Go to the grocery store without a list and it’s easy to lose focus—maybe you find yourself lost in the snack aisle when all you really needed was a gallon of milk and some fresh greens.
Grocery shopping is even more challenging when you’re trying to follow a special diet, like eating gluten-free. Maybe you’re cutting back on gluten-containing foods (such as those with wheat, rye or barley) because you’ve found that you feel better when you cut back or because you’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease. For people with celiac disease, eating foods containing gluten can cause their immune systems to damage the lining of the small intestine and create nutritional difficulties.
Use this guide to stock your grocery cart with a balanced variety of good-for-you gluten-free foods.
Start here. One of the best benefits of eating gluten-free is filling the hole left by gluten-containing foods with fresh fruits and vegetables. Look for produce that is fresh and in-season. "Salads are one of the easiest gluten-free meals to prepare and let you make the most of colorful fruits and vegetables," says Alice Bast, founder and president of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness in Ambler, Pennsylvania.
Following a gluten-free diet doesn’t mean you have to skip this aisle altogether, but take care: many gluten-free bread products contain higher amounts of fat, sugar and calories. Also, be sure to check the use-by date, as gluten-free breads typically contain few preservatives and are made using starches that tend to go stale faster.
The shelf life for gluten-free bread is getting much better, but always check its expiration date and its nutrition profile," advises Bast. She recommends choosing breads that are fortified with folic acid, iron and B vitamins when possible. Very few manufacturers currently fortify gluten-free flours (they’re not regulated by the FDA like white and whole-wheat flours are), but a fortified gluten-free loaf is worth seeking out, as many people following a gluten-free diet are deficient in these vitamins and nutrients.
Ham and cheese are both gluten-free, right? Not so fast. Low-fat cold cuts are often injected with wheat-based fillers to replace the lost fat. Look for a certified gluten-free label on the package, and if you’re planning to order a gluten-free sandwich at the deli counter, be sure that it’s prepared in a dedicated gluten-free area. Crumbs from gluten-containing breads and shared knives and meat slicers often introduce gluten, so be extra-vigilant here.
It may be tempting to take home a bag of gluten-free flour or quinoa from the bulk-foods section, but be careful: bulk bins are often a source of cross-contamination. "It’s really best not to eat from bulk bins unless it’s a gluten-free section," Bast says. "You never know if the bins have been thoroughly cleaned between products or if someone has used a scoop for corn flour after using it in the wheat-flour bin."
If there isn’t a dedicated gluten-free bulk bin section, buy extra and split the goods with a friend for similar cost savings without the danger of contamination. Store flour in the fridge or freezer, as introduced moisture can cause gluten-free flours to spoil quickly. This is especially true of flours made from nuts, seeds or whole grains, as their high fat content means they can go rancid quickly. Just be sure to allow enough time to bring them to room temperature before using them in baking.
Dairy products are naturally gluten-free, but commercial additives like chocolate flavor or malt create problems for people eating gluten-free. Flavored yogurts, sour cream, nondairy creamer and ice cream with added pretzels, nuts or candy pieces are all cause for concern. And, as at the deli counter, check the label before eating anything that’s low-fat or fat-free, as these versions may be thickened with gluten-containing starches.
Gluten-free snack options are available (and valuable in a pinch!), but be sure to check the label for fat and calorie counts. Put off by the long list of ingredients? Buy ingredients to make your own gluten-free granola, pick up some nuts and dried fruit or head back to the produce section for a bag of fruit.
Ask a manager to direct you to the gluten-free section, but do your best to skip the processed gluten-free products in favor of whole fruits and vegetables. Fill the rest of your cart as you should fill your plate: lots of fruits and veggies, sources of lean protein (e.g., poultry, lean beef, tofu), low-fat dairy and whole, gluten-free grains and starches.