I remember when the Whole Foods opened up right across from the local grocery store in my hometown. It was a big deal. Alpharetta, Georgia, for the first time, had a dedicated place to buy organic produce. As a blossoming teen cook, I used to not shop there because I thought organic equaled pricey. But then I discovered their house brand, 365, and everything changed.
Slowly but surely, my mother and I would come home to each other with new Whole Foods discoveries: "Did you know that Whole Foods has store-brand butter, eggs, and milk? They're pretty cheap." Or, "They have way better flowers than Publix." And I'll never forget the one year my mother said to me, with a sparkle in her eye, "Eric, have you ever had a Brussels sprout? It's like a tiny cabbage, and it's delicious. It was in this 'free' section where you can just take samples of hot food and eat it while shopping around the store."
"Oh my god, Mom. Are you talking about the hot bar? That's not free!"
Though Whole Foods isn't my primary grocery store these days, whenever I walk into one, I'm reminded of how useful it was back home in suburban Georgia. Living with just a generic grocery store that, as much as I adored it, couldn't supply the kinds of ingredients I needed as an experimental young cook who watched Food Network every day, it was nice to know that lamb chops and trout fillets and, for that one Christmas dinner where I tried to go fancy, fresh lobster tails were right there, fully stocked, at the other grocery store. Especially around the holidays, I'd do the bulk of my shopping at Publix, and then drive across the street to Whole Foods for the more specialty items, like chanterelle mushrooms, heirloom carrots, and Brussels sprouts.
Now, my needs are a little different. I never leave a Whole Foods without buying sunflowers (they’re my favorite) and those 365-brand Cheddar Cheese Curls (off-brand Cheetos, basically), which are so much better and cleaner-tasting to me than regular Cheetos (which are already pretty good, let's be real). This is a real problem for me because there happens to be a Whole Foods right by the Food52 offices. Curious to know if anyone else had this issue, I asked my colleagues what they can't resist at Whole Foods—and got a slew of responses, which I've reproduced below.
The main through line? If you stick with store-brand (i.e. 365), basic groceries at Whole Foods can be, contrary to popular belief, pretty affordable, which is exactly what we all need around the holidays.
Merrill Stubbs, Co-Founder: Love their brown rice veggie sushi! Also their peanut butter (creamy all the way).
Eddie Barrera, Studio Manager & Prop Stylist: +1 for peanut butter, but I'm more of a crunchy fan. The garlic-roasted naan is good, too.
Hana Asbrink, Senior Lifestyle Editor: I stock up on the 365 Everyday Value Organic Almond Milk Unsweetened and Organic Orecchiette Rigate (these are nice and thick, capture sauces well, and don't flop into each other as much!).
Erin Alexander, Assistant Editor: I ALWAYS stock up on their dried pastas. But actually, anything with a 365 label gets thrown in my cart.
Luz Ramirez, Marketing Manager: Their cornbread. It's sweet and basically cake—but ultimate comfort food.
Kaitlin Bray, Social Media Director: All of the 365 canned beans! The organic ones are still so cheap.
Ella Quittner, Food Writer & Recipe Developer: 365-brand almond butter, no sugar/salt—half the price of other brands! (Crunchy, and smooth, because I'm totally out of control almond butter–wise.) Speaking of which, all of their 365 baking products are so much better priced than competitors' (e.g. flours, baking powder, etc). They have very cheap baking ingredients. OH, and the olive bar. Is that 365? I've never had time to notice, I'm too busy 'sampling' the Castelvetranos.
Annalee Leggett, Strategy & Finance Manager: I am mildly addicted to the 365-brand White Cheddar Popcorn (file it under "snacks I've turned into dinner"). It's certainly not the healthiest, but it's served me well for years.
Megan Güntaş, Digital Designer: Their seafood, specifically the salmon fillets.
Maggie Slover, Copywriter: I recently discovered the little-known basket in the cheese section full of odds and ends. It's brimming with too-small pieces from the counter that are actually PERFECT for making a grilled cheese for one, adding to a baked potato, or just sampling fancy-schmancy Camembert (that you may or may not want 2 lbs of). Most are priced under $3 too.
Trevor Baca Adams, Merchandising Coordinator: Better Than Bouillon.
Laura Wolfgang, Senior Product Manager: Whole rotisserie chicken, when I'm looking for a quick weeknight dinner. Good in salads! Unroasted and unsalted nuts for homemade nut milks and nut butters (365 brand!).
Victoria Maynard, Director of Finance: DILL PICKLE ALMONDS. Also, I learned this from Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen: If I'm hosting brunch, I can go to the Whole Foods hot bar in the morning and get a bunch of cooked bacon. Then I warm it on a sheet pan before serving. I have a tiny stove, so this way I can make an egg dish, and my entire apartment doesn't smell like bacon. (It's also cheaper than buying uncooked bacon!)
Suzanne D'Amato, VP of Content: They’re a surprisingly good go-to for last-minute birthday and thank you cards. It's a small selection, but there's a real range of choices, from minimalist to super-sparkly. Also, the store near me opens at 7 a.m....many hours earlier than most stationery stores!
This is an unsponsored love letter to Whole Foods, one of the many grocery stores at which we shop for food. Please let us know in the comments below: What's YOUR favorite thing to get at Whole Foods?