Shopping at Trader Joe’s is more fun than at my regular grocery store. There’s always something new or quirky that you can’t buy elsewhere.
And it’s playful. My local TJ’s, in Seattle, hides two region-specific stuffed animals (an otter and a salmon) on its shelves. If my sharp-eyed daughter or any kid shopper spots them, she rings a bell and is given a sweet treat.
Most grocery stores have fairly interchangeable stock. But much of what TJ’s offers just can’t be had elsewhere, so it’s worth a special trip, especially when we’re planning a party.
The chain has plenty of vocal fans, who often recommend items in blogs and on social media. I disagree with some of their lists of “favorites.”
For example, plenty of people rave about the store’s famed Two-Buck Chuck, an inexpensive wine under the Charles Shaw label that earned its nickname from its $1.99 price in California. It’s still pretty cheap, even outside California ($2.99 at my store), but I’ve just never loved the varieties I’ve tried. I’ll spend a little more for a wine I really enjoy.
But experimenting is half the fun at Trader Joe’s. I try to scoop up at least one new-to-me item on every TJ’s run. If I like it, it earns a spot on my mental list of favorites.
Below are 10 items that magically jump into my cart on each trip. (Prices are correct as of a recent trip to my local store; prices and availability may vary.)
1. Vegetable fried rice
It’s not hard to make fried rice, but if I’m already cooking up a main course, I sometimes don’t want to mess with a homemade side dish. Not when Trader Joe’s vegetable fried rice ($2.49) is so tasty, so simple to heat up, and so cheap to stock in the freezer.
While you’re in TJ’s freezer case, you might also pick up their steamed soup dumplings ($2.99) or the ever-popular Mandarin orange chicken ($4.99).
For more meal planning ideas, read “This Habit Saves Me Money and Stress All Week Long.”
2. Carolina Gold barbeque sauce
Have you ever looked at the barbecue sauce aisle in a typical grocery store? Dozens of brands, dozens of heat levels, dozens of regional recipes, dozens of Southern-inspired names.
My husband insists we keep Trader Joe’s Carolina Gold sauce ($2.69) on hand. It’s mustard-based, and while I’ve never been a mustard maniac, I love this stuff. Makes a great dip for french fries, too.
3. Cheddar Rocket crackers
There is a seemingly unlimited variety of cheese crackers available these days. But, once my daughter tried Trader Joe’s Cheddar Rockets ($2.49), she’s never looked back.
The little spaceship-shaped crackers have no artificial flavors or preservatives and offer just the right blend of cheesy and salty. There’s always a box or two orbiting around our pantry.
4. Reduced Guilt Mac & Cheese
Kids love macaroni and cheese of all kinds, but Trader Joe’s frozen, microwaveable Reduced Guilt Mac & Cheese ($1.99) is a step up from boxed varieties.
The “reduced guilt” label refers to this version having 65% less fat and 25% fewer calories than TJ’s regular mac and cheese. Nevertheless, our household has never felt deprived.
One serving cooks in about five minutes in the microwave and 15 to 20 minutes in the oven.
5. Gone Bananas dark chocolate frozen banana slices
I first stumbled on to the wonder that is a frozen banana at the Minnesota State Fair when I was a kid. They sold entire bananas in a stick, dipped in chocolate and frozen.
This is a great combo of ingredients, like a banana split minus the ice cream. But a whole banana is too much for me. The delightful Trader Joe’s version, Gone Bananas ($1.99), is a frozen banana sliced into 25-calorie chocolate-covered bites. A delicious indulgence.
6. Sriracha Ranch salad dressing
If you owned a restaurant and needed to invent a dipping sauce, what would yours be?
I’ve long thought I’d create a combination of ranch dressing and spicy Sriracha sauce. Now, Trader Joe’s has pre-mixed the two in its organic Sriracha ranch bottled salad dressing ($2.99).
Sure, it’s called “dressing,” but I’ve been known to dip corn chips in it. The mild ranch dressing get a fiery kick from peppery Sriracha. It just might convince you to eat more salad.
7. Peanut-butter filled pretzels
I often peek at other shoppers’ purchases at Trader Joe’s to see what they’ve discovered. The one item I spot in almost every cart is the blue-accented 16-ounce bag of peanut-butter-filled pretzels ($2.49).
I was a late convert to these. I love pretzels but am not the world’s biggest peanut-butter fan, so I couldn’t envision this combo working. Was I ever wrong. The salty crunch of the pretzel shell melds with the creamy PB filling for a divine snack.
Put these out at a party, then start a stopwatch. You’ll be stunned at how quickly they vanish.
8. Chocolatey Cats cookies
I’m not a fan of all of Trader Joe’s cookies. The ginger snaps aren’t snappy enough for my taste. The famed Joe-Joe’s chocolate sandwich cookies are okay, but if you want an Oreo, just buy Oreos.
And, yet, I can’t resist the giant tub of cute Chocolatey Cats cookies ($2.99). They have just the right burst of chocolatey flavor and sweetness. One serving is a whopping 15 of these tiny, cat-shaped cookies, which total just 110 calories. Purr-fect.
9. Mini Brie Bites
Here’s my newest TJ’s find. I used to buy Babybel cheese rounds for my daughter’s school lunches. I think the Mini Brie Bites are even better, and I’m keeping these for myself.
Just as the name describes, these are pillowy discs of soft Brie that make a delightful midday snack. At $4.49 for five individually wrapped, 70-calorie bites, they’re not cheap. But Brie never is. I spice mine up with a dab of hot pepper jelly.
10. Everything but the Bagel seasoning
If you love the savory mix of toppings on an “everything” bagel, try Trader Joe’s Everything but the Bagel seasoning blend ($1.99), a tasty, shakeable mix of sea salt, two kinds of sesame seeds, minced garlic and onion, and poppy seeds.
You can sprinkle it on chicken, pasta, popcorn, pizza or eggs, but my personal favorite is as a topper on deviled eggs.
Party guests always come back for seconds or thirds. (Trader Joe’s knows it has a hit: It now has other products featuring the seasoning, including dip, salmon and ciabatta rolls.)
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