Recently I read about a college-age girl who needed really easy gluten free recipes. It sounded like she didn’t have much experience cooking and had received a celiac diagnosis after she was already away from home. I realized that if I would have gone gluten free in college, I probably would have starved – I basically lived on ramen noodles and pasta. I had no idea about gluten free foods! I could cook some basics but didn’t have a good feel for what I was doing.
(I wouldn’t have ACTUALLY starved, as I went to college in my hometown – mom was just 20 minutes away. You best believe I went home for real food and free laundry facilities ALL THE TIME.)
I decided to pull together a list of easy-to-prepare gluten free meal basics along with some ideas about how to combine the pieces to make simple, healthy meals. I’ve tried to make it adaptable to a vegetarian diet as well (and you could probably even make it vegan by removing the couple dairy items.) I’m trying to remember what it was like to be 19 and in my first apartment.
Is any of this stuff going to taste amazing? No, not until you learn to season food. But it’s basic and healthy and it’s a place to start learning, and as you get the feel for it, you’ll learn what flavors go together and it’ll get better. It assumes you have the following:
- a refrigerator and freezer
- a microwave
- a knife and cutting board
- a can opener
- bowls and silverware
I tried to make this feasible even if you’re in a dorm (though you’ll have to be creative about how you shop week to week to fit things in your tiny, tiny dorm fridge!) Sometimes to get the convenience of easy-to-make, you’ll find it becomes a bit more expensive. Any time you can cook the chicken yourself, or cut up your own fruits and vegetables, you’ll save money. Find the balance that works for you!
If you do have access to a kitchen, many of the “recipes” at the end would benefit from being sautéed in a pan, rather than microwaved. However, you can make it work with whatever you’ve got. Let’s get into some basic gluten free foods for non-cooks!
My top pick is to get a big bag of frozen, pre-cooked chicken strips (not breaded). In the UK, you can get a huge bag at Iceland for £5. In the US, something similar should cost around $8-10. It’s enough for a bunch of meals.
Another easy option is gluten-free sausage that can be microwaved. In the US, I like Johnsonville (the ones packaged like hot dogs, not the ones in with the raw meat.) Check the ingredients carefully to be sure they are still gluten free. In the UK, Lidl is a good source for gluten free cooked polish sausage (check those labels!) You can also do lunch meats like ham or turkey. Don’t go too crazy with these though, as they’re not something you should be eating every single day.
If you’re vegetarian, check out Quorn’s frozen meat substitutes – lately they’ve been offering more gluten free options. Make sure whatever you get is microwavable if that’s all you have to cook with.
Another good vegetarian source of protein (and cheap too) is canned beans and lentils. I like to have pinto and black beans and chickpeas at the ready. Other easy ones are black eyed peas and lentils. (When using canned beans I always try to rinse off all the goo that they come packed in – it’s just salty anyway!)
Fruits and vegetables
Regardless of whether you eat meat, fruits and vegetables are probably the most important part of this. This can be a little tough when you’re living with a tiny fridge. Try to get a few things at a time that will work together in a couple different ways. I give some examples at the end of how to mix and match ingredients to keep it interesting.
I always like to have some salad around. The easiest route is to buy pre-washed bagged salads. The cheapest route is to buy your lettuce on sale and chop it yourself. And you’re not just limited to iceberg lettuce (though it’s usually the cheapest) – try green leaf, romaine, spinach or even arugula. The darker the leaves, the more nutritious it is, so mix it up!
Then, I like to have a few vegetables I can cut up and throw in salads or other dishes easily – for me that’s carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers and bell peppers. Other good options are radishes, corn, sugar snap peas, jicama, and possibly beets (buy them roasted.) You can usually find carrot sticks or baby carrots, but again, being lazy will cost you.
Another handy way to get your vegetables is frozen. There are all kinds of combinations of frozen veggies, but my favorite things to have on hand are onions and peppers, a good stir fry mix with broccoli, corn kernels, and peas. The little stuff is easy to sneak into other dishes for a veggie boost.
