Montrealer shares tips for living on a ‘Dollarama diet’

A Dollarama store is seen Tuesday, June 11, 2013 in Montreal. Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

MONTREAL – Eating well for three years on food sold in Dollarama seems like a challenge no one would want to take up.

But Concordia grad Jonathan Lemieux didn’t have a choice when he returned to university.

“For my second degree, I was living on my own and I was paying for everything. It’s a lot of pressure when you’re a student,” he told Global News.

Although he was able to get loans and bursaries, he still faced financial challenges.

READ MORE: University costs have tripled over past 20 years, study suggests

Lemieux very quickly realized that it was too expensive to shop at a grocery store.

“Studying on an empty stomach is really not fun,” he observed.

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But it was while perusing his local Dollarama for art supplies that he noticed that the store also sold food and his shopping habits changed.

After eating basic and cheap instant foods like Ramen noodles, the Greenfield Park native decided to be more daring and experimental in his culinary explorations.

“I didn’t want to eat the same things every day,” he said.

“My mother taught me to cook, so I had a good cooking background.”

So he began to experiment. By the time he finished his second degree, Lemieux had collected over 90 tried-and-true recipes.

These have been put together in a cookbook that includes tempting dishes like seafood paella, yummy poutine cupcakes and mouthwatering beet soup.

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“I would get yelled at by someone Spanish, saying that this is not a paella,” Lemieux laughed.

“But a poor man’s paella is better than nothing.”

For those who haven’t been in a Dollarama lately, the store stocks the ingredients needed for the Valencian dish, like rice, beef jerkey (instead of chorizo) and canned seafood.

“About 90 per cent of the food I was living on was from Dollarama,” he said.

“But I still went to grocery stores to see if I could find bargains: fresh pork at 50 per cent off is always better than canned meat.”

Nutritionists have noted concerns about eating processed foods on a daily basis, suggesting that these could be high in sodium.

“Student days are tough and you don’t have a lot of time to plan or to shop,” said registered dietitian Théa Demmers, who runs the healthy cooking program at Concordia University’s PERFORM Centre.

“There are no bad and good foods, it’s just a question of how much and how often.”

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For those on a budget, she suggested sharing a fresh fruit and vegetable box with a group of friends: “It might not be so good for an individual, but for a group, it could work out to be cost effective.”

Equiterre has a list of local fresh food box options and Moisson Montreal’s Bonne Boite, Bonne Bouffe‘s boxes start at just $7.

This was something that Lemieux considered, but the point that he emphasized is just how little money he had to play with.

Lemieux survived his three years at university on a monthly food budget of $75.

“When I was studying, I just couldn’t buy fresh food; it was really, really too expensive,” he said.

READ MORE: Poverty lowers brain power, making it harder to figure out ways to escape: study

“I wanted to encourage Quebec producers, but … when you sell one green pepper for $3, I just couldn’t afford it. At Dollarama, I could make a meal that could last for two days.”

And what does his mother think? Is she aghast that he’s been living on dollar store food?

“On the contrary, I think she’s amazed that I was able to use my creativity,” said Lemieux.

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“Instead of asking her to loan me money and complain, I found a solution and powered through those three years.”

– Jonathan Lemieux’s Survivre avec une poignée de change (Surviving with a handful of change) is published in September by Transcontinental and is available in bookstores and online for $19.95.

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