This Registered Dietitian Proves Eating on a Budget Is Possible in the Most Creative Way

This registered dietician creates healthy menus using only food purchased from Dollar General to prove eating healthy on a budget is possible.

When you’re missing ingredients for your favorite recipe, you’re likely to rush over to your local supermarket. But what if you don’t have a grocery store nearby? What if the closest thing to a food market you have is a Dollar General? Can you still eat well? Can you eat healthily?

How One Dietician Came to Love Dollar General

Mary AliceCourtesy Mary Alice

Well, for registered dietician Mary Alice Cain, that’s no problem. Mary Alice started to appreciate the budget retailer while visiting her family in Fairhope, Alabama. She was set to bake a Derby pie, but was missing the chocolate chips, pecans and pie crust (that’s almost everything!). Instead of abandoning her project, her dad suggested she run to the closest store: a Dollar General.

“I hadn’t been to too many Dollar Generals and was pretty skeptical,” says Mary Alice, but she found everything she needed.

After baking a satisfying pie, Mary Alice’s father had a suggestion: “You’re a registered dietitian—what if you went to Dollar General, took all the healthy ingredients you could find and showed people how to make nutritious recipes?”

Finding the Healthiest Options at Budget Stores

Mary Alice filed that thought away until she needed a project as part of her master’s degree work at Georgia State University. She focused on practical ways to help families facing food insecurity in food deserts—areas that don’t have easily accessible grocery stores. Food deserts are common in rural areas where markets are scattered and in urban areas where grocery stores are hard to get to by public transportation or foot. While these areas may lack supermarkets, they often have shops like convenience stores and Dollar General-like stores.

As part of the project, Mary Alice developed 30 nutritious dishes using affordable ingredients found at Dollar General stores. She tested each of the dishes in her home kitchen and compiled the recipes into a cookbook.

Cooking healthy food is “not so much about taking things away,” she points out. “It’s about adding ingredients, like incorporating more seeds or fruits and vegetables.” And Mary Alice was able to find many of these ingredients right at the Dollar General to add to her recipes.

Mary Alice’s Go-To Dollar General-Inspired Recipes

When Mary Alice sent her recipes—like Chicken Spaghetti and Apple Oatmeal Breakfast Bars—to executives at Dollar General, they asked her to work with a team of chefs to develop nutritious recipe ideas for the company’s website. Here are a few of our favorites:

Mary Alice posted the recipes on Facebook, and a friend passed them on to Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee. Caroline Pullen, a registered dietitian with the organization, says she includes “Better For You” recipes in senior nutrition boxes and in nutrition education. All the ingredients are easy to find in remote rural areas.

“If you can just get people cooking at home instead of grabbing fast food, it’s a step in the right direction,” Mary Alice says.

Food banks are doing what they can to fight hunger in the face of the pandemic, but they need help. Want to know what you can do? Visit feedingamerica.org/covid19 to learn more about Feeding America’s pandemic response, and find a food bank near you.

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