If there isn’t a Trader Joe’s in your nearest metropolitan area, there’ll likely be one near you soon. Though half of their 400 stores are located in their home state, the California-based chain is now opening in Florida, Texas and throughout the Midwest.
Trader Joe’s founder, Joe Coulombe, started the business in 1967 with the hope of collecting and sharing dishes and food items from other countries and selling branded Trader Joe versions here in the United States. He’d found that as international travel increased, so did people’s taste for foreign and imported foods. He took it as an opportunity to meet this growing shopping need and opened his first deli-style store with the same fun “specialty market” vibe you find in the stores today.
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The moment you walk into a Trader Joe’s you notice the atmosphere is a little more casual and approachable. Employees, referred to as Crew Members, sport Hawaiian shirts and are often on the floor and available for customer questions. Even their policies are a little more relaxed than your average grocery store—they have a pretty easy to navigate return process and it’s store policy that you can sample anything you want to; simply ask a Crew Member and they’ll be happy to open the package and give you a taste! The environment is also very family friendly—the store offers kid-friendly shopping carts and in each store there’s a hidden stuffed animal or toy for kids to seek out during the trip with prizes at the register for children who find it.
Not all of these shopping tips are well known and that sometimes means shopping at Trader Joe’s feels a bit like being a member of a secret club. In fact, there are even entire websites devoted to Trader Joe product reviews with very specific lists to personal tastes and experiences.
Realizing that many of you hail from many corners of the country and may or may not share my tastes and my family’s, I’ve tried to keep my list somewhat general. There are some universal items that are good buys for all at any Trader Joe’s (check out this post with one of those lists!) and that’ll probably meet the tastes of many of your family members.
What to Buy
1. Cookie Butter
One of Trader Joe’s most famous items, their Speculoos Cookie Butter is a dreamy concoction that tastes like peanut butter, Nutella, and cookie dough all wrapped into one delicious jar. It’s based on the Belgium Speculoos cookie, a caramel gingersnap cookie. In addition to the regular version, Trader Joe’s also has a Chunky Speculoos version with actual crumbs of ginger snaps. If you’re feeling even more decadent, you can purchase a batch of cocoa swirl, which is exactly what it sounds like.
Cookie butter is good on apples and fruit, toast, pancakes, waffles, and well, pretty much everything. You can use it as a dip for pretzels, fruit or small cookies and watch party guests devour it.
2. Kale Sprouts
After delving into the indulgence that is cookie butter, you probably should try a little something healthy. Kale sprouts are a very cute cross between kale and Brussels sprouts, but even better than either one. They’re a little bit sweeter than Brussels sprouts and more tender than kale (think baby kale).
Try these little guys sautéed in some olive oil with just salt and pepper or oven-roast them for a real treat. Kids love them so they’re a great way to introduce your family to a new green vegetable.
3. Nuts and Nut Butters
Trader Joe’s has a great selection of nuts and nut butters (salted, flavored or plain) and they’re often a few dollars cheaper than grocery store or big-box prices. They have fun flavors like Thai Lime and Chili Almonds, which require no more effort for entertaining than opening a bag. These are a great option if you’re throwing a party and looking for “munchies,” although Trader Joe’s is full of options for snacks in general.
They also have a large selection of nut butters, including variations of peanut butter with added extras like flax and chia seeds. Plus, they offer alternative butters like almond, soy, and sunflower. These are particularly great if your kid’s school is peanut-free.
4. Vegetarian Freezer Meals
One of the most amazing things about Trader Joe’s is that they offer tons of healthy options and NONE of their products contain high fructose corn syrup or artificial colors or flavors. In addition to those healthy factors, they’re also a vegetarian’s dream in term of selection. Depending on your particular preference, there are Indian, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican and European specialties that are very often meat-free.
In particular, their frozen Indian dinners, frozen bagged rice mixes, and frozen burritos are great. While many of us try to avoid processed foods, these are actually pretty healthy and offer an easy, quick option for lunch on the go.
5. Cheese (Particularly Cheddar)
The cheese selection at Trader Joe’s rivals that of many higher end and specialty shops, but the prices are on par with grocery store, or better. You’ll find unusual options and plenty of choices to stock your next cheese tray. (Pick up some of their Fig and Olive Crisps too while you’re at it.)
The Unexpected Cheddar is one of the most highly rated products by many reviewers, and it’s truly delicious. Its aged taste with hints of Parmesan will make any wine and cheese enthusiast rave. At $3.99, it’s one of the best bargains in the cheese section and really unbeatable.
6. Wine & Beer (but Not the Famous Two Buck Chuck)
Most everyone has heard of Trader Joe’s famous Two Buck Chuck, but there are actually quite a few better values in the liquor section at Trader Joe’s. Many of their prices rival a liquor store or even Costco (without the super-size quantities). If you’re not a wine fan, their liquor section boasts some microbrews that are worth a try and they carry seasonal options that are really great bargains.
7. Cookies, Cookies, Cookies
Trader Joe’s offers cookie options that put the Keebler Elves to shame. The Joe Joe’s are a sandwich cookie that rivals (if not beats) the Oreo in terms of flavor and creaminess. Some of their best offers include ginger snaps, Trader Jacques Macarons, and Trader Giotto’s Amaretti cookies.
It might be the absence of corn syrup or maybe just the fact that there are always such exotic and different options, but their cookies stand out from other store-bought brands. All of their cookies have less of a processed taste; they’re not exactly homemade, but definitely better than your average packaged cookie.
8. Pumpkin Bread & Pumpkin Butter
Though they offer quite a few baking mixes, the pumpkin bread is the best I’ve tried. It’s more seasonally appropriate for fall, but really, any time is a good time for pumpkin bread. Their mixes, again, manage to pull off homemade or at least a better-than-your-average-store-mix taste.
