If you have a big income and access to the world of goji berries and flax seeds at Whole Foods, eating healthy isn’t particularly difficult. But when the conversation turns to eating healthy on a low income, you’ll often hear the term “food deserts” thrown around. Food deserts are defined as neighborhoods (or sometimes entire regions) that lack access to affordable, healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, and they’re often cited as an impediment to eating a healthy diet on a low income.
But many nutritionists will tell you that if you strategize wisely, it’s possible to find healthy options in a place as unlikely as a dollar store.
Yes, many dollar stores do sell food. And it isn’t all random bags of potato chips ― you can find aisles with canned and dry goods and some even have a freezer section. Just because everything costs a dollar doesn’t mean the food is questionable, expired or lacking in nutrition. And depending on where you live, a dollar store might be closer to home than an actual grocery market.
HuffPost asked registered dietitians which foods they’d reach for when shopping at dollar stores.
The obvious (but not-so-obvious) one: fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are usually associated with grocery stores or farmers markets, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find fresh produce at a dollar store. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get your daily dose of vitamins, because there are often plenty of canned or frozen options available.
“Overall, canned or frozen, they’re still vegetables,” Indianapolis-based registered dietitian Chrissy Arsenault told HuffPost. She does prefer the nutritional benefits of frozen veggies over canned varieties, which can include salt or preservatives.
Rebecca Cameron, a trained chef and dietitian, also prefers frozen vegetables for a particular reason: the options. “There is often a greater variety of frozen than canned vegetables,” Cameron told HuffPost. “Dollar stores often have onions and peppers, broccoli, cauliflower rice, asparagus and mixed vegetables.”
If a dollar store doesn’t have a freezer section, Arsenault advises to look for canned options marked “lower sodium.” “You can also rinse out your veggies over a colander several times to try to remove the salt content,” she suggested.
The same goes for fruit. Cameron notes the freezer section has a selection that can range from pineapples to mango chunks to a tropical blend. Not only can these be served up in a smoothie or açai bowl, but they’re not swimming in the added sugar of canned fruit that comes in heavy syrup.
“I’m a huge fan of canned beans,” said Alex Caspero, registered dietitian and co-author of “The Plant-Based Baby and Toddler.” She loves beans for their fiber and protein, and many dollar stores have a few options ― usually black or pinto beans and sometimes even garbanzo (chickpeas).
Caspero also loves beans in tacos or burritos when paired with a few other items. “For an easy meal, grab a bag of tortillas, a bag of shredded lettuce, canned tomatoes and canned black beans for burritos,” she added.
She acknowledges that dried beans are sometimes available at dollar stores, and they can give you more bang for your buck, but “you’ll also need to prepare them, which can be a barrier for some individuals.”
Atlanta-based dietitian and consultant Marisa Moore appreciates both dried and canned beans because they’re also rich in magnesium. For those who do have time to cook dried beans, she suggests making the entire bag all at once and just freezing the remainder for leftover meals.
And for the canned beans? “Rinse [them] under cool running water to get rid of some of the sodium,” suggested Moore, who likes to add her own seasonings to give major flavor without the sodium.
“The best protein choice you’ll find is canned tuna or tuna pouches,” said Arsenault, who teaches cooking classes for families on SNAP, a federally funded assistance program for lower-income Americans. “[Tuna has] a great price point and lots of healthy omega-3 fatty acids that support your heart and brain health.”
Moore echoed, “I like to add canned tuna to salads for an easy meal that takes five minutes.”
Every meal is only as good as its seasoning, and that’s where spices come in.
“You may think that cheaper spices equate to lower quality, but Consumer Reports did a taste test and there was no difference between the pricey and cheap spices,” said Arsenault, who loves to stock up on garlic powder, chili flakes and oregano.
Cameron notes that buying the dollar store variety might be a smarter option than the expensive grocery store variety if you don’t use the seasoning often.
“It might not be worth it to shell out the grocery store prices for a large jar when half will go to waste,” she said.
Ramen (without the flavor packets)
Ramen noodles have become synonymous with those on a limited budget or people who just appreciate the goodness of noodles and a flavorful broth. However, those flavor packets can have more than 60% of your daily dose of sodium.
But there’s no need to ditch the entire packet of ramen. They can come four in a pack at the dollar store and Moore actually calls them a great building block for an easy soup. Simply swap the seasoning packet for a low-sodium broth and throw in veggies, some of which can also be found at the dollar store.
Caspero notes the noodles themselves can also contain a bit of sodium, so up the protein with tofu or spinach to make the meal more nutrient-dense and filling.
Yes, you can make an entire meal from dollar store staples
All of the dietitians stressed that when you’re on a budget and looking for nutritious items, it’s best to search out single items that can work for a variety of meals to truly make your dollar stretch, but also keep you satiated.
If she only had $5 to feed a family of four, Arsenault would opt for canned black beans, salsa, brown rice, a frozen stir-fry mix and canned peaches.
“This $5 meal provides some plant-based protein from legumes, whole grains, veggies and fruits. If you wanted to swap out the fruits for tuna, you could add a little bit more protein here.”
In addition to everyone’s favorite, beans, some of Caspero’s picks for foods that provide the “most bang for my nutrition buck” include peanut butter and rolled oats, which can be incorporated into anything from breakfast bowls to snacks.