This article is part of a three-part series where we investigate whether it’s possible to create a nutrient-dense, healthy meal plan exclusively sourced from the three most popular dollar stores: Dollar General, Dollar Tree and Family Dollar.
There’s a popular conception that all food from dollar stores is unhealthy, and while much of it is, we’ve found some healthy options that may be useful for Dollar Tree shoppers to look out for.
In this article we’ll give our picks for some of the healthiest options at the Dollar Tree across various food categories, and create a sample healthy meal plan.
How Do We Define Healthy?
Healthy eating is of course a subjective term, because what’s healthy for one person may not be for another. A diabetic may not be able to eat healthy carbs that would suit the average adult.
We define healthy eating as a diet model that’s rich in nutrients, composed of whole foods and free of harmful additives like refined sugar, preservatives or flavoring chemicals.
This diet model has been shown in medical studies to be optimal for the average adult. The basis of most meals are whole grains, legumes, fresh produce, wild-caught fish and animal products sourced from grass-fed animals, as well as seeds and nuts. Eating this type of diet is associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, reduced risk of cancer and improved lifespan according to the above-linked study.
Please note that the pricing used in this article comes from stores in our region (Western Massachusetts), and pricing will vary nationally.
Healthy Fruit & Veggie Picks
There are a decent number of fruit and veggie options at Dollar Tree, and definitely more than at Dollar General.
There is dried, canned and frozen produce to choose from. Here are our picks:
Dried apples: $1.25
Dried bananas: $1.25
Dried mangos: $1.25
Dried pineapple: $1.25
Frozen okra: $1.25
Frozen California blend (cauliflower, broccoli, carrots): $1.25
Frozen peas & carrots: $1.25
Frozen cauliflower: $1.25
Frozen broccoli: $1.25
Frozen asparagus: $1.25
Frozen stir fry blend (carrots, snap peas, yellow bell peppers): $1.25
Frozen spinach: $1.25
Frozen peaches: $1.25
Frozen strawberries: $1.25
Frozen mixed berries: $1.25
Frozen mangoes: $1.25
Frozen banana berry blend: $1.25
As you can see, there is actually a significant variety of produce available at Dollar Tree and the prices are lower on average than at Dollar General. We found 25 different produce options in just one store (including canned options we don't recommend).
Most people think that fresh produce is healthiest, but frozen produce is arguably superior from a nutritional standpoint. Medical research shows that frozen produce is higher in nutrients because the nutritional content is locked in right upon harvest during the freezing process.
We recommend frozen and dried produce over canned produce, as a 2016 medical review found that hormone-disrupting chemicals can leach from can liners into food.
Healthy Animal Protein Picks
Fish is the only animal protein category we recommend from Dollar Tree. Their meat and cheese is sourced from conventionally-raised animals which we know from medical studies to be less nutritious than from pastured animals. Here are the best animal protein options:
Packaged pink salmon: $1.25
Canned sardines: $1.25
Canned mackerel: $1.25
Canned tuna: $1.25
Fish are a great protein source, and are high in omega-3 fatty acids. All of the products recommended above are sourced from wild-caught fish which we believe to be healthier than farmed fish.
Fish probably shouldn’t be consumed more than four times a week to minimize mercury exposure, and we’d recommend limiting tuna intake to twice weekly or less as it’s significantly higher in mercury than sardines or salmon.
Some of the canned fish contained questionable additives like flavoring agents and artificial dye. The salmon was free of these ingredients. We recommend reading ingredient labels and only selecting products free of questionable fillers.
Healthy Carb Picks
Staples like rice and beans should make up the base of most of your meals if you’re shooting for a cheap and healthy meal plan. Dollar Tree has some excellent staple options:
Great Northern beans: $1.25
Pinto beans: $1.25
Long grain brown rice: $1.25
Rolled oats (only in some locations): $1.25
Golden quinoa (only in some locations): $1.25
Popcorn kernels: $1.25
This is a significantly wider variety than Dollar General, and provides a healthy set of cheap carb staples. Dollar General only had rice and beans, so adding oats, popcorn and quinoa adds nutrition, micronutrients and variety.
