Consumer IQ

Dollar Store Groceries: What to Skip and What to Stock Up On

dollar bills

To cut your grocery bill, it may pay to think outside the supermarket. Specifically, consider the dollar store.

Dollar stores have been offering a wider variety of fresh produce, meats and other groceries in recent years.

True to the name, most items are priced at $1 or less and plenty also take manufacturer coupons. Most recently, the Dollar Tree chain started accepting them.

Grocery offerings at dollar stores vary, which means the quality does, too. Even at a dollar, some products might not be worth your cash.

We asked grocery experts and frequent dollar store shoppers for their take on which are worth testing.

Produce

Verdict: Buy

Prices are low and selection can be varied. It’s easy to find onions, celery, bananas and other staple fruits and veggies — sometimes even organics.

“At my local 99 Cents Only store, they had the 1-pound tubs of Earthbound Organics greens. The same ones were being sold next door at a large organic grocer for $4 to $5 – not 99 cents,” Erika Penzer Kerekes of InErikasKitchen.com.

But the selection gets picked over fast, so make sure you ask when the shipments regularly arrive.

Dairy products

Verdict: Buy — with caution

Amy Reiley, creator of EatSomethingSexy.com, says she’s seen yogurt as cheap as 4/$1 at dollar stores, as well as inexpensive milk, buttermilk and other dairy products.

“Just make sure not to buy more than you can eat before the items expire,” she says. “Dollar store dairy is often close to its expiration date.”

Frozen food

Verdict: Buy

“Frozen fruit at a dollar store seems to be the best price of anywhere, including supermarkets, drugstores, club stores and other alternatives,” says Teri Gault, chief executive of TheGroceryGame.com.

Other name-brand frozen foods can also be a good value, although supermarket prices come close and may even beat them — especially when there’s a sale or a coupon.

Spices

Verdict: Skip

Some spices lose their potency within months, even if they aren’t technically expired. “Some dollar store items are those that didn’t sell well at another store, so you could end up with old spice,” Reiley says.

Baking supplies

Verdict: Skip

“The per-unit price is often more than what you pay buying in bulk,” says Kendal Perez, a deals expert with CouponSherpa.com. “It’s better to buy these items in larger quantities.”

There are potential quality issues, too. Many dry goods at dollar stores come from grocery freight auctions and often aren’t in great condition.

“Staples like baking mix and cake mix may not have been stored at 70 degrees or lower, making their contents rancid or less than fresh, even though the date on the package is still current,” Gault says.

Pasta

Verdict: Skip

“Dollar store pasta is usually a lousy buy,” Reiley says. “It’s often smaller [package sizes] than the pasta you’ll find at a grocery store sale for a dollar or even less.”

Canned goods

Verdict: Buy — with caution

“Many are off brands and tend to have sub-standard vegetables and fruit, more stems, and less quality food,” Gault says.

But Kerekes says she’s found success with canned dollar stores goods including canned organic pumpkin, canned organic tomatoes and coconut milk.

Frugal Foodie tip: Try one can before stocking up.

Candy

Verdict: Buy

“Candy, trail mix and mixed nuts are great buys at the dollar store, especially if you have the moral flexibility to smuggle them into your local movie theater,” Perez says.

She continues, “A regular-size box of Junior Mints will cost up to $4 at the cinema, whereas the big box is only a dollar at your local Dollar General or Dollar Tree.”

Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie