Not everyone has a Trader Joe’s in their neighborhood, but even for those who don’t, the value added is worth the travel time. So what’s so great about Trader Joe’s and what are we going the distance for these days?
Let’s start in 1967
It was a big year.
The Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the Space Race were ongoing. The Beatles released Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Thurgood Marshall became the first African American on the US Supreme Court. The world had its first successful heart transplant.
Oh…and Trader Joe’s was established. Woohoo!
Why are people so into Trader Joe’s?
TJ’s, for short, is a grocery store that focuses on providing value to their customers through price, product, and shopping experience.
Most products have the TJ’s label instead of brand labels, buying direct from suppliers to get the best possible deal. Overall, prices are generally 15-20% lower than at other supermarkets.
Products are chosen based on the financial value, as well as taste and quality. TJ’s will not continue to offer the product if customers aren’t buying it. That’s one of the reasons why certain products have a short shelf life, so to speak.
Each TJ’s store carries a few different items, because value for some products will be better in different regions. This may also apply to seasonal favorites (pumpkin anyone?) that are only available for a few weeks but may reappear the next year.
Some of us are lucky enough to live near a TJ’s, while others make the occasional road trip to shop for the unique items we can’t find other places. Here’s what Fountain Avenue Kitchen families are enjoying from TJ’s these days:
Greek Chickpeas with Parsley and Cumin – these work well as an appetizer, a snack, or as a side dish. I also like to use them as salad toppers because they are so flavorful. The chickpeas come canned with fresh herbs and olive oil; think of them as a pantry staple that can easily boost flavor, protein, and fiber in a meal.
Salad Kits – TJ’s has put together all different varieties, which include some sort of green base, chopped vegetables, and a topping pack. I like to throw the blends into a wrap for lunch or as a side for a simple dinner. Dressing is also included on the side, or use your own (the Absolutely Famous Greek Dressing and Marinade with the Organic Mediterranean Style Salad Kit would pair nicely).
Shawarma Chicken Thighs – the chicken thighs are pre-marinated with Middle Eastern seasoning and are extremely flavorful. Prepare them how you like – bake, fry, or grill – with some add-ons for a complete meal. I like to slice the chicken and top with a tzatziki-style (or yogurt and garlic based) sauce, chop cucumbers and tomato on the side, with some hummus and pita for dipping.
Everything But the Bagel Seasoning Blend – TJ’s carries a lot of unique spice blends (like chili lime seasoning), but this one is our favorite. Use the EBTB for the Everything Crusted Salmon or as a crunchy seasoning to top avocado toast!
Bloody Mary Salsa – This is flavor blast in a jar. If you like the potent elements of a Bloody Mary (think horseradish, lemon, and spice), you will love this with Trader Joe’s Corn Chip Dippers and as an accompaniment to your favorite vodka drink – perhaps not in a Bloody Mary though?
Salsa Verde – it’s mild spiced and well seasoned with the lightest hint of sourness from the tomatillos. Donovan first told me about the merits of this salsa (which comes in a smaller than usual 12-ounce jar) after I commented that the flavor in store-bought salsa verde is often lacking. He was right! His family uses this salsa for morning eggs, but it can be easily exchanged with red salsa in your favorite recipes like Salsa Simmered Fish.
Masala Simmer Sauce – Best-used with chicken, vegetables, and chickpeas, the masala sauce is a winner if you are craving Indian flavors. It’s a milder version compared to what you may taste from a home chef or at a restaurant, but you can jazz it up with red pepper flakes, thicken it with coconut milk, or mix with a thicker tomato sauce. And because it’s on the milder side, you can feel comfortable introducing it to the whole family.
Soft Multigrain Rustico Bread – This is a great mix between artisan bread and the typical sandwich loaf. It has a great grainy and flavorful crust and holds up well in the toaster. The slices are smaller, which works well for young children, too.
Gnocchi (frozen) – TJ’s has a few varieties of vegetable-based gnocchi such as cauliflower (very popular), kale, and sweet potato. People go crazy over these because they combine a comfort food experience with a little added flavor, fiber, and vitamins. A win-win-win. Not to mention, prep is easy and the colors are vibrant. Try with some Doctored Up Spaghetti Sauce and make this a new family favorite.
Oven-Ready Breaded Cod Fillets – This product is valuable because it feels more substantial than a typical frozen fish product. It’s crisp on the outside and very meaty on the inside. The fish is mild so kids eat them up just like fish sticks, but the fillets have more ooph. I’ve been known to use the fish for taco night when I’m feeling a bit semi-homemade. I put the fillets in tortillas and top with some Cumin Lime Coleslaw and/or Mango Pineapple Salsa.
Chili Lime Chicken Burgers — Broiled, barbecued, or fried, these are fantastic. The flavor has some complexity thanks to a short but effective ingredient list, which as one may expect, includes chili pepper flakes and lime juice. That said these burgers are not noticeably spicy. But, they are juicy, convenient, and can be enjoyed with or without a bun.
Almond Croissants – these are bakery quality, but there is some preparation required. The croissants need to be proofed overnight (meaning leave them on the baking sheet overnight) and then baked for about 20 minutes in the morning. For a special breakfast, it’s worth the few extra steps. Oh, and they also come in chocolate!
Fresh-squeezed orange juice — A little pulp, delish, and sweet. The juice comes in 16-ounce bottles, reminding us how a little can go a long way.
Organic freeze dried berry medley — For those who don’t love fresh fruit, this is a great alternative. Freeze drying maintains the vitamins and fiber of fresh fruit, and the end product is flavorful and crunchy. Perfect to snack on, crushed onto yogurt bowls or even popcorn and baked goods (see Baking FAQs and Helpful Tips for more specific recommendations). TJ’s Fruit Wraps also offer a worthy alternative to fresh fruit and are perfect for lunch boxes.
Bamba peanut snacks — They look like cheese curls but are peanut butter puffs made with peanuts, oil, and salt. Whole, or even mushed, parents are giving these to their very young children as protection against peanut allergies. They also happen to be very tasty, and can be a satisfying snack for adults too.
Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups — These mini versions of the classic treat taste so darn good. They are packaged loose in an airtight container which helps keep them fresh for longer. Some people even enjoy them cold from the fridge.
Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castille Bar Soap (all-one hemp peppermint) —This soap smells amazing, but most importantly it’s a moisturizing bar soap that holds its shape, lather after lather. TJs only carries this particular scent, but Dr. Bronner’s offers other appealing options, like almond, citrus, and unscented, and lavender (currently my second favorite).
Better Than Leftovers – These packaged assorted doggie treats are too cute not to mention. There are different flavors within one bag, such as roast beef, sweet potatoes, and apple pie. These are sure to be a hit with your furry friend!
Other products worth a try: Frozen Indian meals (so much variety), frozen Steamed Chicken Soup Dumplings, Mini Peanut Butter Filled Pretzel Nuggets (now with almond butter, too), Dried Chile Spiced Mango, and TJ’s now has a booming non-alcoholic beer section!
Is there anything we wish TJ’s did differently?
Line Shopping – To beat the long lines, regular shoppers know to walk into the store and directly into the checkout lines. From there, they shop the perimeter of the market as the line moves forward. They may ask the person behind them to hold their spot while they run for a few more things from the interior of the store. Some may find this shopping style to be somewhat stressful.
Product Availability – There’s no warning that a product may be in limited stock or not returning. Though the staff can say whether or not a shipment is coming, they cannot predict whether or not it will ever be in stock again. It’s hard to get attached to products that disappear on us.
Limited Staple Items – This is not the supermarket to buy all our pantry needs. For example, I couldn’t find standard seasonings like dried oregano, or regular pretzel twists (our store only carries gluten-free pretzels). Also, there are some tried and true brands our families love that TJ’s doesn’t carry.
Trader Joe’s is all about the value, not the extra frills and thrills…
They have some unique products that are worth trying, and we are always pleasantly surprised by the final price tag at check out. Though we won’t find a coupon book or an in-store salad bar, it’s a safe bet that their products will keep us returning over and over again!