Staying gluten-free is all about choosing the right foods, so what could be more important than grocery shopping? But most of us don‘t want to think too much about it—we just want to get in and out of the store as quickly as possible. So shopping gluten-free requires a bit of a mind-shift, but it will soon become second nature with a little practice and planning.
Don’t rush it. You’ll need time to read labels, compare and make informed decisions. Try to make your shopping trips at the same days and times each week so you can plan around them; minimize stress by going at off-peak times (mid-week and mid-days). And above all, plan ahead so you can hit the ground running when you grab your cart. Here, more tips for making your shopping trip a success.
Before You Go: Four Do-Ahead Steps
A little legwork in advance will save you plenty of time in the store. Try these:
- Research. Get familiar with brands you can count on for gluten-free options; call manufacturers or visit their websites to find out how they verify their products. Since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet finalized regulations to govern the term "gluten-free," definitions can vary. For example, all General Mills products labeled "gluten-free" have undergone extensive ingredient, manufacturing, and product analysis. Click here for more information on gluten-free labeling.
- Make a list, so you’ll pick up only what you need and avoid impulse buys that might not meet your "safe" criteria. Organize it by each section of the supermarket; you’ll more quickly through the aisles without backtracking. Include the brand names of foods you’ve already found to be gluten-free and delicious, to help you find them faster—but don’t forget to re-check their labels, in case their ingredients have changed.
- Bring your cell phone in case you need to call a manufacturer to double check a confusing ingredient or need to verify that their processing methods are truly gluten-free.
- Eat a safe snack if you‘re hungry. Being surrounded by all those appetizing but not-always-safe foods (and free samples!) will sorely test your resolve if you’re starving. Have a snack first that includes a little fiber and protein for staying power—say, apple slices dabbed with peanut butter.
Choosing Smart: An Aisle-by-Aisle Guide
With over 40,000 products in the average supermarket – and over 2000 of them gluten-free, you’ve got plenty of food choices to ponder. Keep the following pointers in mind to navigate each aisle faster.
Produce: Load up on beautiful produce—the more colorful, the better. Brightly colored vegetables and fruits tend to be packed with healthy nutrients—including fiber and folic acid, nutrients that can be lacking in gluten-free diets (since fortified grain products are often good sources of both). Don’t forget naturally gluten-free starchy vegetables like potatoes and winter squash—great replacements for grain-based carbohydrate foods.
Dairy and eggs: The fresh, unprocessed items here are naturally gluten-free, such as fluid milk, natural cheese, and "in-shell" eggs. But read labels carefully on processed cheeses and spreads, yogurts, fat-free "enhanced" milks with added thickeners, or flavored egg substitutes.
Meats/Poultry/Fish: This section is generally gluten-free; however, some meats and poultry can be enhanced with gluten-containing broths and flavorings, as can imitation crabmeat (surimi). Check labels to make sure no gluten-containing ingredients were added. Avoid marinated items unless they’re labeled "gluten-free."
Grains and flours, pastas, beans: Nowadays there’s usually a generous selection of gluten-free grains like rice, buckwheat, quinoa, millet and teff, and gluten-free flours and pastas made from them. Beans are another terrific gluten-free source of carbohydrates—protein and fiber-rich, to boot. If you buy them canned, choose plain (unsauced) varieties. Just don’t buy any of these items in bulk bins, where cross-contamination from other non-gluten-free bins can easily occur. It’s all too easy for someone to use the same scoop to help themselves to (wheat-based) pasta, then the (gluten-free) rice flour!
Cereals, breads and crackers: Shop around. Since this is one of the fastest-growing areas where gluten-free products are being developed, there are lots of foods to choose from and you‘re sure to find plenty you like. Read labels carefully to find truly gluten-free options, and remember "wheat-free" doesn‘t necessarily mean something is gluten-free!
Prepared foods and soups: Be especially vigilant in your label-reading here. Unless they’re specifically labeled "gluten-free," most of these products contain added gluten in the form of broths, thickeners and flavorings. Stick with manufacturers with whom you‘ve verified their "gluten-free" products.
Condiments, sauces, gravies, dressings and spices: This section can be a minefield for a gluten-avoider. If an ingredient sounds vague—"seasonings," for example—check with the manufacturer before buying. Even if a product doesn’t contain any gluten, it might be processed in facilities that also handle wheat-based products; some spices may have gluten-containing starches added to reduce clumping. Contact the manufacturer to verify you‘re getting a gluten-free product.
Frozen foods: Check out frozen vegetables and fruits for convenience and good nutrition; since they’re picked and quick-frozen at their peak, they’re often a better bet than off-season "fresh" produce. Choose plain frozen vegetables (without sauce, which can have gluten-containing food starches and flavorings). Proceed carefully with frozen entrees—especially those with sauces (unless labeled gluten-free), French fries, and breaded fried items like fish sticks. Likewise, ice creams and frozen yogurts may contain gluten-based starches to help prevent ice crystals from forming.
Bringing it Home
Congratulations—you‘ve stocked your basket with healthy foods in record time. But when you unload groceries at home, don‘t undo all your good work by forgetting to practice "gluten-safe" kitchen techniques. Remember to store gluten-free foods in sealed containers and keep separate areas for gluten-free food preparation. That way, you’ll cook and eat with more confidence and less stress. Doesn‘t that sound delicious?