I willingly make grocery shopping harder on myself by visiting at least four different places every week: the farmers market (for local, seasonal produce), Zingerman's (for cheese and bread and coffee), a higher-end grocery store (for any non-seasonal produce needs or specialty ingredients), and Trader Joe’s (for dairy products, pantry staples, and, well, you’ll see).
I do this not out of a love for running errands, but rather to support my local economy; to shop at places I enjoy (sorry big-box grocery stores, but your never-ending aisles and fluorescent lighting are soul-sucking, not joy-inducing); to buy food I feel good about eating; and to balance my love of luxury ingredients with reasonably-priced (but high-quality!) ones. And that last point is where Trader Joe’s comes in. I turn to TJ’s (we’re on a nickname basis), for many of my staples, but also for a lot of fun, maybe-you-haven’t-tried-it-before-but-you-should products—what I’m focusing on today.
Here’s how I’d spend $100 on (mostly fun) stuff at Trader Joe’s:
Breads/Refrigerated/Produce — $15
Fun: The Raw Sauerkraut with Persian Cucumbers is a must-buy. It's great on sandwiches and anywhere else you like sauerkraut, but I also recommend it straight-up as a side. Grab a tub of hummus—I usually go for the Original, and then doctor it up—along with a tub of Cilantro & Chive Yogurt Dip; you can use both as a dip or on sandwiches or wraps (better grab a pack of Truly Handmade Flour Tortillas while you're at it).
A few more: I generally avoid the produce section, since for the most part I'm getting it elsewhere, but I am a fan of the bags of Meyer lemons, shishito peppers, and Stokes Purple sweet potatoes when they're in season. The Soy Chorizo and Steamed Lentils (these lentils are fully cooked, which is why they're in the refrigerated section) are convenient, tasty, meal building blocks.
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Cheese Case — $15
Fun: Even though I told you that I buy cheese at Zingerman's, I'm still telling you to get cheese at Trader Joe's—it's so reasonably priced that you'd be crazy not to. Life is better with more cheese! Two of my recent favorites have been the Cheddar Cheese with Caramelized Onions and the Unexpected Cheddar Cheese (the latter of which I was turned onto by a former intern, thanks Joy!). What makes a cheddar unexpected? I'll let Trader Joe's explain:
At first bite, it tastes like an aged Cheddar. And then something entirely unexpected happens. The smooth creaminess of the Cheddar gives way to a tangy flavor and slightly crumbly texture, a subtle hint of salt crystallization is discovered, and it begins to taste like an aged Parmesan. Unexpected indeed!
Also take a peek at the Spotlight Cheese of the Month and get one of those too.
A few more: I am never without a block of Wisconsin Extra Sharp Cheddar in my fridge (or the enormous block of Cabot if it's around holiday time #allofthecheddar). And TJ's has every other cheese need covered, too (and it's almost certainly cheaper than anywhere else): burrata, Grana Padano, feta, Brie—yes, yes, yes, yes, and then some.
Nuts/Fruits/Home — $25
Fun: All of them. Okay, I'm exaggerating a little, but you could easily spend your $100 entirely in this aisle. For nuts, I recommend starting with Roasted & Salted Marcona Almonds with Rosemary and Salt and Pepper Pistachios. Then add a few bags of fruit: I especially like the Unsweetened, Unsulfured Dried Bing Cherries, the Freeze Dried Strawberries, and the Dried Baby Bananas. Don't be put off when you open the bag of baby bananas: They look like mummified fingers, but they taste like slightly chewy banana bread (because they are just very ripe dried bananas).
A few more: This is the place to buy seeds and nuts, so stock up: sunflower seeds, cashews, pecans, peanuts, pine nuts, etc. Considering grabbing a pack of Pop-Up Sponges and a few RxBars, which I discovered thanks to an ill-fated decision to try Whole30. That discovery was the best thing to come out of the whole thing (all 17 days of it that I lasted): They're so much tastier than cereal or protein bars for breakfasts on the go (and are handy to stash in your bag for hangry moments), and they're free from gluten, soy, dairy, and added sugar.
Sample station — Free!
Take a minute and try something new! And for future shopping adventures, follow the self-explanatory blog, What's Good at Trader Joe's, to help you decide if it's worth it or not to pick up a new-to-you product.
Freezer/Candy/Chocolate — $20
Fun: I like the Scandinavian Swimmers and Ts & Js Sour Gummies, both of which are vegetarian-friendly (hard to come by in gummy candies). If you prefer chocolate over fruity candies, TJ's has you covered, too: Try the Dark Chocolate Covered Caramels (or Peanut Butter Cups). Their frozen croissants (chocolate, almond, or mini) are shockingly good, as are the Mochi Ice Cream balls (when you don't have time to make your own). If it's holiday time, Peppermint Joe-Joe's are not to be missed, and if you have kids, keep your eyes peeled for Gingerbread House Kits, which are available at multiple times throughout the year (they're themed for different holidays, like Halloween and Fourth of July).
A few more: Not particularly exciting, but I almost always grab bags of frozen edamame, organic peas, artichoke hearts, and cauliflower rice. I like to have a bag of frozen Thai Vegetable Gyoza on hand for an easy dinner, as well as frozen Tandoori Naan for making individual pizza/flatbreads.
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New Stuff — $9
Fun: Somewhere in the store, likely on an endcap, you find the new products. Stop and pick a couple up: It's how I discovered the Crispy Crunchy Mochi Rice Nuggets (these are made of mochi paste that's dried, fried, and tossed in sea salt, so they're savory, not sweet) and Restaurant Style White Corn Tortilla Chips (which have a hint of lime and sea salt), both pictured earlier). My most favorite recent find from this section is the Yuzu Hot Sauce, which you too will enjoy if you like citrus and hot sauce.
Greeting Cards — $1
Fun: I mean, they’re all only one dollar. For 99 cents (plus a stamp) and 5 minutes you can make someone’s day.
Pantry/Baking — $15
Fun: I always grab a can of Dolmas (stuffed grape leaves), as they make an easy, last-minute appetizer—especially paired with the hummus you already picked up. Same story for the Giant Baked Beans in Tomato Sauce. This is also the spot to get hot sauces, like the yuzu one I just mentioned, or maybe Green Dragon Hot Sauce. I also love their Cornichons—you never know when you're going to want to whip up a batch of Sauce Gribiche. I'm partial to the Unsweetened Cashew Butter and Unsweetened Almond Butter, but if you like your spreads sweet, this is also the spot to pick up a jar of Cookie Butter.
A few more: I like to stock up on other staples from this aisle, like olives of every variety, mustards, coconut cream (and milk), and rolled oats.
What are your favorite products at Trader Joe's?
A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).Order now