I just paid rent, got an unexpected speeding ticket, and my bank account is looking grim. My love of (expensive) food is not helping. While I'm a careful spender, that seems to fly out the window at the chance to eat at a fancy restaurant or cook an elaborate meal. Eggs Benedict? Take my money.
I know I'm not the only one in this position, so for the sake of journalism and my wallet, I committed to a potentially difficult challenge: I will only eat dollar store food for the next week.
I feel like I should start with some context here: I am an especially healthy eater. I have a love for leafy greens and fresh fruit that knows no bounds. I legitimately get cranky if I go too long without eating a vegetable.
Going into this week, I know I'll have to leave my beloved fancy fresh produce in the past. However, in that realization I've discovered a chance to be creative. I will not sit back and eat ramen noodles three meals a day—where's the fun in that? I'm committed to eating as healthy as possible this week, albeit at a discounted price.
Sunday afternoon, I finally make my way to the Dollar Tree, where everything is actually a dollar, (looking at you, Dollar General. You can keep your $4 laundry detergent). I walk in, march straight past the seasonal decorations that I'm usually distracted by and head to the food section. Honestly? I'm pleasantly surprised. After 45 minutes of carefully roaming the aisles, checking ingredients (and expiration dates) on labels, and meal planning, I have the supplies for five days of breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.
Using a combination of creativity and caution, I'm fully equipped for the week and nothing in my cart even looks that questionable. I also did not purchase any dairy or meat products. The total: $35.09. I typically spend $70-$80 at the grocery store, so I'm actually stoked. Factoring out the cost of snacks, some quick math puts me at an average of under $2 for every meal this week.
I'm starting out Monday with a hearty bowl of oatmeal. This tub of oats appealed to me because I really don't see how it's possible to mess up pure oats.
I topped the oatmeal with a few thawed blueberries, sliced almonds for added protein, a little bit of honey, and these Coconut Beach Honey Coconut Chips. These chips are advertised as gluten-free, dairy-free, non-GMO, no preservatives, and never fried. I was surprised to find them in the Dollar Tree, but scooped them up for some added crunch in my morning oatmeal. This meal was incredibly filling and cost under 50 cents.
I ended up eating lunch late because of how filling breakfast was. Of course, ramen has to make an appearance in this article. However, I ditched the seasoning packet in ramen and instead cooked it with frozen mixed vegetables, roasted red pepper flakes, onion powder, garlic powder, salt, and pepper (I am allowing myself basic spices that I already have in my cabinet, let me live).
I had an elaborate dinner planned, but unfortunately was unable to cook it due to an appliance malfunction in the kitchen. Ah, student living. I settled on eating leftover ramen from lunch and some Welch's fruit snacks. Not an especially healthy end to the day, but that's okay.
Tuesday begins with my typical morning ritual of checking social media while still under the covers in bed. As I habitually click on the Food Network Snapchat, I realize I've made a big mistake. On the screen, Bobby Flay looks back at me enthusiastically presenting avocado toast three ways. Three different types of avocado toast. My stomach yearns for fresh produce.
Here is my breakfast, inspired by Bobby Flay rudely tempting me with avocado toast so early in the morning. I thawed out some frozen strawberries in the microwave to make peanut butter strawberry toast, drizzled with a little honey. The warmed berries are especially sweet, making this toast taste exactly like PB&J without the added sugar in jelly.
I paired it with a packet of fruit puree, which claims to hold 1 1/2 servings of fruit. The taste was underwhelming, but I liked telling myself I was starting the morning with real(ish) fruit.
For lunch, I needed something portable that I could prepare at work, so I went with Campbell's Organic Soup and a Nature Valley Bar. For dinner, I planned to cook. Instead, I stress ate Whales cheese crackers while watching the election.
I woke up very hungry today due to skipping dinner last night, so I decided to repeat Monday's breakfast with a filling bowl of oatmeal. On Wednesdays, my schedule is relatively free, so I decide to prepare an elaborate lunch of black bean tacos. These were delicious!
To make these tacos, I first placed the frozen bell pepper mix onto a sheet pan, coated them in olive oil and chili seasoning, and let them roast in the oven. Yellow rice already has amazing flavor, so there was no need to season it. The corn and beans were both simply heated in a skillet with salt and pepper. All of these ingredients were from the Dollar Tree, including the tortillas, and yet it still felt like a fresh and flavorful meal.
Dinner is far less photogenic, but equally tasty and filling. I paired leftover yellow rice with roasted potatoes and steamed broccoli. This is a very simple, yet comforting meal.
Today I work 8 am to 4 pm, so both breakfast and lunch have to be easy and portable. I finish off a fruit puree pouch and Nature Valley granola bar on my drive to work for breakfast, and brought a Tupperware of leftover taco filling (rice, beans, corn, peppers) to heat up and eat for lunch.
I get home from work to find my roommates have ventured to the new Lucky's Market—a supermarket dedicated to affordable produce who's motto is literally "Where fresh comes first." The fridge and kitchen counters are full of fresh fruits and vegetables. There's a bag filled to the brim with a dozen apples. This feels like heaven and a nightmare at the same time, if that's even possible. I've bragged that I'm doing fine on my frozen food diet, but who am I kidding? Their groceries look incredible.
Although I'm aching for a salad, I whip up a veggie-packed pasta dish for dinner. I cooked pasta and steamed spinach, then combined both in a bowl with a can Hunt's Fire Roasted Diced Garlic tomatoes. The tomatoes brought in a lot of flavor, so I topped this dish with just a little crushed red peppers and left it at that. It's not the salad I'm yearning for, but it's a flavorful and filling dinner.
The final day! I've almost made it. Today as I eat my peanut butter toast for breakfast, I reflect back on the week:
1. This was a lot easier than expected. While I have attachment issues with fresh produce, I can say with confidence that I enjoyed every meal I ate this week. I feel healthy and energetic. All of the meals were filling and flavorful.
2. I have a ton of leftovers. Seriously, I didn't even come close to finishing all the food I bought. Although $35 for a week's worth of meals is already quite a bargain, I truly believe I could have gone this whole week with just $20 worth of groceries. It's possible, people!
3. While I certainly will be buying fresh produce in the future, I honestly believe I'll be buying dollar store food again. I learned to pay careful attention to the labels and aim for products with as little ingredients as possible. That way you know exactly what you're eating—simpler is better. The dollar store is a great place to buy frozen vegetables/fruit, rice, pasta, canned vegetables, oats, etc.
#SpoonTip: Buy spices at the dollar store. Spices are insanely overpriced at supermarkets, yet you can pay $1 to actually get more of the exact same product because their packages are bigger.
I expected an overdose of preservatives and questionable expiration dates, but this week pleasantly surprised me with satisfying meals and zero stomachaches. If you find yourself pinching pennies, know that it is entirely possible to get by on $20 worth of groceries without sacrificing the quality of your meals. Dollar Store Gourmet—it's a movement. I'm starting it right now.
That all being said, I am more than ready to return to my leafy greens. Kale, I've missed you.