The ultimate gluten-free dinner builder (with free printable!)
Making gluten-free meals all the time, every day isn’t easy. And dinner is a particularly tough meal, since everyone is hungry, you’re shuttling kids back and forth between appointments and practices, perhaps you’re working late, et cetera. It’s great to sit down and enjoy a family dinner together, but actually putting all the pieces into place can be stressful and tiring.
Enter the Gluten-Free Dinner Builder. Here’s how I approach dinner at my house: every dinner needs to be gluten-free, and it needs to include a protein, a starch or carb, and a fruit or veggie. Using this logic, I’ve put together a Dinner Builder for you where you can mix and match easy-to-prepare gluten-free options that will please your family’s tummies. Below, read about my ideas and recommendations—plus, print out this Gluten-Free Dinner Builder printable to tack onto your fridge. It’ll help you make meal planning quick and easy!
Grilled or baked chicken breasts: This is one of my favorite proteins because it’s healthy and versatile. Bake or grill a bunch of chicken tenderloins or chicken breasts, and you can use them on practically anything. Chop or shred them to use in tacos and on pizza, slice it to top a salad, dice it and make your own chicken soup…there are so many possibilities! Also, if you have an indoor grill like the Griddler (seriously, THE BEST kitchen gadget I’ve ever bought; it makes making dinner way easier) or a George Foreman grill, you can always enjoy grilled chicken no matter the season or weather.
Tip: Plain, unmarinated, unseasoned chicken from your grocery store’s meat department should always be gluten-free!
Gluten-free breaded chicken breasts/tenders: These, too, are super-versatile. They’re great on their own or as part of a delicious gluten-free chicken Parmesan dish.
What I use: I buy frozen Perdue Simply Smart Gluten-Free Chicken Tenders from my local Giant or BJs. They’re so convenient—you can heat up one serving in the microwave in under 2 minutes!
Portobello mushroom: If you are vegetarian or vegan, it may be challenging to find proteins. A Portobello mushroom can be a good option, and it brings flavor to any dish you include it in. There are plenty of ways to enjoy it, such as sauteeing it or making it into a burger that you can eat on a gluten-free bun.
Gluten-free tuna fish: Tuna fish is such a convenient protein. It’s inexpensive, comes in a can or packet you can take anywhere, and it’s full of protein. You can make it into tuna salad and eat it on bread or a bed of lettuce, or you can eat it straight out of the can.
What I use: I really like StarKist Kid’s Creations Bacon Ranch-flavored tuna. It comes in a packet that I can bring anywhere, is flavorful and filling (14 grams of protein), waistline-friendly (one pouch is just 110 calories), and pairs nicely with gluten-free crackers (I enjoy it with Gratify’s Baked Bites).
Gluten-free sandwich with meat and/or cheese: A sandwich is a great way to get a protein, a carb, and veggies all in one entrée! Include meats and cheese for protein, and plenty of veggies, like Bibb lettuce, sliced tomato, or sliced onion. Feeling a little exotic? Add a few thin avocado slices!
What I use: If I’m craving traditional-style gluten-free bread, I like the new Rudi’s Gluten-Free Bakery Original Gluten-Free Bread that’s made with real honey. It has a touch of sweetness to them due to the honey, which pairs nicely with meats like ham and turkey. Also, they’re fresh breads, not breads you keep in the freezer, which helps their texture stay nicer! If I want something less traditional, I go for a BFree multigrain wrap or pita. These BFree bread products amaze me because it’s so hard to believe they’re gluten-free. They tasted so good and held up so well that I actually checked the package numerous times to make sure they were actually gluten-free. (They are—and they’re delicious!) I always use Applegate sliced meats, and I tend to buy pre-packaged store brand sliced cheese to cut down on costs a little.
Gluten-free tip: Delis can have high potential for cross-contamination. Even if they offer gluten-free meats and cheeses, if they’re sliced on machines that just sliced meats and cheeses that contain gluten, your food could get cross-contaminated. I recommend buying packaged meats that are clearly labeled gluten-free, and buying packaged cheeses that are either labeled gluten-free or don’t have any problem ingredients.
