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15 Things to Buy at Trader Joe’s (and 5 to Avoid)

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Trader Joe’s Buying Tips | Things to Buy Trader Joe’s | Products to Avoid Trader Joe’s | Shopping Tips | Trader Joe’s | Cookie Butter | Kale Sprouts | Vegetarian Freezer Meals | No Organic Meats

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 should put in your grocery cart as you walk through the aisles at Trader Joes?

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.

Nuts like these almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts are a great buy at Trader Joe's.

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.

Cheeses of all types: mozzarella, brie, blue, Gouda and Swiss are all great buys at Trader Joe's.

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.

Pumpkin bread from Trader Joe's is the perfect addition to your autumn table.

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.

9. Oils

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.

Appetizers, like stuffed mushroom bites, are a great buy at Trader Joes. Put the mushroom bites on a plate with fresh parsley and they'll pass for homemade.

11. Appetizers

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.

Chocolate covered, salted pretzels: do snacks get any better?

13. Chocolate!

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.

Go ahead—indulge!

14. Yogurt

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.

When you're pushing your grocery cart through the aisles, this is what you should buy at Trader Joe's.

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.

1. Seafood

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.

Sometimes pre-packaged produce like these strawberries aren't the best buy at Trader Joe's.

3. Produce

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.

4. Flowers

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!

 

What to Buy at Trader Joe's: 15 Products You Need to Try and the 5 You Should Avoid.

 

31 Comments

  1. February 12 at 11:57AM

    I love Trader Joe’s, but it took me a while to figure that out. Your list looks great! I’d add a suggestion to get some snack foods as well. They have quite a few options that fit a real food lifestyle with a price tag that doesn’t make me flinch. I do my best to avoid preservatives and fakeness, and I think Trader Joe’s has done a pretty good job of that even though some of the snacks are a bit processed. We have to live a little!!

    A great trick that I figured out for my family is that I buy snack foods only from Trader Joe’s, and I only buy it once a month. I have plenty of stores close to my house, but Trader Joe’s requires a little drive. Thus it’s easier to only go there once a month. When I get home, I tell my family to check out the pantry. I say, “This is what you have for snack foods for the month. If you run out, I’m not going to buy more.” Suddenly, I don’t have to remind my kids to eat reasonable portions, and they aren’t always begging for snack foods. They self regulate, and I get a little mommy and wallet break in that area.

  2. Tobi
    February 12 at 02:28PM

    I live in California (although I lived in New York for a couple of years) and I concur that TJ’s in the West is waaaaay better than TJ’s in the East. Prices are lower, produce is better (I rarely bought their fresh produce in NY), and the flowers hold up for 1 1/2 – 2 weeks usually.

    Another great item to buy at TJ’s is the greeting cards, they are really cute and only $0.99. I keep a stash of them for birthdays and holidays. The brown rice pasta is really good and so are the shelf-stable Madras lentils.

  3. Jennifer
    February 12 at 08:15PM

    I love Trader Joe’s! Thanks for this list…I’ve never noticed kale sprouts before, so now I’m curious. Is that in produce or is it frozen?
    My only disagreement is about the flowers. I’m in Las Vegas, so maybe being out west helps. I buy flowers EVERY time I go to TJ’s, about twice a month. They have beautiful bouquets for only $4-$6 which is half or even a third the price of any other grocery store around here. The ones on my coffee table have been sitting out for 11 days now and still look great (except the one sunflower in the bunch, I threw it out yesterday). So depending on your location, give the flowers a chance! They make me happy 🙂

    • Steph
      July 16 at 11:40PM

      I agree! I am in MI and my flowers do great! I buy them all the time for myself or others.

  4. February 13 at 09:52PM

    These are awesome tips! I’ve heard so much about cookie butter! I’m going to have to try it for myself!

  5. Peggy
    February 16 at 03:32PM

    I appreciate the list and agree with most of it. I also disagree about the flowers. We live in Iowa and Trader Joe’s has the best flowers for the best price. A bouquet will easily last a week or two. Yes, some of the blooms may wilt after a week, but I just take those out and enjoy the rest. Their small flowering plants are great for gift giving. Having fresh, colorful flowers during the winter months is such a treat. One I can afford at Trader Joe’s!

    • Anonymous
      January 20 at 06:29PM

      I live in GA and the flowers at TJ’s here are fantastic. It’s the only place I buy them. Never had trouble with them lasting. I was actually shocked when I read it in the article.

  6. February 16 at 08:27PM

    Great review on Trader Joes. We unfortunately do not have one in our town. My sister however, loves shopping there so we are making our first trip to the infamous store in 2 weeks. I am so glad I had the opportunity to read this post prior to our shopping adventure! Thanks again for the great material!

  7. February 18 at 08:51PM

    This is perfect, we just moved close-ish to a trader joes and I am making my first trek out there tomorrow…pretty sure I will spend way too much, but this list should help 🙂

  8. February 23 at 09:52AM

    Love this! I’ve found some of Trader Joe’s meat cuts to be very reasonable and great- like their pre cut chicken strips. I love that they save time.

    Gotta love Trader Joe’s! Thanks for the tips.

  9. February 24 at 11:20AM

    Recently I have heard that Aldi’s products are the same as Trader Joes ? Any truth?

    • February 24 at 04:33PM

      I believe that Aldi and TJ are owned by the same parent company; Aldi has really increased their gluten free and organic options and you can shop there for a healthy life style of eating if you are a careful label shopper.

      • February 24 at 04:37PM

        Sorry to be anonymous — Albrecht Discounts — a German firm — owns both stores. I just looked it up.

        • LindaHum
          February 24 at 06:27PM

          Thanks for the information. I have heard some of Aldi’s products are really good at a reasonable prices. I’ll have to try them.
          Linda

          • Amanda
            March 2 at 03:30PM

            I shop at Aldi regularly and they are fantastic! I don’t have a complaint about them! Sad that I do not have a Trader Joe’s by me. 🙁

  10. February 25 at 12:24AM

    I concur regarding the greeting cards. I’m in CA and the flowers are wonderful (and inexpensive). I also buy quite a bit of their produce and pre-made salads for lunch and am happy with the price and quality. It’s a happy place and the employees are always so friendly, I don’t dread grocery shopping after work. TJ’s rocks!

  11. rebecca
    February 28 at 09:43AM

    Blessed to have a TJ’s near my house and I do most of my shopping there. Have to disagree with the frozen meals however. They have far too much sodium in them. I will buy the appetizers occasionally – football Sundays mostly – but otherwise, they are just too overly processed for my tastes. I love the big packages of fresh basil to make pesto with and they are starting to sell a lot of local products now. I <3 TJ's!

  12. Staci
    March 13 at 09:05AM

    I love Trader Joe’s and do most of my shopping there. However, many of their products actually do contain corn syrup and other additives, so you have to read the labels there just like anywhere else.

  13. Nicole
    March 18 at 07:11PM

    Thank you for posting this list, I had no idea there frozen fruit was so good, I will definitely check it out. I live out in Portland, OR, but am originally from Boston, MA and I am dying for a good cheddar cheese. Back in Boston Cabot was great for an affordable every day, or Jasper Hill but here it is all Tillamook which I don’t love. Anyways, that being said, I have to say I agree on most produce however, both in Boston and here in Portland, I always swear from the Spring to the Fall by Trader Joes organic blueberries they are some of the best tasting blueberries you can find in a grocery store, and to note my uncle owns a blueberry farm.

  14. Anonymous
    May 2 at 11:16AM

    I love Trader Joes! I live in Northern Virginia, and we have many stores all around, three right near my house. I’m sorry, but I love the Charles Shaw White Zin, sweet, flavorful and heady. Kale sprouts are yummy, I sauteé them in olive oil, fresh garlic and salt & pepper.
    We also have several international stores, whose meats and produce are one quarter price of grocery stores. But TJ is one of my favorite stores, I am happy that they have built so many here, they are very popular.

  15. Claire
    November 14 at 12:55PM

    This is a late comment because I just discovered the blog. I wanted to add to things to avoid, their sour cream and cottage cheese. These two products contain various gums. Daisy brand sour cream and cottage cheese contain a single ingredient. Cream and or milk. No bacterial slime gums. I also avoid their almond milk due to carrageenan which is totally unnecessary. I do encourage making your own.

    I wholeheartedly agree about the Two Buck Chuck. It’s not even wine. Check the label. With so many other fabulous choices I see no reason to drink this fake garbage!

    They have a fluoride free toothpaste which we love. I love their shea butter hand cream as well.

    I avoid paper products that are made from recycled material, post consumer stuff as it has been stated it contains bpa from ink. Since I use a fair amount of paper towels in the kitchen in contact with food, I don’t like the idea of contamination from bpa. And there seem to be trace metals in the paper towels made this way, and I have had arcing in my microwave oven when using some of those brands. Better to buy in bulk from Target or Costco using cents off coupons, or from Amazon Pantry.

    That said, I love love love the preshredded cauliflower, the organic peppers, broccoli and carrots. I don’t care for their fruit and their avocados are awful even in California. And one must read labels since much of the produce is imported. If I can’t get organic local grown asparagus I don’t eat it. Asparagus from Peru costing $5 is not making it to my table.

  16. Fran
    March 8 at 01:38PM

    I love Trader Joe’s:) Thank you for your post Ruth. The list of buys (best anywhere) from TJ’s our family uses that you didn’t mention are:
    Quinoa Chips
    Canola Oil Spray &
    Organic unrefined Coconut Oil
    Organic Sweet Potatoes &
    Organic Yellow Potatoes
    Organic Gala Apples (bagged)
    12oz Lentil Pasta
    Mirepoix
    Parmesan & Romano blend grated Cheese
    Green Bones for dogs
    Beef Liver dog treats at 2.99 a bag
    Multigrain & Golden Round Crackers
    Emergen-C & B-12 Tabs
    TJ’s Coffee Pods/ Kierug Type
    Mint Melange Tea
    Pumpernickel Bread & Ezekial Bread

  17. May 5 at 08:12PM

    We love 2 Buck Chuck ($3 where we live). Better than a lot of wine we sampled while in Napa. Good thing everyone has different tastes.

  18. Lesly
    July 15 at 10:13AM

    I absolutely adore Trader Joe’s.
    I live in Miami and the grocery stores available are extremely expensive most of the time and their produce is unreliable. I try to hit a Trader Joe’s on the weekend, since it’s a little out of my way. I load up on produce(which is much cheaper compared to Publix/Winn Dixie), snacks(like trail mix and cereal bars) and their flowers…. I am in love with their flowers. I have bought roses, tulips, and peonies from their stores and each time they have lasted 1-1.5 weeks. I only buy them when they appear fresh, but boy, do they last and smell amazing!

    Just wanted to give a testament to east coast, Trader Joe’s’ flowers.

  19. August 11 at 07:14AM

    There is not a Trader Joe’s in my area but now I have some ideas on what to try the next time I’m near one! My sister has one near her and brought me some of the dark chocolate to try and it was awesome!

  20. April 16 at 11:21AM

    This was a good read! I don’t shop their often, but when I do I go there for the specialty things.

  21. Betty
    June 21 at 06:27PM

    My favorite “go to” place to shop. I love wandering the aisles and the customers always talk to each other and recommend different products. I buy most of my main groceries there and go to the other stores when I need something TJ’s doesn’t offer. My favorite: frozen bow tie pasta with spinach and the quadruple almond cookies! My husband thinks the coffee blast ice cream in the best!!! Way to go, T.J’s! Keep us the good work!!

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