Food allergies can be EXPENSIVE. When our daughter was first diagnosed with multiple severe food allergies three years ago (to dairy, eggs, sesame, tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, mustard and more), our total family food bill suddenly ballooned out of control to a ridiculous level. It went from under $500 a month to well over $1,000—sometimes even $1,400—including takeout and work lunches.
As we got used to the rules of strict allergy avoidance, we had to find safer items to replace our previous low-budget grocery store standbys. But we found allergy-free items can cost double—or even quadruple—their allergen-packed equivalents. Uncontaminated $4/quart brand-name oat milk (that’s $16 a gallon!) replaced Trader Joe’s “may contain traces of nuts and dairy” $2/quart rice drink or $4/gallon cow’s milk. Fancy sesame-and-egg-free spelt bread from a specialty bakery won out over “whatever-the-heck wheat bread is on sale.” Small pricey plastic packages of allergy-free grains squeezed out whole grains from budget-friendly (but nut-contaminated) bulk bins.
It was so hard to figure out what to eat AT ALL given all her multiple allergies that we just gave ourselves permission to buy EVERY safe item we could find on local Brooklyn store shelves regardless of sticker shock. We now had one safer egg-free variety of pasta on our list—which happened to be an expensive Italian import. There was just one brand of pasta sauce we trusted not to have undisclosed spices—but it was fancy and organic.
We were so grateful to find any allergen-free cookies and frozen desserts that our little girl could safely enjoy that we just threw them in the shopping cart with abandon.
Six months ago, we got seriously frugal and laid our out-of-control food budget to rest. Nowadays we usually clock in at $400-$600 a month for groceries and restaurants combined for our family of three — and that’s living in New York City, buying lots of whole foods, organic and GMO-free when we can and almost ALL allergen-free. (You could likely go WAY lower living elsewhere and buying non-organic). There are months that are a bit higher, but that’s usually when we’re stocking up on bulk items.
Now we eat a much wider variety of healthier, tastier food and feel far less stressed about “what’s for dinner?” or “what’s in our bank account?”
Here’s how we FINALLY got frugal with food allergies… all in one epic blog post!
1. Keep an allergy-friendly price book. I maintain an obsessive digital price spreadsheet listing ALL of our family’s personal preferred safer items, their prices at local grocery stores (and online), where/when I got my safety information, and what constituted a good sale price. I update it weekly to add (or remove) items, and pretty much have it memorized now—so whatever store I’m in, I can spot an food-allergy-free deal. (BIG disclaimer—my personal list is not authoritative or comprehensive in any way, and items could change at any time, etc. But feel free to use as a starting place to do your own research).
2. Always buy at the lowest price possible—and in bulk. This is really just simple math (thanks Mr. Money Mustache!) but it took me a while to get the hang of it.
If your safe brand of usually expensive dairy-free cheese or pasta or canned beans is suddenly on a deep sale (say, 50% off or more)… stock up as much as your fridge/freezer/cabinets and expiration dates can manage—maybe 1-6 months worth.
If it’s at a regular, reasonably low price—buy maybe 2 weeks worth.
If it’s at it’s highest usual price—buy just enough for that one meal, or find a cheaper substitute.
So when my daughter’s safe pasta went on sale for half price … I bought 4+ months worth, sealed it tightly in plastic bags, and put it inside the storage bins under our guest bed.
We live in a New-York-sized apartment, but it’s really amazing how many bags of dairy-free cheese shreds and allergen-free bread and flour you can pack into one little freezer. Try it!
3. Scout out every grocery store (and farmer’s market) within reach and watch for deals.
Subscribe to the weekly sales circular emails from local grocery stores and watch out for your safe items.
When you’re in any grocery store at ANY time, don’t just shop for your week’s meals—do a quick store circuit to see if any of your key safe items are on sale. (I have been known to stop at stores near my work on my way home and lug home four bags of safe on-sale coconut milk, udon noodles and flour).
Even deputize your friends and family to look out—you can pay them back in cash, or delicious homemade meals. My super-frugal dad lives a few states away in a much cheaper area, watches out for ridiculous sales on my daughter’s safe items, and brings them whenever my parents come to visit. And I hope to make a weekend excursion to Costco at some point, as far as it is from our apartment.
We can never find EVERY ITEM on our safe list at just one store, so we shop in phases—one week my husband and I might hit Trader Joe’s, another week, Key Food and Whole Foods, another week, a local small natural and organic grocery store.
We also visit our local farmer’s market most weekends to drop off our compost and scout out deals on in-season produce. And we belong to a farm-share CSA to get cheaper local organic veggies and fruits in the summer and fall.
4. Take advantage of bulk online ordering on sites like Amazon and Vitacost.
Amazon Subscribe & Save: I buy 12-packs of Pacific Organic Oat Milk for slightly over $2/quart and via an Amazon Subscribe & Save order every few months—it’s often $4/quart locally. I also get 6-packs of Sunbutter and various McCormick spices. Subscribe & Save is also a good source for items for my kiddo’s daily eczema/asthma/allergy routine, like the big pump bottles of Vanicream we slather her in after her daily bath. I always make sure to have at least 5 items in any month’s order to save another 20%. However, don’t assume that Subscribe & Save is always cheaper than local, as it often isn’t—use your price book to make sure!
Vitacost has tons of allergy-friendly brands and options, AND they list ingredients and label warnings for each. Orders of $49+ ship free, and I make one every month or two, for things like Eden Organic popcorn and canned BPA-free beans, Enjoy Life chocolate chips, Thai Kitchen rice noodles and much more. They’re almost ALWAYS cheaper than NYC grocery stores. (If you’ve never ordered from Vitacost before, use my $10 referral link—we’ll both get $10 off our next order!)
5. Tap into the power of the food-allergy hive mind to expand your safer product list. The more brands and varieties on your safe list, the better your chance of finding at least ONE of them on deep sale SOMEWHERE at any given time. But doing all your own grocery research from scratch for your particular set of complicated food restrictions is exhausting at best.
I’m currently loving the No Nuts Moms Group page and support forum on Facebook and even more the Sesame Allergen and Awareness group (sesame and mustard don’t legally have to be listed on labels in the US at all and are thus SUPER HARD to avoid.) Both are great places to share sourcing ideas, email responses from companies and help try to answer “is this safe for XXX & XXX allergies?” The Kids With Food Allergies Foundation forums are also packed with sourcing ideas and help.
Please DO be cautious and use other’s ideas as a starting place only—products vary across the country, someone else might have different allergies or definitions of safe, and labels and ingredients can change at any time.
6. Make it from scratch when feasible—in bulk. As you might have guessed from this blog’s title, I LOVE making items from scratch. And given our multiple food allergies, there are so many things we can’t buy even as allergen-free convenience food.
I like to regularly test out making various items from scratch and compare the cost to store-bought to see how doable, easy and money-saving they really are. My husband and I cook and bake almost everything in double or triple batches, and save leftovers in our crowded fridge and freezer for later in the week/month.
Things I almost ALWAYS make from scratch and are generally a big budget win: bread, pizza, muffins, pancakes, cakes, cookies, scones, cornbread, stocks and broths, nut-free pesto, tomato sauces, sushi …
Things I SOMETIMES make from scratch because I can’t find them safely in stores at all: pickles, salad dressings, vegan mustard-free mayo, seitan…
Things I RARELY make from scratch—but love to when I can: hand-rolled pasta, dumplings, tortillas, scallion pancakes and MUCH more…
I also recommend the wonderful—and often hilarious—from-scratch adventures chronicled in Jennifer Reese’s Make the Bread, Buy the Butter: What You Should and Shouldn’t Cook from Scratch … but keep in mind she isn’t dealing with food allergies, so many of the items she pronounces cheaper to buy than to make might not be true for a food-allergy family.
7. Calculate the cost per person meal of all your frequently-made meals… and find ways to shrink and optimize it. (Again, with some inspiration from another classic Mr. Money Mustache post, “Killing Your $1,000 Grocery Bill.”) We follow the general rule that breakfasts should cost less than $1/person/meal on average, lunches no more than $2/person/meal and dinners no more than $3/person/meal (but all, ideally, much less!).
So when I’m looking to cut cost per meal, I have three basic strategies:
Can I increase the proportion of cheaper ingredients in the meal? (in-season or on sale veggies or fruits, pasta, potatoes, beans, rice, whole grains, etc)
Can I reduce the amount of expensive ingredients (meat, out-of-season fruits or veggies, special-order allergen-free condiments)?
Can I swap out expensive items from a recipe for items I already have on hand and need to use up?
Which brings me to…
8. Stop wasting food. Due to poor planning and over-reliance on takeout when tired, we used to end up composting a good quarter or more of our food. Now we base our weekly meal plans (see #10) on what is about to go critical in the fridge or has been sitting neglected in the pantry approaching expiration date. When there aren’t enough leftovers to make a whole family meal, I box up the random bits in my Planetbox Launch bento box and eat a weird—but tasty!—odd work lunch.
9. Give up takeout and restaurants (or save them for special occasions). Takeout used to be our quick “what’s for dinner?” fallback option in our pre-allergy days—except we couldn’t actually afford it, even then. Now we budget $20-$35 a month for restaurants, generally for a monthly date night while grandparents watch our daughter. (We don’t really have any restaurants we feel are safe enough for her to eat at).
10. Make a weekly meal plan. I like to handwrite mine out each week and leave it on the fridge, asking the little one and husband which special meals and treats they most want to make and eat that week. Then my husband and I take turns cooking it all.
I base my meal plan on: what’s in season and on sale, what’s in the fridge/freezer/pantry, what’s cheap and tasty, what’s on my recipe queue… and then get feedback from my husband and daughter. Any needed ingredients get added to a shared list on the free Out of Milk app we keep on our ancient Android smartphones.
11. Eat less meat and processed foods. This goes along with #7 and can be good for your wallet, your health AND the planet. We do eat some animal products (though NOT eggs or dairy!) around here, but try to use little bits of it as a seasoning or flavorful add-in in a few meals a week — like a few slices of allergy-friendly organic bacon crumbled over bean and potato tacos… one little chicken cut up at home and portioned out for many stir-fries, sandwiches and cups of allergy-free stock…
12. Cut every non-food-related cost possible. In the end, there is only SO far you can reasonably lower your food-allergy grocery bill without passing out from exhaustion while making everything from scratch—and it becomes more difficult the more allergens you have to avoid.
So we also took a ruthless look at every other household expense, from clothing to electricity and the phone. Some of our big non-food wins:
We started using YNAB (You Need a Budget) budgeting software to track and plan every single expense down to the penny …LIFE-CHANGING. I actually won a free copy of the software by taking one of their online classes. (Here’s my coupon referral code for $6 off!)
We switched from Verizon Wireless to Ting, cutting our bill from $95/month for two flipphones to $38/month for two used Android smartphones (Why yes, I have a Ting coupon referral code for $25 off!).
We canceled cable TV and now just use Netflix, Amazon Prime and the library (saving $80/month).
We stopped renting a cable modem from our cable company and bought a compatible one cheaply on eBay (saving $6/month).
We stopped buying (almost any) books and DVDs and became heavy library users … saving $75/month. On any given week, I probably have 5 or 6 cookbooks checked out!
We spend no more than $50 on clothing in a month, mostly thrift or used.
Phew! What are your favorite ways to save money on your food-allergy grocery budget? Am I missing any big ones? Do any of these seem extreme to you—and if so, why? Let’s talk…
P.S. OK, so you may notice I haven’t highlighted couponing. I must say I’ve tried it, and it really hasn’t worked for me in return on time invested. The Sunday newspaper coupons in New York City rarely yield any of my limited list of safe brands. I do subscribe to the email newsletters and like the Facebook pages of all my go-to allergen-friendly brands in order to get manufacturer coupons… but it’s not part of my core money-saving strategy at the moment, especially since many of my local stores don’t take printed coupons. Your mileage may vary! If you do want to try couponing, I highly recommend this Kids With Food Allergies Foundation free recorded webinar with the Money-Saving Queen.
Disclosure note: Actions you take on the links within this blog post may yield commissions for safeandscrumptious.com (and are likely to be spent on allergy-free treats for my little girl!)