It started out as an office joke, then turned into a dare: Eat only dollar store food, and see what happens.
All eyes fell on me, the one with a toaster oven close by at work. More gourmand than gourmet, accepting the challenge was the only way to stop the jokes: He'll eat anything. He's going to regret this.
But even a trip to culinary purgatory has its serious side. Is dollar store food really less expensive? Can it be healthy? And how does it taste?
At the Dollar Tree in Brandon, my heart sank faster than a poorly made cheesecake. Say goodbye to fresh vegetables, some dairy products and fresh protein. But there was a ray of hope: a bigger dollar store, with a decent selection of frozen and refrigerated items. Maybe this wouldn't be a food re-education camp after all.
Yet the landscape is different — obscure brands, smaller packages, a few oil-based products and some foreign-made food. Less than 20 miles from Plant City, the frozen strawberries come from China. Authentically, so do the canned mandarin oranges. The German potato salad is from upstate New York. Clam chowder hails from Pennsylvania. There's even "sourcreme" (Unreal! the label exclaims). Indeed, it's not sour cream but an oil-based "sourcreme." Lurking nearby is a bag of "American shreds," another oil-based food that resembles shredded cheese. Just don't call it cheese. They don't.
It's the first question everyone asks: So how was it? The simple answer: mostly average, with a few surprises — good and bad. Some items are just duds: nacho cheese with a chemical burn aftertaste. Honey-nut oat cereal that lacks a bold honey note. Flavorless canned chicken that is mashed into tiny bits and swimming in brine. Frozen blueberries and strawberries that are suitable only for smoothies, and barely that. Clam chowder with almost no sign of clams.
Most everything else falls into the average category. Sardines, canned tuna, and chicken-flavored rice are indistinguishable from their store-brand counterparts. For some of the packaged goods, it isn't what's in the box or can, it's what's missing. Jambalaya mix lacks the traditional punch of Zatarain's. The boxed pasta salad mix offers a thin dressing that's short on flavor. Despite being a bargain, dollar store cream cheese doesn't deliver the tang of better-known brands.
Still, there were some pleasant surprises. The $1 rib eye steak was tender with a deep, meaty flavor. Maybe it was the up to 30 percent "enhancing solution." Or the pineapple-based tenderizer. Just don't pretend you're getting a real steak. It's almost sandwich-style thin, but could be parlayed into a great cheesesteak.
Other things worth buying include peanut butter (a great bargain, and almost indistinguishable from Jif), deli-style pepper jack cheese, frozen pancakes, and shelf-stable milk that rivals the refrigerated variety.
Here's where it gets tricky. To hit the $1 threshold, packages are sometimes smaller. Five mozzarella sticks for $1 is no bargain. That $1 steak seems like a steal. But at 3.8 ounces, it comes to $4.20 a pound —- about the price of supermarket sirloin when it's on sale. Same goes for the 4-ounce, $1 barbecue pork patty. Supermarket pork chops can be had for less.
In the end, the value largely depends on the item. Walmart trumps the dollar stores for canned vegetables and tuna, while dollar stores have the upper hand on pantry staples such as peanut butter and cereal.
A good shopping strategy is comparing prices to package sizes, says Nan Jensen, a nutritionist with the Pinellas County Extension Office.
"People need to be aware, and be price-savvy," she says. "The unit price (at a dollar store) may be more than at Walmart."
Is it healthy?
Ask Jensen about dollar-store dining, and she admits to being intrigued. Plan in advance, shop carefully and take a few extra steps and it becomes doable. Don't look askance at boxed milk, she says. Nutritionally, it's mostly equal to the refrigerated variety.
"Honestly, I don't think there's a big difference between store brands and what you'd find in the dollar store," Jensen says.
Still, there are adjustments. Canned meat and fish should be rinsed to clear out excess sodium, Jensen suggests. Spices are inexpensive, but might lack the usual punch, she says. Go for frozen vegetables because, Jensen says, they can be slightly more nutritious and typically have less sodium than canned varieties. (The Canned Food Alliance points to a study published by the University of California at Davis that shows that fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables may be nutritionally similar by the time they're eaten. The Alliance also funded the study.)
And then there's a mental hurdle for some shoppers — unfamiliar brands and foreign-made food. Of all the foreign food imported to the United States each year, just 2.3 percent of it undergoes inspection, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
For shoppers, Jensen suggests a hybrid approach. Get to know the true bargain items at the dollar stores, and augment them with items from the grocery store and farmers markets.
"It's perfectly fine to incorporate (dollar store food) into meals," she says. "If you compare it label to label (with regular brands), you probably won't see a huge difference."
Doug Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3371.