The pumpkin butter is one of my favorites. It’s similar to an apple butter and it can be spread on breads, toast, or served as a fruit dip. There’s a comforting spicy taste to it I just love. Add a spoonful to coffee for an at-home pumpkin spice latte.
Trader Giotto’s olive oil is one of the best bargains around. They have a selection of oils that also includes grapeseed and everyone’s current darling, organic coconut oil. Their prices on oils are better than Costco and grocery store prices, and the California Estate Extra Virgin Olive Oil is good enough to use for dipping bread.
10. Almond Milk
The almond milk prices are $2.99, which is pretty darn good (without a coupon). Their regular milk does not contain rBGH and while not always priced as low as other places, it’s not a bad deal either if you happen to need milk while you’re there.
As I said before, party food is where Trader Joe’s really shines. If you’re entertaining you can purchase a few of their Spinach & Cheese Stuffed Mushrooms, Camembert Cheese and Cranberry Stuffed Bites, or Corn Chili Salsa and chips. Add some cheeses, a few nuts, and you’re set for a crowd.
The great thing about many of their frozen items is that they look fancy enough to pass for “I’ve worked all day in the kitchen” and with a little garnish (chopped parsley, a pretty platter) you can easily make them appropriate for any soiree. Being freezer-friendly, you can tuck them away and when the neighbors come over for an impromptu card game or when you need something quick to take to your book club, you have an easy answer.
12. Soaps, Toothpastes and Beauty Products
Trader Joe’s offers a selection of specialty beauty items that are pretty enough to give as gifts, organic, and luxurious enough to skip the trip to Whole Foods or your natural food store. Their Trader Joe’s brand toothpaste comes in Fennel, Propolis and Myrrh flavor and is strangely similar to the Tom’s of Maine version of the same flavor, but at a better price.
They also have Trader Jacques Orange Blossom Honey liquid soap that smells just lovely and a honey oatmeal bar soap that is gift-worthy (at 2 bars for under $2). Now, most of their health and beauty products won’t beat out rock bottom prices at Walgreens, but they make a nice trade for luxury purchases.
This store always has the most unique selection of candy. From Jumbles (pecans, quinoa and caramel) to salted caramel truffles to chocolate covered almonds….they have whatever you need to satisfy the biggest chocolate craving. I recommend the chocolate-covered mini pretzels (but be warned, they’re highly addicting)! The fun thing is that you can try a fun, exotic chocolate treat that beats the prices of Godiva, but is richer and more artisanal than your average Hershey bar.
Trader Joe’s Nonfat Greek yogurt is creamy, delicious and comes at 32 ounces for $4.99 which (again, without a coupon) is a good bargain. Greek yogurt is incredibly versatile; it can be used as a non-fat replacement for sour cream or as a salad dressing, or you can spruce it up with fresh fruit and maple syrup.
For the kiddos there’s Organic Lowfat Yogurt Squishers. These yogurt-in-a-tube packs are healthier than Go-Gurt with no artificial flavors or preservatives, but they’re still fun enough for any little one to get excited about. They’re a convenient and easy way to ensure your little ones have a healthy protein-friendly snack.
15. Frozen Fruit
Another bargain at Trader Joe’s? Frozen fruit. They have blends at $2.99 that are perfect for smoothies and using in recipes. The fruit is frozen whole and really beautiful—I almost felt bad putting it in the blender—unlike some frozen fruit that just looks like a blob. One of the nice things about shopping at Trader Joe’s is that the atmosphere is conducive to healthy choices—I always end up trying something new and fresh. They don’t use GMOs, offer many organic options, and use very few artificial ingredients. That’s really something you can get behind.
What to Avoid
Now, not everything at Trader Joe’s is a bargain or even worthwhile. Grocery stores and bulk warehouse shopping can save you quite a bit on these items that aren’t worth the price at Trader Joe’s, especially if you use coupons.
The frozen seafood at Trader Joe’s has received mixed reviews at best. They were chastised a few years ago for not using sustainably harvested seafood, and while they’ve worked to remedy that problem, the reviews on their seafood haven’t improved enough to make considering the purchase worth it.
One of the exceptions is their bagged tilapia, which comes in flavored varieties, and their canned albacore tuna. Their tuna is a good product and is available at an okay price if you don’t have a coupon for a mainstream brand like Sunkist.
2. Organic Meats
Most grocery stores sell organic chicken and beef, including Costco and of course Whole Foods. With all of the competition, the small, prepackaged cuts of meat at Trader Joe’s just can’t compete in terms of price or quality.
As a rule of thumb, skip the produce here. They pre-package their produce, so overlooking the environmental impact of over-packaging, you don’t even have the ability to select items yourself. Also, their produce items are priced by unit, not by the pound, and it’s just not competitive selection or price-wise. You’re better off saving your money for the farmers market or shopping your local store’s sales.
Based on the research we did, Trader Joe’s flowers on the West Coast are better than those in the East and Midwest. Based on our own experience, while their flowers are often priced well, they don’t hold up as long as other flowers and the selection is pretty limited. If you’re picking up a hostess gift, try some chocolates or a pretty bar of soap instead.
5. That Famous Wine
As I said above, Two Buck Chuck might have been the wine that made Trader Joe’s famous, but it’s no longer the biggest draw. There are many flavors and varieties of Charles Shaw brand wine (priced between $2.99 and $3.79 depending on the region), but well….it’s just not that good. In fact, it’s actually pretty bad (though it does make some tasty sangria!)
For a few dollars more you can check out the many, many other decent bottles for under $10 in their wine department and go home with something you won’t have to mask in a sangria or punch. Even if you’re only buying wine for cooking, just a few dollars more will get you something that will add depth and fullness to your meal. Believe me—it’s worth it!