How to Make Healthy Food – Even While Shopping at the Dollar Store

A photo showing ingredients that came from the Dollar Tree dollar store: lentils, canned tomatoes, canned peaches, walnuts, crushed red pepper, ground cumin, cinnamon sugar

I realize multiple privileges I enjoy when it comes to food. For one, I live in an area with easy access to fresh grown food at farmer’s markets and in the grocery store. A variety of fruits and vegetables is plentiful here in Southern Oregon. I also trade web services with a farm just down the street from me (which is where the bulk of my fresh veg and fruit comes from). Even if I didn’t have that trade going though, I could still afford to go to the grocery store and buy fresh produce. Not everyone can. But I don’t want the fact that a ton of the recipes on this site include fresh produce to discourage you from cooking your own meals.

So recently, I kind of traveled back in time (circa early 1990’s) thinking about when I was in my 20s and had to budget about $20 a week on all of my groceries. This is kind of the “origin story” for how I first started cooking my own meals and experimenting with not just healthy eating, but how to make recipes on my own.

Being in Southern California, I still had no problem getting fresh produce at the store, so I was lucky then. And surprisingly, if you’re only buying small amounts of fresh produce, you can do it on a tight budget. I would buy a lot of bags of dried lentils and beans as well as pasta and oatmeal at the 99 Cent store. Back then, for about $5, I’d pretty much have the bulk of my dinners, lunches, and breakfasts covered for the week. I’d also grab cheap spices there as 99 cents per spice was a lot cheaper than the grocery store. Also, the spices last a decent amount of time, so you’re not buying them every week.

At the actual grocery store, I’d look for deals on canned items and then I’d get the fresh produce. Typically, I’d get things like potatoes, yams, carrots, cabbage, onions, regular mushrooms, zucchini and garlic since I could pair those up with the legumes or the pasta. For fruit, I’d often get apples or whatever was on sale. I’d also buy tortillas there (I ate a LOT of burritos back then) and occasionally, eggs. One of the few items I’d splurge on was olive oil. It’s worth saving up for the good stuff and it’s so versatile. Back then I was a full vegetarian as well, so one budget busting item (meat) was off the menu for me anyway.

Warp up to 2023 and all over the country, prices are soaring on food items.

So I really wanted to see if it might still be possible to eat healthy on a very tight budget and maybe no access to fresh produce. I went shopping for groceries at the local Dollar Tree (everything in the store is $1.25). My goal was to get something I could make about 4 meals out of + a healthy dessert type food and spend under $9 (so roughly, $2.25 per meal and that’s counting buying the spices).

I spent $8.75 at Dollar Tree and this is what I got …

  • 1 bag of lentils
  • 1 can of diced tomatoes
  • 1 bottle of crushed red pepper
  • 1 bottle of ground cumin
  • 1 can of sliced peaches
  • 1 bottle of cinnamon sugar
  • 1 small package of walnuts

Lentil Recipe

Easy Baked Peaches Dessert

Nutritional Value

Budget food does not have to lack nutrients or leave you hungry. Fast food and highly processed packaged foods will cost you more money (with nutritional profiles that are often not the best).

Lentils are little power-houses when it comes to packing a nutritional punch. When you combine the cooked lentils with the canned tomato and eat 1 cup of that, here’s what you get:

  • About 300 calories
  • About 18 grams of protein
  • About 8 grams of fiber
  • About 44 grams of complex carbohydrates
  • About 30% of your daily iron intake
  • About 12% of your daily potassium intake
  • A small amount of Vitamin A, Vitamin C and Calcium

For a decently satisfying dessert item, you can combine a half a can of the peaches with some walnuts and a little bit of the cinnamon sugar. That will give you about 200 additional calories, a little bit more Vitamin C, a little bit of the healthy omega 3 fats, and a little something for your sweet tooth.

Other foods that will stretch your dollar…

These other shelf-stable, dry goods, or canned goods that can be versatile, filling and not lacking in nutrition are:

  • Black Beans
  • Oatmeal
  • Bean Soup Mixes
  • Brown Rice
  • Peanut Butter
  • Canned Pumpkin
  • Canned Tuna
  • Canned Mandarin Oranges or other fruit (in juice, not syrup)

Also, I’ve noticed that sometimes you never know what might show up at a place like Dollar Tree. I’ve seen things in jars such as asparagus, mushrooms or olives, for example.

And don’t forget the spices as they truly are the best way to add more flavor to basic foods.

By making your own meals, you are making a conscious choice and empowering yourself.

You don’t need a fancy kitchen. You don’t need a lot of gadgets or countertop appliances. You don’t have to be an expert cook or make complicated recipes. And like almost everything else, it just takes a little practice. Even if you start by making only a single meal a week, it’s better than making no meals. Don’t give up. You can do it.

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