Trader Joe's

I buy many processed foods at Trader Joe’s. The prices are low and ingredient lists short. I’m not a fan of the prepared fresh or frozen meals, but in a pinch you can do worse.

TJ’s is good for stocking up on nonperishables and freezer friendly foods like meat, cheese, and bread. There's an array of nitrate free meats (careful, some do list them), lower sodium items, and ones you’ll find at Whole Foods at higher prices (i.e. Applegate, Environkids cereals). Beware of the produce. Though many of my cohorts buy produce at TJ’s without incident, I think their vegetables don’t last long or taste as good as Whole Foods or Farmer’s Market produce. But I’m super picky (great ingredients equal great results). So I only buy TJ’s produce in a pinch. Bananas, apples and oranges are usually pretty good. Study the bags of lettuce well. Look for expiration dates and slimy looking leaves. If that bag of mini carrots has too much water in it the carrots may be slimy. RETURN bad tasting food. Save receipts at least a week.

Resist shopping last minutes of the weekend. The shelves will be bare and your favorite turkey may be gone, causing you to blow off packing a sack lunch. Then you'll end up eating greasy pizza the next day from the joint across from your office and suffer late afternoon regret. Monday’s are not much better, particularly in the morning. They are often restocking. Get there Saturday or Sunday morning, or, if you don't work 9 to 5, wait until Tuesday.

Shopping List

I couldn't possibly list every item I ever bought at TJ's, so I listed some I buy regularly and really like. All are TJ's house brand unless otherwise stated.
  • Applegate Farms hot dogs
  • Applegate Farms turkey/bologna
  • Fully cooked bacon (in a box)
  • Whipped cream cheese
  • String cheese, regular fat content, mozzarella and cheddar
  • Tillamook cheddar cheese
  • Veggie chips
  • Sweet potato and root veggie chips
  • Hibiscus cranberry juice
  • Yellowfin tuna in olive oil (yeah, I grew up on tuna in water too, but trust me on this one, recipe coming soon)
  • Canned salmon, Alaskan Pink (wild), no salt added
  • Plain rice cakes
  • Whole wheat crackers (like triscuits)
  • Frozen artichoke hearts
  • Organic creamy salted peanut butter made with Valencia peanuts
  • Rice spaghetti pasta
  • Regular pastas
  • Precooked polenta
  • Whole wheat hot dog/hamburger buns
  • Organic honey whole wheat bread
  • English muffins
  • Frozen fish: tilapia, swordfish, tuna

**Extra! Extra!**

For unfortunate souls who do not live within 30 minutes of a Trader Joe’s (shout out to Florida) your regular grocery store probably has cordoned off a teeny tiny bit of shelf space in various aisles for nonevil processed food. Watch the prices. Whole Foods sells many of those items cheaper, by a lot.

You may notice elderly folk throughout the aisles, a clue this place is all about convenience and value. If you hit it when the bus from the home pulls up, you’ll get to see your future. My grandmother actually introduced me to Trader Joe’s “years ago” when I was a shiny new college graduate visiting her in California. She used a walker at the time, but at TJ's she'd throw it in the cart, lay her forearms on the handle, one on top the other like a genie, and push slowly down the aisles stopping unexpectedly. Now when I see a blue haired at TJ's, I cry a little and fight the urge to hug her, particularly if she’s less than 5 feet tall and has 3 items in her cart. If she's wearing cataract sunglasses even better.

Whole Foods (WF)

I know, I know, Whole Paycheck. Heard that one a million times, but please, work with me. Release your fear of spending all your money on nothing. You can conquer the beast without maxing out your Visa. I promise. (And if you don't shop at Whole Foods, read on anyway and apply to wherever you do.)

When I first started grocery shopping I was told, "make a list and stick to it and you won't run out of money." I believed this just as I believed, "If you can read, you cook" and not only did I run out of money, but my cooking produced scary results (see The Journey). Let's try a different approach, shall we?

The goal is simple, but not easy, as my husband likes to say. You must learn to shop WF, not let it shop you. Visit the store with a full stomach, relaxed body, open mind and a list to stray from. "But how will I know when to stray from the list?" you ask. With practice, my friend, lots o' help from The Google, and reading on.


Be an inspector. How do those strawberries look? Open the package. Move a few around. Any mold? Even if you get to check out and realize the melon you chose looks sad, hand it to the checker and say, “I changed my mind.” He won’t shoot you, I swear.

Focus on sale items first, often the best choice for quality as well as price. Reaching for the romaine (on the list) and see red leaf is on sale? Red leaf it is. Buy the apple variety on sale even if your recipe calls for a different type (for cooking, not baking). And so on.

Taste what you can. Grapes are easy, and don’t miss samples. If an apple variety you’ve never tasted is on sale ask the produce guy for a slice. Then if you don’t like it, don’t buy it!

Take a moment and search for the cheapest, most local produce you can find and buy a small amount. Find a use for them later (The Google). See what you can find for three bucks or less.

Big bags of carrots or lemons can be tempting. Only buy them if you need them all, soon, because they may not last as long as ones you hand pick.

Now for a word on my favorite pastime, returning produce. I know people who would sooner stand naked in the parking lot than bring back a partially eaten watermelon that’s as mealy as a matzah ball. If this is you, think of the prices to give you strength, take a deep breath and march to the customer service counter and say, “Hi. This watermelon is bad.” Forty-five seconds later, five dollars are back in your pocket. That pays for a grande latte, my friend. (On a non-produce note, I once bit into a rotten piece of WF fish. After I finished gagging I called the store and the guy told me to toss the fish, bring the receipt and get a refund, no evidence necessary. These are reasonable people!)

Returning is inconvenient, I know. Reduce the pain by keeping receipts in your car, and/or storing returns in your trunk (weather permitting, depending on the item) so you can run in on your way around town.


Tilapia is a good value, easy and fast to cook. White fish is also cheap but not always available. Try the frozen tilapia or fresh sold in bulk (wrap each piece in plastic wrap, then in a Ziploc, then freeze for later).
  • Learned this trick from a couple of angels: defrost fish by placing wrapped pieces in a large bowl and fill with cold water. Let sit 15 minutes or more until no longer frozen. I used to defrost everything overnight in the fridge but often changed my mind about what to cook or forgot about it. This process works better for me.

Frozen Shrimp: I finally started buying the deveined, shelled, tail-on version (uncooked $8.99/bag) because I simply could not take the cleaning one more minute. Lazy me. Then I realized the ones in need of deveining are the same price (do'h!).
  • An entire bag feeds three of us (because my son loves shrimp). Place shrimp in a bowl, cover in cold water and let sit 10-15 minutes, drain, rinse, drain, dry. No cleaning whatsoever. Score. Then saute or boil (recipes coming soon).


If cows and chickens were legal to keep out back in these here parts, my property would smell like a barn. Seriously, though, meat glorious meat is the saying around here. Whole Foods is my favorite place to buy, though I occasionally run into Paulina Meat Market when meat is all I need. Trader Joe's is fine, but not where I go when I need an undertow (lots!).

Look for sales. Skinless, boneless breast of chicken, grass fed ground beef, and steak often sell in three pound packages for a few bucks off per pound. If you don't see it prepackaged, ask the butcher what the specials are. They may have run out of the packages and will kindly make one up for you.
  • Freeze some for later: separate ground beef into two or three hunks, wrap each in plastic wrap, and freeze in a Ziploc. Also wrap chicken pieces and steaks if you plan to use one or two at a time.
  • To defrost: place frozen meat, still in bag or wrapped in plastic, in a big bowl and fill with cold water. Chicken can actually go right in the water sans plastic. Steaks and chicken take about an hour, sometimes less, but ground beef takes a while. (As mentioned in Fish section above, I used to defrost meat overnight in the fridge but often changed my mind or forgot about it.)

A word on contaminated meat. Salmonella and ecoli are creepy words and mentioning them at all gives me the willies. After limited research, I have concluded that buying meat from high quality butchers alleviates the urge to cook the daylights out of your dinner, as my roommates and I did in college. Rubber chickens are for decoration, not for eating. Anyway, do your own research on the topic if you wish.

Now take a brisk walk around the block to regain your appetite and make a chicken recipe from my blog and enjoy.

Deals of the Day

Two of my angels (Gayle and Chrysa) went through a phase of hunting down dinner deals across the city for their five fold families and sharing the load. One afternoon in front of our kids' school, Gayle screamed at me from 1/2 block away, "Ya gotta come smell my car! I’ve got two Whole Foods chickens in there! It smells delicious! Like a restaurant! Have you seen Chrysa? I’ve got her dinner.” Shortly thereafter Chrysa walked up to my car holding a pizza. "Hey," she said. "Would you mind dropping this off at Gayle's house for me?" Sure, I told her, in 30 minutes or less.

The following Wednesday I happen to call Chrysa while she's at Whole Foods picking up dinner. She offered to buy me a pizza. I declined, but take note. If you have friends like I do, use them well.
  • Chicken Tuesday Rotisserie Chicken 5.99, $2 off. Jewel and Costco’s inferior counterparts are a buck or so less, but no thanks to MSG and artificial colors in theirs (last I checked) and pay two more dollars for the WF version. Cut out your afternoon latte (or make one yourself) and you, my friend, break even.
  • Pizza Wednesday Pizza, $8.99, $2 off, cheaper, better tasting and healthier than any ordered in version, and you can call ahead and pretend they're Dominoes.

