The buy it, skip it guide to Trader Joe’s

When is it worth braving the full-contact shopping?

We all know Trader Joe’s houses a bounty of economical delights and a helpful army of Hawaiian-shirted staffers… but, guh, the fustercluck of a crowd, always, during most of the store’s hours. And oy, for many of us, the schlepping. So here’s what’s worth dragging your cart on the subway and getting mauled by urban assault strollers for, and what’s better bought at your corner bodega.

WORTH THE SCHLEP (AND MAULING):

1. Just Mango Slices: $3 is a bargain for dried, unsulfured mango slices that have all the nutrients of real mango and taste like candy. (Really chewy candy.) Considering that a real mango is $4 and is crated thousands of miles to your local TJ’s, this Vitamin A and C-packed bargain is even sweeter. Buy them in bulk— they keep for months just like astronaut food . You won’t find them unsulfured anywhere else.

Trader Joe's mango slices

Buy it: Just Mango Slices

2. Packaged Brussels’ sprouts: Ok, hear me out: One, your mother will be so pleased. Two: they’re always fresh, and for $2.49, you will pay the same or more at Whole Foods (talk about schlepping, Brooklynites) or any big name grocery. When you’re afraid these little guys will go bad before you get around to cooking them, remember that they freeze and thaw beautifully. They’re full of fiber, vitamin C, vitamin A, and if you sauté them with some olive oil, salt and Parmesan cheese, they are DELICIOUS.

3. Indian Fare vegetarian packaged meals: They may come in NASA packaging and they’re not quite as good as your corner takeout, but the are much cheaper at $2.49 each. For meat-phobics, they’re full of protein and iron, and they keep forever without any preservatives, so they’re perfect for the marathon TJ’s trip when you’re buying in bulk. They microwave in minutes!

4. Mini-Mint Ice Cream Mouthfuls: I’ve never seen this special dessert treat anywhere else, and they remind me of McDonald’s once-a-year Shamrock Shake. It’s mint-chocolate chip ice cream INSIDE an Oreo crust. At $3.49 for 12 mouthfuls, it’s arguably the best dessert in the entire store, for the same price as a Shamrock Shake.

5. Condiments! TJ’s ketchup and mustard are just $1.99, so stock up. You could grab some at CVS, but you’d pay $3.29. That’s just silly. Included in the condiments: the Spicy Smoky Peach Salsa. It’s just spicy, sweet and tart, and you won’t get it anywhere else. You will want to eat it with a spoon.

6. Reduced Guilt Mac & Cheese: It’s just $2 and I swear it doesn’t taste like the sauce you make by mixing cheese dust and milk. That box of Auntie Annie’s powder and rabbit-shaped version is $4, so really, this is a no-brainer .

BETTER AT THE BODEGA (OR NEARBY GROCER)

1. Hemp Granola. At $2.89 and six servings per box, this seems like a good deal, but these six nutrient-deficient servings actually provide only about two bowls’ worth. Also, it tastes like dry mouth. You get way more with a box of Kashi or Quaker Oats for a dollar more at any grocery store.

 

Skip it: C’mon, you’re already buying donuts

2. Donut O’s: At $2.49, add on an extra 50 cents and buy Entenmann’s from Duane Reade, or wait until they go on manager’s special at the end of the day at the grocery store and pay 75 cents. They taste better and they keep longer. You’re already eating processed donuts, man! Who cares about preservatives? Just go full-throttle.

3. Frozen Gorditas are $3.49: Let’s say you’re walking past a TJ’s after a happy hour. You are starving. The lines are minimal. You stumble past the frozen foods section and look at all the delicious, heats-in-minutes frozen foods. The four tiny frozen Gorditas are $3.49, and you will eat them all in one sitting. Just pay $1.29 for one stunning fried concoction full of taco “meat filling” at the Taco Bell (the nearest Taco Bell, btw, is inside the nearest hospital). You will literally save dozens of calories and two dollars.

4. Herbs: You could buy the $1.39 plastic pack of dry herbs, but you live in Brooklyn, there are probably fresh herbs at the green grocer on your corner for about the same price.

