Back away from the beef cabbage rolls.
Trader Joe’s inspires a cult-like following that other stores envy.
There are numerous Instagram accounts dedicated to just-released products. People camp outside at 5:30 a.m. ahead of new store openings. Even kids catch the excitement: One Reddit user asked for advice on throwing a TJ’s-themed birthday party for their five-year-old super fan.
Brenda Sickles, a Westchester-based blogger, is one of these store fanatics. Sickles regularly buys, tastes, and reviews Trader Joe’s products on her blog, Becoming Betty (named after four great Betties: Crocker, White, Ford, and Ugly Betty). Since launching the blog in October 2016, she regularly receives tens of thousands of page views a month — and generates enough revenue to turn her hobby into a part-time job.
While most of her product reviews are on the positive side, Sickles admits there are some items the store can’t get quite right. She revealed to MONEY the best deals at Trader Joe’s, plus which items shoppers should avoid at all costs.
Both inexpensive and delicious, most of Trader Joe’s grab-and-go food is usually a decent deal — except when it comes to sushi. “Just don’t do it,” says Sickles, who recommends staying away from the pre-packaged rolls, which remind her of options you might find in a gas station.
Wraps at Trader Joe’s, including the Tarragon Chicken Salad Wrap, Turkey Club Wrap and the Italian Style Wrap, may not taste terrible, but Sickles claims they come with a different downside. Each wrap weighs in around 700 calories — and that’s mostly from cold cuts, and the giant tortilla itself, of course. “You normally think a wrap is not too bad, but then you look at the nutritional count and you’re like, ‘Holy cow,'” she says.
“Fresh produce can be very hit or miss,” cautions Sickles. “I only buy what I’ll use in the next day or so because it seems to go bad quicker than other stores.” Although she does give Trader Joe’s points for its more exotic offerings, noting it’s one of the few places she can find “novelty” items like Cotton Candy, Champagne, or Thomcord Grapes.
Skip: Beef Cabbage Rolls
Cabbage and beef in a nice neat little package. Hmm, what could go wrong? It’s safe to say Sickles isn’t a fan of this frozen food mainstay. As she wrote in her review on her blog, “If you were making this at work, you will earn the ire of your colleagues. It may even inspire Febreze to create a new fragrance line called burning sage to put the devil in check.”
Skip: Frozen Brown Rice
Cooking rice can sometimes be a hassle, but saving time by purchasing frozen, precooked rice is never a good deal. Trader Joe’s frozen brown rice packets cost $4 for three 10-ounce bags, while the uncooked, 2-pound counterparts sell for around 71 cents less (prices may vary depending on your location). “I liked it, the quality was there, but it was too expensive,” says Sickles.
Buy: Frozen Fried Rice
While plain frozen rice may land on the “do not buy” list, Sickles says the frozen fried rice packets — including Japanese Fried Rice ($2.99), Vegetable Fried Rice ($2.69), and Peruvian Style Chimichurri Rice ($2.99) — are a steal. “These rice mixes are a much better deal when you think about all the ingredients you would need to make this item, and the time you would spend prepping to make it on your own,” she says.
Trader Joe’s claims their macarons, which are sold in the freezer aisle, are made by “French masters” — and they’re not kidding. At only $4.99 for a dozen, Sickles says, “Good luck finding a dozen macarons this cheap” elsewhere.
Buy: Fresh Seafood
The store recently added fresh seafood selections, including scallops, wild salmon, and farm-raised salmon to its refrigerated section. “It’s definitely worth a try,” Sickles says, especially since the price seems right compared to specialty stores.
In recent months, Trader Joe’s has also added higher quality choice-grade beef cuts to its stock. The pre-marinated meats will save you prep time, but can cost a little more: Sickles purchased a BBQ Seasoned Spatchcocked Chicken for $12.21 ($3.99 per pound) and a Marinated Beef Flank Steak Pesto Roll for $14.51 ($11.99 per pound). But when dinner’s made that fast, the cost seems to even out in the end.
Buy: Hold the Cone Ice Cream Cones
One of Sickles’ favorite finds are TJ’s mini ice cream cones. For $2.99, you get a box of 8 tiny cones of ice cream coated in a thin layer of chocolate. The store sells chocolate and vanilla year-round, and features pumpkin-flavored ice cream for the fall and peppermint for the holidays.
Full disclosure: In pursuit of the truth, I bought a box. I’m usually a tough critic on desserts since I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but I ate the entire box of pumpkin Hold the Cones in three days (in part by sneaking them into my breakfast). This one’s a winner.