How to Shop at Trader Joe’s (or the Specialty Store of Your Choice)

Once upon a time, the Practical Cook had enough go-to stores, and was unwilling to let another one into her heart and wallet. Then came a visit to the newly opened Trader Joe’s. And I didn’t get it. If you’re a first-timer at TJ’s, there are two distinct approaches:Trader Joe's

A. Go by yourself for a look around, and risk complete shock and awe. You’ll either buy nothing because it’s arranged and packaged differently, or you’ll need to tap your HELOC and rent a van to get home.

B. Research before you go.

Initially, I chose path A. The local buzz was mounting, trusted friends had a happy glow about them, and I had my nose pressed on the glass outside, confused by the system of bells and the Hawaiian shirts.

So I punted and went to path B. Enter Illegally Cooking (as she has so aptly renamed herself) and Christina G (who I am naming by name, as she is a very public and impressive presence on Yelp). They love food, they love Trader Joe’s, and they were ready to help me convert. They both provided lists of favorites and some basic guidelines. So now I’m paying it forward.

How to Shop at Trader Joe’s

1. Do not shop for what is not there. Yes, you will see this phrase many times on this blog. Never is it more important than at a smaller shop like TJ’s. They might not have every last thing on your list, and they’re often out of favorites (looking at you Complicated Vegetarian, for buying no less than 7 of the Cheese Tortellinis). If the store is local to you, plan to drop in on occasion and stock up. If it’s a special trip to get there, go in knowing you’ll have to get what you can and return another day.

2. Ask friends for their shopping lists. Just recently a friend posted this exact request on Facebook. I shared a couple of items, and was able to benefit from the collective wisdom of the crowds. Here are some of the Practical Cook’s recommendations:

Trader Joe's Mini Peanut Butter Cups

Trader Joe's Mini Peanut Butter Cups

  • Dried fruits and nuts: great selection and interesting plain and flavored options
  • Cereal: see above, especially the granolas and the Peanut Butter Puffins
  • In-Season Fruit: great for Snack Week
  • Yogurt: Greek and traditional low-fat plain
  • Cheese Tortellini: no idea what fairy dust is in these, but they are better than average
  • Shelf-Stable Gnocchi: these are great in single skillet meals
  • Maple Syrup: do I need to remind you that I make waffles in batches of 36?
  • Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups, All Varieties: just trust me on this one
  • Crackers: cheaper and better than the standard issue
  • Almond Windmill Cookies and Vanilla Wafers: be forewarned, these are powerfully addictive

3. Compare prices. Once you have some idea about the types of things a store specializes in, make a point of noting the price in your usual store on your grocery list. That way, you’ll be less likely to go starry-eyed around the good merchandising.

4. Read the labels. This is just good practice anyway. If you’re eating something that has a label (aka, not a broccoli floret or an apple), read it. I have found that many, but not all, of the Trader Joe’s products have fewer ingredients and better nutritional ranking than similar products from the competition. TJ’s tends to be cheaper than other natural food stores, and in some cases is cheaper than the big-box grocery stores, but is selling the touchy-feely whole foods.

5. Beware the chocolate aisle. Because it’s delicious. Head to the sample station and get the sample of the day plus a mini-coffee before heading to the chocolate aisle. Doesn’t matter if you’re diabetic with an allergy, you will not make it out alive if you have two free hands.

For more great info on this subject, check out the Cooking with Trader Joe’s blog—discovered doing research for this post!

It’s already that time again, Sunday Weekly Menus!

Till next time, keep those pictures and questions rolling in (practicalcook at gmail dot com). Follow me on Twitter: practicalcook  (I’m loving the oatmeal debate Mark Bittman is stirring up with McDonald’s!)

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5 Comments

Filed under Kitchen Philosophy

5 responses to “How to Shop at Trader Joe’s (or the Specialty Store of Your Choice)

  1. Kelly

    So, coming up next, “How not to spend 175.00 when you go in for gnocchi and buy enough food for 2 months that goes with nothing, not to mention the case of wine…” Oh wait. That’s the list. No wonder I need help with the listing.

    • The Practical Cook

      Excellent point! The list, cranky kids, and samples in hand–those are my strategies. And even then I sneak there on my own sometimes.

  2. Illegally Cooking

    Don’t forget the Joe Joes! Better than Oreos. Also, Chow recently had a good article on TJ sourcing.

  3. Christina G

    The evil chocolate aisle!

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