Welcome to Thrifty. A weekly column where assistant nutrition editor and registered dietitian, Jessica Ball, keeps it real on how to grocery shop on a budget, make healthy meals for one or two and make earth-friendly choices without overhauling your entire life.
I'm sure some of you already vehemently disagree, but hear me out. Where you grocery shop is totally up to you, but as a registered dietitian with a vested interest in sustainable food systems and cooking, I just can't bring myself to shop at Trader Joe's. I try to avoid it when I can for a few reasons that I think are valid. Read on for why I am not aboard the Trader Joe's hype train.
Nothing grinds my gears quite like unnecessary food waste or packaging waste. I am not perfect (for more on my successes and failures check out when I Tried a 30-Day Zero Waste Challenge), but at TJ's it can get a little out of hand. They're known for their plastic-wrapped peppers and pre-bagged apples, as well as additional packaging on jalapeños and garlic. At the end of 2018, Trader Joe's pledged to remove one million pounds of plastic from their stores (in addition to making other environmental improvements like providing compostable produce bags and eliminating styrofoam packages on their produce).
However, some of these improvements are still being implemented and I'm not totally convinced. For now, I will be bringing myself and my reusable bags and containers somewhere else.
I don't care how cute they are. Some of them are delicious (like the little peanut butter cups they make), I will give you that. But sometimes the guise of something new or trendy can cloud what is really going on with the food's nutrition. By no means am I saying you can never enjoy processed snacks or that the only reason to buy food is for its nutritional value.
However, a place that is famed for its store-brand replicas of popular processed snack foods raises some red flags for me. When these foods are convenient and surprisingly inexpensive, they're more likely to end up in your shopping cart and that can make whole foods slightly less appealing.
Buying whole food snacks can actually be cheaper. Skeptical? You can usually find apples at a grocery store for less than $3 per pound. Add a jar of peanut butter for around $3. This makes a way more filling, nutritious and affordable snack than your Mini Almond Biscotti and Scalloped Potato Chips with Five Cheeses.
Speaking of whole foods, I am not a fan of the produce section at Trader Joe's. Even in the rare occasion I can get past the unprecedented amount of plastic packaging, I usually cannot find what I am looking for, especially if I am looking for a whole version of a vegetable or fruit. Am I the only person who is looking to do something else with zucchini than turn it into noodles? And what if I wanted to cube my own butternut squash or *gasp* cook it in two halves? I understand these things are meant to save people time, but they unfortunately are also limiting people's options. If you are like me and want to get creative with your vegetables without the confines of a "Salad Kit" or "Stir Fry Mix", then Trader Joe's is not the place for you.
So why, might you ask, are Trader Joe's products so cheap compared to other brands? It isn't magic, it's in the label. Trader Joe's contracts with another brand of pita chips and sells them under their private label for less money. In this instance, it sounds like a pretty good deal for Trader Joe's fans, and is especially popular in their wine section.
Unfortunately, for some types of foods, like chocolate, Trader Joe's was ranked at the bottom of the list when it came to Fair Trade practices. Ever seen fair trade bananas at Trader Joe's? Me neither. They do sell some Fair Trade coffee and chocolate products, but because they sell most foods under their own private label, it can be harder to do your research into how products are sourced. It is more important than ever to support farmers, so I choose stores where this is more transparent and prevalent.
If you have been to Trader Joe's during peak times, it is no secret that it is crowded. And, at our local store in particular, the parking lot gives me major anxiety. (Yes, grocery shopping anxiety is real).
If it is up to me, which luckily it is, I would rather avoid the long lines, frantic soccer moms and random displays of plants that I can't keep from buying. Trust me, I already have plenty of plants. Also are there people who actually like when they ring the bells at the register? May I ask whose idea that was? If you can handle the Trader Joe's chaos, more power to you. You are stronger than me.
In short, I am not saying that Trader Joe's is bad or that you are a bad person if you shop there. For the things I value, I have found it is not the place for me and, for this reason, it is hard for me to understand the hype. If you are concerned about saving money, I have plenty of tips on how to shop for one on the cheap and still eat healthy. If you are wondering what I even eat if I don't shop at Trader Joe's, I even wrote out the top 10 pantry foods that are always in my kitchen. For more on how to save money, eat healthy and figuring out adulting, check out more from Thrifty.