Many cultures worldwide make rice and beans the base of many of their meals because of its low cost and high nutrition. At these prices, you could have a large meal of rice and beans for under 15 cents.
Healthy Snack Picks
The healthiest snacks at Dollar Tree are whole nuts. Consumption of nuts is shown in medical research to reduce mortality rates for nearly all causes. Here's the price breakdown:
Sunflower seeds: $1.25
Pumpkin seeds: $1.25
Plantain chips: $1.25
Crispy onions: $1.25
These prices for nuts are better than the prices at Dollar General. Dollar Tree also has a plantain chip and crispy onion product that are made with whole foods and are healthy snack choices.
We recommend avoiding all of the candy and other brands of chips.
Healthy Drink Picks
You can find a surprising amount of healthy drink options at Dollar Tree, though some require preparation:
Energy Boost tea: $1.25
Immunity Boost tea: $1.25
Detox tea: $1.25
Peppermint tea: $1.25
Green tea: $1.25
Coffee grounds: $1.25
Espresso coffee grounds: $1.25
Prune juice: $1.25
Red grapefruit juice: $1.25
Apple cider vinegar: $1.25
Once again, Dollar Tree easily beats Dollar General in healthy options for this category.
We don’t agree with the health claims for the tea (“detox”, “immunity”), but they’re just blends of herbal teas with no additives so they’re perfectly healthy.
We recommend using a Brita filter (official Amazon link here) and filtering tap water instead of buying bottled water which is more expensive, worse for human health due to the plasticizing chemicals leaching into water (source), and worse for the environment.
Healthy Cooking Oil Pick
We only recommend one cooking oil found at Dollar Tree:
Refined coconut oil: $1.25
The majority of the cooking oils they have for sale are corn oil and vegetable oil blends. We know from medical research that vegetable oils are associated with inflammation and poor cardiovascular outcomes, so sticking to coconut oil is a safe choice.
Healthy Condiment & Spice Picks
Dollar Tree has a wide variety of spices and condiments that you can use to add flavor and micronutrients to your meals:
Himalayan pink salt: $1.25
Cayenne pepper: $1.25
Crushed red pepper: $1.25
Black pepper: $1.25
Garlic powder: $1.25
Onion powder: $1.25
Yellow mustard: $1.25
Frank’s hot sauce: $1.25
Healthy Vitamin Picks
Surprisingly, Dollar Tree has a decent selection of vitamins and supplements that are free of harmful additives like preservatives and artificial colorings.
Here are the supplements we’d recommend from Dollar Tree:
Fish oil: $1.25
Probiotic acidophilus: $1.25
Vitamin D3: $1.25
Vitamin C: $1.25
We don’t believe that supplements are necessary for everyone; it’s situational. You can get your fish oil from eating whole fish, but supplementation could be a good option for those who dislike and avoid eating fish.
Similarly, you can get vitamin D3 and vitamin C from food, but they’re very safe to supplement and can have profound health benefits, which is why we even cautiously recommend them in our article on the best vitamins for teens.
Sample Healthy Meal Plan
To illustrate how healthy of a diet you could eat from the Dollar Tree products we highlighted in this article, here’s an example meal plan using our recommendations:
Breakfast: Mixed berries and pumpkin seeds with a large black coffee to drink. Vitamin C and vitamin D as supplements.
Lunch: Quinoa and pink salmon cooked with onion powder, pink himalayan salt and thyme, topped with hot sauce.
Dinner: Lentils and rice and asparagus with cayenne and onion powder, with peppermint tea to drink.
The above meal plan is healthier than the vast majority of Americans eat, and can be prepared for well under $10 at Dollar Tree. It goes to show that with proper planning, nearly anyone in the developed world can achieve good nutrition.
A YouTube creator named "Eating Healthy Spending Less" did her own healthy Dollar Tree haul: