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Commentary: Healthy budget-friendly eats from Dollar Tree

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Let's face it, times are tough. Some weeks are pretty good, but others can be a little tight. Even if you're not on a college student's budget, there are times that the wallet feels a little light. The reality of grocery shopping is that canned and boxed foods full of fat and fillers are cheaper than healthier ones. It's a depressing reality.

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Instead of answering the call of cheap junk food and falling off of the wagon, look to Dollar Tree for cleaner, healthier options. I know, “Dollar Tree? Eww,” is what some of you think. It's not like that. You'd be surprised by the variety and availability of brand-name and generic healthier options. While you may not find organic eats a plenty, you will find basics and staples that can help you get through until the next paycheck.

One big budget tip is to change what you buy. If you are a meat eater or vegetarian, consider cutting meat, dairy, and eggs out at least during the tight weeks. You may not miss it as much as you think you might.

Let's get to shopping. Dollar Tree is my go-to stop on leaner weeks. I focus on the Center Pointe Drive and Ashley Phosphate stores in North Charleston because these two have refrigerated and frozen foods. I load my basket down with bags of unsweetened frozen berries, mango, pepper stir-fry mix, broccoli, peas, and mixed vegetables. On occasion, an organic brand will grace the shelves, but if not, it is what it is. Next I hit the shelves for staples like Westsoy Light Plain Soymilk, plain oatmeal, unsweetened applesauce, 1 pounds bags of rice, dry and canned beans, pickles, Hampton Creek's Just Mayo (score), flour, cornstarch, mustard, flour or corn tortillas, salsa, nuts, various seasonings, and ketchup. On occasion, loaves of bread and buns are also available. Check with your store to see which days and try to shop then.

Granted, this selection may seem sparse, but you can whip up a menu of flavorful meals for pennies per serving. I use my purchases with items I already have on hand for menu planning, but for this article I'll focus on the main ingredients.

For breakfast, oats and berries are my go-to. I mix dry oats, applesauce, cinnamon, and water overnight and soak overnight for quick breakfast the next morning. After mixing, I can pack the oat mix into individual containers and top with frozen berries for grab-and-go convenience or add a little soymilk and cook each serving on the griddle and make oat pancakes. Serve the pancakes with thawed mashed berries as a topping. If you have a yogurt maker (I found my Dash Greek Yogurt Maker at Sam's Club), use a carton or two of soymilk and whip up soy yogurt to use for breakfast with the berries or mango, snacks, or as a condiment with lunch or dinner. Smoothies made with frozen berries and soymilk, mango with oats and water, or any combination you desire also make a quick and healthy start to your day.

Keep lunch simple with sandwiches or dinner leftovers. Make chickpea or bean spread or use nut butter for sandwiches and round out the meal with applesauce, fruit bowls, or yogurt. Mix up a quick granola with or without nuts for snacking.

Rice and beans for dinner most nights may seem boring as they are, but not when served in different ways, Start of the week with beans, peas, and rice with broccoli on the side. Enjoy Taco Tuesday with bean tacos or vegan quesadillas topped with salsa and homemade soy yogurt as sour cream. On Wednesday, how do bean burgers with vegetable soup grab you? Mix Just Mayo, ketchup, and chopped pickles for a homemade version of a fast food joint's famous Special Sauce for burger topping. Make Thursday stir-fry night. Toss the pepper mix and broccoli in a skillet with soy or Teriyaki sauce and serve with with veggie not-fried rice – a blend of frozen mixed vegetables and leftover cooked rice. On Friday, make leftovers special by whipping up different sauces to top bowls of mixed vegetables, beans, and rice. And don't forget, there's always an option for breakfast for dinner, lunch for breakfast, and dinner for lunch.

I hope these menu suggestions and Dollar Tree shopping list inspire you. If your budget allows, consider hitting Dollar Tree for staples and the farmers market or your favorite grocery store for fresh produce to round out your menu. A lean week does not have to mean a week of crappy food. The menu may not be the most exciting, but it is filling and healthier than a week of hitting the drive-thru.

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