When I’m not in a hurry, I generally love grocery shopping–exploring the various products, reading the labels, comparing the prices. But alas–I’m usually in a hurry–and oh, how I missed Trader Joe’s for the four years we weren’t near one while in Italy! There’s nothing like being able to run in and out of a favorite store quickly, get the good quality items that you need, and at a good price to make easy, real food.
I know. We were in Italy! Definitely not complaining about that or the various outdoor produce (and shoe!) markets and cool grocery stores. (BTW, one of them, a German grocery chain Lidl, is here in Virginia Beach!) I will always embrace a new food-related adventure, especially while traveling. I find it most fascinating to figure out a new culture via its foods. Restaurants are fun, but grocery stores tell you so much more about a culture. And strangely enough, it even provides a certain comfort while out of my home country to notice that generally the same real-food ingredients I use are used in different ways all around the world! Somehow that makes the world seem smaller and more relatable to me. Everybody eats, as I like to say…
Sometimes I even enjoy the challenge of a store’s layout, looking for needed items while questioning the placement of related products. It’s like a game of mind-reading and I feel so accomplished when I guess correctly! Is almond butter near the jelly, like peanut butter is, or in the “health food” section. (Oh, smart–and note to self for next time–it’s in both places!) I know, maybe it’s strange I play weird games in my head…
But for efficiency and simplicity, I like knowing my way around a store and having the price comparisons all figured out. It’s the worst when you have to start from scratch figuring out where to get all your favorite ingredients, and even some new ones occasionally, and at the best prices. So, in my opinion, you may as well live in a foreign country if you don’t have a Trader Joe’s nearby!
I’m not being paid in any way to say this–I’m simply a passionate foodie who loves a great grocery store! Trader Joe’s stores are strategically located, and I have been fortunate to live near one in MD, MA and now VA. That said, I don’t do all my shopping at Trader Joe’s–not even close. They are famous for their commitment to quality, the avoidance of preservatives, and customer service, but there are plenty of unhealthy options–even organic and gluten-free junk–just like any other store. So, you really have to pay attention to the Nutrition Facts Label, and particularly the ingredient list of each product.
So, what products are a sure bet at Trader Joe’s, you ask? Here are the Top 10 Foods I Buy at Trader Joe’s. They are fantastic quality and the best prices around compared to regular or specialty stores in my area.
- Nuts and Seeds–I regularly buy bags of pecans, walnuts and almonds, my favorites. But you can find any and all kinds of nuts at Trader Joe’s. They come raw, toasted, in pieces or whole. I prefer to buy raw pieces; they are cheaper and I toast them myself when I’m ready to use them. I use them in salads mostly, sometimes grain-free granola, and I sometimes eat them by the small handful. For convenience and a portion controlled treat on the go, I also like the individually packaged mixed nuts with dark chocolate pieces (although I wish they were 70% dark). My kids enjoy these, too!
- Honey–you can find good quality raw honey at TJ’s. I don’t use honey a lot, but if I do, I want to be sure it’s real honey and not a poor-quality honey diluted with corn syrup.
- Real Maple Syrup–We are New Englander’s at heart when it comes maple syrup. My daughter SE was once at a sleepover when she was about 7 years old and we still laugh at how she rudely turned her nose up at the other “syrup” she was offered! She actually lectured the other family that they are made from corn syrup and not “the real stuff.” Whoops, occupational hazard of a foodie RD parent! We promptly discussed when it’s most polite to keep your food opinions to yourself, but it’s still a work in progress…
- 100% Italian Organic Olive Oil–We were absolutely spoiled by good quality olive oil in Italy. Did you know most olive oil sold in the US can be a blend of olive oil and other oils like soybean or corn? And the labeling can be tricky. Even when it says Italian it can be a blend of different sources of olive oil. There is a certain amount of trust that you are relying on when buying olive oil, but I feel better when it says the source is 100% Italian organic olive oil. (As an alternative, it’s not certified organic, but my daughter visited the Oropallo olive farm in Italy on a school field trip, so I recently ordered their delicious, good quality olive oil, which you can buy through their FB page, Oropallo EVOO.)
- Chipotle Salsa–I prefer to make my own fast fresh salsa, but sometimes there’s just no time for making a condiment when you’re busy making the Mexican-inspired main dish, usually along with B’s homemade guacamole. This Chipotle salsa has a great texture for a jarred salsa, and the chipotle adds another dimension to the flavor.
- Organic Eggs–I prefer to get local free-range eggs, but when I run out or need to buy store-bought, I choose Trader Joe’s because they are organic and the price is the cheapest I’ve seen around town.
- Red Pepper and Eggplant Sauce–This sauce is from Bulgaria, but it reminds me of one we enjoyed so much at restaurants while on a road trip through Croatia and Slovenia that we sought it out at a grocery in Slovenia. It has a simple ingredient list and I use it as a condiment, along side some grilled chicken thighs topped with homemade seasoning salt for the ultimate lazy, real-food dinner. Sometimes I also use pesto on the side in the same way with the chicken and the two condiments’ flavors work well together.
- Canned Tuna and Frozen Wild-Caught Fish--I was hooked on Italian canned tuna packed in olive oil. It was phenomenal and it is the #1 thing I miss from Italy. I know what you’re thinking…how good can it be? Well, let me just say, I eat it, but I’m not a huge fan of American tuna in the can. It can be dry, the color is off-putting and the flavor is not the best. But Rio Mare brand from Italy is the opposite. It’s packed in good olive oil, is an appetizing pink color and the flavor is delicious and slightly salted. TJ’s has an olive oil-packed tuna that is not quite as good, but it’s a close second and a good substitute. In the freezer section, I enjoy the wild-caught salmon, cod or other white fish. I make it a point to buy wild-caught seafood from the USA, and although it’s not cheap, it’s one of the rare places you can even find frozen fish that is sourced from the USA, not from China. (Military friends, FYI, I buy Emeril Lagasse’s shrimp from the commissary, because it is caught in the USA).
- Cheeses–I love cheese and Trader Joe’s has good prices on a variety of specialty cheeses. If I had to be dairy-free, this is what I would miss the most. I use cheese to add flavor and interest to some my meals when they are free of refined carbs and sugar. I regularly buy imported feta from Greece (I’m half Greek, you know) for salads, and I use the small balls of fresh mozzarella in scrambled eggs, salads, or my kids’ lunches. I love the seasonal cranberry-coated goat cheese log in salad during the holidays, although it’s a treat, since it’s pretty sweet! Usually I pick out a different cheese to try every once in a while such as brie, various cheddars, havarti, etc.
- Frozen Vegetables–sometimes you just need to use frozen vegetables. They are perfectly healthy, quick, and a good way to round out your real-food meal. I like to buy organic ones when I can, and TJ’s has a pretty good selection at good prices, but I don’t always use organic. Some of my favorites: green beans, broccoli, spinach, riced cauliflower, and sliced bell peppers.
Of course, I buy other things at TJ’s, too, but these are my staples. Hope it helps you with your shopping!