This information applies to stores near me and the deals do change periodically. Also, I believe Thursday is a panini special and Friday, California rolls. The breakfast bar is discounted on Saturday and Sunday mornings, last I checked. Ask your store for details.

Okay, you don’t have kids and no time to run to Whole Foods. Think again. When there's no food in your house, what would you rather do, order in greasy pizza or sushi that takes an hour and a half for delivery, or run into WF to pick up? You decide.

Cheese Department

Grow a set of balls and ask that cheese gal behind the counter for a taste of any cheese (sold by the pound) before you buy. You know, those fancy looking ones displayed in the nirvana-esque case I previously considered sensory overload.

Here’s the fun part. If the hunk you pick costs more than you can or want to pay, or it’s simply too big, ask the cheese dude to cut it to your liking. They reweigh and voila! Cheese you like and can afford. Then hide fancy cheese from roommate or anyone who comes to your home on a regular basis who will bite into your treasure like it’s a slab of Velveeta, which, by the way, is labeled “cheese product” instead of “cheese.” No refrigeration necessary. Ouch.

Parmesan Reggiano is a must. Don’t be scared off by the $20/per pound price tag. Again, if you are single or know you’ll hardly use it, find a small one and ask cheese dude to do his thing. Avoid the rind unless you need it for a sauce (many cookbooks suggest this). When you get home, wrap the hunk in aluminum foil and refrigerate. I have tried several techniques and found this works the best.

My Greek friends balk at me, but I love WF’s sheep and goat feta. My Greek Salad never goes without. The flavor is velvety, rich, and less salty than many Greek cheeses I have sampled.

*Extra! Extra!*
One Sunday a man and his daughter stood next to me in front of the cheese case in search of feta, as per mom. “There’s a lot to choose from, here,” he says to the kid, who is no help at all. He picks up a package of the sheep’s feta. Just as I'm applauding in my head, he sees the price, and before you can say cheese product he's switching it out for the crumbled one in the plastic tub (NO!). “I’m sure this’ll be fine,” he says. Yes, I thought, fine is exactly what it’ll be. If you wanted great, you missed out.

Processed Food: Evil or Not?

First off, let me declare I am not a nutritionist and this info is anecdotal. I consider certain processed foods "evil." I don't mean to sound angry, but...

Here's what I avoid. More exist, for sure, but if you're new to label reading, start with these.

  • High fructose or any variety corn syrup. A few decent brands use a small amount of corn syrup and claim no "high fructose."
  • Red/blue/yellow or any other dyes or artificial colors
  • Artificial vanilla or other flavors
  • Mono sodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils
  • Sodium nitrate
  • Enriched flours of any kind
  • Corn oil (My son is sensitive to corn. Read about this in my upcoming post on food sensitivity.)
  • Fruit juice with added sugar

Then there's Non-Evil Processed Foods. Less than five ingredients, low in sugar, salt and fat. What do I mean by low? Depends on what you’re trying to do. For me, fat is less concerning than sugar and salt, mostly because I don’t like overly sweetened or salted food.

Also, sugar binges cause me jitters, headaches, and I-need-a-nap-right-now moments.* To specify, culprits for me are cane sugar, corn syrup and other processed sugars that spike blood sugar suddenly. Hence I look for items sweetened with fruit juice, agave, beet sugar, palm sugar, coconut, or rice syrup which affect me less so.  I seek out sugar free jam*, cereals with less than five grams sugar per serving, and eat dark chocolate with high cocoa percentage (more than 60% cocoa translates to less sugar).

Now for salt. I’ll hold up two or three bags of chips or salty snacks/crackers, compare salt mg per serving then pick the lowest one only because I prefer the taste. As for fat, most of what I buy isn’t too bad and don't contain hydrogenated oil (let's call them "HOs", shall we?) anyway. For a while I thought the HOs had disappeared, until I was on a road trip and read the ingredients on a crinkly bag of chips at a gas station “grocery store.” It’s out there. Still.

**Extra! Extra!**
  • When mother of the birthday girl offers moist and delicious chocolate butter cream frosting with pink flower piece of cake I accept. Pushing three-year-olds out of my way to jump into bounce house to burn off jitters not my best work. Nor was head bobbing driving home from the party.
  • Recently found sugar free jams at Southport Green Market.  Strawberry rhubarb, mixed berry, and blueberry! I sometimes (okay, often) eat it by the spoonful.
  • Check out Southport Green Market Saturdays June-October. From Wrigley Field take Waveland west from the park, hang a right on Southport, walk toward Music Box sign until you see Blaine School marquee. It is, in the true sense, the "Little Market that Can." With just a few vendors, you won't get overwhelmed. Worth a pop over every Saturday.