5. Bagels: The company’s overall lack of preservatives is unfortunate for the bagel lover. Preservatives are essential to proper bagel consumption (Trust me, I used to work in a kosher bagel shop). If you want bagels to last longer than a day, you need a little preservation. If you don’t, they turn into hockey pucks. Speaking of kosher… if you really crave a good bagel, schlep to your local bagel joint and buy them ready to eat. Don’t buy ‘em at TJ’s, or in advance.

33 Comment

  • I know this post won’t garner over a hundred comments and the attention of Gawker media, but from Brooklynite to Brokelynite THANK YOU for returning to form.

  • agreed, thanks.

    I also add onto the cheaper-at-Trader-Joe’s

    :: cheese. If you want sliced deli cheese, the bodega may be better, but brie or blue cheese or other non-sandwich cheeses are definitely cheaper than the nearby groceries.

    :: prepackaged salads. A bag is less than $2 which is cheaper than the standard 2-for-$5 at Pathmark or the $5 for the clamshell of lettuce at the corner grocery.

    :: lentils. Only because I have never found them sold like this elsewhere. Dried lentils take a while to prepare. And canned lentils are GROSS. But Trader Joe’s has great lentils for the fridge that are ready to eat but are delicious.

    :: tofu. SO much cheaper (like half the price!) as other grocery stores

    :: soy milk. Since they have their own brand, it’s $2 cheaper than Silk, etc. at other grocery stores.

    :: Veggie burgers. Even if you stick with a Morning Star Burger (but they do have their own house-brand) they are $2.99 per box rather than the $4.49 on Fresh Direct or the $4.99 of the local grocery stores.

  • yall forgot the biggest one!1 tj’s has the dopest, cheapest beer in all of nyc. mos def worth the schlep and the lines! $5.99 for a six pack!?!? beautiful!

  • Probably the most underrated element of TJ’s is the greeting card section, mostly because I’m so absolutely over of the shmaltzy puns and rampant ageism of your average Hallmark card. The cards are all 99 cents and the messages inside are always simple and sweet. Much better to get a basic, sincere card than to pay three times as much for some heartless greeting card executive to try to encapsulate your emotions.*

    *Trader Joe’s did not pay me for this comment.

  • Clearly Joe houses a plethora of great deals. Thanks for sharing yours, commenters! Yolanda: the beer IS the dopest, cheapest in the borough, but I wish they’d get a hard liquor license.

  • Regarding beer: No way! The best beer store in BK is Eagle Provisions (18th St and 5th Ave). The vastness of the selection will make your head spin, and the prices are decent enough that even the brokest of beer snobs can imbibe (sometimes, at least!).

    That said, I love me some Trader Joes. I could eat their masala simmer sauce over basmati every day of the week.

  • Yay someone else recognized the wonder that is TJ’s Spicy Smoky Peach Salsa… lets give praise for the Roasted Pepper and Eggplant Spread, awesome on sandwiches.

    Their organic soaps and home goods are often cheaper than Whole Foods, vitamins too!

  • Deals, lox, salad dressings, frozen turkey meatballs, chicken meals

  • This is so helpful. I nodded along and even felt a tad smug as I read all the “do’s.” Then the whole “don’ts” section felt like a total bonus! Can you repeat this feature with other stores (big box/convenience stores; local specialty groceries; etc), pretty please?

  • Can’t bear the wasabi peas or crackers, but do love those seasoned lamb lollipops!

  • Their plain European-style whole milk yogurt is $2.99 for a big tub — you pay twice that at most groceries! It’s fantastic by itself or in smoothies or in baking. Also, their frozen Fancy Berry Medley is the BEST if you like to make berry-based smoothies, muffins, scones, pancakes, etc. I think someone already mentioned bagged salad but $1.99 for a bag of arugula is a steal, especially because theirs is always fresh.

  • You can skip the brown rice krispie treats at TJ’s. They taste nothing like the krispie treats mom makes. You can also skip most of the bread and bakery products.

    My faves at TJ’s: dark chocolate covered pretzel thins, bottled thai red curry sauce (great on anything), meatless meatballs, lime & chili mixed nuts, TJ’s version of Cheerios, cinnamon instant oatmeal, and butternut squash ravioli.

  • so I have items to add to this list… but why? just go there… what I’m wondering is… wait for it… wait for it…

    Why don’t you tell us the best hours to hit different locations? Best days? seems relevant to your rant.

