How to Shop Smart at the Dollar Store

By Meredith Zomerlei, MS, RD, LDN

It seems like Dollar Stores are popping up everywhere, and with prices rising, more and more people are turning to convenience shops for their groceries. Maybe cost isn’t a factor, but you live in a rural area where the closest grocery store requires a long drive to a neighboring town. It can be challenging to maintain a healthy diet with the Dollar Store as your go-to stop for food and household items…unless you know what to buy!

As a registered dietitian, I wanted to do some research to empower you to make the best possible choices for your health. I’ll take you along with me for a visit to my local Dollar Tree & Dollar General. I will show you what I discovered, and I will give you practical meal ideas with the ingredients I chose so you can make them at home.

Pay Attention to Package Size

The first thing I noticed was the size of the packaging at the Dollar Store. It is often much smaller than what you would find at other grocery retailers. In order to keep their prices lower, they will often reduce the size of their packaging. To get the best bang for your buck, go for the bulk items rather than the convenient individually packaged ones.
For instance, choose canned tuna in water over the ready-to-eat pouches. Similarly, choose the larger container of oatmeal versus the individual instant packets. However, if convenience is more important to you and will help you to eat more nutritious foods, go ahead and purchase that smaller serving!

Start in the Freezer Section

Although convenience stores rarely carry fresh produce or meat, I was able to find a nice selection of healthier foods in the freezer section. Frozen vegetables are harvested at peak ripeness and don’t tend to have added salt like the canned varieties. I was able to find unique mixed vegetables like celery, onion, parsley, and bell peppers. This would be a great thing to have on hand for a soup base! They also had frozen okra, peas, green beans, and more. If you buy canned vegetables, look for the “reduced sodium” or “low salt” varieties.

For fruit, the key is to look out for added sugar. I was amazed that the Dollar Store carried frozen mango without any added sugar! They also had frozen blueberries and strawberries. A mix that would be very convenient for breakfast is the bag of banana, mango, pineapple, and papaya. That is a perfect starter for a smoothie. If you like to keep canned fruit on- hand, try to find fruit canned in “100% juice.” If that is not an option, your next best choice is fruit canned in “lite” syrup.

Healthier protein options can be fewer and farther between in the freezer section, but I found wild-caught salmon, cod, chicken breast, and cooked shrimp. These are all good options. I also saw a ham steak, but keep in mind the higher sodium content. Canned tuna, salmon and chicken are good options as well. Look for them to be canned in water versus oil. If your store has a refrigerated section, eggs are another high protein option.

Choose Dried Goods over Canned

Looking for another protein option? Beans can be a great food group to incorporate in your diet! At the Dollar Store I visited, the selection of dried beans was impressive. There were 1-lb. bags of pinto beans, great northern beans, black beans, and lentils. Don’t let dried beans intimidate you. All you need to do is soak them overnight and cook them the next day! Cooking them in a crockpot is also a great option. If you need to grab canned beans for convenience, then make sure to rinse them before you eat, as this will reduce their sodium content. Lastly, a shelf-stable product that I was surprised to find was gnocchi. This is a pasta-like dish made from potatoes and would be a nice addition to your pantry.

Look for Whole Grains

The two stores I went to had brown rice which is a nice whole grain choice versus white rice. When choosing bread, look for 100% whole wheat. Oatmeal or grits are other healthy options when shopping at the Dollar Store.

Better-for-You Snacks (and dessert!)

  • Nature’s Bakery Fig bars, Kind bars
  • Popcorners, Skinny Pop, Boom Chicka Pop
  • Cinnamon apple chips, freeze dried fruits with no sugar added
  • Veggie chips or straws
  • Beef jerky
  • Raw or lightly salted nuts, dry roasted edamame, sunflower kernels
  • Nut Thins crackers
  • Outshine no-sugar-added popsicles

Pantry Staples

  • Shelf stable unsweetened almond milk
  • Shelf stable low-fat milk
  • Shelf stable oat milk
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Olive oil
  • Assorted spices
  • Stevia in the raw

Breakfast Ideas

  • Greek yogurt or low-fat yogurt with frozen blueberries on top + 1 fig bar
  • Over-easy egg on whole wheat toast + glass of unsweetened almond milk

Lunch Ideas

  • Seasoned lentils on a corn tostada + cauliflower rice + salsa verde
  • Tuna melt on whole wheat bread + peas

Dinner Ideas

  • Pesto Gnocchi Salmon Sheet Pan Dinner
    • Bake gnocchi at 425 degrees for 15 min. Add seasoned salmon to the same sheet pan as gnocchi & bake for an additional 15 min. Add baked gnocchi to a bowl and mix with pesto to taste. Serve with the frozen Santa Fe mix of corn, black beans & red peppers.
  • Shrimp Fried Rice
    • Cook brown rice according to directions. Sauté the freezer mix, stir fry blend vegetables, with a little olive oil in a large frying pan. When cooked through, add thawed shrimp, 1 egg & cooked rice. Sprinkle Creole seasoning over the dish to season.

Final Thoughts

Next time you are at the Dollar Store, try out some of these shopping tips to enjoy foods that meet your nutrition needs all while remaining tasty, affordable, and convenient. With a few small tweaks to your shopping habits, you’ll have your family eating better and feeling healthier.

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