Mary Alice Cain (M.S. ’18) created healthy recipes using ingredients found at Dollar General for her nutrition master’s degree final project. Two years later, she helped develop Dollar General’s “Better For You” recipes published on its website. We asked how she found ways to eat healthy on a dollar store budget.
Do you think it’s a myth that you can’t find healthy foods at discount and dollar stores?
“I do. There’s a myth that healthy eating is only for those living in a major city with access to many different grocery stores and high-end specialty stores. Unfortunately, I think the stigma around healthy eating is that it’s expensive. That is not the case, which I set out to prove with my [master’s degree] project.”
What types of foods have you found in these dollar stores?
“Fresh produce is not common in most Dollar General stores, but there are frozen fruits and vegetables which are typically as healthy. They are frozen right after picked and cleaned, so that good nutrition is locked into the product. Also, there are many canned vegetables as well as canned beans, which are good plant-based proteins. These can be high in sodium but rinsing them off does away with a lot of sodium. Dollar General also carries frozen meats, seafood and canned proteins like tuna and salmon. They have some whole grain options, as well.”
Why do you think many people believe you can’t eat healthy with food from these stores?
“The perception is that you go to these stores for less expensive cleaning products and things like toilet paper. You don’t think of them as a place to get food, much less healthy food. Dollar General never claims to be a grocery store, but they are important to local residents since other food options might be miles away.”
What prompted you to create recipes from ingredients found at Dollar General?
“I have to give credit to my dad. My dad loves to shop at Dollar General. I was visiting my parents a few years ago and wanted to bake a Derby Pie. My dad said, ‘Why don’t you run to the Dollar General? I bet you’ll find everything there.’ I laughed; I didn’t think I would. But dad was right. Then he said, ‘well, you’re a registered dietitian. You just made this dessert. What if you made an actual healthy meal using ingredients from Dollar General?’ I thought it was a great idea for my master’s degree project at Georgia State.”
Did you have preconceived ideas about what you would find to create healthy meals from dollar store purchases?
“I knew I’d find non-perishables like canned goods and peanut butter, but my biggest concern was whether there would be frozen fruits and vegetables there. Were there any proteins? Do they have ‘no salt added’ canned products? I wasn’t sure.”
What was the hardest thing about adapting recipes using these ingredients?
“I love cooking, and I’ve done some recipe development in the past, so I was just excited to try. I had all these ideas about all the things I wanted to make. I got creative with the different kinds of recipe directions I could go. I thought I would come up with 15 or 20. I came up with about 30 and still had ideas for more.”
How did you develop the recipes? Does an idea inspire you, or are you looking at available ingredients and thinking about how to mix them up?
“I started with some classic recipes like spaghetti or meatloaf. I tried to keep it basic. I also wanted to break the myth that “only the wealthy can eat healthily.” I didn’t want to come up with unapproachable recipes that were “too” healthy, that people would think of as weird. I wanted them to be familiar recipes that you could find in an American home.”
How do the results of this project influence your thinking now as a professional dietitian?
“It’s had a profound impact on how I practice as a dietitian. I worked for more high-end retailers, like Whole Foods Market and PeachDish, a meal kit delivery service. They tended to serve higher-end clientele, so I mostly saw that side of the population in my work.
But while I was at Georgia State, I did an assistantship with After-School All-Stars, working with middle-schoolers from a variety of backgrounds. Some of these kids would talk to me about food. It was obvious that, through no fault of their own, they hadn’t been exposed to healthy food. It was such an eye-opener for me. They are who we needed to serve, to educate. The project has driven me to figure out how we make a difference to a population who needs it most, who may live in a food desert and might be far from good food options.”
What inspired you to reach out to the CEO of Dollar General with your recipe ideas?
“My husband and my family kept saying I should share my research project with them [Dollar General]. Dr. [Anita] Nucci and Dr. Kellie Mayfield, my project advisers, encouraged me. For whatever reason, I didn’t think Dollar General would be receptive. But something pushed me to Google contacts, and I found the CEO’s email address and reached out. I got a phone call from one of the Dollar General VPs the next day. It was incredibly overwhelming and exciting.”
What led you to a career in nutrition?
“I’ve always been a lover of science and a generally curious person. I grew up with such a food influence in my family. My mom is a great cook, as were both my grandmothers. A lot of family members worked in the grocery industry. I went to the University of Alabama for undergrad, and I found their nutrition program was a perfect combination of science and food.”
Any advice for shoppers looking to improve their diets wherever they shop for food?
“Don’t be overwhelmed by the idea of the word ‘healthy.’ ‘Balanced’ is the best approach to take when meal planning—so often people get intimidated by food labels – it’s so easy to get bogged down by these. While this information is important, think more about getting color on your plate, eating whole foods when possible, and going back to the basics. I would tell people not to overthink eating healthfully, above all, and enjoy everything in moderation.”
Interview by Angela Go
Photo by Kate Blohm Photography