Taco salad with ground beef: Get your protein and your veggies in one meal with a delicious taco salad! Tear off some lettuce and place it in a bowl. Add your favorite ingredients like cooked ground beef, chopped peppers and onions, cooked kidney beans, a dollop of salsa (I like using Rojo’s Fire Roasted salsa), and some shredded cheddar cheese. Add even more protein to your meal with a bowl of Beanitos Skinny Dippers bean chips as a side dish. These black and white bean chips are only 90 calories per serving, but they pack quite the nutritional punch, with 5 grams each of fiber and protein. Plus, they’re crispy and delicious—and they’re that rare kind of chip you can really feel good about eating!
Gluten-free (and vegan!) tip: Want to add a little extra flavor to your taco salad? Sprinkle some Cool Foods Veggie Bacon Bits on top. These vegan “bacon bits” don’t actually contain any real bacon—they’re made from pinto beans! Amazingly, this bacon-free bacon bits substitute has a taste and texture that’s spot-on. While some imitation bacon bits out there aren’t gluten-free, I’m so thrilled that these are! They’re a tasty protein-packed alternative for anyone who wants the taste of bacon without the actual bacon itself. Yum!
Gluten-free burrito with beans and/or meat: While many gluten-free tortillas are on the smaller side, there are some—like Udi’s—that are large enough to accommodate a burrito. If you don’t live near a store that sells bigger gluten-free tortillas, look for smaller gluten-free corn tortillas and make a deconstructed burrito. In both cases, you’ll need rice, beans, shredded cheese, and ground beef or chopped chicken. If you’re using a bigger gluten-free tortilla, arrange the ingredients in your tortilla, and then roll it up and fold it in at the ends. If you’re using smaller corn tortillas, layer them on your plate, layer the other ingredients on top, and microwave to the desired level of heat. Unlike a traditional burrito, you’ll need to eat this one with a fork and knife!
Ground beef: I love ground beef because it’s easy to cook and so versatile. Make a meat sauce to accompany your favorite gluten-free pasta; make a cheeseburger pizza using toppings like ground beef, sliced peppers, and cheddar cheese on a gluten-free crust like Udi’s; make gluten-free chili or Shepherd’s Pie…there are so many possibilities!
Gluten-free pizza with cheese, meat, or GF meat alternative: Pizza is one of my biggest gluten-free vices. Thankfully, there are tons of great gluten-free pizzas out there. I swear, every time I go to my local Whole Foods or Giant, I’m trying a new one. One thing I love about pizza is it’s often a complete meal by itself—you’ve got protein from cheese and meat, carbs from the crust, and veggies piled on top; plus, you can always pair it with a side salad or gluten-free dinner roll if you’re hungry for more. When it comes to pizza, I really like Daiya’s pizzas. I’m lactose intolerant, and although I can have some dairy foods if I take Lactaid pills with them, I really like not having to worry about that when I’m trying to eat pizza. So I often choose Daiya’s pizzas, which are gluten-, dairy- and soy-free. My very favorite kind is the Cheeze Lover’s (no actual cheese included!), which has lots of ooey-gooey vegan cheese on it. And with its light sauce, mozzarella-style cheese, and diced tomatoes, the Margherita is also a great option. They’re easy to make in your oven, and they’re big enough that everyone can enjoy a good-sized slice!
Hot dog: They may not be the healthiest fare, but hot dogs are an easy meat to heat up in a pinch. I like Oscar Mayer Angus hot dogs, which we make on the Griddler. They taste delicious! I often don’t have my hot dogs with a bun (going bunless is an easy way to limit calories if you’re watching your waistline like I am), but when I do use buns, I always choose Udi’s. Add more protein (and a dairy serving) by putting a slice of cheese in the bun before you put the hot dog in there!
