You probably know dollar stores as a mecca for inexpensive cleaning supplies, greeting cards and seasonal items, but did you know that many are a smorgasbord of culinary options as well? Depending on where you live, these single-price stores sometimes offer fresh produce and walls of frozen-food options, in addition to the more standard fare of canned goods, mixes and kitchen staples.

In Bend, Dollar Tree stores offer an extensive selection of food options, all at $1 or less. If you travel outside the area, watch for dollar stores under the following names: Dollar General, Family Dollar, Fred's Super Dollar and 99 Cents Only.

Shop smart

It's very easy (and who hasn't done it?) to get caught up in the cut-rate pricing strategy. When everything is $1 (or less) buying without thinking about options is easy to do. But for the best deals, follow these tips for food shopping at these single-buck outlets.

Don't just assume that because it's a dollar, it's a deal. It's possible that regular and/or sale prices at the supermarket or the warehouse store will yield better deals, ounce for ounce. Know what the competition charges before you assume that the dollar store has the best price.

Read the ingredients. Just as you would at the grocery stores, check the ingredient listing on anything you plan to purchase, as well as the product's nutritional value. Does the can of apple pie filling really have apples in it, or is it a mix of chemical flavorings designed to mimic the real deal?

Check the brand name. Some products sold at the dollar stores are familiar brand names; others may not be. Instead, they can be private labels packaged specifically for the store's use. The quality of the product inside may be exactly the same as a name brand, or it might not be. You don't know until you try.

Read the package size. Some dollar store foods are packaged in smaller sizes than their supermarket counterparts, so read the fine print to check for the weight, number of servings, etc., so you're comparing apples to apples, so to speak. Just like in the supermarket, some packaged and canned foods may be from foreign countries, and quality standards may differ from those for foods packed domestically.

Be sure to check the expiration date. Some dollar stores purchase manufacturer's overstocks and close-outs, and occasionally nearly out-of-date merchandise. If it's close, plan to use the product soon instead of storing it in your pantry.

Make a list. Just like shopping in the grocery store, it's a good idea to have a list. When everything is only a dollar, it's easy to just start filling the cart, and it's easy to over-buy.

Buy it when you see it. Because dollar stores often buy overstocks, some items might not be available on a continuing basis and quantities may be limited. If you find a real deal on something you like, grab it.

Check store policies. Some dollar stores accept manufacturer's coupons, which can mean an item could ultimately be free, or almost. Some dollar stores have special sales or close-outs to save even more money, and some, like Dollar Tree, allow you to purchase some items online with minimum quantities. Online purchases can be picked up at the store or shipped to your home, but note that shipping charges can quickly eat up (no pun intended) savings on the item's price. Also, look for weekly sales fliers on the company's website, in the newspaper and at the store.

Taking stock

The philosophy of the Dollar Tree stores is that customers love the thrill of the hunt for a good bargain. And feeding a family makes that hunt even more challenging as food prices continue to rise. But can you really eat well from the dollar store, and not succumb to ramen noodles and Spam just to save a few bucks? Take a look at just some of the foods available at the Bend Dollar Tree stores on recent visits:

• Frozen/refrigerated: Chicken, salmon, sole, tilapia, pollock, scallops, eggs, sour cream, butter, margarine, prepared frozen entrees, hot dogs, bacon, sausage, sliced and shredded cheeses, milk (white and chocolate), whipped cream, lunch meat, dips, breakfast entrees, chicken and beef patties, vegetables, fruits, garlic bread, meatballs, burritos, snacks and appetizers, french fries, pizzas, Chinese food, main dish entrees, ice cream novelties, pie crusts and yogurt.

• Staples: Coffees, teas, syrup, pastas, mustard, mayonnaise, pickles, spices, sugars, cooking oil, preserves, evaporated milk, soy milk, vinegar, salad dressings, olives, barbecue and cocktail sauces, bouillon, rice, dried beans, peanut butter and broth.

• Prepared/canned: Soups, chili, seasoning mixes, bacon bits, ramen noodles, clams, sardines, tuna, peppers, cereals, canned vegetables and fruits, applesauce, instant potatoes, gravies, lobster spread, pizza crust and mixes for cornbread, muffin and pancakes.

• Snacks: Cake and frosting mixes, nuts, bottled juice drinks, popcorn, candies, cookies, dried fruits, nuts.

And don't forget Fido: The Dollar Tree also sells pet treats.

We took the challenge to come up with some nutritious recipes with almost all ingredients available at Dollar Tree. Of course, you'll need to add fresh vegetables and fruit to the entrees for a healthier meal.

Reading material

For more recipes for frugal eats, check out the following books:

“Dining with the Dollar Diva,” by Elizabeth Fisher

“Dinners on a Dime,” by Gooseberry Patch

“The 99¢ Only Stores Cookbook,” by Christiane Jory

These websites also offer recipes specifically featuring dollar store ingredients: