More People Are Buying Groceries at Dollar Stores. Here’s How to Look for Nutritious Foods

Family Dollar storefront

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Key Takeaways

  • Food costs are expected to rise even more this year despite reports that inflation is slowing down.
  • More Americans are turning to dollar stores for grocery shopping, especially in certain disadvantaged and rural communities, according to a new report.
  • We asked nutrition experts about how to look out for nutritious grocery items at a dollar store.

Despite reports that inflation is slowing down, President Joe Biden acknowledged during the State of the Union Address this week that grocery prices remain high.

Prices are expected to rise on everything from cereal to chicken this year, forcing many consumers to look for affordable alternatives. More Americans are turning to dollar stores for cheaper groceries, according to a recently published report in the American Journal of Public Health.

Most items now cost more than $1 at the largest dollar store chains, including Dollar General and Dollar Tree (which also owns Family Dollar). But most people who shop in these stores still benefit from the low prices, and sometimes, a dollar store is the only grocery option in a community.

Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, PhD, MHA, an associate professor in health policy and management at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said it’s a misconception that dollar stores offer less nutritious grocery options just because they’re cheaper.

The food offerings at dollar stores vary, but many sell affordable shelf-stable products. Some chains, like Dollar General Markets, offer a wider selection of fresh foods. Dollar General also has a “Better for You” series on its website, which features healthy recipes that can be made from products sold at its stores.

Dollar Store Spending Is Growing

Between 2008 and 2020, dollar stores were the fastest-growing food retailers by household expenditure share. Although dollar store spending only represented 2.1% of the national household food purchases in 2020, it plays an “increasingly prominent role” in “certain disadvantaged and rural communities,” according to a new report in the American Journal of Public Health.

How to Shop for Healthy Groceries at Dollar Stores

It’s possible to find healthy, affordable groceries at the dollar store as long as you know what to look for, Haynes-Maslow said. The general rule of thumb is to seek out fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and cereal.

“Depending on what’s available at the dollar store, I encourage people to purchase fruits and vegetables, even if they are canned or frozen,” she told Verywell via an email.

Frozen produce sometimes gets a bad rap, but it can be just as nutritious as fresh foods since these fruits and vegetables are harvested at peak ripeness and frozen quickly to preserve quality, she added.

Grace Derocha, MBA, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics based in Detroit, Michigan, said that canned products may contain more preservatives, but a quick rinse can remove some of the extra salt or sugar on the foods.

Dollar stores can be a good place to stock up on nutritious snacks, like nuts and dried fruit, along with high-quality protein sources like beans, tuna packets, and chickpeas, she added. As a bonus, the liquid that comes with canned chickpeas, known as aquafaba, can be used as an egg substitute in baking, which can help save some money as egg prices remain high.

What Else to Keep in Mind When Shopping at Dollar Store

If you’re trying to save money, pay attention to the packaging, Derocha said. Dollar stores sometimes package foods in smaller quantities, so what looks like a good value might be more expensive per ounce compared to a similar product at a different grocery store.

You may not find everything you want on the dollar store shelves, but you don’t have to be concerned about the quality of groceries. Some of the generic products sold at dollar stores are in fact manufactured at the same factories as name-brand foods, Derocha added.

“We’re paying for the price of the name brand,” she said.

Cheaper food doesn’t mean it’s less healthy, Derocha added. Grocery products at dollar stores are also not necessarily old or expired as some would assume. In general, she explained, dollar stores have different manufacturing contracts with food producers which allows them to offer these products at a discounted price. The trick for shoppers is to look out for quality products as they would in a regular supermarket.

“Most people aren’t getting enough good nutrition in general. We’re not getting enough fruits and vegetables, we’re not getting enough fiber. I always find it ironic when I hear people demonizing things when they’re not nourishing their bodies properly anyways,” Derocha said.

What This Means For You

Dollar stores can be a place to shop for nutritious meals without breaking the bank. Buying in bulk and using store coupons can also stretch your dollar a bit further. However, not all dollar stores carry groceries and some may only offer shelf-stable foods.

1 Source
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  1. Feng W, Page ET, Cash SB. Dollar stores and food access for rural households in the United States, 2008‒2020Am J Public Health. Published online January 19, 2023. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2022.307193