Overall, Trader Joe’s is a great value, but if you’re on a tight budget there are definitely ways to stretch your food dollars.
If you’re cooking for 1 or 2 people, Trader Joe’s prepared chilled and frozen foods entrees can be budget friendly. These are nearly complete meals with no waste. For example, it would cost more to buy the main ingredients for Gnocchi ala Gorgonzola (gnocchi, cream & cheese) than the $3.29 the bag of frozen gnocchi costs. Similarly, the ingredients for almost any of pre-prepared salads would cost more than $3.99.
Other excellent values include Black Bean & Corn Enchiladas (vegan) ($1.99) or Cheese Enchiladas ($1.99), Indian Fare pouches ($1.99), French Toast ($2.29), Shelled Edamame (vegan) ($2.49), Creamy Polenta ($2.99), Organic Cherry Tomatoes (vegan) ($3.29), Caesar Salad Kit ($3.49), Middle East Feast (vegan) ($3.99), Spinach Salad Kit ($4.49) and the family-size Roasted Vegetable Lasagna ($5.99).
If you need to serve more than 2 people, it may make sense to do more of the preparation and cooking yourself. In this case, start with a bag or box of grains (rice or pasta), choose some complimentary vegetables and buy or make a sauce or topping. Examples, include pasta with tomato sauce and roasted vegetables or rice with stir fried vegetables and tofu.
Shelf stable boxes of non dairy milks and bottles of juice are typically less expensive than the chilled versions in the dairy case. Of course, tap water is even cheaper and calorie-free.
As with any store, using seasonal fresh produce saves money. Strawberries are half the price and much tastier in summer than in winter.
You can save on produce by doing more of the prep work yourself. For example, whole brussels sprouts are less expensive that the halved brussels sprouts which are less expensive than the shredded brussels sprouts. Similarly, the ready-to-eat green beans (ends cut off) are more expensive than the beans you need to trim and de-string yourself.
However, keep in mind that if you’ll have a lot of waste with trimming and cleaning produce, you may not realize much savings. Even worse, if those whole carrots shrivel up in your produce bin, because you never got around to shredding them for salads, the higher priced shredded carrots would have been worth the extra money.
Also keep in mind that produce that is past it’s prime can usually still be put to good use. The spinach that is too sad for a salad will be fine in a pasta dish and that mushy banana can be frozen and added to a smoothie.
Did you know that Trader Joe’s accepts manufacturer coupons for branded merchandise? Keep an eye out for coupons for Kashi cereal, Morningstar meat alternatives and Fage yogurt.