Trader Joe’s has developed such a cult-like following that every morning, a row of shoppers line up in front of this popular store waiting for them to open. TJ’s is known for having healthy food (with minimal ingredients and organic options) at budget prices. They also have a variety of quick short-cut items such as frozen rice and cooked lentils and unique specialty products fans will drive long distances to secure — has anyone not heard of their Everything but the Bagel Seasoning and their Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups?
One common critique is that TJ’s portion sizes are on the smaller side, meaning a larger family would need to buy multiple packages of the foods like frozen gnocchi, mandarin chicken and macaroni and cheese to feed their group, making the items no longer as economical as cooking dinner from scratch, but still a huge savings as opposed to takeout.
Trader Joe’s shoppers are loyal and passionate about their groceries. Even with all the great products and hype, there are still some items worth skipping on visits to this iconic store. Here’s the insider info on what to buy, and what to skip …
What to buy
1. Specialty Seasonings – One of the most popular items in the store is the Everything but the Bagel Seasoning. TJ’s enthusiasts sprinkle this on everything from hummus to scrambled eggs to avocado toast and more. EBTB isn’t the only seasoning receiving lots of customer fanfare, the Umami Seasoning and Chili Lime Seasoning are both also worth the purchase and can take ordinary foods to the next level.
2. Prepared Dips and Spreads – Whether we’re talking jarred Harissa Salsa, the infamous Cookie Butter, or refrigerated Zhoug Sauce, TJ’s dip game is on point. Many of these items are great with chips, pita or heaped on top of cooked meats and vegetables. The Cilantro Jalapeno Hummus is my absolute favorite store-bought hummus ever.
3. Cheese – TJ’s has a great assortment of specialty cheeses at reasonable prices. Worth mentioning are the Goat Milk Brie, the Blueberry Goat Cheese and the Unexpected Cheddar.
4. Nuts – While Costco prices may beat TJ’s on nuts, I don’t always need or want a large amount of one variety of nut. TJ’s has great quality nuts, at good prices, with interesting varieties and flavors including Thai Lime and Chili Cashews.
5. Dried Fruit – TJ’s has the most commonly sought dried fruits like cranberries, but also has an eclectic assortment of hard to find items including dried mandarin oranges, figs and chile spiced mango.
6. Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups – These are a category all of their own because of their vast popularity. If you haven’t had these yet, RUN, don’t walk, to TJ’s and get you some.
7. Cereal – If you don’t mind generic cereals, TJ’s has a good variety at great prices ranging from $2-4 a box.
8. Oils and Oil Sprays – Whether you are looking for coconut oil, avocado oil or olive oil TJ’s has great quality products at good prices. Costco has better prices on all of these items, but the items come in such large packages that many families would not use a container before expires. By purchasing oils at TJ’s you can buy them in more manageable amounts to store and use.
9. Frozen Specialty – This is one of the departments that gets customers in the store. The frozen Mandarin Chicken was the store’s most popular item in 2018. Also worth mentioning are the cauliflower crust pizza, mac and cheese, cauliflower gnocchi, sweet potato gnocchi and street corn.
10. Snacks – This is one of the areas where TJ’s excels. With snacks such as crispy chickpeas, plantain chips, Popcorn in a Pickle, 3 Seed Beet Crackers and These Peanuts Go on a Date Bar, TJ’s has an assortment of items containing minimal ingredients at good prices. Unlike Costco, since you are purchasing smaller amounts of snacks, it is easier to purchase a new snack on a whim without committing to a giant package of something you’ve never tried.
11. Specialty Beverages – I really enjoy their assorted and unique sparkling juices including French Market Sparkling Limeade, Pumpkin Pie Spiced Ginger Brew and Sparkling Watermelon Juice. There are so many unique seasonal options of specialty beverages including seasonal items like Almond Nog and Elderberry Soda.
12. Alcohol – TJ’s is famous for their $2.99 bottles of wine, referred to by shoppers as “Two Buck Chuck.” Due to a lack of quality, I will not use this wine for drinking, but happily use it to make Whole Roasted Cauliflower, Bolognese Sauce and other wine-laden dishes. In addition to the cheap wine, TJ’s carries a great assortment of name brand bottles of wine and liquor at some of the cheapest prices around.
13. Flowers and Plants – TJ’s boasts bouquets of beautiful flowers priced from $3.99- $9.99. They also usually have some time of small reasonably priced potted plant changing with the season from succulents to rosemary trees.
14. Greeting Cards – The greeting card selection is very limited (which I like because I don’t spend hours deciding on a card), but the cards are cute and only $1.
15. Sunscreen – Apparently TJ’s isn’t just for food. Their sunscreen is inexpensive and consistently performs in the top tier on Consumer Reports.
What to skip
1. Pre-packaged sushi – Unlike most grocery stores whose sushi is made in-house, TJ’s sushi is made, packaged and shipped meaning there can be long times between it being prepared and consumed. Extra preservatives have to be used to keep the sushi edible throughout all of this transporting, which is perhaps why many consumers complain that the sushi rice tastes oddly sweet.
2. Prepared Sandwiches – Most TJ’s prepared sandwiches come in between 560 and 640 calories. To put this in perspective, a Big Mac contains 468 calories. Similar to the sushi, these sandwiches are not prepared in house and are therefore not very fresh. They also pack a deceptively large calorie count for what they are.
3. Meat – Unlike most grocers, TJ’s does not have a butcher in the store. This means all of the meat has to be pre-packaged and shipped, meaning it won’t be as fresh as other grocers, or will have been frozen along the way. In addition to this, TJ’s has a limited selection of meat, and many customers have complained of meat expiring prior to the date on the package.
4. Produce – TJ’s has a good variety of produce at reasonable prices, but their produce is famous for spoiling quickly upon leaving the store. One exception here are their bananas; at 19 cents a piece, they are a great price (better than Costco), have a good shelf life and you are able to buy exactly how many bananas you need, rather than a giant bunch. I will also purchase their specialty produce (baby zucchini, purple cauliflower, Belgian endive) for a party or event, but try to buy it within 36 hours of when I plan to serve it.
5. Organic Milk – While their organic milk is a great quality, comparable products can be found at better prices at Whole Foods, Costco and even many grocery stores.
Because the portions are small and my family eats A LOT of food, TJ’s is not my everyday store. It is however the spot I hit up anytime I am hosting guests because they excel in all the things I want for a party including specialty beverages, flowers, dried fruits, nuts and cheese. All of this comes together beautifully in a crudités or cheese platter displayed next to a bouquet of their beautiful flowers.