Trader Joe's Grocery Guide: Do's, Don'ts and Must-Buys
It's time-- let's talk about grocery shopping! I've talked a ton about grocery shopping on a budget in the past, I've shared plenty of grocery hauls over on Youtube and Instagram, but I haven't yet taken the time to give you a true rundown of how and why I shop where I shop- and what I buy at my favorite stores. So I decided to record a series of Healthy Balanced Mama Podcast episodes (and coinciding blog posts like the one you're reading) all about my top 4 favorite grocery stores-- starting with Trader Joe's! So let's jump in.
Want to listen alongside? Listen to Episode 178: Trader Joe's Grocery Guide on the Healthy Balanced Mama Podcast:
Before I begin sharing my do's, don'ts and must-haves, you probably want an idea of HOW I choose what to buy.
Though I admittedly sometimes buy what I buy simply because I like it, I generally choose what to buy based on three main categories, and my food values.
The three main categories I use to decide what to buy (and what NOT to buy) at each store:
1. Cost effectiveness: How cost effective is this item? Though sometimes convenience wins, I am a healthy mama on a budget and, like most of us, I don't have unlimited funds to spend on groceries. So I want the best bang for my buck!
2. Quality: This comes down to food values (which I'll share more below) and culinary quality. Being a health-focused chef, these things are important to me! Is the quality where I want it to be to create delicious and nutritious meals?
3. Environmental Impact: This is something I am slowly trying to shift more towards- what is the environmental impact of the food I'm purchasing (i.e does it HAVE to be packaged, or can I buy it in bulk)?
And then there are our personal family food values: Remember, these are what we value when it comes to food- they don't have to be yours! 1. Prioritize good quality meat and dairy, first. I like to avoid hormones and antibiotics in meat and dairy and avoid factory farming when I can.
2. Like to buy organic when we can. We like to buy local produce in the summer, and some stores- like Trader Joe's, also offer local items- which might not be labeled organic but often have more organic practices, so this is where we tend to lean, eating as seasonally as we can- organic being the next preferred, but honestly- budget also matters here, so we're not crazy about being all-organic.
3. Avoid refined oils. Like organic produce, we're not crazy here, with snacks and such, but we don't like to use a ton of refined oils, because they are inflammatory. However, we avoid most of these by cooking most of our meals at home- so it's a balance, always!
4. Mostly whole foods, but again- we’re all about #balance. I love a good packaged item from Trader Joe's because I'm all about simplicity and having a rule-free relationship with food. But, I believe one of the simplest ways we can improve our health is to eat mostly whole foods, so the less ingredients, the better.
Let's head to Trader Joe's!
First and foremost- why I love Trader Joes:
Everyone is super friendly. Like, really, TJ's, you do a great job at hiring awesome employees- I've never had a bad experience.
Good prices. Because a lot of TJ's items are similar (or exactly the same) as name brands, packaged under their labels, the quality for the price is often really good.
High standards. Trader Joe's has pretty high food standards, you don't often find a lot of really out there ingredients, food dyes, high fructose corn syrup and the like- which I appreciate.
Fun! The store is just plain fun- Hawaiian themed, with fun artwork, funny names of different products- it's just a fun shopping experience overall!
My personal Trader Joe's Do's and Don'ts:
Produce in season: I don't buy a ton of produce at Trader Joe's- mostly because it's often highly packaged and tends to be not that much lower in price (I find Aldi to be better prices, but the quality isn't always there) but seasonal (and local, when I can get it) produce is a YES. Exceptions are some items I almost always buy there that are certainly not local to New England, like lemons, avocados and bananas, which I find are priced well.
Frozen veggies: great price, great quality. I always have a few bags of veggies in my freezer (and obviously, cauliflower rice).
Deli meat: Though the price isn't the BEST for deli meat, it's less expensive than, say, Whole Foods and the quality is good- so we often buy deli meat for lunches, here!
Cheese: I've gone to Trader Joe's JUST for cheese- the selection of fun cheeses for charcuterie boards is stellar (they have great rotating seasonal selections, as well), they also have a good variety of string cheese, shredded and sliced cheese (prices on organic sliced and shredded does tend to be better at Aldi, though I do find).
Nuts + dried fruit: I LOVE the nuts and dried fruit at Trader Joe's- their truffle and rosemary marcona almonds are a must for charcuterie boards.
Oils: Trader Joe's has a pretty good selection of oils, including olive, avocado, sesame and coconut (our healthy kitchen go-to's).
Grains/Beans/Pasta: Though we do prefer to buy grains and beans dried in bulk when we can, the prices at Trader Joe's- especially for gluten-free pasta, are good, we often buy what we need there, especially if we just need a small amount (p.s. If you haven't tried the 10-minute farro, it's one of my favorite bowl bases!).
Sauces (if you love them): If you love pre-made sauces, TJ's is the place for you. We're 50/50- make some, buy some. So outside of the summer, we buy pasta and pizza sauce at Trader Joe's- otherwise things like curry sauces (though they've gotten great reviews), we make at home.
Canned Tuna + Salmon: I love making a quick tuna or salmon salad (or salmon burgers) for easy lunches
Condiments: Great prices (though Aldi competes), and for the most part, ingredients and quality are there, as well.
Nut/Seed butters: These are a no-brainer, I LOVE the salted almond butter, my husband loves the crunchy salted valencia peanut butter, and my girls love the cashew and sunflower butters.
Frozen pizza: Their selection of frozen pizza is SO good (prices are often better at Aldi, but I think the quality at TJ's is better). The Burrata, Arugula and Prosciutto Flatbread is a personal favorite.
Bread + tortillas: Prices are good, quality is good as well- there is a great selection of everything from plain ol' white bread, to baguette, sprouted to sourdough and gluten-free, as well as buns, tortillas, flatbreads and more. I also always find their bread nice and fresh- which is a huge plus.
Coffee: I know there are varying opinions on TJ's coffee, but I love the quality for the price on (most) coffee- plus they have a grinder for their whole bean coffee.
Hemp seeds, chia seeds + cacao: They have great prices for 'superfood' type items- I love hemp seeds and cacao in my smoothies, and making chia pudding- and the Trader Joe's prices really can't be beat.
Seasonings: We all know about the Everything But The Bagel Seasoning (SO darn good), and they have other great seasoning blends (try the Umami blend on burgers- YUM) and their single herb and spice selection seems to grow every time I'm there- plus the prices are great, so when we're not buying herbs in bulk from Thrive Market, we usually get them from TJ's.
DON’T BUY: This list was hard-- I do love TJ's as a whole, and there aren't any things I don't ever buy, but these are the things I tend to avoid.
Spinach + Spring greens: It's rare we buy salad greens at TJ's, just because the amount is so little and the price is just ok (salad mixes are another story- I love them for quick lunches!).
Pre-chopped veggies: Packaging plus price make these a no for us (with the notable exception of Butternut Squash ZigZags in the fall and slaw mix in the summer)
Meat and fish: I find the quality at Trader Joe's pretty good- so we will buy meat there on occasion (we love their chicken sausage, so this is a go-to) but for quality and convenience (and I don't see a huge price difference) we still prefer Butcherbox.
Frozen rice: Forget convenience- buy a rice cooker! Yes, it will take a few more minutes, but it will save you ENTIRE dollars- dry rice is pennies per serving compared to frozen (plus the quality is better).
Pre-made Frozen Items: aside from cauli rice, pizza, veggie burgers and the occasional cauli gnocchi, we try and avoid pre-made frozen meals (they're just not worth the price tag, in my opinion!).
Milk and Juice: I find the prices higher than Aldi, and the quality is similar, so if we're buying these, we get them there.
So what DO I buy at Trader Joe's? My Trader Joe's Staples (almost-always-buy) list:
In season produce
Greek whole milk yogurt
Frozen Peppers and onions
Frozen peas and corn
Frozen Wild caught Argentinian shrimp
Sweet potato fries
Eggs (best for the quality)
Cereal for the kids
Bread- sourdough + sprouted
Organic french roast (and decaf) coffee
Avo oil spray
What we (almost always) buy just for fun:
Bagged salads: I love a good salad kit for an easy lunch. The Mediterranean one is my favorite and my go-to!
Perfect bars + GoMacro bars: these are treat because the price feels sky-high for a snack (or often for me, a preworkout for my long runs) but they're delicious- so I usually grab a couple.
Kombucha: If you're a kombucha lover, the price at TJ's is pretty good- and they have a good selection, so I usually grab one or two while I'm there!
Frozen pizza (burrata, arugula + prosciutto flatbread + mushroom flatbread)
Cauli gnocchi: If they're not out of this, I do love it for an easy dinner (the kids prefer their regular gnocchi)
Stuffed pastas: They're just so yummy! We usually choose a variety for a quick dinner with sauce, aglio olio or pesto.
Flowers: TJ's has GREAT prices on fresh flowers- and they always brighten a room!
Everything But The Bagel seasoning: If we're out, we need to stock up!
My husband's favorites: Chips + Peanut Butter stuffed pretzels
Chili Lime Chicken Burgers: I love these for easy lunches (here's a Copycat Trader Joe's Chili Lime Chicken Burger recipe and one for their popular Wine Country Chicken Salad)
Frozen Hi Protein Veggie Burgers: Also an easy lunch favorite- though these are definitely not the most cost effective (only two in a pack!)
My Kids' Favorites:
Snap pea crisps
Mac n' Cheese (for 99 cents, this one is an easy grab!)
All of that being said- here are my personal Top 10 Favorites from Trader Joe's!
1. Salted Almond Butter
2. Unexpected Cheddar Cheese (pair with apple slices or the Trader Joe's fig spread)
3. Dark Chocolate Almond Butter Cups (put them in the freezer- trust me!)
4. San Franciso Sourdough (with mashed avocado, a fried egg and the bagel seasoning- YES).
5. Frozen Cauliflower rice (mostly for smoothies!)
6. Frozen Pizza (how many times can I mention the Burrata, Arugula and Prosciutto pizza?!)
7. Sriracha Tofu: spicy, sweet and protein packed.
8. Everything But The Bagel Seasoning
9. Marcona almonds- truffle and rosemary (one or the other for every cheese plate, always!)
10. Garlic Naan. This is a frozen essential- SO good with my butternut squash chickpea curry)
BONUS: Chocolate Coated Peppermint Joe Joes. These are a seasonal item, but ALWAYS a must, and perhaps my all-time fave.
A few final tips + tricks:
You can return it. Literally anything- they'll take it back if it's icky or you just thought it was.
They have stickers for kids at the checkout!
Pre-pandemic they would let you try anything you want before you buy!
Bring your own bags and be entered into a local giveaway pot.
Looking for new items? Check for signs throughout the store! There's also usually an end-cap with new items, and one in front of the freezer section, as well.
Download the printable guide: