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.
The chain has plenty of vocal fans, who often recommend items in blogs and on social media. But 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 some of the 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, simple to heat up and cheap to stock in the freezer.
For more meal planning ideas, read “This Habit Saves Me Money and Stress All Week Long.”
2. Carolina Gold barbecue sauce
Have you ever looked at the barbecue sauce aisle in a typical grocery store? Dozens of brands, heat levels, regional recipes and 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. It 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, and 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 or 15 to 20 minutes in the oven.
5. Gone Bananas dark chocolate frozen banana slices
I first stumbled on the wonder that is a frozen banana at the Minnesota State Fair when I was a kid. They sold entire bananas on 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. Hatch Valley Salsa
If you’ve ever visited New Mexico, you likely couldn’t escape Hatch green chiles, the tasty pepper from that state’s Hatch Valley.
If a trip to the Land of Enchantment isn’t in your future, you can console yourself with a jar of Hatch Valley Salsa ($2.99). This flavorful and just-spicy-enough salsa has all but replaced the standard red salsas in my cupboard.
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).
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 for People ($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
I used to buy Babybel cheese rounds for my daughter’s school lunches. I think TJ’s Mini Brie Bites are even better, and I’m keeping these for myself.
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 blend
If you love the savory mix of toppings on an “everything” bagel, try Trader Joe’s Everything but the Bagel Sesame 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 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 potato chips and salmon.)
11. Mango Jalapeño Apple Fruit Snacks
I bought Mango Jalapeño Apple Fruit Snacks ($2.99) on a whim and found myself constantly returning to the bag to grab another handful. Think Gummi Bears, but not as soft, and with a surprising blast of heat. Those who can’t handle spice may steer clear, but that just means more for me.
12. Pollo Asado Autentico
At Costco, most shoppers load at least one $4.99 rotisserie chicken in their carts on every visit — it’s tasty and cheap, and works in dozens of recipes.
I nominate the Pollo Asado Autentico ($5.99) as the Trader Joe’s equivalent. Don’t leave TJ’s without a package of these thinly sliced, marinated chicken breast cutlets. They’re perfect for many meals, from fajitas to salads to sandwiches.
13. Hold the Cone ice cream treats
Sometimes you want just a touch of something sweet without overindulging. Hold the Cone ice cream treats ($3.29) are miniature ice cream cones featuring a small scoop of ice cream dipped in chocolate coating. Try not to eat the whole box of eight at once.
14. Chili Onion Crunch
You may know Chili Onion Crunch ($3.99) from a similar product often offered on the tables of Chinese restaurants. This tasty condiment contains crunchy dried garlic and onion spiced up with dried red bell pepper and chili flakes and delivered in a savory olive-oil base. Like TJ’s Everything But the Bagel Seasoning Blend, half the fun of buying it is finding new foods to serve it with — noodles, soups, stir-fries, pasta and more.
15. Steamed soup dumplings
I love soup dumplings in restaurants, and I didn’t expect Trader Joe’s to be able to duplicate that eating-out experience.
Boy, was I wrong. TJ’s has two varieties of frozen soup dumplings, one with steamed pork and ginger and the other with chicken ($2.99 for a pack of six). After heating them, be gentle as you bite in — the meaty filling is swimming in a tasty soup, and it can gush out like delicious lava. It’s worth the risk.