When it comes to cooking and dinner inspiration, there is no shortage of health and wellness influencers on social media. But lately, another kind of content creator has been catching the public’s eye on TikTok: accounts that share cooking tips and menu ideas. Rebecca Chobat, the creator behind Dollar Tree Dinners, creates meals and menu ideas for her audience of more than 648k followers. Having amassed a total of almost 7 million likes on her TikTok videos, it’s clear she’s striking a chord.
Although Chobat creates her videos primarily for people with limited access to traditional grocery stores due to age, disability, transportation, or living in food deserts, she always aims to keep the cost of ingredients low, too. In fact, in an interview with Allrecipes, she explained that for her traditional dinner videos, she tries to create options that will feed four people for less than $10. We spoke with Chobat about what she’s learned since starting the account, her favorite Dollar Tree finds — and what to avoid — as well as budget grocery shopping in general.
What’s the biggest misconception about grocery shopping at Dollar Tree?I get a lot of comments about things being cheaper at other stores. And they often are. The misconception is that people shop at Dollar Tree because it’s the cheapest option. That’s not the reason most people shop at Dollar Tree. My focus is on who is doing their shopping there. Sometimes it’s everyday people. Sometimes it’s people who get anxiety when shopping at a regular grocery store. There are people who have limited transportation; people who are elderly and disabled; even college students need to shop there. And nationwide, there are people who live in food deserts whose only store for food is Dollar Tree.
For people with tight budgets and/or limited access to grocery stores, what are the key pantry items to stock?You want to keep pasta and pasta sauce in stock, and ramen noodles are a good thing to keep on hand. Dollar Tree sells bags of pre-cooked rice that can be microwaved in 90 seconds. You can get cooked meats, like meatballs. I made a meatball teriyaki dish in the microwave with frozen vegetables. Anything you can throw together in a few minutes is helpful. Sometimes you get to the point where you’re so hungry you can’t focus or spend a lot of time in the kitchen. I would keep a lot of those three-minute meals on hand for those times.
Are there any ingredients or products you don’t love at Dollar Tree? What do you avoid?There are. Although when I’m shopping there, I try to put my personal tastes aside. I’m creating content for a wider audience. Some things my followers really like, I don’t like: For example, I’m meh about their pizza crusts. They do have a lot of frozen vegetables, but unfortunately the quality isn’t the greatest. When it comes down to accessibility, though, we have to remember that not everyone can shop around for that kind of thing. Some of Dollar Tree’s processed meats aren’t the greatest. I try to stick with staples. You can’t go wrong with pasta, rice, mashed potatoes, and beans. They do have a good selection of meats like beef patties, sausage, and bacon; also blocks of cheeses.
Can you speak about the imitation versus real products at Dollar Tree?The imitation product is usually a larger package than the real, but it’s never better [quality]. For example, they have real blocks of cheese and then there are “shreds.” The shreds are imitation cheese, and they don’t really melt. They have a little jar of grated Parmesan cheese, and then there’s a big jar of grated Parmesan “topping” that is not very good.
You’ve made a DIY three-cheese blend in videos. Do you have any other homemade hacks for budget grocery shopping?I’ve recently started creating meal plans and menus on the channel with the intention of doing more of that. When I create a recipe, every ingredient I purchase is an extra cost for someone who doesn’t already have that. For example, Dollar Tree doesn’t sell packets of chili seasoning. So, if I were to make a video on chili, I would have no choice but to show chili powder, cumin, garlic, onion, all that stuff.
So, you can make your own seasoning blends, but there will be a greater upfront cost?Right.
Do you have any advice for budget shopping or shopping at Dollar Tree for people with dietary restrictions?I think it’s very possible to be gluten free, dairy free, vegan, or vegetarian when shopping at Dollar Tree. But you have to go back to a more “old fashioned” style of eating within those restrictions. You’re not going to be able to find gluten-free bread or dairy-free cheeses. You can find some milk substitutions. But if you’re limited to a particular store that doesn’t have a wide inventory, you have to think in terms of how people with restrictions ate 10, 20 years ago. I know rice and beans aren’t the most exciting thing in the world, but they are vegan. You may not be able to find vegan butter, but you can find coconut oil and olive oil.
How does nutrition factor into meals when grocery shopping on a budget?I don’t put a lot of emphasis on nutritional content in my videos, because it’s more about just getting people fed. I try to be mindful about including a vegetable in every meal, but what a lot of people forget is that “things are vegetables that aren’t vegetables.” By that I mean, salsa is a vegetable: tomatoes, onions, peppers. If I use a can of Ro-Tel, that’s a vegetable. Just because you don’t put broccoli or spinach in a dish doesn’t mean it’s not nutritious.
We’ve become very elitist about food. I get a ton of comments, especially about my Dollar Tree Haul videos about the nutritional content — about processed food. Well, there’s a lot of people who have no control over the food they get. If you have to get food from a food pantry, it’s not like you can say, “I want organic…” My videos are geared for those people.
Let’s end on a fun note: Are there any fun, budget-friendly Dollar Tree snacks?They have these little tomato and oregano snack bites. They are just crispy little puffs, and they’re coated in a seasoning blend that tastes like pizza to me. I love them. They also have Flipz, those white-chocolate-covered pretzels. There’s also a Dollar Tree version of Takis that’s actually really good!