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Trader Joe's shopping secrets that save you time and money

How to uncover the secret perks and score the best finds at your favorite grocery store.
Image: Trader Joe's is ready for its grand opening, Feb. 14, 2014.
Want to avoid lines at Trader Joe's? The best time to go is first thing in the morning when they've opened, any day of the week.RJ Sangosti / Denver Post via Getty Images

You may already be among the cult following of the quirky chain of small groceries stores known for their cheerful, Hawaiian shirt-clad crew, but how strong is your Trader Joe's game?

If you're like me you may be on auto-pilot when you shop, grabbing the same things every week in a rush to get on to the next thing. What are we missing out out on? I talked with two super fans to find out.

Deana Gunn is co-author of 10 Trader Joe's cookbooks, and shopped at their very first store. Amanda Hibshman is a culinary dietitian and nutrition expert behind the blog Fearless Flying Kitchen, and hosts a YouTube series with her best friend, a 10-year crew member of Trader Joe's.

The first rule of Trader Joe's is if you love it, stock up

Store fans really love their stuff, and will pile their carts high with favorites. Although this only perpetuates the cycle, if there's something you love, better grab a few, Gunn said. Some things are seasonal, like pie crust and puff pastry (made with real butter), while others get a lot of buzz and disappear fast. I arrived at the wine shop once to pick up a four-pack of their sparkling rose only to learn that five minutes before a customer had carted off every last pack, with no more expected for weeks. Now, if I especially like something (currently the cauliflower gnocchi) I have no qualms about loading up.

Try before you buy

You probably already know about the sample station at Trader Joe's. But what if there's a new product you're interested in, but aren't quite sure you want to buy? Flag a crew member, Gunn said, and ask if they've had it. Chances are they can tell you about it, but better still, they may just pop it open then and there and let you try it. Say it's something that doesn't lend itself to in-store sampling — no worries. Their approach to returns is fantastic, Gunn said. “Maybe you came home with a slimy cucumber, that can happen, it's not like an embarrassing awkward experience [to return it], they're like, 'sorry about that, sure!' Even that part of it feels friendly.”

Think outside the box (or bag)

Trader Joe's is great at having ready prepared meals already, Hibshman said. But you can take it to a whole new level by changing the application.

“My best friend turned me onto experimenting with sautéing their salads,” she said. Maybe not so much with a lettuce based version, but “they have this kale and edamame salad with cranberries and nuts,” she said. “Sauté that with with the dressing pack, and add meat to it.” Boom: dinner. (And conveniently, at least at my shop, the prepared chicken and other meats are just a few feet from the bagged salads.) Or roll it up! “They have a brand new kale chicken salad, that would make a cool wrap.”

Hibshman raves about their new fresh salad dressings, but don't stop at salads. “Use their dressings to sauté vegetables or marinate meat,” she said, or try pouring the miso ginger over grilled pork.

It's all about the mix and match

The ingredients at Trader Joe's combine easily, Gunn said. “They have all these basics that work for quick meal.” Take frozen dumplings, toss them with snap peas, drizzle with Soyaki sauce, and top with already-shredded carrots and in just a few minutes dinner is made, she said. Or take a jar of curry sauce, throw in already-chopped veggies and chicken, simmer 10 minutes, and put it over frozen jasmine rice you've heated up.

Hibshman likes to keep things healthy by mixing things up. “The [frozen] palak paneer is awesome but is high in saturated fat,” she said, “so I usually have that as family meal and have a smaller portion with the channa masala so you're still getting the flavors you love but not getting all the fat.” Or she'll throw in a couple handfuls of spinach into the last 30 seconds while cooking another favorite, the frozen chicken tikka masala, which doesn't come with any veggies. “Same with naan,” she said. “Sauté kale and make it a naan pizza.”

The early bird gets the cauliflower gnocchi

If you've been to Trader Joe's late afternoon on a weekend you know it's a bit of a gong show. The best time to go, Gunn said, is first thing in the morning when they've opened, any day of the week. “I discovered this trick by accident; the Trader Joe's I shop at is on the way to my kids' school so I'd drop them off at 7:45 and go when they open at 8. That is the best time to shop. You will have this amazing experience where everything is stocked perfectly, you can be one of few people there, have aisles to yourself, you can take your time.”

Shopping in the evening, on the other hand, is not only a little more frenetic, but may mean the thing you are there to buy is sold out, she said.

Beyond the Two Buck Chuck

Trader Joe's bargain-priced Charles Shaw wine is legendary. But the great wine values don't stop there. Be on the lookout for any bottle marked a Trader Joe's exclusive, Gunn said, and the Trader Joe's Reserve. She likes their Zinfandel ($9.99). Even wines you can buy elsewhere are priced well, she said. None of this 'buy so many bottles and get a discount,' here. As with the rest of the store, prices are transparent, with no Trader Joe's coupons or complicated sale pricing to contend with.

The experts' top picks (and mine)

So what's on the shopping list for these Trader Joe's super fans? Here are their favorites and mine:

Hibshman's picks

Fresh basil

"They have a great price on basil —you get a ton — it's the best deal. If you eat salad every day fresh herbs can give it a flavor boost and make it gourmet."

10 minute (parcooked) barley and farro

"Normally whole grains take a long time to cook and nobody wants to sit around waiting for an hour and a half. These are awesome for meal prep – throw them in salad or soup, or saute in some salad dressing to have as a side item. They're very diverse to have in your pantry when you want to have whole grain nutrition to sprinkle into meals."

Gunn's picks

Frozen brown rice

"Each pouch has two servings, just pop it in microwave. It has great texture. I tried it ages ago, I remember seeing a woman coming out of the store with 20 boxes of the rice. She said 'it's the best and sometimes they run out for a couple weeks so I always stock up because I can't be without it.' I was thinking 'how good can frozen rice be?' but it's pretty great."

Frozen croissants

"They are great; there's no croissant you can have outside a Parisian bakery that's as good.

Frozen garlic cubes

"Each cube is 1 teaspoon or 1 clove. I always put them in when I make dressing or soup. Now I don't have to dirty my garlic press and wash it. And it's not like garlic out of a jar that tastes stale.""

My picks

Gluten free granola

I'm not gluten-free but this bag of goodness is for everyone. I eat it with Trader Joe's 2% Greek yogurt for breakfast pretty much every day of my life, and nothing else will do.

Cauliflower gnocchi

I keep mentioning this because it's so amazing. The first bite tastes a little cauliflowery (not that that's a bad thing) and then something magic happens with the next bites; your palate resets and suddenly it's just tender, perfect little pillows of gnocchi. It's delicious with pesto and olive oil, cherry tomatoes, and mozzarella balls (all Trader Joe's, of course), or topped with short ribs and a Charles Shaw red wine sauce.


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