These days, it seems like everyone has to deal with diet restrictions, either for themselves or a family member. Diets can be restricted by a variety of health conditions. Diabetes, heart disease, food allergies, food sensitivities, bowel diseases, celiac disease and lactose intolerance are just a few reasons some people are forced to change their diet — sometimes drastically.
Making the necessary changes can be daunting, especially when you begin to research the costs for replacements and substitutions. I should know! My husband has ulcerative colitis, a condition that does not allow him to eat either excessively fibrous or highly acidic foods, and my son has multiple severe food allergies.
Learning how to cope with these varied diets on a limited budget has stretched my creativity to say the least. If you are struggling in a similar situation, here are a few tips I’ve learned along the way:
1. Focus On Foods You Can Have
For most people, whole foods are still an acceptable and desirable part of their diet: meats, fruits, vegetables, and certain grains, seeds and nuts. Focusing on those foods will not only make you healthier, but help you stick to your budget. Avoid overly processed foods with long lists of ingredients that could create dietary issues.
2. Make It Yourself
Instead of purchasing items like breads, sweets and snacks, learn how to make them yourself. That way you know exactly what ingredients go into each food item and you can tweak recipes to meet your dietary needs.
I learned early on how to make bread that strikes the balance between my own and my husband’s dietary needs – a mix of whole grains and regular all-purpose flour. For my son, I’ve learned how to make everything from granola bars to fruit leather so as to provide healthy, inexpensive snacks that are safe for him.
3. Find Inexpensive Substitutions
This may require some creativity. My husband can’t have tomato sauce, so when it comes to pizza and pasta, I have learned to come up with a variety of creative sauces. Instead of pizza sauce, for example, I use barbecue sauce, ranch dressing, alfredo sauce, or even just olive oil and some herbs. One of my favorite pasta sauce substitutes is actually pumpkin-based!
4. Research Sources for Necessary Substitutions
When first learning about my son’s allergies, I spent a great deal of time researching both local and internet-only sources for flour substitutions because of his wheat allergy.
I learned that the Walmart Supercenter is surprisingly the cheapest source for rice and chickpea flours. Amazon.com’s Subscribe and Save program is probably the cheapest way to purchase Bob’s Red Mill grains and flours, among other foods. Local ethnic markets can also be great inexpensive sources for things like tapioca starch or other food alternatives. I have found that a locally owned organic market is the cheapest place to buy coconut milk and coconut milk yogurt, which I substitute for regular dairy products in my son’s diet.
5. Forego Unnecessary Substitutions
This one can be very difficult. My husband simply has to live without some foods he used to love, even healthy foods, like spinach and corn on the cob. There just are no substitutes for those foods!
For my son, the choice was a matter of budget. The only “cheeses” and store-bought breads he can eat are prohibitively expensive, so he simply does without. Except for basic food substitutions, like the coconut milk, I almost never buy him specially made and packaged “allergen-free” foods. I either make it myself or forego it altogether because the cost is not worth it to me. And let’s be honest, most of those substitutes taste nothing like the real thing, so what’s the point, anyway?
6. Find Mainstream Foods That Are Safe
This principle applies particularly to food-allergy sufferers, but has useful applications for other diets, like gluten- or lactose-free. You don’t really need to shop from the “allergen-free” section at the health food store, and that should be a relief to you if you’ve ever taken a peek at those prices!
Instead, be a detective, and take some time to browse the detailed nutrition information on packaged foods to find ones that are naturally free of allergens, or whatever food it is you have to avoid. I discovered early on that while my son could not have the traditional Cheerios or Gerber Puffs as a first finger food, Kix were a safe option. As a toddler, he still loves them, and I buy them whenever I can get them cheap on sale and with a coupon.
Similarly, I’ve found a variety of safe snacks and convenience foods — all available in any regular grocery store, and often available for cheap on sale and with coupons — that I keep on hand for those times when making his food myself is not an option, or for when we’re on the road without the usual emergency snack or meal from home. Of course, when dealing with allergies, always proceed with caution when trying a new food.
7. Expand Your Palate
Because of our various diet restrictions, certain foods I used to dislike, or had never experienced, began to creep into my regular menu. For example, I never had much experience with winter squash because my mom never cooked with it. However, since my husband has a limited range of fruits and vegetables he can safely eat, I’ve realized it’s necessary to incorporate all that he can eat, and that includes winter squash! I’ve found some really creative ways to hide it in foods while we adjust ourselves to the taste and texture.
When I was nursing my son and was therefore on his restricted diet, I found that almond milk was my favorite substitute for cow’s milk, and since then, I’ve learned to buy it when on sale — with coupons of course! — to use as a cheaper substitute for baking and cooking.
8. Look For the Silver Lining… and Give Thanks For It!
This is sometimes difficult for me when I get discouraged by the amount of money or time I spend on making and procuring safe foods for my family. It’s imperative, though, that I keep my mind focused on the blessings to be found in our enforced diets: for one thing, we all eat a lot healthier than we would otherwise! A positive perspective goes a long way in helping me continue to improve my efforts to provide safe, healthy, and affordable foods for my family.
Anne Simpson blogs about living with life-threatening food allergies at When Food is Dangerous, and about preparing healthy foods without sacrificing time or money at Quick and Easy, Cheap and Healthy. She is mentally preparing herself for whatever dietary needs her second son may have when he arrives early next year!
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