Living with a food allergy is not only life-altering, but the cost of getting safely fed can be hard to digest. A study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics found that food allergies can cost families thousands, with expenses upwards of $4,200 US per year depending on the allergy, caregiver requirements, and expenses for specialty foods.
Whether you’re dealing with a new food allergy diagnosis for yourself or a family member, learning how to get nourished and navigate the grocery aisle on a budget can be overwhelming. These five steps can help alleviate the high grocery costs that can come with food allergies.
1. Get a medical diagnosis to qualify for dietary expenses
Are you dealing with an actual food allergy, or are you suffering from a food intolerance? Getting a professional diagnosis from a doctor, allergist, gastroenterologist, or pediatrician can help you get the right help and avoid unnecessarily strict or expensive diets. You may even qualify for tax breaks on some dietary medical expenses, which can help cut the cost of specialty foods.
A food intolerance is when your body has trouble digesting a food – you may feel unwell, gassy, or have stomach pain. Food allergies, on the other hand, involve the immune system and can be life-threatening. Many foods are known to cause food allergies, but these eight foods account most allergy reactions: dairy, egg, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish (including lobster, crab, and shrimp).
After being diagnosed with celiac disease – an autoimmune disorder caused by an intolerance to gluten – I qualified for medical tax credits on gluten-free foods, which help cut my grocery bill by $300 per year. Check with your allergy association to see if you qualify for medical expenses specific to your diet.
2. Read every food label, every time
The only way to prevent a serious allergic reaction is to avoid the food allergen completely. You’ll stay safe plus you’ll save money by not mistakenly buying that item. Start by learning your allergen’s food label lingo and the foods it appears in – you may be surprised by the seemingly safe places allergens can lurk. Many boast less-common names on package labels. For example, those with soy allergies may react to lecithin, a common ingredient derived from soy.
Allergy kids should start checking food labels as soon as they can read, and practice both at home and when shopping to reinforce the habit. Read every food label every time, because food formulations can change without notice. Check out Kids with Food Allergies for tips on reading food labels and identifying harmful ingredients in medications, cosmetics, and food.
3. Sleuth specialty food sales
Living on a dairy-free, gluten-free, peanut-free or anything-else-free diet can be expensive! I did the math and found gluten-free flour, cereal, and certified-factory-safe gluten-free oats can cost 10 times more than the regular stuff on store shelves. Yes, I cry at the grocery store. To combat the insane cost of staying healthy, I stock up on specialty packaged foods during sales and promotions using Flipp. By searching with the Flipp app, I’m able to find allergy-safe brands at local grocery stores and save up to 25 percent on peanut-free school snacks for my daughter, and Bob's Red Mill Gluten-Free everything for me. Flipp can’t cure food allergies, but searching for sales makes life a lot more affordable.
4. Buy whole foods for safety and savings
What’s in an apple? Or a bunch of broccoli? Or an egg? Whole foods like fruits and vegetables are rarely sold in product packaging and don’t require food labels because they are grown, not manufactured. Produce, meat, eggs, and dairy are often one-ingredient wonders that are easy to identify as safe (or not). Many can be bought fresh or frozen. While fresh produce in the off-season can be pricey, stocking up on in-season produce and freezing the lot can save you 30 percent, and opting for frozen vegetables when on sale can cut costs while boosting the healthfulness of your allergen-free diet.
5. Build an allergy-free kitchen zone
Avoiding cross-contact of food is an important step when one or more family members is impacted by serious food allergies. Buying specific cutting boards, utensils, dishes, cookware, and even sealing specialty allergy-free foods in safe containers can help prevent accidental exposure and illness. In many cases, completely removing a food from your home is the safest option.
Since even a small amount of cross-contact can make a food unsafe, it’s important to avoid food splatter because you can’t remove an allergen from a meal. Hand washing, scrubbing counters and tables, and teaching children to not to share food at school can help keep kids safer.
If you’re new to food allergies, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the required changes to your diet and lifestyle. Find support from your allergy association and medical experts, and over time this can feel more manageable.
Hey allergy parents and families — what food and grocery tips would you share to help others?
Kerry K. Taylor is a consumer expert at Squawkfox.com.