Bean soup or bean-based pasta: Beans, beans, they’re good for your heart…and your protein and fiber fix! If you have a little time, you can make your own gluten-free bean soup, like this delicious Tomato & Vegetable White Bean Soup. Or, if you have ten minutes, you can cook up some delicious bean-based pasta! I love Modern Table Meals because their bean- and lentil-based pasta holds up incredibly well, doesn’t take long to cook, and is really delicious. They sell standalone bags of pasta like their new Lentil Rotini, which you can incorporate into your favorite meal, and they sell complete meals-in-a-bag that are really easy to make and so tasty. Their new Creamy Mushroom Bean Pasta & Veggie Kit features red lentil pasta, a creamy mushroom sauce, and peas. The pasta tastes different (in a good way) than normal gluten-free pasta; it almost has a tiny bit of peppery kick to it. And the creamy mushroom sauce is savory and delicious. I like that you can make these meals in about ten minutes—such a time-saver on busy nights!
Roasted potatoes: There’s something so delicious about roasted potatoes! They’re good with so many meals—alongside eggs and bacon at breakfast or brunch, or as a savory side dish with lunch or dinner. I also love that they’re super-easy to make. Prep time is quick, and cooking takes about an hour, but after that, you’ve got warm, crispy spuds. Try this naturally gluten-free Garlic Roasted Potatoes recipe.
Gluten-free pasta: Gluten-free pasta gets a bad rap for falling apart and taking too long to cook. But there are plenty of varieties out there that you’ll love—seriously! My very favorites include Modern Table’s lentil-based pasta, Banza’s chickpea pasta shells, and my local Giant supermarket’s store brand of gluten-free pasta (it’s made in a dedicated gluten-free facility and costs under two bucks a box). And, if I want to replicate angel hair pasta, I love using Annie Chun’s Maifun noodles!
If you want to do something different than the traditional noodles, elbows, or shells, why not make some delicious ravioli instead? Three Bridges makes wonderful fresh gluten-free ravioli that takes a nanosecond (OK, more like 3 minutes, but in the gluten-free world, that’s nothin’!) to cook. It’s incredibly easy to make, pairs well with your favorite tomato sauce, and makes a great side or even a main dish! (Read more about how much I love Three Bridges’ gluten-free ravioli here.)
Gluten-free tip: If you’re making gluten-free pasta with tomato sauce, jazz up your dish with some delicious cheese! Cello Whisps are naturally gluten-free and made of only Parmesan cheese. These crispy, crunchy little Parmesan “crackers” are the perfect garnish for an Italian meal. I’ll warn you, though, once you open that bag, it’s going to be tough for you to stop eating them! They’re addictively good–in addition to using them with my Italian meals, I also take them to work to enjoy as a snack.
Brown or white rice: I seriously couldn’t live without rice! Although we usually eat brown rice in my household because it’s healthier (with more fiber and protein), white rice is tasty too. We generally use Minute brand rice because you can find it at any grocery store and it’s clearly marked gluten-free.
Money-saving tip: Purchasing a 6-cup rice cooker a few years ago was a really smart move—every Sunday I make 6 cups of rice, and that’s enough for my boyfriend and I to use as a side dish for lunches and dinners all week long. We got our rice cooker from Target for only about $30. To think that before that, we were buying multiple bags of steamable/microwaveable brown rice for $2 each. That rice cooker paid for itself in a little over a month!
Quinoa: Although quinoa can be a little more labor-intensive than rice, due to having to rinse the quinoa before cooking, I love to add it into our menu when we’re a little bored with rice. I love quinoa’s nutty flavor, and although I enjoy it fluffy and plain, I also like jazzing it up with a little Earth Balance or olive oil, garlic powder, and parsley. I really enjoy Alter Eco’s Heirloom Quinoa because not only is it delicious, but Alter Eco is a company I feel good about buying from because they do such a great job at giving back to the environment.
Gluten-free cooking tip: You can also make quinoa in a rice cooker! Here’s how.
