April 16, 2013 at 4:50 PM ET
If you've ever gone grocery shopping at Trader Joe's on a Saturday—or pretty much any weeknight—you know that people really, really love the superstar market. (Yes, those checkout lines stretch all the way back to the store entrance!) But is it all must-have stuff? We asked the experts what to buy and what to skip at Trader Joe's.
From virtuous sprouted loaves to sinful cinnamon roll slices, Trader Joe's is a shop for bread lovers -- and health nuts, as many items, from hot dog buns to pita bread, are made with whole wheat and whole grains and aren't as processed as others, says Kelly Hancock, author of Saving Savvy: Smart and Easy Ways to Cut Your Spending in Half, and Raise Your Standard of Living … and Giving! Billy Vasquez, aka the 99 Cent Chef, also adores the store's carby, cost-conscious offerings, like olive loaves, that can be had for about $3. In other words, bread…for less dough.
BUY: Whole Bean Coffee
From everyday dark roasts to more rarified varieties, most coffee connoisseurs will find something to love amongst Trader Joe's extensive selection of whole bean offerings. Many are organic and fair-trade certified, and all come packaged in Trader Joe's fun and funky decorated tins. Plus, the price is right.
BUY: Affordable Wine
Home of the famously drinkable Two-Buck Chuck, TJ's motto could be: Get soused, spend less. Trader Joe's legendary Charles Shaw Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Merlot technically aren't $2 each anymore—they now cost from $2.50 to nearly $4 in some states—but they're still seriously cheap. One caveat: Sometimes "2BC" is terrible, says Trader Joe's Secrets blogger Mark Gardiner. His recommendation: "Buy one bottle of the varietal you're after, then open it in the parking lot and taste it. If it's bad, throw it out. If it's okay, go right back in and buy a case. It's consistent within batches, but varies widely from batch to batch."
SKIP: Most Produce, Most of the Time
There's nothing wrong with Trader Joe's fruits and vegetables, but generally there's nothing really right, either. Of course, it depends on seasonality and your specific store, but sometimes the produce at Trader Joe's "just isn't worth the cost," says CouponCabin.com president Jackie Warrick. "The quality can be lacking and you can do much better on price at a local farmer's market." Also: produce is often sold in packages (bad for the environment), and not always by the pound -- which may ultimately make it more expensive than what you might find at your local supermarket, says Teri Gault, Founder and CEO of The Grocery Game.
One exception to the above recommendation: bananas. "Those are a great deal," says Kelly Lester, mom and CEO of EasyLunchboxes.com and the author of Cooking with Trader Joe's: Easy Lunch Boxes. At just 19 cents each (which works out to about 48 cents a pound) feel free to, well, go bananas.
SKIP: Meat and Fish
Even if you're a die-hard primal eater, resist the temptation to stock up on the store's pre-packaged meats. While occasionally less expensive than at supermarkets, the lack of an on-site butcher leaves something to be desired, says Warrick. And given the fact that there are no "sales," you're generally better off seeking out protein sources elsewhere. "Fresh meat is cheaper when buying the featured meat specials at supermarkets," says Gault. So stick to your local butcher, fishmonger or supermarket.
BUY: Pantry Staples
Don't overlook Trader Joe's for un-sexy pantry staples like pasta, condiments and spices. Organic whole wheat pasta is always a good price at Trader Joe's, and usually much cheaper than Whole Foods, says Hancock. Lester loves them as well, and stocks up on them along with BBQ sauce, ketchup, mustard and packaged crackers, which have "relatively healthy ingredients and whole grains, and no food coloring." She also raves about the fun and easy spice grinders.
BUY: Nut Butters and Fruity Spreads
Upgrade your PB&J by swapping in any of Trader Joe's amazing and affordable nut butters (such as almond or sunflower), along with the store's spectacular fruit spreads. "I love the Organic Strawberry Preserves—it's the best store-bought jam I've found," says Gardiner. "I also really like Trader Joe's marmalade.” Seasonal Fig Butter is another favorite. "I wish this wasn't just an occasionally-available ingredient."
Who doesn't love chocolate? At Trader Joe's, you can get the good stuff for less. According to Gardiner, the store’s buyers and tasting panel favor European-style dark chocolates with lots of cacao content and relatively low sugar content. Meaning, you can't go wrong with any of the store’s many decadent chocolate items, from fair-trade bars to drenched fruit jellies.
Loaded with protein and full of heart healthy fats, nuts are an amazing source of nutrients. But they tend to be pricey—especially for more exotic types. Trader Joe's stocks lot of varieties—salted and unsalted almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, and more—all priced to move.
BUY: Flavored Croissants
If you can't have breakfast in Paris, Trader Joe's offers the next best thing—at least according to Food Network star Melissa d'Arabian, who raves about the frozen Almond and Chocolate Croissants. "These are the closest thing to what we used to get consistently in France," she says. "I used to buy my frozen croissant dough from Williams Sonoma, but Trader Joe’s Almond and Chocolate Croissants cost a buck a piece, about one-third the price"
SKIP: Plain Croissants
Sometimes, keeping it simple isn't the smart choice. As much as d'Arabian adores the Trader Joe's flavored croissants, the unflavored ones (which are part of the same line of frozen French fare) left her cold, thanks to "a small aftertaste that none of us cared for." We know it's hard, but you'll just have to settle for almond and chocolate.
BUY: French Macarons
Macarons are a ubiquitous, if pricey, treat in certain circles, selling for as much as $31 per dozen in some bakeries. Trader Joe's chocolate and vanilla frozen French Macarons, on the other hand, are just $4.99 for a dozen. "Honestly, these could be from a bakery," says d'Arrabian, describing the French cookies as "tender, crisp on the outside, and perfectly dreamy-creamy on the inside."
BUY: Party Appetizers
Sure, you could spend your party prep time wrapping prosciutto around melon or pigs in blankets. Or, you could simply heat and serve any of Trader Joe's delicious and affordable appetizers like gyoza, quiches, mushroom tartlets, and spanikopita triangles. Stash a few of your favorites in the freezer and you'll always be the hostess with the mostess.
BUY: Frozen Turkey Meatballs
We've never met a parent whose kid didn't adore Trader Joe's' frozen turkey meatballs. Flame broiled and fully cooked without any artificial colors or flavors, they're savory and reasonably low in fat (just 4g per 100 calorie serving). Even better: They heat in minutes and are great alone or tossed in a sauce over meatballs—perfect for weeknight dinners.
SKIP: Most Other Frozen Entrees
"A lot of customers hear Trader Joe's claim that all Trader Joe's-branded items are all-natural and confuse that for being 'organic' or 'healthy'. Most of the prepared foods are loaded with salt and calories," says Gardiner, citing Joe's Diner frozen macaroni and cheese, as an example. The popular entree features seemingly reasonable nutritionals—until you notice the numbers are on a half-package serving size. "I can guarantee you that almost everyone who buys it throws the entire package into the microwave and eats it all in one sitting," he says.
"The cheese variety at Trader Joe's is some of the best at any grocery store, and the prices are just as easy-to-swallow," says Warrick. From string to chevre, cheese is one of the brightest spots at Trader Joe's, with more than 50 varieties stocked at a given time. The selection is far better than the average supermarket, and items tend to cost less than specialty stores like Whole Foods, says Hancock, especially for organic and unusual varieties.
BUY: Organic Milk
Concerns about hormones and antibiotics have led to a swelling in the popularity of organic milk. Unfortunately, a half-gallon of the stuff typically costs between $4-$5. If you have a houseful of cereal, chocolate milk and smoothie lovers, you could run through that in a day or two. Trader Joe's sells a full gallon of organic milk for less than $6—totally worth the trip for this, if nothing else.
BUY: Milk Alternatives
There are plenty of reasons to opt for non-dairy "milk": lactose intolerance, dietary restrictions, calories, taste, etc. Trader Joe's stocks a stellar selection of both name and house brands, from coconut to soy to rice milk, all at crazy low prices. Almond Breeze, arguably the most popular purveyor of almond milk, costs just $1.99 for a 32-ounce shelf stable box. Trader Joe's version cost even less: just $1.69 for the same amount. You'd be hard-pressed to find better prices anywhere.
BUY: Yogurt, Greek and Otherwise
Before everyone and her mother was chowing down on Chobani, Trader Joe's was serving up the protein-packed dairy delight to raves, with standards like vanilla sharing shelf space with unusual organic flavors like Pumpkin and Apricot Mango. Much of the yogurt is actually made by Stonyfield Farms, and it's usually priced at least 40 cents lower than other stores, says Warrick. You'll also find soy and cultured coconut milk yogurts for those who avoid dairy.
SKIP: Prepared Sushi
The blog What's to Buy at Trader Joe's didn't have nice things to say about the store's packaged sushi. It's cheap, but not that cheap, compared to grocery store sushi—which isn't exactly good, either. You're better off saving up for the real thing, and sticking to ubiquitous sushi lunch specials.
Fruit mashers, fruit leather, dried fruit, cereal bars and any number of other snacks are a great buy at Trader Joe's. "Unusual, delicious snacks like peanut butter pretzels, are all well-priced," says Gault, as are "tasty cookies," especially the Triple Ginger Snaps. "Be warned, these are the crack of cookies! Addictive, and hands-down the best ginger snaps I've ever tasted at any price” says Gardiner.
SKIP: Freeze Dried Fruit
Trader Joe's freeze dried strawberries, blueberries, mangos and raspberries are fruity, fun and nearly as healthy as the fresh variety. Kids gobble them up, too. So what's not to love? For starters, each cost around $3.50 for a wispy little bag that'll be hoovered in about 20 seconds. It's not a terrible price for freeze dried fruit (packages can cost 3x that), but you're generally better off serving fresh as a mainstay and stashing a package or two away for emergencies. Plus, a 1/4 of the package inevitably turns to fruit dust aka "finger dye." (Blueberries are especially messy—you've been warned.)
BUY: Flowers and Plants
While fresh-cut flowers and potted plants may seem like a frivolous expense, Trader Joe's lets flora fans fill their homes with buds and blooms for typically less than comparable items at nurseries, farmer's markets and other grocery stores. According to Gault, the store offers "lovely deals" on in-season beauties such as Narcissus flowers (aka daffodils) for $1.29 to $1.69, and ranunculus bouquets for $4.99 to $5.99. The store also routinely offers stunning potted orchids for less than $15.
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.