McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
With food prices skyrocketing, we put our reporter to the test: Eat nothing but dollar-store food for two weeks. Oh, and it had to be healthful, too. Did she pull it off?
A dollar doesn't go as far as it used to, especially at the grocery store.
Food prices — especially for staples such as eggs, milk and bread — have risen sharply in the past couple of years. And the Department of Agriculture predicts that this year, we'll all spend nearly 5 percent more on groceries than we did last year.
Even if you don't feel it at the cash register, you can't ignore the inflation anxiety. Just a couple of weeks ago, there was Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., waving around a loaf of bread on TV at a congressional hearing to discuss the rising cost of food.
When food prices go up, families are in a pinch, Schumer told the Joint Economic Committee. "And because they have less to spend on food," he says, "what they do buy is often much less healthy."
We're destined to eat unhealthy junk, right? Instead of organic arugula from the gourmet grocery store, we're all going to be stocking up on Ramen noodles and gallons of sugary fruit punch, just because they're affordable.
But hold on a minute. Just what CAN a dollar buy you these days? Can you find healthy options at a discount?
We decided to find out.
The experiment: Shop dollar stores, and nothing but dollar stores, for two full weeks. Eat only the food that can be purchased at the major dollar, 99-cent and closeout retailers. And see if a person with relatively healthy standards can survive — maybe even save — without compromising on quality.
Here is the diary of that experiment.
WEEK BEFORE EXPERIMENT
Announce intentions to friends and family, who are skeptical. To them, dollar-store food means Vienna sausages and generic wafer cookies.
A friend e-mails: "What about vitamins, nutrients, vegetables, fruits and stuff that doesn't taste like sauteed boot?"
Trek to dollar stores to assess the options — and breathe a sigh of relief.
Two major chains, 99 Cents Only and Dollar Tree, have freezer cases with microwavable meals, frozen veggies, milk, eggs, even ice cream. Most stores offer bread — sliced bread, English muffins, bagels, even the occasional French loaf. At 99 Cents Only, there's even a small selection of produce.
There is also, of course, an abundance of Vienna sausages and generic wafer cookies.
Stock up on carrots, bell peppers and individual bags of salad greens. Toss in some string cheese and a box of Ry-Krisp whole-grain crackers. The skim milk expires in a few days, but it's there. This is looking easy.
Still, compromises are necessary.
Italian salad dressing passed its expiration date long ago. Another dressing lists high-fructose corn syrup as a top ingredient. Garbanzo beans? A giant 29-ounce can sells for $1, but they're floating in salt. There are small boxes of Kashi Go Lean! cereal _ impressive, except that the expiration date has passed. Opt instead for Breakfast Choice multigrain cereal.
Upon closer examination, cereal tastes like cardboard.
Create salad using bagged lettuce, garbanzo beans, kidney beans, bell pepper and carrot slices.
Not bad. Eat another salad at dinner. Make another for tomorrow's lunch. This is easy.
Begin to realize that "two weeks of salads" does not make a good, helpful story.
On way home from work, drop by 99 Cents Only. Buy a half-dozen eggs and some shredded cheese. Make omelet for dinner. Feel resourceful.
Haven't found onions yet. Wish for onions.
Life is busy. Planning has gone awry. What will lunch be today?
On way out the door, grab only legal food available: container of leftover canned kidney beans.
Need lunch solutions, quick: portable, healthful foods that can be consumed at office desk. Frozen burritos, frozen pizzas and ready-made tuna salad kits would be easy, and they're plentiful at dollar stores. But they're also not fresh or healthy.
Then again, neither is lunch made up entirely of canned kidney beans.
After work, duck into a Big Lots store — which, yes, is technically a closeout store. Snag a deal on a 9-ounce container of whole, natural, unsalted almonds. After 12 minutes of roasting in the oven, they are a magnificent healthy snack food. All 9 ounces go for $3. Score.
Near-nightly ritual: Stand in aisles of dollar stores, recipes in hand, searching desperately for enough ingredients to make something, "anything." Make up a rule: If three ingredients are missing, it's not worth attempting.
Most recipes are missing four or five ingredients: Chicken. Feta cheese. Onions.
Need a solution. Concoct own soup recipe from items that are in stock: Chicken broth. Frozen vegetables. Pasta. A couple of canned veggies and various seasonings. Sounds like a simple, fresh recipe that will be a lifesaver at lunch.
Excitedly warm up soup at lunch. Newly invented recipe looks delicious, full of pasta and vegetables.
It is terrible.
After work, go back to dollar store. Find potatoes, which is encouraging. For the first time, inspect shelf lined with packaged meats: Spam, sardines and cans labeled "Potted Meat Food Product."
Back away. Am not that desperate. Yet.
Is it a mirage? No. Those are definitely onions. Onions!
There they are, in the back of 99 Cents Only: brown onions, in packages of six. A million problems are suddenly solved.
In fact, the entire produce section has been restocked. Now there are bags of apples. Fresh garlic. Shrink-wrapped packages of cucumbers. Bags of avocados. Little pint containers of "organic grape tomatoes."
Life is good. At Dollar Tree, make another discovery: Frozen salmon and tilapia fillets, individually wrapped, $1 each.
Invite friends over for a weekend dinner; warn that all ingredients will come from dollar stores.
They are skeptical.
Promise to serve salmon instead of potted meat
Scour Internet for fish recipes that might call for ingredients found in dollar stores. There's always some key ingredient missing: scallions, fresh dill, fresh asparagus. Not a single sophisticated-sounding recipe is doable.
Reconsider potted-meat plan.
Onions have opened up a whole new set of options. Use apples, onions, celery, tuna and fat-free ranch dressing to make a serviceable tuna salad. Survive on tuna salad and crackers for two days.
Find Balance Organic energy bars on a low shelf at 99 Cents Only, three for $1. Friend in Houston reports that at her 99 Cents Only store, she has found strawberries. Strawberries! The mind reels.
Fort Worth store has no strawberries.
Am becoming testy.
Different friend tips me off: A woman has recently published a book of recipes that can be made entirely of dollar-store ingredients.
Book is called "The 99 Cents Only Stores Cookbook: Gourmet Recipes at Discount Prices" by Christiane Jory. Immediately head for nearest bookstore and buy it. The options "sound" good, but upon closer examination they seem suspect. Jory has obviously found the same ingredient limitations. Pasta pomodoro requires canned shrimp. Easter ham drizzled with raisin cider sauce is made with Spam and something called "chicken loaf."
Other dishes are sort of dismal-sounding: Hawaiian ham pie, made with canned ham and deviled ham spread.
Friends coming over tonight for Dollar-Store Dinner. Guests arrive hoping dinner will merely be better than potted meat and a Little Debbie snack cake.
Cheat that afternoon: Realize ice is needed, and dollar stores don't carry bags of ice.
Decide to buy ice at a grocery store. After nearly two weeks of being away, grocery store suddenly seems vast and overwhelmingly rich with choice and variety. Aisles and aisles of options. Dozens of cereals. Cascading piles of oranges and pears."Eight kinds of apples."
Buy only ice.
Go home and pull together a dinner that features salmon fillets prepared with olive oil and lemon pepper; baked potatoes; and fresh steamed broccoli.
Appetizers include chopped vegetables, whole-grain crackers and a couple of dips invented at the last minute. And dessert is peach crisp, straight from the pages of Jory's cookbook.
Total cost is about $7 per person, though it could have been far less without deep need to impress friends with excessive appetizers. Friends are surprised. They vow to shop more at dollar stores. Advise them to stock up on onions.
Make final trip to dollar stores.
Suddenly, the selection has tripled. Shelves at 99 Cents Only are bulging with fresh fruits and vegetables. There are radishes. And sour cream.
Realize that this is the game of dollar-store shopping. Items will be there one day, and then they won't. If you want to shop and eat without regrets, you have to be careful and resourceful, and sometimes eat terrifically bad soup.
But it's possible. You just have to work at it, think, and never take the easy route of frozen pizzas and potted meat.
And you have to know when a deal isn't really a deal. And when you do find a deal — the baby carrots, the salmon, the onions — you begin to believe that rising food costs might be manageable after all.
How do some dollar-store staples match up with grocery-store prices?
Check out these comparisons from recent visits to local stores.
ITEM DOLLAR STORE GROCERY STORE
Nature's Own whole-wheat bread, one loaf $1 $2.69
2-liter bottle of Diet 7-Up $.99 $1.59
Bumblebee light tuna in water, 4 ounces $.85 $1.89
Baby carrots $.99, 20 ounces $1.99, 16 ounces
Whole natural almonds, unsalted $3, 9 ounces $4.99, 9 ounces
Organic low-fat lactose-free milk $.99, quart $3.50, half-gallon
Microwave-ready baked potatoes two for $.99 $.99 each
Shredded cheddar cheese $.99, 8 ounces $2.69, 8 ounces
Smart Ones frozen dinners $.99 (two options available) $3.19 (wide variety of options)
Minced garlic $1, 8 ounces $2.99, 8 ounces
Low-sodium chicken broth $.99, two cans $1.59, one can
Lemon pepper seasoning $1 $2.07
Organic grape tomatoes $.99, pint $3.29, pint
Multigrain Cheerios $1, 4.9 ounces $4.49, 12.8 ounces
Pimento-stuffed olives $.99, 11 ounces $2.79, 5 ounces
Dole classic iceberg lettuce mix $.99, 16 ounces $2.59, 16 ounces
South Beach meal replacement bar $.59 $1.99
Balance Gold nutrition energy bar $.99, two bars $1.59, one bar
WHAT'S NOT WORTH IT
These items won't bring you much of a bargain — stock up on them at the grocery store instead.
Eggs: Right now, six dollar-store eggs cost 89 cents. At the grocery store, six eggs cost $1.09. It's cheaper, yes _ but not if you have to make a special trip.
Some produce: The dollar-store produce offerings are limited and vary in quality.
Milk: For a single person (or a family that doesn't use much milk), dollar-store quarts of whole, low-fat and skim milk can be a godsend. But if you've got more than one person drinking milk daily, these smaller sizes aren't a bargain.
Orange juice: This staple is missing from the dollar stores we visited. You'll sometimes find "orange-flavored breakfast beverage," Sunny Delight, or small bottles of Minute Maid. But these options don't beat a sale on the real thing at the grocery store.
Pasta: Yes, the regular pasta is a pretty good deal. But you won't find more healthful brown rice and whole-wheat pasta at dollar stores — at least, not regularly.
Anything you tend to use slowly: Dollar-store items often have a quickly approaching (or already-past) expiration date.
TIPS FOR SHOPPING DOLLAR STORES
1. Watch your expiration dates. Check the date on everything.
2. Pay attention to size: Some items seem like a bargain until you realize they're a slightly smaller size. Cereal, milk and produce, especially, tend to be sold in smaller or trial packages at dollar stores.
3. Pay attention to labels. If it's a brand you're not familiar with, read carefully. Does it contain trans fats? High-fructose corn syrup? Any other ingredient you want to avoid?
4. Pay attention to when your store is restocked. On a Saturday morning, you may find five times the produce you'll find on a Wednesday evening. Talk to the manager or a sales associate and find out the delivery patterns.
5. Don't expect to find every item you want, every time.
6. Don't buy things you don't need just because they cost a dollar. The savings will disappear quickly if you buy extra stuff.
(c) 2008, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Visit the Star-Telegram on the World Wide Web at http://www.star-telegram.com.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.