The Cost of Gluten-Free

freeimages.com/nerijusjSo, you went gluten-free. But now your morning bagel is on the “forbidden” list and you only have a leftover sandwich in your fridge for lunch. Plus, you spent 30 minutes of your break reading food labels at the grocery store but didn’t buy anything because you left your nutritionist’s list of “additional words that mean gluten” on your desk at your other job. And, it’s Monday.

Two years ago, this was me. At the time I was working three jobs, so I was happy to eat anything somewhat healthy that was quick and easy. When I had to go gluten-free, I struggled. It would take time to learn what foods were safe. It would take effort to reconfigure my meal plan. Time and effort that I had reserved for my three jobs.

My standards for “quick and easy” were still high, but I knew I’d have to put more effort into preparing food for the week ahead of time. I needed to learn to use the little time I had more efficiently.

It would have been easy for me to buy frozen and pre-packaged gluten-free meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But I wanted a healthier, less-expensive option. And I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t just cutting gluten, but was increasing my intake of certain other foods to ensure I was getting the proper nutrients.

It seemed like a tall order to be gluten-free and eat convenient, inexpensive, healthy meals at the same time. But it had to be done. If I wanted to spend no more energy thinking about what I’d eat the next day than I spent on thinking about it when I wasn’t gluten-free, I’d have to have a plan.

Going gluten-free can cost you time, money, and health. But it doesn’t have to. This is how I managed.

1) Don’t plan to plan. Actually plan.

In the first few weeks of being gluten-free I didn’t have a plan, which cost me a lot of time.

Say you know that you’ll need to pack lunch five days a week. Instead of wondering every morning what to take for lunch, create next week’s meal plan over the weekend. That way, you don’t need to scramble to find something Monday morning, which could leave you late for work and hungry at lunch. Not to mention the time you’ll spend thinking about how you should come up with a plan.

Thoughts like that waste more time and energy than we realize. Especially since every day you’re affected by not having a plan, you’ll likely have the same thought all over again about how you should come up with a plan. Think it, do it.

2) Prepare to be ready.

Planning and preparing are different. In order to be ready for the week, you’ll need to prepare the meals that you’ve planned for that week. If you cook in bulk, you’ll have enough food to make portable, healthy meals for the whole week.

Cooking this way also means cooking only once a week, so heavy cleaning from cooking only needs to be done once a week. Even if it takes an hour from start to finish, which seems like a lot of time, that’s only one hour out of 168 hours in a week.

Planning, preparing, and cooking in bulk are popular ideas in general. But when you’re gluten-free it helps ensure that you’ll have something to eat, even if you’re running out the door late in the morning. Just grabbing a $1 slice of pizza for lunch isn’t an option anymore, and although many restaurants and cafes do offer some gluten-free options, they usually come with an extra charge — and possibly some extra calories. Spending extra money to eat less healthy? Nay!

3) Label-gazing is a waste of time.

A celiac diagnosis can be overwhelming. So much so that you feel paralyzed, have no idea what to eat, and fill up on products that are labeled “gluten-free” because they’re safe. You don’t have the mental energy to deal with figuring out what foods are gluten-free if they’re not labeled. That’s why planning and preparing are so important — it forces you to organize your mind in the midst of celiac turmoil.

It’s also important to recognize that even though foods may be labeled “gluten-free,” there may still be a disclaimer on the packaging that says it’s manufactured on equipment that also processes wheat. Depending on how sensitive you are to gluten, you might not be getting the full benefits of a gluten-free diet if you’re filling up on these cross-contaminated “gluten-free” foods.

You could spend a lot of time in the grocery store looking for labels/disclaimers/allergen information. It is indeed important to read the labels on the manufactured gluten-free foods you buy. But for a healthier lifestyle, the products you’ll purchase most for your daily meals would be naturally gluten-free and not processed (so no risk of being processed in a plant that also processes wheat).

Fruits, vegetables, nuts, meats, cheeses, rice, beans, fish, etc. (unless you have other dietary restrictions)… These are some foods I turned to most when I started planning and preparing: naturally gluten-free foods. No risk of gluten, no added cost, no added calories/sugars/carbs, etc. And no extra time spent reading labels.

You want to have enough to eat, not get bored with what you’re eating, not spend a lot of time or energy figuring out what to eat or cooking, not spend a lot of money, and eat healthy, convenient, portable foods. And be gluten-free. Simple, right?

It can be, if you spend wisely.
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Originally published on The Huffington Post.