Gluten-Free Meal Plans: The Balance

Meal planning, for our family, requires a delicate balance of time/effort, money, and nutrition. I have learned the hard way that it’s much easier to make beautiful and nutritious meals when you have lots of time and/or money.

food prep

However, I don’t have much extra time or money these days, so we’ve had to get creative. The following tips are what are currently working for our family, but please add your own strategies in the comments below!

Time/Effort

  • Schedule meals ahead of time
    • Look at your weekly calendar while planning (Which days will you have time and/or energy to prep and/or cook more? Which days will you be able to shop for fresh produce, meat, etc.?)
    • meal 3Write down your tentative meal plan (preferably in pencil) and note extra prep needed for big or special meals as well as shopping days in your weekly planner
    • Keep your meal plan visible – you will forget about your plan, especially if you’re not used to meal planning
    • Throughout the week, make changes as necessary to your meal plan and take notes (What worked well? What never got made? What unexpected obstacles came up? What weird ingredient(s) do you need to have on hand?)
  • Be flexible
    • Plans will almost always change (hence the pencil)
    • “Scheduling” is merely to block time for shopping, prep, cooking, etc.
    • Do your best – it may be an improvising kind of week

Money

As annoying as it may be, we have not found a way to shop for gluten-free food on a budget at one store. We are strategic about our shopping—we stagger the trips so that we’re not grocery shopping more than one time (two times, max) per week. Over time, we have noted which stores historically have best prices and/or availability of desired products, so we plan our meals around when we get get to each store.*

Below is a sample breakdown of products we purchase and the frequency with which we purchase them:

  • IMG_6481.JPGCostco (1x per month)
    • Organic Eggs
    • Almond Milk
    • Coconut Flour
    • Flax Seed
    • Chia Seeds
    • Coconut Oil
    • Grain-Free Dog Food
    • Gluten-Free Bread (buy in bulk – it is freezable!)
    • Organic Ground Beef
    • Gluten-Free Chips
    • Gluten-Free Crackers
    • Frozen Fruit
    • Frozen Peas
    • Frozen Wild-Caught Salmon Filets
  • Trader Joes’s (1x per month)
    • Nut Butters
    • Organic Cheese
    • Gluten-Free Deli Meat
    • Nuts
    • Dried Fruit
    • Ogranic Canned Beans
    • Organic Chicken
    • Fresh Fruit/Veggies (as needed)
  • Safeway/Giant/Harris Teeter (as needed)
    • Fresh Fruit/Veggies (in Winter)
    • Organic Milk/Yogurt
    • Odds and Ends
  • Farmers’ Market (weekly, in season)
    • Fresh Fruit/Veggies
  • Whole Foods / My Organic Market (quarterly)
    • Hard-to-Find Gluten-Free Specialty Products (allergen-free chocolate chips, etc.)
    • Out-of-Season Produce
  • Amazon Subscribe & Save (quarterly)
    • Bulk Gluten-Free Grains
    • Almond Meal
    • Baby/Toddler Food
    • Gluten-Free Chocolate Squares (store them in the freezer and put them in your food bags!)
  • Positively Free Mixes (as needed)

*Sometimes this plan totally fails and we can’t get to the store in time…then we improvise and/or scrounge!

Other Budget-Friendly Tips:

  • Try meat-less or stretched meat meals as much as possible (substitute eggs, hummus, beans, and/or avocado or make meat more of a garnish than a main ingredient)
  • Make your own GF snacks
  • Buy less prepared GF food (stick to mixes or naturally GF options)
  • Purchase frozen fruit in the winter, especially if you prefer to buy organic
  • Use your leftovers and try to buy only what you know you need for the week

Nutrition

  • I follow a basic formula of fat/protein/carb or starch per meal with a variety of colors scattered throughout the day
    • Missing green? Defrost some frozen peas
    • Missing fat? Drizzle some extra virgin olive oil on your hummus or soup
    • Missing protein (especially for snacks)? Add cheese, beans, nuts, nut butter, or seed butter
  • Buy produce at the local Farmers’ Market
    • Select what looks good (try to get a variety of colors) and ask the vendors for simple ways to prepare the food (this strategy is how I learned to prepare swiss chard)
  • IMG_6418.JPGAdd greens  to everything
    • Buy a $5 container of organic spinach or kale – add to smoothies, on top of pizza (you can use tons and it just wilts down to almost nothing or turns to kale chips on top of the pizza), under eggs (put on plate and microwave for 1 min), in sandwiches or grilled cheese, scrambled in eggs (put in blender to turn it green for kids who will think that’s cool)
  • Get creative
    • Use steamed collard greens instead of tortillas for wraps
    • Make 2-ingredient waffles or pancakes out of bananas and eggs (ratio is 1 banana to 2 eggs)
    • Make chicken salad with hummus, mustard, and spices instead of mayo
    • Have your kid snack on rinsed black beans and defrosted green peas or homemade trail mix instead of expensive and nutritionally-lacking packaged snacks
  • Be selective when buying organic
    • I try to buy organic greens, eggs, dairy, and meat (fruit and veggies if minimal difference in expense)
    • Everything else I try not to worry about, especially if you don’t eat the skin or outer surface (bananas, avocados, etc.)
  • DIY guilty pleasure foods
    • When you’re craving something sweet or fried or über-comforting, make it yourself out of quality ingredients (mixes also count!)
    • Find a recipe that makes a slightly healthier version of your favorite foods

What are your favorite ways to minimize time/effort and money while maximizing nutrition?

2 Comments

  • sarah says:

    Thanks for an awesome post full of great tips! I’ve been buying organic dried chickpeas from the bulk food aisle, and sprouting them for some cheap fresh hummus. It’s amazing! Use like you would canned chickpeas, no cooking required.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *