Taste test: Can you buy a day’s worth of decent food at Dollar General?

5:32 p.m Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018 Community
Buying a day’s worth of healthy food at Dollar General. (Melanie Bell / The Palm Beach Post)

It’s ironic that I never thought of giant discount chain Dollar General as a place to buy groceries, because for years it’s been my go-to for pretty much everything else. Laundry detergent? Check! Last-minute cheap Christmas ornaments for a holiday gathering? Check! An affordable throw rug to cover the stain I’m trying to hide? Big life-saving check, because that stain was hideous!

Still, it never occurred to me to do my weekly shopping there. But according to a recent story in the Washington Post, I might be the only one.

The Tennessee-based chain, which boasts more than 13,000 stores in the United States, is trying to cement itself as a go-to place for affordable food. It’s added more frozen food and is rolling out produce at select stores. The hook is supposed to be not only price, but convenience: according to the Washington Post article, 75 percent of Americans live within five miles of a Dollar General store (There are five within five miles of me).

That intrigued me - food deserts, areas where healthy food is not readily available and residents don’t have transportation to shop elsewhere, are real. So when it was pitched to me to try to buy a day’s worth of meals from my local Dollar General, I happily accepted.

Before hitting the Dollar General in downtown Lake Worth, I set some parameters. I would try to adhere to the recommendations of the USDA’s My Plate system, allotting a certain amount of food from specific groups, based on a 2,000 calorie diet. I also had to buy things I would normally want to eat, not just have to eat.

I started with the fruit group, which covers 100 percent fresh, canned, frozen or dried fruit. The store I went to had no fresh fruit, but I easily found not only real fruit juices in the cooler and on the shelves, but applesauces and fruit canned in real juice, rather than in some sketchy syrup. I went with mandarin oranges and individual apple juices. I must add that I was impressed not only by the variety but the number of name products rather than cheapie generic brands.

I moved onto the dairy group, in which the USDA includes soy products for people like me who don’t or can’t eat animal proteins (I’ve been vegan since the spring.) That’s not going to work at this particular Dollar General, which doesn’t have soy milk, but I found that others do carry the popular Silk brand. I buy a gallon of skim milk, just to fit the challenge, and note that Dollar General has a lot of choices of fresh dairy, including milk and yogurts.

It’d be hard to be vegan just shopping here, but it’s not impossible. I pick up some chili beans and black beans, which also count for the vegetable group. And carnivores are in luck, as some DG stores carry frozen chicken breasts and even beef. There were a lot of nuts, which are recommended for protein but in smaller portions than other proteins because of their calorie content. There’s always a catch with the yummy stuff, right?

This brings me to the vegetable group, which includes canned, frozen, fresh and dried. Again, there’s a lot of canned options, of both national and house brands. I pick up some canned carrots and a can of Rotel tomatoes with chili peppers, along with a jar of Ragu spaghetti sauce. I usually like to make my own, or wait for Publix to have sales on the fancier brands, but it’s a good compromise. I should also add that Dollar General offers creative ways to combine the groups, like a good selection of yummy soups, frozen meals and frozen pizza.

Next is the grain group, which pings my healthy Spidey sense because I primarily stick to whole grains, or brown rice products, which aren’t plentiful at the Dollar General. So I settle on some store-brand white rice and the more than decent Barilla brand of penne pasta, along with a box of Nutri-Grain cereal bars, which are delicious and which my kid thinks are dessert, so if he has one for breakfast it’s like he’s getting away with something. I’m willing to let him believe that.

I rounded out my trip with essentials - at least for me - that aren’t necessarily on the chart, such as spices (the Clover Valley works just fine) as well as wine. Here’s where I can verify that this particular Dollar General has stepped up its game. The previous wine selection was abysmal, but on this particular visit I found Apothetic Red, a more than decent California blend that got an 88 rating from Wine Enthusiast for its 2014 version and costs less than $11. Cheers!

In all, I spent $38.22, which works out to about $5. 46 a day for a seven-day week, and broke the food into three actual meals and some snacks (see the breakdown and the food groups in the box below).

It was a pretty decent haul, and while the lack of fresh fruits, veggies and alternative protein products like tofu means I couldn’t shop for food at Dollar General exclusively, there’s a good chance that I’ll check it out in the future for staples, and not just on the way to the throw rug section.

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