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Frugal Guinea Pig: Dollar Store Dining with Food Items & Products – Worth the $1?

By Kira Botkin

dollar tree grocery shoppingAs the Frugal Guinea Pig, I strive to bring you reports on what’s new and exciting in the world of bargains.

Today’s experiment addresses whether buying food at the dollar store saves you money – and if what you buy there can even be considered edible food.

I love dollar store items like plastic flatware and toys, but I’ve never actually bought the food before this experiment. My local dollar store (i.e. Dollar Tree, where everything truly is $1) has a decent selection of food, much of it name-brand. It leans heavily towards snacks (cookies, chips, crackers) and cereal, with not much in the “things for dinner” category. There are signs everywhere proclaiming that the food is “guaranteed fresh!” which is, I suppose, intended to reassure you that nothing is about to expire or is a last-season reject. Indeed, none of the food I bought was close to expiration. The store did have a small dairy case, but I did not venture there.

One thing that I immediately noticed was that many of the items, especially brand name foods, weren’t actually much of a deal on an ounce-by-ounce basis. There was just less in the package. The chips and snacks you got in a bag for $1 were exactly like the snacks you get at a gas station for $1 – not a good value! The Dollar Tree did have good prices on some snacks, but the prices on regular food were close to what you could get at the grocery store by watching the sales or using free discount grocery coupons (i.e. extreme couponing).

For this experiment, I recruited three friends to try the food and give it a rating. The scale went from 1 (horrible) to 10 (very good, indistinguishable from brand-name). All of the food I bought was non-brand-name and was fresh, unexpired, and unopened. Each of these items cost, you guessed it, $1.

Breakfast

Honey Pops

honey pops cereal boxThis cereal looked like miniature Corn Pops on the box and like miniature Kix in my hand. They were disconcertingly shiny. Quotes from our testers:

  • “Seems stale.”
  • “Extremely sugary – tastes like it has a lot of high fructose corn syrup.”
  • “It tastes like icing and is too crunchy.”

Due to the high sugar content (14 grams per 3/4 cup, as compared to 12 grams per 1 cup for the Boo Berry I had handy) the cereal had an odd feeling on the tongue, like it was, well, covered in corn syrup, which it probably was. We didn’t eat it with milk, but given the way it disintegrated on the tongue, it probably would disintegrate even faster in milk. There was no redeeming nutritional value other than starch.

Average score: 3.75

I’d eat it if there were nothing else in the house, but I wouldn’t buy it again. And at $1 for only 7 ounces, I’d be way better off buying generic cereal at the grocery store.

Fruity Hoops Bars

These were knockoff cereal-and-milk bars that looked like Fruit Loops on the box and like smashed-up Fruit Loops out of the box. The box contained four small bars which separated from each other easily, all the better to see the basically nonexistent “milk” layer.

  • “The pieces are all smashed!”
  • “This is sticking to my teeth.”
  • “They taste stale and cloyingly sweet.”
  • “I’d eat this if I were starving, or 3 years old.”

fruity hoops cereal bar

Three of the four of us did not finish our bars – the fourth said he was not aware that not finishing his sample was an option. None of us wanted more. This also had no nutritional value, and at only 100 calories with no fiber, it wasn’t much of a breakfast.

Average score: 1.75

Nobody wanted to take the leftovers home, although plans were discussed to sic these on friends we’d like to torment.

Snacks

“Cheese Crackers”

cheddar cheese crackersThese were clearly intended to be knockoff Cheez-Its. I love Cheez-Its so I was hoping these would be good, since the real thing is kind of expensive. It was not to be. The only way in which they resembled cheddar was the color.

  • “They seem like they have too much flour in the recipe.”
  • “Are you sure these aren’t stale? They’re mushy yet stale at the same time.”
  • “There’s a funny aftertaste, like cleaning products, or really old cheese.”
  • “They’re mushy, flavorless, and not salty enough.”

Average score: 3

Despite the promises of cheese, they really didn’t taste anything like cheese, or really, like anything. They had a consistency like they’d been left to go stale in a humid room.

dollar store snacks

“Wheat Crackers”

baked wheat crackersThese were clearly knockoff Wheat Thins. When we took them out of the box, one person wondered if they weren’t produced by the same factory, since they looked exactly like our reference Wheat Thins. The dollar store also had some in a couple different flavors. This was the clear winner of the night.

  • “Not bad!”
  • “They look the same as the regular ones.”

We all voluntarily ate more of these crackers. They were darn tasty and I will probably finish the box. However, when we compared the nutrition labels, the knockoff had 3 grams of saturated fat to the brand name’s 1 gram, and the brand name had more fiber. So if I subsisted on Wheat Thins I might buy the brand name ones, but given how much more expensive they are, I’ll probably stick with the knockoffs, especially for a party.

Average score: 9

They were pretty much as good as the brand, so the differing nutrition stats were odd since they tasted almost the same. Side by side, I don’t know if I could tell them apart.

Dinner

Macaroni and Cheese

This was comparable to “deluxe” Kraft macaroni and cheese because it included a packet of cheesey sauce, so you didn’t need to have butter and milk on hand. However, a box of regular Kraft usually costs $1 anyway and feeds twice as many people (this was only 2 servings). We ate all of it, but that could be because it was the first item to be sampled. It wasn’t that bad, and we were all very hungry.

  • “This is really salty.”
  • “That’s kind of an unnatural color – kind of radioactive looking.”
  • “There is a slightly disturbing flavor, like a chemical undertone to the cheese flavor.”

dollar store macaroni and cheese

The cheese was much saltier than the Kraft version, and I had to put in a little water and keep the macaroni pot on the stove in order to get the cheese to actually spread around. It also started solidifying almost instantly, so you’d better eat quickly. It was okay, but I don’t think I’d buy it again since it’s not actually cheaper than Kraft.

Average score: 5

A solid “meh.” Noticeably worse than the brand in taste, value, and nutrition. While you can put skim milk in Kraft dinner, this stuff contained a ton of fat and calories and no nutritional value (not even much calcium, since the cheese isn’t actually cheese).

Instant Mashed Potatoes

I bought and fully intended to prepare a box of mashed potatoes, but only once I got home did I notice that it needed not only water, but also butter, milk, and salt. I’m surprised it didn’t also ask you to put in potatoes! With that many ingredients, it was actually more expensive than the just-add-water varieties at the grocery store, and of course way more expensive than real potatoes. The flakes might be good for breading chicken, but since we had no milk, we did not test the potatoes.

Dessert

Miniature Peanut Butter Cups

mini peanut butter cupsDollar stores generally carry a dizzying variety of things that contain sugar. Candy, cookies, snack cakes, even those Dutch butter cookies that come in adorable tins. I selected this particular item because I love peanut butter and chocolate together and I fully expected to eat the rest of the bag myself. But the peanut butter cups did not love me back. I actually gave this my lowest score of the night, because they were so waxy they made my stomach upset.

  • “They taste like they’re half wax.”
  • “There’s just a thin layer of chocolate, and the rest is peanut butter, but you can’t taste the peanut butter much.”
  • “The chocolate is okay, but the peanut butter is not.”
  • “These have absolutely no resemblance to Reese’s.”
  • “I guess you could put them in cookies…”

They were bad. I wondered if I’d grabbed the sugar-free bag by mistake (the dollar store did carry sugar-free candies) but no, they contained plenty of sugar.

Average score: 3.5

Everyone but me thought they were tolerable but they’re definitely not worth buying again. Plus, the bag was kind of small, even for $1, so you weren’t getting much of the terrible candy.

Lessons

Although a lot of the food at the dollar store was brand name, it’s worth doing some comparison shopping for items you use a lot because they’re not always cheaper per ounce or item. If you have kids, taking them to the dollar store is like releasing them into Sugar Wonderland because there’s a ton of colorful, high-sugar foods and very little from the Land of Good For You. Some of the knockoff food is okay, but you’d need 2 or 3 packages to feed a family on this stuff since there’s usually less in the box than there would be if you buy generic at the grocery store.

However, if you like to try new things (as I do), the dollar store is a good way to try a variety of snacks for less than you’d spend at the grocery store. Be prepared to get some real stinkers in with the decent stuff, though.

Verdict

I’d buy dollar store snacks for the occasional treat to put in kids’ lunchboxes, but for regular everyday food, it just doesn’t cut the mustard. You’re better off financially and nutritionally just keeping an eye on the sales at your grocery store.

What about you? Have you bought any food items from the dollar store before? What has your experience been like?

Kira Botkin
Kira is a longtime blogger and serial entrepreneur who enjoys gardening, garage sales, and finding stray animals. She lives in Columbus, Ohio, where football is a distinct season, and by day runs a research study for people with multiple sclerosis. She hopes that the MoneyCrashers team can help you achieve your goals and live a great life.

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  • http://www.moneybeagle.com Money Beagle

    We’ll usually stick to cleaning supplies at the dollar store as there can be some deals here if you get the right stuff. Food just seems too sketchy to buy regularly.

  • http://chattywomen.com/pennythoughts Hedy

    Does your Dollar Tree accept coupons? Mine here in MA doesn’t.

    • Kira Botkin

      The one near me doesn’t, and Google says that none of them do. I’m not surprised – but how fun would that be!

  • http://stretchyourdollarwaukesha.wordpress.com/ Skirnir Hamilton

    I usually buy soap, bubble bath, batteries, greeting cards that I can’t find preboxed, and some Austin type cheese sandwich crackers. Thank you for trying some of the other foods, and letting us know what others thought. I just don’t find the cereal and snack bars, etc. that well priced. I did buy some of the peanut butter granola bars once and they were okay, when I can’t find a good sale on the name brand ones. Dollar stores do have their uses, but food is not on the top of my list to buy at a dollar store.

    • Kira Botkin

      It’s interesting you mention the sandwich crackers – I take Austin peanut butter sandwich crackers sometimes in my lunch, and I was really excited to find them at Dollar tree, until I realized there were only 6 packets in the box for $1, as opposed to 8 packets for $1.19 at Kroger or $1 at Big Lots. Shoot.

  • Kevin Vesga

    I wouldn’t mind getting food at the dollar store, but I’d generally stick to brand name products.

  • http://firstgenamerican.com First Gen American

    The only time I ever venture into the dollar store is if I need some party favors or stocking stuffers. I completely agree that the prices are no better than if you went to the store and shopped sales. I even got tricked by a sales flier once on laundry detergent and then when I got to the store I realized it was a smaller size than the one I usually buy. Deceptive packaging is surely a key to their success.

    I buy almost all name brands these days. I keep trying the store bought stuff but am almost always disappointed with the results.

  • http://frugalbohemian.blogspot.com Olivia

    I was wondering if your testers were aware upfront these were dollar store items and if you did a blind test with a name brand counterpart. That might be a fairer way to test them out.

    • http://www.moneycrashers.com Kira

      The testers were quite aware these were dollar store items and we did not do a strict side by side comparison. For a lot of the items, though, it was pretty evident that they were not high quality and the real comparison might have been to the cheapest generics in a regular grocery store. Even the dog wouldn’t eat the cheese crackers. :)

  • Saduenas

    I don’t know when this post started but I bought Froot loops the dollar tree brand and it tasted like cleaning products. I was trying to eat them thinking nothing but then I was like god these taste awful and it scared me that it tasted so bad I thought I was going to get sick cause my stomach started hurting after I ate them. I threw them out. The only time I buy cereal is usually when they have the name brand bog boxes which is rarely. I usually just get junk food when im in a rush or just junk in general. I have spent 5 dollars before and made dinner.

  • http://www.facebook.com/onalise.mcmahon Onalise McMahon

    I have never once bought instant potatoes that didn’t need milk, butter, and salt…

    Did you actually think you could just pour water on them and boom, dinner?

    You’re not eating out of an MRE pouch…..

    • Kira Botkin

      My selection of items was pretty random. But there is no reason other than cost to not put salt and dehydrated milk in the packet with the potatoes. One can indeed purchase instant potatoes that require only water and vegetable oil to be palatable.

  • kim

    they are getting a lot more “name brand” items in now, but a lot of them are on the small side. but i find that its perfect for our budget and we don’t have to worry about it going to waste. right now we have a 7 month old and $25 of our budget goes to formula once a week. (don’t get me started on toiletry week where we have to get diapers + toilet paper + paper towels). I buy a lot of food at dollar tree that is just enough for my meal plan for the week. other stuff i get at walmart or somewhere thats having a deal. the poptarts are pretty good and the frozen veggies are excellent. I tend not get any of the snack stuff 1) cause i’m on a diet and 2) i know they won’t be 100%…although i found out they have flaming hot cheetos and i’m like yay! but it all depends on what you are looking for. you can get by on making a meal with it, but of course don’t expect it to be a gourmet dinner. i’ve done plenty of meals out of dollar tree foods and all of them are amazing – granted, i use a lot of spices too.

  • jayne

    Certain food products are 1/3 of the cost. Bottled lemon juice, for starters. Bought some today and the sell by date is 2015. Perfect for lemon in tea, lemon in water, or lemon in recipes, and I gave up my $6 a week habit of whole lemons at the supermarket to $3 bottles of juice at the supermarket, to the dollar store. Some of their frozen fruits are great – even on a per pound basis I’m saving between $2 to $4, 5 or more per pound. I also think the LA’s Awesome products really work quite well. Their floor cleaner took care of the inside of my oven in an instant without fumes. Rope toys for dogs, greeting cards, plastic food storage, cling wrap and aluminum foil and pans so much lower. My dollar tree accepts coupons, so everyonce in awhile I end up with even better deals. It’s kind of a first stop shop – five minutes to pick up what you generally use before going to the supermarket. Unless I listed it above, I haven’t bought anything else there though.

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