
Before I describe our budget-conscious gluten free meal plan, I think it’s important to describe what I mean by budget-conscious.
Brad and Jonathan of ChooseFI, a podcast produced for people pursing financial independence, talked about how they were able to reduce their grocery budget to less than $2 per person per meal. ChooseFI even developed a $2 per person per meal cookbook! And the ChooseFI cookbook even inspired Braden Woodfield to start a blog based on $2 per person meals.
But is $2 per person per meal a good value? We’ve always followed frugal mom bloggers such as The Prudent Homemaker, Money Saving Mom, and Fish Mama who feed their families for as low as $0.14/pp/meal! Obviously, these bloggers show that it’s possible to feed people for much less than $2 per person per meal.
We always benchmark our grocery budget against the USDA Thrifty Food Plan (TFP). According to USDA,
“The TFP is the basis for the maximum food stamp allotment. This study shows it is possible to eat a nutritious diet at the maximum allotment. Although most food stamp recipients do not receive the maximum allotment, because it gradually declines with increases in income, they are expected to supplement their food stamps with income in order to spend the necessary amount to have a nutritious diet.” ~USDA Thrifty Food Plan, 2006
Basically, the TFP is equal to the maximum food stamp allowance you can receive in the US. The government assumes that if your grocery budget is equal to the TFP you can sustain yourself on nutritious food. As of June 2021, the TFP budget for adult males is $45.60 per week, adult females is $40.50, and children range from $23.20 (for 1 year olds) to $38.40 (for 11 year olds). You can convert this $2.17 per meal for adult males or $1.92 for adult females.
Our budget for our family’s gluten free meal plan
Previously I wrote about our budget for a family of five. Over the most recent 9 months, we’ve spent $690 per month on average, less than the USDA Thrift Food Plan budget of $833.60 for our family of five. This works out to about $1.50 per person per meal. Before the pandemic, we were spending only $1.25 per person per meal. However, we noticed that food prices rose during the pandemic.
A note on privilege
Before going further in the article, I want to acknowledge that we budget from a position of privilege. We have plenty of money in the bank and if we need to spend more on groceries one month, we can do that.
In fact, having money makes our grocery budget possible.
When we see a good deal in the store, we can stock up on several week’s worth of food. We were able to invest in high quality appliances like our Vitamix and Kitchenaid that allow us to make our own flour or bake goods in bulk.
So while we are able to comfortably live below the thrifty food plan, we might not be able to feed our family if we had to buy everything with food stamps. Especially if we were living in a hotel or an unfurnished apartment.
I wrote this post for people who have enough money to buy in bulk and cook real food. The fact is that in America, it costs more to be poor. We try to eat as cheaply as we can and also donate money to food pantries that can help those less fortunate than us.
1: Eat naturally gluten free foods
The easiest way to develop a gluten free meal plan on a budget is to build your meal plan around naturally gluten free foods. We develop many of our meals around whole foods like beans, lentils and rice.
Naturally gluten free foods don’t cost any more than their “normal” counterpart in the standard diet because they’re they exact same thing.
We have been eating gluten free for so long now that I have forgotten what a standard American dinner might look like. But I would say that many of our favorite go-to meals would be inspired by other cultures. We eat a lot of “Southwestern” inspired meals involving beans and corn tortillas and a chili a million different ways. In addition to Southwestern foods, we eat a lot of curries and stir fries as well.
These meals are all naturally gluten free and even if we used a recipe, they would not require any substitutions.
2: Avoid any product advertised as “gluten free”
The corollary to the first tip is to avoid products that are marketed as gluten free. Most of these products are overpriced substitutes of glutenous convenience foods.
These products have a huge markup on them. Manufacturers need to make these products in special facilities and they can’t sell the volume of products needed to make them as cheap as “normal” goods. Furthermore, gluten free products require more expensive ingredients than the wheat flour that comprise most premade convenience foods.
Prepackaged gluten free snacks are “fun” food and they’re a lifesaver if you don’t have time to cook. These foods didn’t exist when I was diagnosed with celiac disease over a decade ago. While I’ve occasionally indulged in these foods on special occasions, they’re a grocery landmine.
3: Make everything from scratch
The more “natural” your food is, the cheaper it will be. Luckily, unprocessed foods are also way healthier for you. The downside is that you will have to cook your food. If your current idea of cooking is picking up the phone and ordering UberEats, then this will be a learning process.
Cooking from scratch can mean different things to different people. As frugal finance bloggers, we have taken this to the max. For example, we never buy broth or stock in the store. Instead we save up our compost and make vegetable stock from it before tossing it into the compost. (Back when we ate meat, we’d also save bones to make stock). Side note- once our family found out we recycled bones into stock they’d save their carcasses for us and we had a nearly unlimited source of free broth. We also bake all of our bread and muffins from scratch and make our own yogurt.
Another way to save a lot of money is on beans. You can buy a can 15 oz of cooked beans for $0.99 or a pound of dried beans for $0.99. The dried beans will make about 12 cups of cooked beans. By cooking your own beans you can get a 600% return on investment. (And if you buy your beans in bulk, you can save even more money!)
4: Eat seasonally
The first three tips were the foundation for building a gluten free meal plan on a budget. The next tips are how we supercharge our savings on our food.
If you’re already eating a diet of whole vegetables and grains you can save even more money by eating seasonally. We pay $78 a month to belong to a CSA (short for community supported agriculture). In short, we pay a farm in January for a “share” of their produce. Then from May-October we get a large box of fresh produce every week.
In 2021 is it possible to get a zucchini any day of the year at a grocery store? Yes. Of course. Is buying a zucchini for your gluten free recipe in December a good budget move? Hell no.
Here’s what’s locally available where we live:
- May = lettuce, arugula, kale, turnips, radishes,
- June = strawberries, greens, zucchini
- July = zucchini, chard, green beans
- August = corn, tomatoes
- September = tomatoes, apples, kale
- October = apples, winter squash, kale, brussels sprouts
For these 6 months of the year we don’t meal plan. We just try to keep ahead of the vegetables that seem to arrive in our life. Some of the vegetables come from the CSA. Others come from our garden or from our parents gardens.
In the fall we like to visit apple orchards. Not only do they have the best, freshest apples you have ever eaten, but they are dirt cheap. I think we pay as little as $10.50 per bushel at the end of the season.
Preserve seasonal foods for the future
We get a lot of in-season produce from our families and from the CSA. More than we can eat. So we use a pressure-canner to put food up for the winter. Canning food is one of Mrs. Gov’s favorite hobbies. I always think that she missed her chance to be a pioneer woman.
And if you’re not into sealing things in Mason jars, you can always freeze or dehydrate produce as well.
Honestly, I’m not sure what the economics of home preserved food looks like. You can buy a can of tomatoes pretty cheaply at Aldi. BUT- preserving fresh, local, produce helps us feel connected to our food and has to be better for the planet (and our health) than a factory farm to BPA-filled tin can of $0.79 tomatoes.
And we don’t just can whole tomatoes either. We preserve a lot of spaghetti sauce when we have fresh produce. Do you have any idea how much added sugar is in a jar of Prego pasta sauce? Preserving food helps us achieve both health and wealth.
5: Buy gluten free flours in bulk
Despite what you may think from points 1-4, we don’t eat a paleo diet. We enjoy bread, muffins, and other baked goods (who doesn’t enjoy these things). Buying pre-made gluten free baked goods is expensive. Baking your own goods, while almost always cheaper can still be expensive.
Here’s how we fit baked goods into our budget friendly gluten free meal plan.
For raw materials, it is hard to get anything cheaper than wheat flour. There is no 1-1 substitution for wheat flour so gluten free baked goods usually have a blend of several flours. (Many our recipes use 2:1:1 ratio of rice-potato-tapioca flours). You’ll also need to add xanthan gum to help replace the gluten to make the bread rise. While you can buy premixed gluten free flours ready for use, they have a very high markup.
While all of these flours are more expensive than wheat, you can save some money by buying them for the cheapest price per ounce (or pound) possible.
The one premade mix that we will occasionally use is the Pamela’s GF bread mix. If you buy it in the grocery store, it’s quite expensive to make a loaf of bread (although still cheaper than buying premade bread). We buy it in a 25lb bulk bag from Amazon.
Beyond that, we buy our flours from a gluten free bakery that buys their flours in bulk. We’re able to get really great prices on these raw baking materials.
6. Shop closeouts
This is a tip that we learned from Crystal Paine (one of our family’s biggest blogging heroes). Grocery stores will often mark down food that is about to expire. Typically these marked down foods will be hidden in a certain part of the store. Once you know where to look, it can be a great place to find cheap yogurt or milk. You may also find random snack foods that didn’t sell at a big markdown.
While I don’t think you can live entirely off marked-down food, it is a nice way to supplement your grocery haul at extremely low prices.
Are you curious what we buy on an average shopping trip? Here’s a detailed breakdown of a $75 grocery shopping haul.
Summary- budgeting gluten free meal plans is our lifestyle
To an outsider our grocery budget may seem “extreme”. However, we don’t feel like we’re missing out on any food. And we’re never hungry. It just happens that a lot of our core family values are tied to food.
Yes, we spend a lot of time planning and cooking and cleaning food. But food nourishes us. If you are what you eat, then let’s eat fresh, healthy food. Eating this way doesn’t have to be more expensive and it can bring your family together in lovely ways.
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