6 Groceries You Shouldn’t Buy at Trader Joe's, According to a Food Writer

Think Trader Joe’s is the best bargain always? Think again—plus tips on how to stay within your budget.

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My grandma is an original “little treat” treasure hunter. When my siblings, cousins and I were growing up, we could always count on her for a small bite of something fun: a sweet or a piece of candy, a cookie of some kind, a bite of a pastry, a handful of cheese balls or some mini sandwich crackers. Grocery shopping with her in American and international markets was always an adventure because she encouraged flavor exploration. No wonder then that, now as an 80-something-year-old, the highlight of her week is a trip to “Ah-Jo!”—what she adorably calls Trader Joe’s in the last remnants of her heavily accented, infrequently used English.

While I’m not a regular TJ’s shopper, my grandma’s delight at the prices and selection are infectious. Her enthusiasm led me to go out of my way to brave the crowds in notoriously tight and stressful parking lots to experience what she loves so much. And it parked my shop-the-circulars cost-saving strategy (since nothing actually “goes on sale” here) and forced an uneasy balance between FOMO, impulse-buying and “little treat” culture.

But despite the temptations of the undisputed snack king’s eclectic options and everyday prices that rival many supermarket sales, there are still some things I balk at buying at Trader Joe's. Here are the top things I always skip, especially if I know I can get similar items on sale elsewhere and stock up.

1. Baked Goods

The upside to buying baked goods from Trader Joe’s is that there are no preservatives in them. Unfortunately, that’s also the downside, because that makes the baked goods much more apt to spoilage, mold, and drying out and getting stale.

Because no Trader Joe’s has its own bakery, the breads, desserts and pastries are shipped in. This means that they are not as fresh as what you could get for the same price at a supermarket that does some in-store baking. Lidl, Stop & Shop, ShopRite, Publix, Kroger, Mariano’s, Costco and many others buttress their selection of factory-made goods (such as coffee cakes, muffins and danishes—sealed plastic containers are the giveaway) with baked-in-house rolls, croissants, baguettes and more. It doesn’t feel worth buying something of questionable freshness when fresher products are available at other stores.

Related: Is It Safe to Leave Baked Goods Out?

2. Milk

I’ve never picked up milk from Trader Joe’s. While a half-gallon of conventional milk at TJ’s is typically less expensive than at my local supermarkets, it’s consistently a dollar less at Lidl and Aldi. And according to many threads on Reddit, Trader Joe’s milk has gained a reputation across the country for going sour more quickly than generic milk purchased elsewhere. Since it’s roughly the same price as Kroger’s milk, which is guaranteed for 10 days beyond the best-by date, I’d sooner not take the risk.

Related: What Happens to Your Body When You Drink Milk Every Day

3. Orange Juice

Trader Joe’s is undoubtedly the cheapest spot for a lot of recreational beverages, from juice blends to famous Two-Buck Chuck wines. However, their orange juice is surprisingly pricey. Even for non-organic orange juice, a half-gallon can run $6.49. This is twice the going sticker price for Tropicana orange juice, which is also not from concentrate.

4. Chicken

One of the things people like most about shopping at Trader Joe’s is that products are packaged for smaller households. But that also extends to raw chicken, which means you lose the bulk-buy discounts that can bring the cost of boneless, skinless breasts down to $1.99 a pound. Compare that to the $4.99 per pound that TJ’s (and most markets) charge for smaller packages, and you can be paying more than double.

Plus, dark meat isn’t a smart buy at Trader Joe’s. Boneless, skinless thighs cost just as much as white meat here, which is a departure from most stores, which offer dark meat at a lower price than white meat. It’s a much better deal to buy family packs of raw chicken and freeze any extra. For example, I frequently buy 10-pound bags of chicken leg quarters at 59 cents a pound from retailers like Walmart and Kroger.

Related: 27 High-Protein Dinners with Chicken Thighs

5. Produce

There are some good deals to be found in the produce section of Trader Joe’s ... but not as many as people think. When you compare the per-item price versus standard per-pound pricing, TJ’s doesn’t always have the edge. For example, folks go bananas over the perceived bargain of the 23-cent bananas, but at roughly three medium bananas to a pound, that’s 69 cents per pound versus Lidl’s set price of 57 cents a pound. Other examples include potatoes, peppers, onions and sweet potatoes.

The most expensive items you’ll buy in this section, however, are pre-packaged whole ingredients that are currently in season. Because of Trader Joe’s static, no-sales pricing, $4.49 for a pint of blueberries might be a great deal in the winter, but it’s more than double what standard grocers charge during the peak of the harvest. The differences for grapes and zucchini are even more dramatic. While both drop down to as low as 99 cents a pound in the summer elsewhere, TJ’s holds fast to $5.49 and $3.69 a pound, respectively.

And finally, I tend not to buy any pre-packaged produce that I prefer to handle myself, like the aforementioned zucchini. I’ll take my chances on TJ’s excellent salad kits, carrots, mushrooms and the like, but when it comes to apples and tomatoes on the vine, I want to feel and sniff what I’m getting to ensure freshness.

6. Refrigerated Prepared Food

The ready-to-eat case at Trader Joe’s is hard to resist. It’s full of colorful, flavorful selections, and most of them aren’t too overpriced for the convenience. However, camouflaged between the reasonable buys are some lurkers that will cost you if you’re not paying attention.

For example, the grilled, seasoned fresh chicken strips edge closer to Whole Foods salad bar prices than, say, Perdue seasoned chicken strips. And speaking of salads, semi-assembled salads with proteins for $7 or less sound like a reasonable quick and easy lunch, but the bowls themselves are rather small and the amount of protein is always miserly at best—usually around a quarter-cup. Wraps, soups and premade sandwiches there are comparable to those at major supermarkets with deli sections, too, so while those aren’t bad buys, they’re not the value you might think they are either.

Cost-Saving Strategies for Trader Joe’s

Beyond avoiding buying these items at my grandma’s favorite market, I follow a few simple rules to try to stay within a reasonable grocery budget. I’ve found that the biggest spending dangers at TJ’s are impulse buys and limited-edition curiosities. I’m tempted by both, and the urge to stock up on the latter in case I can never have it again is strong. So before I make a run to Joe’s, I strategize what limited-edition items I want to get. You might ask how I do that without a circular. Here’s a little secret: Trader Joe’s does have a circular; it’s called The Fearless Flyer. You can subscribe to it or look up What’s New on the website.

I also give myself a budget for how many spontaneous, impulse items I can add on top of my grocery list. This helps me prioritize whether I really need threebags of maple pancake puff snacks “just in case” or if stocking up on two will suffice.

Related: The 8 Best Healthy Packaged Snacks You Should Buy at Trader Joe's

Additionally, I always check the weights and servings of packages. For fresh produce, I calculate the cost per pound against the cost per item or package, especially for prepared items. Perfect examples would be shucked corn ($4 for a four-pack) or cut cauliflower ($2.99 for 12 ounces) compared to whole ears (less than 50 cents each when available) or heads (which can yield up to 20 ounces), respectively. The difference can be dramatic. And if the serving size on a container is small, what you might have budgeted as two meals may actually equate to one big snack, particularly in the frozen foods section. You’ll need to supplement with more food items, making that cheap dinner not so cheap.

With these tips in mind, it’s possible to have a lot of fun shopping at Trader Joe’s without falling into any price traps. Your pantry, wallet and snack-happy self will thank you later.

Related: 7 Groceries You Shouldn’t Buy at Costco, According to a Food Writer

Read the original article on Eating Well.

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