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Creating a healthy menu from discount groceries

Grocery shopping and cooking used to be a real hobby for me.
I shouldn’t say “used to be,” because it still sort of is. Sort of. Deep down, the delight and irrepressible urge to buy unique ingredients so I can experiment in the kitchen remains present.
It is just hidden – hidden beneath the necessities of a busy season as a mom with a toddler and a baby.  Exploratory trips, where I linger and price compare and take a deep dive into ingredient lists, just doesn’t happen anymore.
Last week, however, was a rare exception. For the exclusive benefit of you, my health-minded reader, I made a special expedition with my daughters (3 years old and 7½ months old). We went into the Dollar Store to see what healthy meal options could be procured.
Let’s be honest: Shopping for food at the Dollar Store isn’t necessarily cheaper than at other stores (sorry if I burst that bubble for you). For real deals, a discount grocery store or a bulk food store is your best bet.
Dollar Stores also don’t necessarily contain the variety of fresh healthy foods I would normally recommend in your diet, and they’re actually loaded with many junk-food options that aren’t that great for you.
However, Dollar Stores do offer some healthy options for meals on the fly when you just don’t want to go to the main grocery store or do a big trip. If you know what to look for on a label and how to combine foods for a basic, well-rounded meal, you can actually feed yourself and your family pretty well.
Let’s talk about a few things to keep in mind when shopping for food in general and then walk through what healthy meals you can make for a few bucks out of items you find at the Dollar Store.

Things to keep in mind: Look at ingredients. Even if the item appears quite healthy (especially in contrast to the options next to it), double-check the ingredients. Look for what is at the beginning of the list because that is what is in the food product in the greatest amount by weight.
I found a “fruit and grain” snack/breakfast bar that looked pretty decent on the front of the box. Yet the ingredient list revealed the very first item to be a fruit filling that consisted predominantly of corn syrup. The front label had promised “no high-fructose corn syrup,” but it had corn syrup in it. Still not a good choice. Read your labels.

Dollar Store Menu Options

Breakfast:  Depending on the type of Dollar Store you visit, you will find a variety of options that can work for breakfast. If you need a quick grab-and-go option, try the individual yogurts or cottage cheese. You can pair it with nuts if you need to. Keep the sugar content in mind, though, when looking at yogurts (both the type, like honey, vs. fructose and the amount in grams. I don’t like getting over 10 grams max).
If you want something you can cook (and especially if you’re feeding more than one person), opt for a dozen or an 18-pack of eggs (almost $2-$3).
Additionally, while not the healthiest, high-fiber option, Eggo waffles aren’t a bad choice either, especially if paired with eggs, yogurt or peanut butter. Stay away from the toaster Pop Tarts, granola bars and even “breakfast bars.”
While freezer breakfast burritos might be available, they aren’t of good dollar value if you’re feeding more than one person.   Plus, the ingredient list isn’t always stellar. When designing your Dollar Store breakfast, opt for something with protein and fat.
Also, I don’t recommend smoothie drinks or plain granola bars — too much sugar.

Lunch: Try the simple, ready-mixed tuna or chicken packs (the unseasoned ones are gluten-free, for those who are curious). Purchase a box of crackers or cheese to eat along with, and you would be set. Be careful with the crackers, though. Look for ones that are whole grain and have at least three grams of fiber. If a healthy cracker isn’t available, look for a whole grain, baked chip or rice cake. A simple, protein-filled lunch like this could cost about between $4 and $5 (but remember you bought a whole entire box of crackers for your next lunch!).
For vegan lunch options, try a can of beans for well under a buck. A can of chili is a hair more, around $1.50. (Just remember: If the can doesn’t have a pull-top, don’t forget a can opener!)  A jar of peanut butter to put on crackers or bread would get you several meals. Personally, I am picky about the quality of peanut butter and I didn’t find any that would be my first choice. However, it still is an option for people who aren’t as picky!

Dinner: There are actually quite a few dinner options at the Dollar Store! I was surprised! For around $7, you can easily “make it Mexican” with 10 taco shells, a pound of ground beef, and refried beans.  Adding salsa will push it closer to $10. Or you can forget the taco shells and grab a stack of tortillas or a bag of rice and canned refried beans.
“Make it Italian” by cooking up pasta noodles of your choice with canned spaghetti sauce and ground beef from the refrigerated section. It’s pretty simple but universally pleasing amongst most family members. Remember that you can always make it even healthier and just do the meat and sauce and skip the noodles altogether. (Trust me, you probably won’t even miss them. It’s the other flavors that you are going for!)
Throw together a comforting soup by using the boxed chicken or beef broth (gluten-free was available, which surprised me!). Take one- or two-quart boxes of broth and add your choice of canned veggies (corn, mixed veggie, green beans, etc). You can even throw in some frozen veggies, too.
Keep it vegetarian by just adding in canned beans of your choice for the protein source or add in ground beef. (Total cost: around $7-$10 for more than two quarts of soup).
I really recommend staying away from cream soups. They are pretty much flour, salt and dehydrated milk with not much else. They are dense in calories but not in essential nutrients that fuel and satisfy you.

There you have it: some healthy meal options to grab from the Dollar Store! My list of potential meals isn’t exhaustive. There were other options like frozen shrimp that would make a great healthy dinner, but it’s a little more on the pricey side.  I wanted to keep it in the “family budget” range.
I learned several new and interesting things on this field trip. I was surprised at the quality of the broths that could be used for soups. I didn’t expect that.
I also didn’t expect to learn that the Sweet Home Police Department will help you unlock your keys from your car. My baby was nearing a poopy-diaper blowout when I exited the store and discovered my keys locked safely in my car. Thanks again to the police officer who spent the time liberating my keys (and who saved me from the diaper blowout!).
For all the busy people who are just trying to avoid the next diaper disaster or get home in time to make dinner, I wish you a safe and delicious summer!
Cathryn Arndt is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) and owns a nutrition counseling business called The Pantry Lab LLC.   She lives in Lebanon, Oregon with her husband and daughters.