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Thread: What foods to buy and what to skip at Trader Joe’s

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    Elite Member celeb_2006's Avatar
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    Default What foods to buy and what to skip at Trader Joe’s



    What foods to buy and what to skip at Trader Joe

    If you ever want to start a conversation at a party, try asking this question: What are the best and worst deals at Trader Joe’s? It’s only slightly less controversial than health care reform.
    Americans (and I include myself) are crazy about Trader Joe’s. There are Facebook pages, books about shopping there, even fan-run websites. What inspires this passion? Jovanna Brooks, founder of traderjoesfan.com and traderjoesguide.com, says, “The reason that there are so many really die-hard Trader Joe’s fans is because you can get incredibly unique items. It’s adventure shopping all the time because there are things that are constantly new. At the same time, people get upset when products get discontinued, but that’s part of the fun.”

    The company was started in Pasadena, California in 1958 by Joe Coulombe, as a small chain of convenience stores. Coulombe reportedly sold Trader Joe's in 1979 to the Albrechts, a German family which owns Aldi, an international chain of discount supermarkets. There are now 340 Trader Joe's in some 28 states but despite the expansion, the store has maintained its “I’m-your-neighborhood-grocer” quirkiness.

    Shoppers love the cheery, helpful checkout people in Hawaiian shirts, the wide array of new foods and the low-cost, private-label products that are often created by well-known brands. While Trader Joe’s doesn’t like to name names (and did not return calls for this story), ardent shoppers and industry insiders say that you can find brand products, such as Amy’s prepared dishes or Callebaut chocolate, repackaged there under the Trader Joe’s label at a much lower cost.

    As Beth Kowitt wrote in a recent article for Fortune, “Inside the Secret World of Trader Joe’s”: “Those Trader Joe’s pita chips? Made by Stacy’s, a division of PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay. On the East Coast much of its yogurt is supplied by Danone’s Stonyfield Farm. And finicky foodies probably don’t like to think about how Trader Joe’s scale enables the chain to sell a pound of organic lemons for $2.”

    Leaving aside the food politics, my question is: Are Trader Joe’s prices always better? I’ve been a fan for years and shopped stores from California to Connecticut. Even though prices often vary from place to place and can change day by day, as the editor of EatingWell, I think I generally know what to look for there. But I’ve often been surprised. So I decided to see what other people thought.

    In addition to talking with Brooks, I asked EatingWell’s Facebook fans to tell us what they thought are the best and worst deals at the store, and we got a slew of comments. Then, armed with a list and a calculator, I went to see how prices and perceptions match up. (For all my shopping comparisons, I checked prices on similar items in stores and on the websites of large chains, such as Stop & Shop, Safeway and Wegmans).

    WHAT TO SKIP

    Pass on the Produce
    A pet peeve many people mention is the lack of fresh, local produce. “To be honest, the produce is not the best,” says Brooks. “It definitely leaves a lot to be desired.” I confess that I like to buy fresh and local whenever I can and Trader Joe’s cellophane-wrapped peppers and other produce don’t often inspire me.

    To keep an open mind, I went to a Trader Joe’s and picked up a bundle of unwrapped asparagus. In this Connecticut store, rather anemic-looking spears were selling for $4.39 a pound, whereas the larger market down the street featured healthier-looking asparagus at $3.79 a pound or less.

    Not every deal in the produce section is a dud; you just have to find the right items. Trader Joe’s is known for buying in bulk, and produce that ships well seems to fare better here. Hass avocados were bundled in a bag of four for $3.29. That seemed worth it, especially when a nearby supermarket was selling four for $5. Granted, the Trader Joe’s avocados were small and hard but after I let them ripen for a day, they were delicious. I found similarly good deals and quality on sturdy produce like clementines and bananas too.

    Skip the Meat
    One common comment we heard from our Facebook fans: “Best deal - milk, eggs and yogurt. Worst deal - prepackaged meats.” Brooks agrees: “You would think the meat would be fresh, but it’s just not the best and they don’t have an in-store butcher.”

    I went shopping for my favorite Black Angus rib-eye steak. It was almost $2 a pound more at Trader Joe’s. Boneless leg of lamb from New Zealand was $6.49 a pound at TJ's versus $4.99 elsewhere, and ground beef was $2.49 a pound versus $2.99. One exception is the organic meats: Trader Joe’s has made a push toward more organic ingredients and, at $6.99 a pound, organic, boneless, skinless chicken breasts are a go-to food for me, especially when it’s not always easy to find chicken that’s both organic and skinless.

    TOSS-UPS

    Hit or Miss: Bakery and Prepared Foods
    Brooks considers deli items like sushi, ready-made sandwiches and salads, and the baked goods and breads as hit or miss. These items vary from store to store depending on local suppliers, so keep that in mind as you shop.

    Watch Out for the Treats
    “You’re in there, you’re saving money, you’re getting good deals—and then they have some things you can’t say “no” to, like chocolate-covered almonds, gourmet cookies and Belgian chocolates, and some of those things can really add up,” says Brooks. “But in some cases those are also better deals than elsewhere,” so make sure to compare prices before you impulse-buy.

    WHAT TO BUY

    Cheese, Please!
    Everyone loves Trader Joe’s cheese selection and with good reason. They have cheeses that are both

    insanely good and insanely well priced. One Brooks says to look for: “Comté. An up-and-coming cheese that’s like a Gruyère.” I agree. And I can’t pass up a good deal on cheese. In fact, I have a stockpile of goat cheese because I can’t resist the giant 10-ounce log of Vermont Butter & Cheese Chèvre for just $4.99 (versus a 4-ounce log for $3.99, which I found at several other food stores and online).
    Load Up on Staples
    If you shop the center of the store, it’s hard not to find great deals in most every aisle, especially on staples like Trader Giotto’s Extra-Virgin Olive Oil for $5.49 a liter—more than $3 cheaper than I could find at other stores. Trader Joe’s-labeled almonds at $4.69 were nearly half as much as they cost elsewhere. Nature’s Path Flax-Plus Granola cereal: $2.89 a box, versus $3.99. And my favorite, a bag of true wild rice—not mixed with long grain—for $4.99 a pound, versus $11 a pound and up at other stores.

    Befriend the Freezer
    As for the freezer: my sister swears by Trader Joe’s frozen wild sockeye smoked salmon ($17.99 a pound, versus $27.96 a pound for smoked Atlantic salmon at other stores) and jumbo frozen wild scallops ($11.99 a pound, versus $15.99). The people we polled named all sorts of frozen appetizers and entrees as their favorite go-to meals. As Brooks says, “The nice thing is a lot of their stuff is frozen or shelf-stable—you just whip it out of the freezer or your pantry and you have a party.” Good deals include frozen rice, international foods like naan (an Indian bread), and frozen fruit, such as mango chunks. As for frozen meals, some top-sellers Brooks points to include Mandarin Orange Chicken, Penne Arrabiata and Tarte d’Alsace—a thin pizza topped with Gruyère cheese, creamy caramelized onions and ham.

    Browse Beyond Food
    I could go on and on about the flowers ($9.99 for a dozen roses) and Phalaenopsis orchid plants are usually $3 to $4 less than you can find them at Home Depot (the next best place I’ve shopped for them), especially at West Coast locations. I also love the Trader Joe’s brand lavender body oil and soaps, and the grapefruit-scented shampoo smells lovely and its packaging is attractive.
    Lastly, one of the things I do love is that Trader Joe’s is making a concerted effort to do the right thing. In 2001, the company decided not to use any genetically-modified foods in its private label products and in 2007 made a commitment to eliminate added trans fats from all private label products (along with artificial colors, flavors, preservatives). Trader Joe’s branded eggs are all cage free and by 2012, the company promises that all of its seafood will be sustainably-sourced.

    But what I think is the real beauty of Trader Joe’s is that it’s a place that inspires conversation.

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    Elite Member Brah's Avatar
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    I just went to Trader Joe's today. I really like it, though I agree that the produce isn't very good. It usually goes bad kind of quick, and I've even bought fruit and noticed mold as soon as I got home. But, if I'm there for something else I'm not going to go to another store to buy fruit, and there's no farmer's markets near me.

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    Elite Member sprynkles's Avatar
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    Totally agree with this article. Their frozen stuff is fantastic and so affordable. I was addicted to the veggie spring rolls. I found prices at T.J's to be cheaper than a regular supermarket. They have a decent vitamin section with great prices and a great selection of nuts, raw and roasted.
    Going there during the xmas season is awesome, they have holiday candy, cookies and other treats that are just wonderful.
    Now I'm in a city with no Trader Joe's and I sorely miss it. I went to Seattle in December and brought a suitcase home filled with groceries and vitamins lol. For some reason airport security rifled through my bags I checked and there was sticky lemon curd all over my clothes. Lol, I imagine one of them opened the brand new jar to have a taste!

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    Elite Member bellini's Avatar
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    I love their frozen stuff. They have some very original things. The produce is way over-priced. I go for the booze, frozen food, chocolate and bread stuff.


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    Elite Member FashionVictim's Avatar
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    Except for my produce I do all of my food shopping there.
    "Cake is the language of love" - Dylan Moran

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    I like the wine, roasted red pepper hummus, yogurt, nuts, and the sweet potato chips. Their Ezekiel bread is fresh (not frozen) and cheaper than anywhere else too. Unfortunately, both of the TJ's in my city are about a 20-25 minute drive away, so I don't get there often.

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    Super Moderator twitchy2.0's Avatar
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    Buy whatever the hell you want. Make your own damn decisions in life. Ignore any list posing as a news article.
    As Canadian as possible under the circumstances

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    Elite Member KrisNine's Avatar
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    I like their spinach dip, the Country Italian salad, their breads and their granola cereal. Yum

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    Elite Member MohandasKGanja's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by travelbug View Post
    I like the wine, roasted red pepper hummus, yogurt, nuts, and the sweet potato chips. Their Ezekiel bread is fresh (not frozen) and cheaper than anywhere else too. Unfortunately, both of the TJ's in my city are about a 20-25 minute drive away, so I don't get there often.
    Out here, only one store in an entire grocery chain in the state is allowed to sell wine (in order to protect all the beer and wine stores). As a result, I have no idea what Trader Joe's in this state sells that three-buck-Chuck stuff.

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    Gold Member Brandy Alexander's Avatar
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    Love their frozen stuff and their wines. I agree about the produce - not so good.
    "I'm not allowed within 200 feet of a school. Or a Chuck-E-Cheese..." Alan - The Hangover

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    The pork potstickers in the frozen section are pretty darn good too! Fry those up in some sesame oil, YUM.

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    Gold Member Baby Face's Avatar
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    We just got one in my town. I hear it is great for non traditional things like gluten free stuff, etc.
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    Elite Member burnt_toast's Avatar
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    Their store brand mayonnaise and yellow mustard are the only corn free versions I have found ANYWHERE. My in-laws drive up there (an hour or so away) and always come back with condiments for me. Love the corn free stuff!

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    Elite Member MohandasKGanja's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by burnt_toast View Post
    Their store brand mayonnaise and yellow mustard are the only corn free versions I have found ANYWHERE. My in-laws drive up there (an hour or so away) and always come back with condiments for me. Love the corn free stuff!
    Corn allergy?

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    Elite Member burnt_toast's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by MohandasKGanja View Post
    Corn allergy?
    Yup ... I should put it in my signature. I always end up making reference to it and no one knows why in the world I care so much about corn

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