Going Gluten-Free Took a Toll on My Grocery Budget


I swore up and down for years to friends and clients that a healthy diet didn’t have to cost a lot of money. Then, for my family, the meaning of “healthy diet” changed. The birth of my son brought with it another major change, both for our household and our budget, only I didn’t know about the budget part until much later. Not only did we go from a family of two to a family of three in the blink of an eye, but we also became a gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free household overnight. Well, two-thirds of our household became gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, and for awhile, egg-free.

After months of painful, piercing crying and screaming, my infant son was diagnosed with allergic colitis and likely food protein-induced enterocolitis. Those are basically just big words to say my son was essentially allergic to the protein in many of the foods he was eating. Rather, he was allergic to the foods I was eating since I was exclusively breastfeeding at that point. That meant in order to ease his symptoms and let his intestines heal, we needed to drop three major protein sources from our diet ASAP.

Suddenly I was thankful that “going gluten-free” was such a trend. Regardless of my views on it being a fad or a real health concern, I was grateful that it was the latest and greatest diet craze to cross over into normal grocery stores. Perhaps that’s why the budget aspect didn’t smack me in the face from the get-go. I was under the illusion that I was buying the same old normal things I’d always been buying. I was going to the same regular old grocery store around the corner, buying essentially the same staples, and ending up with the same number of items in my cart. The only difference was I was buying the gluten-free varieties. And the dairy-free ones. And the soy-free ones. I spent a lot of time in the aisles reading labels, but not so much reading price tags. Though I didn’t necessarily buy specialty items from the start, no longer could I default to the store brands and the cheapest options. I had to pick the cheapest option that also met my list of non-negotiable requirements.

Because we didn’t eat a ton of pre-packaged and processed foods to begin with, I didn’t notice that drastic of a difference in our monthly food budget, although it easily might have been around this time that I stopped paying such close attention to it. A rookie mistake for the budget-conscience, but it wasn’t as if I had an alternative — I wasn’t going to feed my son (or myself) food that made him sick. It wasn’t for another two, almost three, years later that I nearly gouged my own eyes out when examining our spending habits for something completely unrelated to grocery budgets.

I did the math three or four times — it’s never been my strong suit — but the numbers always came out the same. Our monthly grocery spending had more than doubled since adopting our new eating habits, and that didn’t include restaurants or take out (a number I know must have also increased given the allergy-friendly options always seem to come with an additional surcharge). I was so slow to understand because it hadn’t happened right away. But as my son got older, not only did he start eating more, but he got more verbal and particular about his food choices. Truly, I also became a little bit more lazy.

I was no longer making things completely from scratch or worried about feeding him something that came straight from a wrapper. While it made things easier from a day-to-day parenting survival standpoint, it translated into a huge chunk of change. Instead of plain rice cakes, nuts, and fruit, I was also buying specialty granola bars, dairy-free cheese, and gluten-free chicken nuggets. All things that cost more than purchasing basic ingredients under normal conditions, but also that cost even more than that because they needed to be free of so many allergens. Once I looked at the change in our habits, I easily saw the dollar signs scrolling endlessly through my reeling brain. It may not sound like much, but $5 for a box of 4 granola bars instead of $1.99, or $6.99 for a small bag of gluten-free oat flour instead of $1.75 for a huge bag of whole wheat flour adds up quickly.

Sure, there are plenty of non-specialty items that are naturally gluten-free (or dairy-free or soy-free or what have you), but they aren’t always the option you need. Sometimes, for the sake of real-life and not going insane, you have to buy the special items, regardless of the marked-up price tags. I can finally see now that yes, a healthy diet can be more expensive – especially if that “healthy” means gluten-free for you.

It stings a bit when people cavalierly mention they’re gluten-free because it’s the going trend, not because it’s necessary for them. It’d be nice to be able to voluntarily choose that expense. But for my family, it’s not an option; it’s a necessity. So we’ve readjusted our priorities and made some changes that allow it to happen. We don’t grab dinner while we’re out because it’d be convenient; we eat as many meals at home as possible. We don’t buy things on a whim; we wait until they’re on sale or we’ve made sure we really need the item. I don’t get my nails painted or my hair highlighted. I don’t use a babysitter “just because.”  The fanciest new piece of clothing I have is from Target six months ago and my toddler’s clothes are from consignment sales. It’s not easy to fork over extra money at the grocery store, but we make it work because it keeps my son healthy, and really, what could matter more?

Image source: Thinkstock

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