As for fruit, the easiest way is to just have a fruit bowl on top of your counter (or in your fridge if your room is hot/you have bug issues). Good things for this include apples, oranges, mandarins or satsumas, peaches, plums, nectarines, and bananas. Wash them before you eat (unless you’re peeling it first.) It’s nice to have a bunch of easy, grab-and-go fruit on hand – you can grab a piece on your way to class, work or the gym with no fuss.
If you have refrigerator space, berries and grapes are easy to wash and eat with no prep!
You don’t have to go too crazy here, but I like to have yogurt on hand. If you buy a plain, unsweetened variety, you can use it in place of sour cream on savory dishes. You can also mix it with fruit if you like a sweeter flavor.
I also like to have cheddar cheese on hand. I’ll usually buy the already grated bags of cheese if they’re on sale, but it’s cheaper to buy a block of cheese and grate it yourself.
Just because you’re gluten free doesn’t mean you need to load up on breads and cakes! Gluten free bread is usually super expensive anyway. I’d pick up some single serving rice bowls (in the US, Uncle Ben’s makes them) and a bag of tortilla chips (check for gluten). Done.
These are a good source of healthy fats and protein (just be careful not to overdo it, a portion is small.) I like to have some combination of cashews, peanuts, sliced almonds and pecans around. I love pine nuts but they can be pricey and usually need to be toasted, which is hard to do in a microwave.
If you have the budget for these, you can find a few gluten free frozen meals. Amy’s is usually my go-to brand in the US and UK. They’ve got a really good gluten free macaroni and cheese (throw some frozen peas in and you’re good to go) and they do some Mexican bowls that I really like.
Sauces, spices + seasonings
You should have some basics on hand. Here’s what I’d recommend:
- Spaghetti sauce
- Peanut butter
- Ranch dressing (or other salad dressing)
- Sriracha, if you like spicy things
- Salt + pepper
- Red chili flakes (can be “acquired” from pizza delivery, just saying)
- Garlic powder
This is just the bare necessities, but definitely get what you love!
How to combine this stuff into meals and snacks
So you’ve got all your groceries, now what? Here’s how to combine some of the ingredients into meals:
Fruit + yogurt + almond slivers = parfait
Beans + sausage + smashed tortilla chips = breakfast bowl
Lunch (no cook)
Bag of salad + chicken strips or chickpeas + cheese + nuts + dressing = meal salad
Bag of salad + chicken strips or black beans + cheese + salsa + sour cream + tortilla chips = taco salad
(cook in microwave)
Fresh/frozen peppers & onions + canned pinto beans + grated cheddar cheese + salsa + (optional chicken strips) + red chili flakes = fajita bowl
Fresh/frozen peppers & onions + spaghetti sauce + sausage + rice or potatoes + red chili flakes = Italian bowl
Canned lentils + spinach + diced tomato + garlic powder = dhal
A spoonful peanut butter + sriracha + chicken strips or Quorn = Thai chicken/Thai Quorn (eat with rice and + fresh/frozen broccoli)
Tortilla chips with beans and cheese on top (add yogurt and salsa after cooking) = nachos
Apple slices or carrot sticks or banana + peanut butter
Carrot, cucumber and/or bell pepper slices + ranch dressing
Fruit + a little cup of peanuts or cashews
Hopefully this is good inspiration for how to stock your gluten free kitchen (or dorm) for maximum ease. Obviously, pick the foods you like and enjoy (if you hate broccoli, that’s cool! Get something else instead.) The above allows you to eat all your meals and snacks only using a microwave, though if you have a stove, maybe consider using it!
I’m thinking there is a potential follow up to this for basic kitchen skills, like making eggs and boiling water for pasta. Perhaps I will do another edition with advanced lazy cooking skills another day.
Could you work with this on a limited college budget? What is the first dish you learned to make? Tell me what’s cooking in the comments!