Mashed potatoes: Okay, I admit it: I’m a lazy girl. I’ve never made mashed potatoes from scratch in my life. But I do enjoy Betty Crocker’s mashed potatoes in a box. One box lasts us a while, and they’re super-easy to make!
Gluten-free dinner roll: I think it’s actually really hard to find good gluten-free dinner rolls. Out of all the dinner rolls I’ve tried, I can only think of 2 I actually enjoyed. My favorite of those is BFree soft white and brown seeded rolls. Yes, I know they’re primarily sandwich rolls, but there’s absolutely no reason they can’t be dinner rolls, too. Both of these rolls hold together nicely if you want to slice them down the middle and butter them, and they seriously taste like artisan-baked bread. I was incredibly impressed by these rolls!
Gluten-free macaroni and cheese: I’m a bit of a mac and cheese connoisseur. Every time I see a new gluten-free macaroni and cheese, I buy it and try it. Thank goodness for Lactaid pills—I’m lactose intolerant, but you wouldn’t know it with the crazy amounts of mac and cheese I consume. Annie’s Homegrown Creamy Deluxe Gluten Free Rice Pasta Dinner & Extra Cheesy Cheddar Sauce is my tried-and-true favorite. I love it because it isn’t the kind of boxed mac and cheese that comes with weird powdered cheese sauce mix—it comes with a package of lovely, wet, thick, cheesy cheese that you can mix right into the pasta when it’s done cooking. In terms of taste and texture, this is the gluten-free mac and cheese that reminds me the most of my childhood favorite, Velveeta Shells and Cheese, so of course it’s my current favorite, too!
Gluten-free soup: I’m a big fan of enjoying soup all year long. I love the easiness of it, and I also like that it’s a way to squeeze in a lot of delicious things—like meat, grains and veggies—in one dish. When I have the time, I like making my own chicken rice soup (really easy recipe!). When I don’t have the time, I buy boxed soup from the grocery store. I’m partial to Imagine soups; they have plenty of gluten-free flavors to choose from. All of their Creamy Soups are gluten-free, and I Iove the Sweet Corn, Potato & Leek, and Red Bliss Potato & Roasted Garlic Soup.
Gluten-free cornbread: Cornbread is a tricky thing. You’d think there would be tons of gluten-free cornbread out there, since the term is “cornbread” and not “wheatbread.” But plenty of cornbreads are not safe for us Celiacs and gluten-intolerants. Luckily, Krusteaz has a fantastic gluten-free cornbread mix that is incredibly easy to make. I’ve actually made cornbread muffins a few times with this mix, and they always turn out great. They’re a great side to have with a gluten-free rotisserie chicken (P.S., if you’re looking for those, they have ‘em at Costco and BJs), and I’ve ever made them as a breakfast item, adding bacon to them for a little extra yum.
Tater tots or French fries: I realize this isn’t the healthiest option, but you can’t always be a gourmet or super-healthy cook on busy nights. That’s why I love Ore Ida’s potato products that you can find in the freezer section of your grocery store. There are many products—like the Tater Tots, Mini Tater Tots, Crispy Crowns, and a variety of fries—that are gluten-free, marked right on the bag. I love that all I have to do is preheat the oven, throw ‘em on a cookie sheet and bake them for 20-25 minutes (depending on the type of potato product it is), and I can walk away to do something else while they cook.
Fruits and Vegetables
Fruit salad: A fruit salad is simple and easy to throw together. You may not even have to buy anything extra to make it—just raid your kitchen to find a few good choices. Dice up an apple from the fruit bowl, throw in a handful of grapes from the fridge, dump in a can of Mandarin orange wedges, slice a banana, toss in a handful of fresh or frozen blueberries…or whatever other fruits you have around! Mix it up and chill it, then serve.
Tip: To prevent your diced apples from browning, sprinkle a little lemon juice over your fruit salad.
Piece of fresh fruit: If you’re not already keeping a fruit bowl on the kitchen counter, now’s the time to start! Tell the kids they can pick a piece of fruit for their dessert, and offer a selection of fruits that don’t have to be refrigerated, like apples, pears, oranges, grapefruits, tangerines, and bananas.
