Allergy-friendly grocery shopping without breaking the bank
March 29th, 2012
02:30 PM ET
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Elizabeth Gordon is the author of 'The Complete Allergy-Free Comfort Foods Cookbook and Allergy-Free Desserts'. She was diagnosed with multiple food allergies in 2007 after the birth of her first child and decided to combine her social work background with her love of the culinary arts to help people just like her. She cooks up new treats, weekly, on her blog

The United States is home to 9 million adults and 6 million children coping with food allergies ranging from annoying rashes to life-threatening anaphylaxis. Millions of other families are taking note of government-funded initiatives like Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move project and reaching for less processed and more natural fare.

While healthy and safe eating is the common denominator between these groups, there is likely another: sticker shock when the checkout person hands over the grocery receipt.

When I was diagnosed with allergies to wheat, eggs, string beans and figs in 2004, I wrongly assumed that my food bills would plummet, largely because it felt as though most of the foods that I enjoyed had just been eliminated from my diet. Venturing into the supermarket after that fateful doctor’s visit, I felt relieved that I finally knew why I was covered in a rash and that by simply choosing rice over rotini, I might be able to eliminate the itching that had plagued me since my daughter was born six months before.

I was more than surprised when the cart, loaded with produce, a package of gluten-free flour, some gluten, dairy, soy, nut and egg-free chocolate chips and gluten-free snacks like pretzels came out to be almost three times what I previously budgeted for groceries.

I thought that there was a mistake. There wasn’t, but even seven years later, I still can’t believe the amount of money that we spend on food. Granted, there are four of us, we live in New York City where the cost of living is higher, and specialty items that are both safe for me to eat and that my children enjoy are simply more expensive.

However, I know that I am not alone. I took an informal survey of my Facebook fans, and of the roughly 50 responses, only one person said that her food bill hadn’t tripled as a result of her child’s severe food allergies. One food allergic family even added that they factored their food budget into their mortgage refinancing as a medical hardship.

Whether coping with life-threatening food allergies or just buying more mindfully, families know that eliminating any or all of the top eight allergens (dairy, wheat, eggs, soy, fish, tree nuts, peanuts and shellfish) from their diets can get pricey.

Here are five practical ways to reduce the weekly expenses:

Opt for beans and rice over pasta
Rice is always inexpensive and so are hominy, beans (like kidney or black beans), spaghetti squash and sweet potatoes. Gluten-free pastas and cereals are not. Reach for canned or dried legumes or starchy vegetables, which generally have more nutritional value anyway, and save the rice pasta and cold cereal for special treats.

Make your own
Cooking your own meals, snacks and treats instead of relying on pre-packaged fare will drastically reduce the allergic family’s food bill. It also ensures food safety. Cooking doesn’t have to be a five-course meal every night. Simple steps like making your own gluten-free flour mix for baking or making chicken stock at home really add up to savings.

Invest in a slow cooker
If you eat meat, the slow cooker turns inexpensive cuts like brisket or chicken thighs tender and moist, and it saves time because it can be left alone all day to have dinner on the table when you get home from work. If you live a vegetarian lifestyle, the slow cooker can be a great way to cook up hearty soups, stews and even big batches of gluten-free, steel-cut oats for breakfast.

Eat seasonally
The laws of supply and demand apply here. When fruits and vegetables are abundant, they are less expensive. Roast up some root vegetables in the fall. Load up on berries in the summer. Choose citrus in the winter to save.

Don’t be afraid to freeze
If you can’t live without blueberries in February or your kids want some corn come December, don’t hesitate to look in the freezer section. Better still, load up your own freezer with fresh fruit when it’s in season to eat later in the year. Evidence suggests that frozen fruits and vegetables are just as nutritious, and they can be cheaper, too.

Don’t stop at just frozen produce! Freeze leftover herbs to avoid waste. Freeze coconut milk kefir in ice cube trays if you only use a little bit for baking. Stash the meat that was on sale at the market in the freezer for up to three months. Just these little steps reduce waste and expenditures in the supermarket.

Safe and healthy eating does come at a price. Fortunately, simple steps can reduce it, because as every family, whether allergic or not, knows, every penny counts.

Previously - Being gluten-free and well-fed and Living with peanut allergies

soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. Dave Fields

    You're so cool! I do not suppose I've truly read through a single thing like that before. So good to find another person with original thoughts on this subject. Seriously.. many thanks for starting this up. This website is one thing that is needed on the web, someone with a little originality.

    June 22, 2014 at 12:09 am |
  2. shopping sites

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    April 4, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  3. shawn l

    How about if you are alergic, you only buy specialty stuff for yourself rather than forcing your entire family to eat it or avoid what YOU cant have. It makes zero sense that because you are alergic to wheat, string beans, eggs, and figs that you eliminate them from everyones diet in the house. Hence, your budget wouldnt triple, it would go up only a quarter over what you bought before.

    April 2, 2012 at 8:03 am |
    • Beth

      If she has a life threatening food allergy to a given food she could be risking her life to cook with that food. Foods that are heated release proteins into the air that when breathed in are ingested into the body and can cause anaphylaxis. If she touches an allergen and then mistakenly touches her eyes, nose or mouth she could have a life threatening reaction (has happened to my child) and if any allergens from others' food get into her food accidentally she can die. So, it isn't so simple and she would be potentially risking her life to have allergens in the house. It is one thing if someone is cooking for two children, one allergic and one not. It is a big risk to do that but it can be done. (mistakes can also happen and people have had many life threatening reactions and even died from that scenario) but to cook with one's own allergens is not safe.

