Going Gluten Free: Shopping


Lately I’ve been getting quite a few email from people who are just beginning their journeys to the Land of the Gluten Free. Over the course of the last few days, these emails have really brought me back to the beginning. I thought I would highlight the first tip that I used when I started in order to make the transition a little less insane for myself. (Keep in mind, my idea of sanity is apparently quite fluid! LOL!)

A few years before being diagnosed with Celiac Sprue, my students (then 5/6th graders) were embarking on their studies into fractions, ratios and percentages. One activity that we did gave the kids a budget of money (imaginary, of course) that they were to use to organize a birthday party for a younger sibling. The kids went crazy with their plans for HUGE junk food festivities.

And then, I threw in the monkey wrench. I coupled their math lesson with the science/nutrition unit we were in as well. I gave them the requirements of having a *healthy* party that also avoided nuts (peanut allergies in the class) and high fats/sugars. They were also given a strict budget by the kindergarten parents. Within these limitations, they were to provide food, beverages and entertainment for 12 kindergarten kids. Their budget? A mere $40.00. In order to achieve this budget (which was, by the way, the budget amount given to me by the real kindergarten parent group), the kids brought in the latest grocery ads and I brought them copies of the maps of the stores.

To make a long story short, the kids noticed the marketing genius of the grocers. They noticed that the items that they most frequently needed to purchase with their families (Needs versus Wants) were along the back walls of the market (milk, meats, etc) and the enticing needs (fruits/produce) were up front. They also noticed the sheer quantity of rest of the store as they began to map out their purchases and the prices with the grocer maps.

Being budget minded youngsters who live in an inner-city on strict family budgets themselves, they began to think about the purchases they initially dreamed of and compared these to the purchase list and plans that they created in the end. Instead of tons of pizza, ice cream, chips and pop, the kids designed menus filled with fruit (watermelon or baked apples with walnuts, anyone?), grilled meats (they found some great deals on chicken legs/wings) and some fabulous salads (potato salad or cole slaw). For desserts for the party, the kids decided to have frozen yogurt and popcorn balls.  The second party menu that they planned is not only substantially healthier than the first, but also cheaper.  And mostly gluten-free!  With a few tweaks (adjusting the meat seasoning and omitting the grilled buns) and I could have sent along a 5 year old gluten-free kidlet too!  

What did I learn about shopping at the grocer after going gluten free?

Stick to the outside of the market (but skip the Bakery).

  • Buy fresh fruits/vegetables in season which often means on sale, too!
  • Buy fresh meats/fish – not preseasoned nor pre-packaged.
  • And read the labels of anything that comes with a label! (And ASK for the label if you don’t see one – like for deli meats/cheeses.)

Sticking to the outside of the market was my first GF shopping tip. It was much less overwhelming than trying to navigate all of inner aisles (not to mention less time-consuming). You can easily make balanced, healthy and nutritious meals that fit your budget from the produce, meats, dairy and whole grains/nuts/dried legumes that you can find in the bulk section. (A little note about the bulk section: I never buy flour in open bulk containers. The risk for cross-contact or mixing of gluten-free and gluten grains is MUCH too high with flours, etc. However, if the rice, dried beans/legumes or dried fruit/nuts are far enough away from the flours, I will buy those items from the bulk area.)

You can also find some great gluten-free grocery tips from using this guidebook by Triumph Dining. The folks at Triumph also offer great dining cards (multiple languages and laminated) that people love and now their grocery guide is out. It’s substantially smaller and therefore easier to even consider lugging it with you to the store, if you are new to this too.

When it comes to going gluten free, you will find that COOKING gluten free is actually an easier task than you fear. (Baking is where the learning curve lies!) Stick to whole, naturally gluten-free foods and season them with the flavors that you love and you won’t miss a thing.

Well, at least that is what worked for me until my Love and I were able to figure out what types of flours/flavors and gluten-free baking items and products we enjoyed. But instead of looking at this new challenge as daunting, consider it an adventure. After all, I bet you know someone who has never heard of quinoa (keen-wah) in their life. (Maybe that’s you?) Trust me when I say this: people *will* ask you what that delicious and wonderfully aromatic food is that you are eating. They will even want to eat it all. Gluten free is that good. 😀

What other tips would you all give to those just starting out?
If you could go back and start this diet all over again, what would you do differently and why?

I can’t wait to read your ideas too!
Happy Gluten-Free Eating Adventures, everyone!


  1. I was going to say that I’d skip buying the expensive prepackaged GF mixes. But then I guess I wouldn’t have learned that the mixes were usually no better than what I could make myself once I found a good recipe. It takes a little practice/experience and resultant confidence to relax and know that being GF (and CF for me) was completely doable. Thank goodness for sites like yours and others to guide me through that process!

  2. I’m a “perimeter shopper” these days. Although the organic peanut butter and cat food are in the middle aisles. My Kroger store has a “healthy” food section at the back of the produce dept. That’s where I find brown rice flour, Muir Glen tomatoes and goat milk.

    Cuuuute Easter basket!

  3. Having an excellent rice pasta (Tinkyada) and learning that my favorite spaghetti sauce was gluten-free (Prego) has let me eat those comfort foods when I’m missing baked goods. And learning that Bob’s Red Mill gf flour mix works in our standard recipes for waffles, cornbread, and gravy means I can eat old favorites without worry.

  4. I feel like I’m still starting out, even though I’ve been GF for almost a year. I’m still adjusting and experimenting. I think my first bit of advice would be focus on what you CAN eat vs what you CANNOT. Fruit, veggies, meats and dairy are all GF – the pure unseasoned versions that is… I found I only had to make small adjustments to my cooking (using cornstarch or arrowroot to thicken vs the usual flour for example). Discovering rice pasta was also of great help. I also realized I didn’t have to have sandwiches, muffins or pancakes as often as I used to: I could have a smoothie for breakfast! Or lunch. My last bit of advice would be don’t too much at once: make small adjustments.

  5. When I first went gluten free two years ago, I wish I had known what to look for on labels so I didn’t have to eat just salad with balsamic vinegar for 6 months because I was afraid of glutening myself. Also the best thing I learned about (besides gluten free pizza) was places to go out to eat. More and more restaurants are are offering gluten free items on their menus and understand the need for separate utensils, pots and pans, etc. Once you can go out to eat without fear, you can start to feel like a “normal” person again.

  6. I must say that I’m new on this journey due to my son. We’ve decided to make this a family affair which is something that I look forward to since we entertain so often and want to see if people can always tell a difference. I’ve always been more of a natural cook, but not knowing what some ingredients are due to their intimidating name (usually from stuff we don’t need to eat in the first place)scares me. Thankful for this blog.It’s so uplifting and makes the whole gluten free world seem easy and undaunting.

  7. After a year and a half of being gluten free, I still don’t feel like shopping is always easier. I have stopped eating a lot of pre-packaged products, but I often miss pretzels and other snack-y foods. The best things that ever happened to me, however, was meeting other people with the same dietary restrictions and starting to read these blogs. No one is more helpful than those who have experienced the same things. Searching the internet for home-town restaurants with a GF menu also helped a ton. These restaurants are more knowledgeable and put my mind at ease for eating out.

  8. I think for someone first starting out, I think the things I would suggest are,

    a) avoid asian restaurants, there is just too much gluten you wouldn’t think about, for example, most soy sauce has gluten, also 99% of imitation crab has gluten in it, and chances are, you’ll run into at least soy sauce in most dishes, if not crab or even the normal breading.

    b)check out walmart’s great value brand, many of their products are labeled gluten free, including their soy sauce.

    c)umm, also check out thai food in the asian section of the grocery store, many thai dishes use rice pasta, but still watch out for soy or other problems

    oh, and one final tip, fry your corn tortillas in a skillet with a little oil, they’ll become pliable and won’t crumble on you. it only takes a few seconds on each side, so its really simple and worth the effort.

  9. kate-
    just wanted to shout out a HUGE thank you for the awesome oatmeal cookie recipe from your blog. I’ve been trying to find an oatmeal cookie that I can eat and that my son likes. My search is over!! I went in with low expectations and when I took at look at the finished cookie, I said to myself, “these might actually be good.” Well, they weren’t just good, they were AWESOME! Holy moly- I get why they won the FFA prize ;0) Sending out prayers for your family during this exciting/anxious time.

  10. Great advice!

    Check out my latest post for a free give away of a great book on gluten http://simplygluten-free.blogspot.com/2009/02/gluten-book-give-away.html

  11. A lot of great advice here, Kate, from you and others. I definitely focus on what I can eat vs what I can’t. As more and more time passed, I really didn’t miss sandwiches, etc. I still don’t. I like to make muffins, popovers, and such occasionally, but I don’t need a GF bread daily or even weekly. I think the most powerful exercise is thinking about all the foods and meals you love already that are naturally gluten free. As an example of a naturally GF meal, barbecued chicken (most brands are GF and you can always make your own GF sauce), mashed potatoes, and steamed broccoli. There are so many things we eat already that are GF and when you start thinking of those types of combinations, it just makes things much easier. The outer perimeter of the grocery store is definitely where I do most of my shopping. I buy almost no specialty GF products … just the ingredients for my GF flour mix, some rice noodles occasionally, and GF crackers occasionally. I never have to worry that I am about to run out of a specialty product and run to the store or place an order. This approach makes the GF diet more economical and healthier I believe, too.


  12. Tomorrow, I will be celebrating 4 years since my diagnosis. The advice I would give to people just starting out:

    – If you haven’t made the switch yet, eat yourself silly on oreos, pop tarts, whatever it is that you love but will never be able to have again. And then never, ever, eat it again. You will miss it, but you will be so much healthier without it.

    – It is ok to mourn the life you just lost. Don’t let people tell you how silly it is to be sad, or how wonderful things are right now. Eating will never be easy or convenient in the same way it is for most people. You will be far more aware of what you’re eating, and in time you’ll see how great a thing that awareness is. But for now, it is OK to mourn. For the time being, keep yourself alive on carrots, rice, plain meat, baked potatoes, whatever’s easy and fast and lets you mourn however you need to.

    – Once you’re sick of rice cakes and ready to move out of the mourning phase . . . seek out convenient ways to keep food on hand. Try hard not to get too hungry. The worst resentment I’ve ever had for people was because I didn’t plan ahead and had to go hungry while others ate. Make sure to eat lots of healthy snacks. Your friends will thank you for it.

    – Do not be afraid of Tinkyada rice pasta. It’s fantastic. The vast majority of people I’ve fed it to don’t even notice it’s not “normal” pasta. But don’t pay attention to the cooking times on the bags. They’re all wrong. Boil it until it’s the right texture for you.

    – Be wary of restaurant fryers. You probably can’t eat anything that comes out of them.

    – Things you can probably eat right from the normal grocery store (always, always read ingredients, and call the company if you still have questions): La Choy soy sauce, Lay’s potato chips, Tostitos, string cheese, trail mix, Snickers, fruit cups, baby carrots, pre-cooked rotisserie chicken

  13. I got really lucky when I was diagnosed – I was the third person in my family to get it, so my sister and father were able to offer tips for re-stocking my pantry, and I already had an idea of what had to be changed for gluten-free meals. My Superstore also has a whole aisle of gluten-free products, so its easy to get my pasta and wraps.

    Best advice I can offer is to take this time to experiment. Instead of looking at the new diet and thinking of all the food you’re going to miss, focus instead on all the new things you get to try. I went crazy making up all sorts of new meals in the first few months, experimenting with fruits and vegetables I had never used before. While now and again it became agrivating (especially when I found that a sauce that I loved was no longer safe), more then anything it was fun! And when you start feeling better, all the extra time is worth it:)

  14. Lots of good advice here. I love the one above who said to eat yourself silly on oreos! I did just that waiting to get my scope done. I ate a lifetime of Cheez-it’s and have no regrets!

    I remember the first time I went shopping. It was so overwhelming. But, because of all the help available on the web and by reading blogs, I learned quickly. Best of all, shopping is really so much quicker! There are whole isles I skip totally. Mainly, I shop around the outside which is healthier anyway. Focus on the positives. Focus on healthy whole foods. Life is so much better!

  15. After cooking GF for my 2-year old for the past year, and now myself for the past 2 months (DH, how yucchy!), I’ve found that planning is key. Do your homework at home, not in the store. If you’re just starting out, make a list of the items and brands you like, then go online and start checking. That way you can have a list of items that are OK. For me, that’s Bush’s beans (plain and baked beans), STAXX chips, and Oscar Meyer meats (Kraft is very good about labelling). Their low fat turkey sausage is very good.

    It can get confusing; Campbell’s just relased info that says not all Prego pasta sauces are GF (http://glutenfreemom.typepad.com/gluten_free_mom/2008/12/more-on-prego-and-a-safe-gluten-free-lifestyle-and-homemade-spaghetti-sauce.html). This is why if you do buy pre-made foods, you always have to check the labels.

    One comment on ‘eating yourself silly’; I had bloodwork done right before I went to Germany, where I gorged myself on beer and awesome bread. When you have DH, the resulting ‘glutening’ effects can last for weeks, not days, so you really need to decide whether that entire box of Crispy Cremes is worth two weeks of unbearable scratching. 😦

  16. Good information contained herein. When everyone feels brave enough to bake their own bread give my site a visit. I have been gluten free since 1987 but just started blogging in January 2009. Thanks vk

  17. hi! just wanted to mention that I’m doing a post about favorite gluten free food products on absolutely not martha. I’d LOVE to hear what yours is–just leave me a comment (if you haven’t already).


  1. […] different markets that had more natural food offerings because that was the easiest place to start. I still employ the skills I learned in those first few months of gluten free shopping when I go to our local grocer. And while organic is great when we can afford it or are willing to […]

  2. […] I’ve written about this before.  Shop the outside of the store (skip the bakery, obviously).  You will find the fresh ingredients you need to make a filling and very satisfying meal for yourself or any GF loved one.  Really. […]

  3. […] of things too.  No longer is the center  of the store your budget’s friend.  I wrote about grocery shopping a long time ago.  Maybe it will help you now. […]

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