What to Buy at Trader Joe’s? Our 11 Faves Will Save You Money

Traffic goes by a Trader Joe's store in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

Trader Joe’s has built a loyal customer base through its low prices, interesting food offerings, and fun and funky atmosphere.

Their business plan of carrying primarily Trader Joe’s labeled products means that they can be more nimble in offering new items and minimizing marketing costs.

There are bigger grocery store chains but Trader Joe’s has a cult-like following that some of their competitors don’t. The 2.4 million #traderjoes posts on Instagram is proof of that.

Is it because of the addictive Mandarin orange chicken? The caramelized onion dip, everything but the bagel seasoning, or dark chocolate peanut butter cups? Those are definitely on our love list.

Rising gas prices and inflation increasingly concern American consumers and since Trader Joe’s prices run about 16% lower than other grocery retailers, it’s a draw. One way that Trader Joe’s keeps prices down is by buying directly from manufacturers and growers. Cutting distributors out of the picture lowers the cost, but also means sometimes they don’t stock every product you love consistently.

Another way to save on groceries is to buy in bulk. We have the details on when that’s a good idea and when it’s not. 

While Trader Joe’s doesn’t always have everything on your grocery list — larger choices of cleaning supplies and meat elsewhere— or the lowest prices on everything, overall the balance of price and quality make TJ’s a good shopping destination. This is especially true with produce and baked goods, since they try to source those items locally.

How We Found the Best Deals at Trader Joe’s

We compared prices between Trader Joe’s items and other national grocery chains by choosing items they have in common. Even though a big part of Trader Joe’s appeal is the prices, the wide variety, especially the delicious global cuisine and specialty items, is harder to compare. They struck gold with their popular Trader Joe’s everything but the bagel seasoning, putting it in cream cheese, potato chips, and crackers.

We also wanted to see how the stores stack up when it comes to special diets, whether vegan or vegetarian, or kosher. Over the last few years, Trader Joe’s has built up a good gluten-free selection, and the prices are reasonable compared to other stores.

Our 11 Favorite Trader Joe’s Finds

  • For cheese lovers: English cheddar with caramelized onions
  • For toasting: Prosecco, the sparkling wine of Italy
  • For all-day snacking: Cheese puffs
  • For healthy eating: Frozen veggies and fruits
  • For freezing: Vegan raviolis and pad Thai
  • For breakfast noshing: Organic rolled oats
  • For natural grazing: Dried fruits and nuts
  • For party fun: Mini wontons and mac-and-cheese bites
  • For dip addicts: Variety of hummus and spreads
  • For Taco Tuesdays: All the fixings including guacamole made with Greek yogurt
  • For saying thank you: Flowers and cards 
  • For specialty diets: Gluten free, vegan and kosher items

For Cheese Lovers

Trader Joe’s knows you love cheese. Whether it’s squash mac & cheese bites or their wildly popular Unexpected Cheddar, the company offers a variety of cheeses and cheesy prepared foods for about 75% of what other retailers charge.

Have you made a grilled cheese sandwich with their English cheddar with caramelized onions yet? This addictive cheese is $9 a pound at Trader Joe’s. A similar cheese from the Boar’s Head brand sells for about $8 for 7 ounces at the Publix grocery chain.

If you like to make charcuterie or cheese plates, hit up Trader Joe’s first to save time and money.

Wine is on display from Trader Joe's.
Alexandra Vincent/The Penny Hoarder

For Toasting

Even though the Two Buck Chuck is the well known cheap wine at Trader Joe’s, they have a really good and affordable wine section. If you are a fan of prosecco, a decent bottle costs between $8 to 11 at Trader Joe’s. A similar selection costs $10-14 at Kroger’s. They have tasty red and white wines priced about an average of $2 less than other national retailers.

For All-Day Snacking

Do you have a sweet tooth? Dreaming up recipes for cookie butter, or just dreaming about Trader Joe’s dark chocolate covered marshmallows? I regret to inform the scale in my bathroom that organic vanilla ice cream, pretzel nuggets, tortilla chips, and potato chips are priced similar or below national retailers. A big bag of cheese puffs (7 ounces) is $2.49 at Trader Joe’s. A similarly sized bag at Walmart is $3.98.

We have to talk about ice cream a little more. Trader Joe’s does not have the best deals on regular ice cream. But if you want your sweet treat to be vegan or an unusual flavor, then you can find a good deal. A quart of their coffee bean blast ice cream is $4.49, just a few pennies less than a similar one at Walmart. You can make your taste buds super happy blending a scoop in your cold brew, saving time and money off going to get a coffee smoothie.

For Healthy Eating

Trader Joe’s puts a lot of thought into their produce buying. According to their podcast, they usually avoid produce that has been ripened by chemicals. Produce is delivered daily, and produce coolers are relatively small so items can be quickly sold and replaced. They also buy directly from growers, which helps keep the prices lower.

Produce is a mixed bag at Trader Joe’s. Often there are great deals on fruits and vegetables. The real savings are for organic produce, usually less than other grocers. A 7-ounce bag of organic greens costs $2.49 at Trader Joe’s, while the same size of non-organic romaine costs $2.99.

However, you can get bagged greens at major retailers for less. Kroger’s has an 8-ounce bag of shredded iceberg lettuce for $2.29.

There are  both good and not-so-good reviews of Trader Joe’s produce. If it is something that you can eat quickly or freeze, it is a good deal. This website keeps a list of Trader Joe’s prices that you can use for comparison.

For Freezing

There are big price differences between items from Trader Joe’s freezers and other retailers. A package of four turkey burgers (16 ounces) costs $3.49. Double the weight, 32 ounces, at Walmart costs three times as much, at $10.69. Salmon burgers cost $7.99 at Kroger, but a slightly heavier package costs a dollar less at Trader Joe’s.

Trader Joe’s sells a variety of frozen fruits for good prices. Frozen pineapple, peaches, blueberries, and mango cost less than other retailers. Frozen vegetables are on par with most other stores, with the exception being Trader Joe’s cheaper organic prices.

Frozen meals at Walmart, Kroger, and Trader Joe’s are about the same price, but the selection is very different. If you pine for Chicken Tikka Masala, ginger soup dumplings, vegan Pad Thai, or a popular pasta dish like lasagna or ravioli in vegan versions, there’s more variety at Trader Joe’s.

For Breakfast Noshing

Like many things at Trader Joe’s, they have a couple of well known cereals (crispy rice, crunchy cinnamon squares) and then flavored with the Trader Joe’s spin (strawberry yogurt, almond butter puffs). Trader Joe’s cereal costs about the same as the store brands at Albertsons and Walmart, but significantly less than well known brands.

Organic rolled oats are $3.99 for 32 ounces at Trader Joe’s, and $5.99 at Kroger.

For Natural Grazing

Big savings on dried fruit and nuts can be found at Trader Joe’s. A 10-ounce bag of organic dried figs is $2.99 there. Compare that to $6.99 for a similar bag at Albertsons. Dried dates, apricots, apple slices and other fruits are all cheaper at Trader Joe’s.

Nut prices are more mixed. Expensive nuts like cashews, almonds, and nut mixes sell for a little less per ounce at Trader Joe’s. Peanuts are cheaper at other retailers. If you are a baker, Trader Joe’s has the best prices for baking nuts. For example, slivered almonds are about 30% less than at all of the other retailers.

For Party Fun

Humans have been eating appetizers since they could socialize. While the idea is that they can spur on your appetite, let’s be real. We could easily eat appetizers for our meal. Whether you want to just pop something into the microwave or present a fabulous charcuterie board, Trader Joe’s offers good deals on imaginative appetizers.

You can heat up mini wontons from Trader Joe’s for $3.49 or from Albertsons for $4.45. Taquitos and spring rolls are priced a little cheaper at other retailers, but quesadillas are much cheaper at Trader Joe’s. Mac and cheese bites — surely whoever invented these looked into our dark desires — cost about $2 less at Trader Joe’s than elsewhere.

For Dip Addicts

Trader Joe’s has a great selection of hummus and dips. The caramelized onion dip will taste good as a sandwich spread. They’ve figured out how to put the addictive bagel sesame seasoning blend into a dip too.

An 8-ounce container of organic hummus is $2.69 at Trader Joe’s. A similar size costs $4.29 at Albertsons. Lazy avocado toast fans can get a 10-ounce container of organic chunky guacamole for $3.99 to put on their toast (same price as a non-organic version at Kroger). If you like your dip with a spicy kick, there’s a tasty cauliflower jalapeño version. Does the cauliflower make it count as a vegetable serving?

For Taco Tuesdays

We priced out what it would cost for a regular taco night meal, including tacos, salsa, ground chicken, sweet corn, sour cream, black beans, and some nice sharp cheddar. Don’t judge our tacos! Feeding four people would cost $17.73 with Trader Joe’s items, and $21.13 with Kroger’s. If you want to spend a bit more, pick up the Trader Joe’s Chunky Guacamole made with Greek yogurt.

For Saying Thank You

Heading to a party and need quick and easy gifts for the hosts? Flowers from Trader Joe’s work every time. A dozen Trader Joe’s roses are $10, while the same bunch costs $40 at Kroger’s. Cards are a dollar. It is easy to stock up with cards for most occasions.

For Specialty Diets

I’m not saying that I have eaten an entire box of gluten-free chocolate almond cookies in one sitting, but yes, I easily could. Over the last few years Trader Joe’s has improved their gluten-free offerings, and there are a lot of them now. The cauliflower gnocchi is delicious with Alfredo or red sauce. Meals like fried rice often have hidden wheat (soy sauce in this case), so TJ’s cauliflower stir fry is a good option. Gluten free bagels are $4.49 (and tasty!) at Trader Joe’s. A similar item costs $6.99 at Safeway.

Shoppers can get updated lists of gluten free, vegan, and kosher items from the staff. The kosher list runs eight digital pages.

The Downside of Trader Joe’s

There’s not a lot of negatives about Trader Joe’s, but the search mechanism on their website is one. Good luck trying to find specific items. They don’t have a delivery/pickup service either. The biggest downside might be that beloved items go in and out of stock. You might become addicted to their dark chocolate cauliflower gnocchi and then it is gone. My favorite trail mix disappeared after a month, never to return. Trader’s Joe, you’re such a tease.

Not everything is always a deal at Trader Joe’s. Meat prices are not particularly better than anyone else’s. Their toilet paper doesn’t think softness is a virtue. Their gluten-free pizza crusts fall apart. The selections in general are more narrow than other retailers. But these downsides don’t override how much money can be saved and flavors discovered shopping there.

Is Trader Joe’s Worth It?

There are a lot of kitchen staples that you can get at Trader Joe’s for the same price or less than big regional chains like Publix or Kroger. Trader Joe’s stocks healthier versions with a larger percentage of organic items. You can find flavors from around the world for the same prices as familiar items. And they try to work sustainability into their packaging and procurement.

If your shopping lists tend to run to items mentioned above, and you haven’t tried a Trader Joe’s store yet, it is worth going and seeing if you save money.

The Penny Hoarder contributor JoEllen Schilke writes on lifestyle and culture topics. She is the former owner of a coffee shop in St.Petersburg, Florida, and has hosted an arts show on WMNF community radio for nearly 30 years.