      April 2, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  4. brianc

    The book's title is rather misleading. Among the common allergens for those of us with serious food allergies are legumes. Peanuts are legumes; so are the peas featured on the cover photo. As a 51 year-old man who has had anaphylaxis in response to multiple allergens since birth, I'm pleased to see media recognize that such reactions are valid medical conditions. That was not the case when I was young. I am, however, leery of attempts to produce "complete" solutions to allergy-safe eating that are anything but complete. I have suffered serious attacks after eating food prepared by well-meaning people working from such source material.

    For those who do have a wide-range of serious food allergies, do not despair. A bit of extra effort can afford you a life nearly unrestricted by your allergies. First off, learn to speak-up about your allergies. Do not put yourself at risk or avoid social situations because you are uncomfortable telling others about your allergies. I often find myself needing to share meals as part of business. I contact hosts and explain my allergies before hand and explain when hosting that my allergies will limit restaurant choices. I have used this approach sucessfully throughout Europe and North and South America on both business and pleasure trips. Next learn how to cook well. You can safely go to potlucks and share meals with friends if you learn to cook well enough to not only feed yourself, but also make meals others will want to share.

    April 1, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  5. Helen

    Thanks for the good article. I have a long list of food allergies and find it difficult to buy prepared food without spending a lot of money. I've had food allergies my entire life so am used to having to cook from scratch. Even when processed food "seems" okay it can sometimes cause problems. You have to be very careful and read a lot of labels. Recently I decided to go plant-based and am not focused on processed foods at all.

    April 1, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  6. Beth

    Did you get diagnosed based on skin or blood testing? I know you were having symptoms and reactions but it is very unlikely that you suddenly became allergic to 4 foods after your child was born. It is possible you are NOT allergic to some of those foods. Did your allergist do a food challenge on you? I would request one for each of those foods if you are not certain they caused reactions within 2 hours of you eating them. It would be very nice if you could add even one of those foods back to your diet and would save $ as you pointed out. Food allergies are expensive, especially when they mean having to buy only certain brands (and when one has to buy pricey gluten-free foods.) Your book looks very nice! I will check it out.

    March 31, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
  7. stilllearning2b

    I have been gluten free for over 5 years. At first, my bills jumped because I switched to GF versions of processed or prepared foods. Once I learned to foods that are naturally gluten free and cooked them myself, my average bill decreased from its original point. I also have learned to order some of the more expensive foods online in bulk. Many flours and pastas are cheaper this way.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:13 am |
  8. Jt

    Try trader joes if u have one. Helps me a lot. More choices, lower prices

    March 30, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
  9. theshoeminator

    The author should try Paleo or Primal, a way of eating which naturally eschews grains, legumes and dairy and all of the processed crap in-between. If she stopped buying gluten-free non-foods and stuck to eating meat, vegetables, nuts and fruits, THEN her grocery bills would plummet!

    March 30, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
    • Beth

      I agree about processed foods but you can't beat the price of dried beans when compared to meats you have on the paleo diet. That's not a cheap diet by any means for someone who is used to eating veggie or lots of beans, etc.

      March 31, 2012 at 10:16 pm |
      • theshoeminator

        Paleo isn't about eating steak every day. Cheaper cuts of meat, as well as offal, are recommended in order to get a wider variety in one's diet. I could spend less than $50/week on just myself, by shopping at the farmer's market for produce and hitting up the meat sales at grocery stores.

        April 2, 2012 at 10:44 am |
  10. Al

    "f you eat meat, the slow cooker..."

    No need to eat meat to use a slow cooker! Check out "The Vegan Slow Cooker."

    March 30, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • Audrey Nickel

      She mentions that slow cookers can be used for vegetarian fare right there in the same paragraph. I do agree about the book,'s one of my cooking "bibles."

      March 31, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  11. Grace

    That so true. I've been tested and am allergic to garlic, eggs, cow's milk. Also, as a hypothyroid patient, I am supposed to avoid unfermented soy. That leaves me with making a grocery cartful of things at home, or doing without. Many times I do without and am none the worse for it. It's been a fascinating experiment in substi tutions.

    Want a challenge? Try to find a bottled dressing in the grocery store that does not contain garlic or soy.

    March 29, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • KM

      Try making your own dressing lazy!

      salt, pepper, vinegar, oil : shake. done!

      March 30, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
      • Grace

        Wow. Lazy? Oh, that's right you chose what to comment on. That's just like the ignorant posters do! Good job!
        I take back my "wow" and make it a "Failed reading comp again, I see."

        March 30, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
        • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

          FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!....

          March 30, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
        • Cowardly Lion

          Put 'em up! Put 'em up!

          March 30, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
      • Lazy

        You're kind of a jerk.

        March 30, 2012 at 10:28 pm |
      • tbucch

        Wowzers, maybe people want more than the dressing you suggested! I happen to like a raspberry vinaigrette myself...

        March 31, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
      • Beth

        I have to make my own dressing usually and I do but my son with allergies won't eat it. It took me years to find a bottled dressing that was allergy-free for him and which he would eat. Sometimes it is nice to be able to grab a bottle of ready made dressing. Certainly doesn't make a person 'lazy'. I think most with food allergies and celiac are cooking a lot more than the average person and making things from scratch others almost never do.

        March 31, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
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