Confession time: I love the dollar store. Adore it. Every time I get my hair or nails done I drop in to the nearby 99 cent store (which I love even more than the dollar store for obvious reasons) and cruise the aisles for bargains. The dollar store is the one place you can indulge and not feel guilty about blowing your budget.
It is also an excellent place to stock up on pantry deals.
As someone who comparison shops in their sleep, I can tell you that the dollar store has bargains galore for the frugal cook. My top 20 picks are listed below:
- Pastas. You can often pick up surprisingly large bags of pasta, noodles and shells for a buck. These generally retail for $3.5- to $5 at other stores. Pastas keep for two years or longer and you can indulge and try new shapes, especially for the price.
- Canned tomatoes. Large cans for a buck. Stock up.
- Spices. From dried onions to Italian seasoning blends, you can pick them up for a pittance and not feel guilty when you don’t use them very often.
- Weird stuff. By this I mean almost odd snacks like pork rinds and wasabi peas. If you like stuff like this, get your fix at the dollar store.
- Bake mixes. You can find cake mixes for a buck, same for muffin mixes. I prefer to make my own but you can’t beat the price or even match it making the same at home from scratch.
- Canned pie fruit. As always, I prefer to make my own when fruit is in season but if you have a hankering for a blueberry pie in the dead of winter, the dollar store is the way to go.
- Sprinkles and baked decorations. These are usually expensive, believe me, I know. But nothing is more fun than baking cup cakes with my grandbabies and letting them go crazy with the sprinkles. Cheap fun.
- Toaster pastries. If my daughter is reading this, I state categorically and for the record that I would never give such sugar-filled nonsense to my grandbabies. Of course not. In fact, I don’t even know why we are talking about it.
- Chili. I don’t like canned chili as a rule but it is not a bad idea to keep a few cans on hand that you can rev up with spices and minced garlic to embellish the humble burger.
- Canned pumpkin. Generally available year round and because we often supplement our dogs meals with pumpkin, this is a bargain.
- Pasta sauce. As my partner is fond of saying, his mom used to ‘Pregro’ the heck out of a jar of simple pasta sauce. It’s cheap and the leftovers can be used as a pizza sauce.
- Evaporated milk. One of my partner’s go-to childhood favorites is Stuff on a Shingle (SOS). It is essentially ground beef mixed in with a simple white sauce until it becomes a congealed, gloppy mess. The challenge to this dish is that it generally uses canned, evaporated milk (military issued food supplies have to travel well and last a long time so fresh milk was generally not an option for this in the Army). The choice of evaporated milk is what gives SOS it’s distinctive taste. I think it looks like cement mixed with pebbles but the boyfriend adores it. Go figure. Turns out, your average grocery store jacks up the price of canned evaporated milk during holiday bake season so opt for the dollar store instead. At least the price is stable and often less than a dollar. I get mine consistently for $0.79 a can. Take THAT national grocery store chain!
- Childhood favorites. Hard to find crunchy Bugles and sweet and savory Cracker Jacks these days but the dollar store has got your back if you have a craving for a childhood food memory.
- Ethnic foods. I eat a lot of so-called ethnic foods although here in the Bay Area, I don’t consider Asian or Indian food ethnic, just delicious and very budget friendly. At the dollar store I can often get one-off ingredients such as turmeric or fish sauce for a buck. And I never say no to a new variety of dried Mexican chilis when the price is right.
- Tea. I can often find fun flavors for summer ice tea and the commitment is minor, just a dozen or so bags.
- Small boxes, small commitment. By this I mean if you need a small amount of something, anything from powdered sugar to capers, the dollar store is your best bet particularly if the ingredient is something you don’t use very often or if you only need a small amount.
- Beans and legumes. I confess, I have a strong aversion to canned beans or legumes. This is because you can get five times the amount if you cook dried beans and because canned versions all come packed in what appears to be slime. No thanks. I often buy the small bags of beans and legumes and cook the entire bag in the slow cooker. After setting aside what I am going to use immediately, I cool the rest and pack it all in small freezer bags, enough to each bag for a meal. The freezer bags lie flat in the freezer, freeing up valuable freezer real estate.
- Coffee syrups. This one comes from my dear friend and hair dresser Gina. She loves exotic flavored coffee syrups but they are frankly pricy (expect an entire blog entry on sins and sorrows of the ubiquitous $8 cup of coffee coming soon). Gina therefore gets her coffee kick from the dollar store and saves a bundle.
- Condiments galore. This is where I have to exercise supreme control. From mayo to mustard, honey to those hazelnut spreads with jelly swirled throughout, you can get any number of condiments on the cheap. This is a great choice when you are cooking for a crowd and need a lot of say, pickles, mustard and mayo for that potato salad you are bringing to the family pot luck.
- Individual sized snacks. From gelatin and pudding cups to peanut butter and crackers, you can often pick up munchies that are other wise far too expensive to splurge on. Just be sure and responsibly recycle those wasteful individual little plastic cups. The oceans are in enough trouble as it is.
Coming soon…non-dollar store essentials that can save you big bucks.