Check out the tips below to get the most for your time and money at Trader Joe’s.
Best Time to Shop
Obviously, it makes sense to shop at the times that are most convenient for you. However, if you have some flexibility in your schedule, you’ll find that weekday mornings and late evenings are least crowded. Lunchtime and early evening are generally busy as the work crowd stops in to pick up lunch or dinner and Saturday and Sunday afternoons can be downright chaotic. Fortunately, a crowded Trader Joe’s is still a relatively pleasant place to shop and the staff is good about opening extra registers (the 1 bell signal) when the lines get more than a few customers long.
Trader Joe’s stocks their shelves throughout the day, not just at night like some groceries, so you’ll find a good selection nearly all the time. However, you may notice some gaps on the shelves during busy times when popular items are plucked from the shelves faster than they can be restocked. Don’t hesitate to ask a Crew Member to look in the back for an item you need.
One important stocking limitation is that the availability of fresh items can be sparse on Mondays and the day after holidays. This is because some items, particularly fresh breads, aren’t delivered on Sundays or holidays.
Finding What You Need
Trader Joe’s stores are much smaller than typical super markets so you won’t wander through endless aisles in search of pickles. However, like any new place, it helps to know the lay of the land. The general pattern of most stores is that the produce section is one one side of the store and usually the section you enter into. Dairy products are in cases at the back of the store, except for the cheese which is often in a separate section. Alcoholic beverages are usually on on opposite site of the store as produce and often the section you exit through.
There are generally two or three aisles of shelf-stable groceries (cans, bottles, boxes) and non-food items (paper towels, toiletries, pet supplies) in the middle of the store along with one aisle of frozen foods. Candy, cookies and other assorted non perishable items are on shelves over the frozen food cases. If you’re having trouble finding what you’re looking for, don’t hesitate to ask a Crew Member (look for a Hawaiian shirt) for help.
One thing to note is that Trader Joe’s has several products that look alike. I think this is due to the use of common packaging to reduce costs. Just double check to make sure you get what you really want. I’ve accidentally bought the ham and gruyere pizza instead of the onion and gruyere pizza because the photos on the boxes are so similar. I often pick up the Mexican salad before I spot the chicken pieces and realize it’s not the vegetarian Southwest salad.
Get the Best Quality
Check the expiration dates on fresh packaged foods, especially the prepared salads. One of the few issues I have with Trader Joe’s is that they are a little too generous with expiration dates. I’ve eaten salads before the expiration date and the lettuce is wilted and the beans are slimy. Probably not harmful, but certainly not appetizing.
Another occasional issue happens in the frozen foods cases. The packages will sometimes be covered in large ice crystals and the paper packaging is water damaged. Both are a sign that the freezer got too warm. Again, probably not a health issue, but the texture of frozen foods suffers when they thaw and are refrozen. Vegetables gets mushy, starches becomes soggy and ice cream loses creaminess.
Enjoy Local & Seasonal Products
Each Trader Joe’s carries some local produce and baked goods. These products are often a good value – fresh and inexpensive. Seasonal produce (spring asparagus and summer peaches) may only be available for a short time so make a point to add these to your basket while available.
Trader Joe’s also carries seasonal goods especially around the holidays. You’ll see lots of interesting pumpkin items on the shelves starting in fall, followed by holiday cookies and other treats. Enjoy these special treats and hope the ones you like return the following year.
Have a Plan
If you have a plan for the meals you want to make, you’ll spend less time and money shopping and enjoy tastier meals. A shopping list based on specific meals works great, but if that’s not your style a general plan will work, too. Think about what you like to eat and when and shop accordingly. Generally, some fresh fruit, a couple breakfast items (cereal, muffins, yogurt), a few salads, some frozen entrees, and beverages will keep you well fed. Use our shopping lists as a guide.
Get the Right Mix
I only shop once a week, but I like to eat fresh fruits and vegetables every day. To make this work I include long-lasting produce in my selections. For example, apples, oranges and spinach will make it to the end of the week, while berries and romaine lettuce need to be eaten early in the week.
It’s also useful to balance the mix of fresh, frozen and shelf-stable (cans and boxes) not only to provide tasty foods throughout the week, but to efficiently use your kitchen space. Too many frozen items and you’ll not only jam your freezer, but also crave freshness.
Check the Nutrition Label
Please don’t obsess over calories and fat, but do check out the nutrition labels for any red flags. The vegetable side dishes that appear in the chilled case around holiday time are tempting, but “creamed vegetables” have as much fat as ice cream. Feel free to buy these as a treat, but a couple spoonfuls, not the entire container, is a reasonable side dish. Similarly, The Middle East Feast looks like it’s meant for one person, but at over 800 calories it should probably be shared.
Try Something New
One of the most interesting things about Trader Joe’s is the constant introduction of new products. Make it a goal to try something new each time you shop at Trader Joe’s. I’ve added stuffed poblano peppers and Japanese fried rice to my regular shopping list after giving them a try.