    Besides, thats right, besides…

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  • TJ brand olive oil is like 4 bucks and really good. I’m also a fan of the $4 – 12pack of toilet paper. And finally, the kefir yogurt drink – only $2.79! That stuff is always $3.50+ at every regular supermarket.

  • Where are you guys buying real mangoes that they’re $4? The priciest I’ve seen them in my area is $1 each, and cheapest is 2/$1.

  • If you get to Trader Joe’s when it opens at 8AM, there’s no lines. If you are only grabbing a few items and can get to the registers by 8:15-8:20, your wait’s five minutes at the most.

    This is my experience with the Union Square, Chelsea, and Queens locations. [Actually, the same rules apply to Whole Foods too].

  • Hey Tiffany, Thanks, I’ll hit it after the gym…

    i dont get up till at least 11

  • Regarding the best time to shop: The Court Street Trader Joe’s tends to get civilized after 7:30 pm with fairly short waits on the line. Avoid midday Saturday when it seems like people show up with the whole family to shop… seriously.

  • Maybe skip all the produce (especially tomatoes) until Trader Joes agrees to treat farmers fairly.

  • at the tj’s i frequent in nj, the best things are:
    bagged baby spinach (way cheaper than any grocery store)
    the 0% greek yogurt (so cheap and good that it’s always sold out)
    the almond milk (cheaper than organic dairy milk)
    the eggs
    the old fashioned non-instant oats (brand name is heartland something or other)
    occasional bottle of decently priced wine

    i skip the cheese and produce, save for the occasional promotional deal.

  • The problem with getting to TJ’s at 8am is that you might not find what you are looking for. I have arrived at open at 6th Ave store and found the freezer cases to be nearly empty and was told they didn’t expect them be filled for a few hours. I will say that even when the lines at 6th Avenue look long, even when they stretch as far back as the dairy case, I have never waited more than ten minutes.

  • I schlep there for 2 things: milk and dog biscuits.

    TJ’s-brand organic milk is under $4 a half-gallon, which is cheaper than the big-name brands at other grocery stores (like Horizon and Stonyfield) and about the same price as the Fairway-brand organic milk, but I’ve tried ’em all and TJ’s tastes the best. I know it costs more, but the taste difference with organic milk is worth it, especially if you can get it at TJ’s.

    And their dog biscuits are really inexpensive for the size of the box and quality of ingredients. They are the best deal I’ve found for doggie cookies anywhere (they even have an organic variety, but my trashy-ass dogs didn’t like them as much).

  • The Thai Tuna Curries (red and green) are delicious at TJs..and a bargain to boot.

    Tamari almonds are also yummy.

  • I also like the whole grain pastas! They cost $2.50+ at all of the other grocery stores near me.

  • Can I recommend the curry gravy… I found like 10 jars broken at the bottom of their dumpster…. If you clean out the glass and hair it’s sooo good!

  • Trader Joe’s doesn’t sell packets of spices and haven’t for at least 5 years(as per my in-company knowledge, but I’m pretty sure they never have). They’re $1.99 each for a substantial sized jar of non-irradiated herbs that McCormick will charge you twice as much for half as much. A real gourmand on a budget will appreciate this.

    You’re also wrong on Ketchup being 99 cents, its at least twice as much and has been for several years. The only kind TJs carries is organic, mind you.

    Just thought you might want to know to keep your article on-par.

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  • i hear ya /feel ya re the hard liquor license. i am a long time TJs customer and cali ex-pat  who worked at TJs after moving east.  apparently its not about TJs not getting a license, its about NY laws which generally don’t permit grocery stores of the category that TJs falls into, to sell wine/liquor. the union square location does sell wine, they got the one license the State was willing to fork over to TJs but still had to house it under another roof. or so i’m told.

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  • Yes to the greeting card! 99 cents and the greek yogurt is better the rest.

  • You can freeze bagels! No reason to skip them – Trader Joe’s bagels are cheaper than a bakery and just as delicious.

    • Preservatives are not tasty and give bagels a rubbery, unnatural texture. You don’t even need to freeze Trader Joe’s bagels because they will last a few days and they won’t turn into ‘hockey pucks’, as long as they are sealed well. The fact that the author is so wrong on this and used to work in a bagel shop makes me question their intelligence and everything else on the list.