5 Staples You Actually *Shouldn’t* Buy at Trader Joe’s

By Pamela Vachon
|
July 7, 2022
an illustration of grocery items being weighed on an old fashioned scale
Image credit: Lindsey Engelken for Clean Plates

Trader Joe’s prices were sourced via their website, as well as in person. Comparative prices for conventional markets were sourced through a number of different stores including ShopRite, Key Foods, and Wegmans Instacart.

Yes, it’s nearly sacrilege to suggest that Trader Joe’s isn’t the be-all-end-all grocery shopping experience for absolutely anything and everything. Of course we love TJ’s for its delicious and convenient ingredients that make healthy meals and snacks come together in a snap. It’s definitely the best place, price-wise, for pre-cut fruits and vegetables, and it tends to lower our grocery bills overall, so we’re grateful to have a Trader Joe’s in our neighborhood. 

Read next: Dietitians Weigh in on All of the Newest Products at Trader Joe’s

However, that doesn’t mean that TJ’s has the absolute lowest price or best value for everything in the store. Joe is, after all, human. (At least we think there’s an actual Joe there somewhere?) This is less of an attack on what is arguably our favorite grocery store and more reassurance that you needn’t go out of your way for TJ’s if you’re just short of a few things and want to make a quick trip to a closer market. With that in mind, here are some staples you actually shouldn’t buy at Trader Joe’s.

1. Certain whole fruits and vegetables

The produce section is the point of entry for Trader Joe’s stores, and we know we aren’t the only ones who occasionally look at a price and think to ourselves, “Really, Joe?” Mostly, this occurs for individually priced fruits and vegetables. TJ’s prices are pretty fixed, regardless of seasonality, so it’s definitely possible to get better deals on things like red bell peppers, avocados, and apples when they are in-season and sold by the pound. Admittedly, it’s mostly nickels and dimes we’re talking about here, and the savings may only amount to a few dollars over a large order, but we know we’re not the only ones who believe summertime whole corn on the cob is best purchased from a local grocer or farmer’s market where the price is about eight for $2.00.

Do the math: At $.69 per piece, corn on the cob is definitely an overpriced item at Trader Joe’s; other retailers are currently selling it for as low as $.49, and that price is sure to dip as we head deeper into the summer growing season. Avocados can vary widely in price depending on supply and how close to ripe they are, but avocados at TJ’s are fixed at $2.49 apiece. At other markets you’re likely to find avocado deals as low as $1 each. At $1.29 apiece, red bell peppers at Trader Joe’s come in at about $5.16 per pound, but they can be found for $4.39 per pound elsewhere. (This means that for price-per-item fruits and vegetables at Trader Joe’s, try to grab the biggest ones to get your money’s worth.)

2. Deli meats and cheeses

Trader Joe’s doesn’t have a deli counter onsite, which means that the deli meats they offer, such as black forest ham, salami di parma, and oven roasted turkey breast, as well as sliced cheeses, have been cut and packaged elsewhere — which adds overhead to their actual food cost. (Their other cheese offerings, however, are a great deal.) What’s more, this means you don’t have as much control over how much — or how little — you can buy at a time, with packages that are generally six or eight ounces each. If a quarter-pound of sliced turkey covers your sandwich or salad needs for a week, you run the risk of the rest getting slimy before you can use it all if you have to buy a larger package. If you need a couple of pounds at one time for a large family or for a big sandwich platter or sub, you’re taking a lot of extra plastic home with you along with the salami. We love you, Trader Joe’s, but best leave the deli items to the actual deli.

Do the math: Oven roasted turkey breast at Trader Joe’s is one of the worst offenders, at $5.49 for only six ounces. (Another bit of TJ’s trickery is to keep the optics of a price low, while offering a smaller size than what is conventional.) That comes to nearly $15 per pound for sliced turkey, when typical deli counter prices tend to be between $9 and $12 for sliced deli meats. Even other pre-packaged, conventional brands such as Oscar Meyer and Hillshire Farm keep it to the $9 per pound range for turkey.

Trader Joe's aisles

Image credit: Shutterstock

3. Bread and bakery items

TJ’s does offer some great prices for certain bread and bakery products, but you have to consider what’s worth paying for. Many conventional markets have a bakery onsite. Whether or not they are mixing and proofing the dough at their own facility, at the very least, you have an idea that their loaves and rolls have been baked relatively recently. Furthermore, local grocers are likely to source loaves from local bakeries alongside national brands. You may pay a little more for these, but you’re doubtlessly getting a fresher product and the good feeling that goes along with supporting local bakers — even while visiting a large supermarket.

Do the math: This is more a value proposition than an honest-to-goodness price comparison, but for the sake of comparing like with like, Trader Joe’s Sliced White Bread is priced at $2.49 per loaf, where other generic brand white loaves are sold in conventional grocery stores for as low as $1.39.

4. Pasta

The middle aisles of Trader Joe’s are usually the stars of the show, so doesn’t it seem unfair that when it comes to pasta, the selection at Trader Joe’s is a little paltry? There’s also a fair amount of Reddit traffic dedicated to whether Trader Joe’s brand pasta tastes a bit like cinnamon. We’re all for cinnamon in a lot of flour-based goods, but let’s leave it out of the pasta noodles.

Do the math: The math isn’t really the issue here, as 99 cents for a package of spaghetti noodles is hard to beat, but for a few cents more, we’d rather take our nickels and dimes to another market for better taste and a deeper shape selection.

5. Fresh meat

Another casualty of not having facilities onsite — the kind of counters that usually occupy the outer aisles of the supermarket — is that without a butcher, meat has to be cut and wrapped elsewhere, and transported to your local Trader Joe’s, which all adds money to the cost of the products they offer. What’s more, depending on where your TJ’s is located compared to their shipping facilities and the manufacturers who produce their goods, there’s a much higher likelihood that raw meat and seafood products have spent some time in a freezer before arriving on the shelf. Better to source meat cuts from a grocer that has a butcher department, or better yet, a local butcher.

Do the math: Not every cut is subject to major price differences between Trader Joe’s and other stores, but a few examples we found include flank steak, ($13.99/lb at TJ’s versus $10.99/lb elsewhere,) ground beef patties, ($6.49/lb versus $5.27/lb,) and ribeye ($18.99/lb versus $14.99.)

Read next: 10 Things You Can Buy at Whole Foods That Are Surprisingly Affordable

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