Applesauce: There are sooooo many applesauce varieties that are gluten-free! From unsweetened to flavored, there are always lots of choices available!
Money-saving tip: If your family enjoys applesauce often, buy larger jars of it instead of individual servings. Not only can this save you money, but it cuts down on the packaging waste!
Side salad: Depending on the time you have available to make a meal, you could literally spend ten seconds or ten minutes making a side salad. If you need to go the super-quick route, open a bag of prepackaged salad greens and dump them into a bowl. If you have a little more time, slice or dice tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers to add to the greens, and shred some carrot. Serve with lemon juice, or olive oil and vinegar.
Gluten-free tip: Beware of prepackaged “salad kits.” If they come with regular (non-gluten-free) croutons, they’re not gluten-free. And remember that gluten often hides in sauces and dressings! Instead of buying a salad kit, always make sure you have your own safe-to-eat dressing on hand along with some fun toppings, like nuts, dried fruits or shredded or Parmesan cheese.
Steamed vegetables: We go through a seriously ridiculous amount of bags of steamed frozen veggies at my house. I love them because they’re so easy to make—put them in the microwave for a few minutes and then they’re done! An easy and healthy addition to any meal. I’m partial to Birds Eye green beans, mixed vegetables, and super-sweet corn.
Gluten-free tip: Choose bags of steamed vegetables that are just veggies, with no seasonings or sauces.
Roasted vegetables: Meat and potatoes aren’t the only things you can roast! This easy roasted veggie recipe will give you a tray of colorful, healthy, and tasty roasted veggies in just 30 minutes.
Crudites: This sounds super-fancy, but it really just means cut-up veggies. It will only take you ten minutes to cut up some celery and carrots that you can use as an appetizer or side dish with any meal.
Freezer veggie medley: This is a nice name for “take all those bags of half-eaten veggies from your freezer, dump them in a pot with water, stir, heat, and serve.” It’s a great way to use up that 1/3 bag of frozen peppers, ½ bag of corn, ¼ bag of carrots, and those five lonely pieces of zucchini that were left in the bag.
Vegetable-based broth soup: A veggie-based broth soup is a nutritious choice that can help you stay fuller for longer, which can help you avoid overindulging at the dinner table. I love this recipe for vegetable broth made from kitchen scraps, and it’s naturally gluten-free!
Fruit or veggie muffins: You’re probably thinking—what? Veggies in muffins? Oh yes. That’s what Garden Lites—one of my very favorite makers of delish gluten-free foods—does so well. They have fruit- and veggie-based muffins that taste so good your kids will never know there’s all sorts of nutritious stuff in there! For example, their Chocolate muffins taste like a dessert food (and Garden Lites snuck both zucchini and carrots into them!), and their Broccoli and Brown Rice Veggie Bites are savory, flavorful little green muffins that make an amazing side dish. Every Garden Lites muffin I’ve tried, I’ve loved.
Frozen fruit pop/sorbet: For a quick and easy dessert, pick up fruit-based frozen pops at the store (I like Edy’s frozen fruit bars). Or, you can make your own, using fresh fruit and white grape juice—here’s the recipe and a video tutorial!
Meal Combination Ideas
Looking for fun and simple meal combos? Check out these ideas!
Breaded gluten-free chicken + gluten-free pasta + side salad
Pizza with meat and/or cheese + roasted veggies + applesauce
Gluten-free sandwich + soup + salad
Hot dog + tater tots + steamed vegetable
Grilled chicken breast + quinoa + roasted veggies
Burger + roasted potatoes + piece of fresh fruit
Tuna fish + macaroni and cheese + fruit salad
Grilled chicken + mashed potatoes + fruit/veggie muffins
What gluten-free dinner are you most looking forward to making? Let me know in the comments below!
Disclaimer: Some of the products mentioned in this article were provided to me for review purposes. This did not influence the article in any way; my opinions are my own. If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t cover it here. See my personal disclaimer for more details.