These 5 Easy Habits Totally Changed How I Shop at Trader Joe’s This Year

updated Nov 23, 2020
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Credit: Sarah Crowley

My local Trader Joe’s has always been popular and crowded, but I was shocked when, in the beginning of March, I saw a line snaking around the corner a few minutes after the popular grocery store opened. My neighbors in New York City were preparing for a potential citywide shutdown to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, and it seemed our favorite grocery store was their biggest priority. Rather than wait in line with them, I decided to make do with the produce at another, less-crowed grocery store.

Eventually, however, I ran out of Everything But the Bagel Seasoning… and about four other Trader Joe’s products I love to the point of reliance. I knew I’d need to make changes to my old method of Trader Joe’s trips to make them worth it, so I devised a plan to stock up on the things I could only find at TJ’s and nowhere else… and now I’m never going back to my old way of grocery shopping again, if I can help it.

Here are five habits I’ve picked up in the weeks since that first COVID-era Trader Joe’s trip, all of which I plan to keep. The benefits? They save me money and time, and prioritize the products I actually need—though I make sure to bake space into my list for a treat or two. Hey, this is Trader Joe’s we’re talking about!

Credit: Diana Liang

Make a list

A grocery list will always help you save time and money because it gives you guard rails: By focusing on the items you’re out of, or truly need for a given recipe, you can remember which products to prioritize and which are just for fun. (I’ll never say no to stashing an extra bag of Super Sour Scandinavian Swimmers in my cart if I can afford it that week.) Where I once browsed the aisles of Trader Joe’s for new and intriguing products, I now go in with a plan—and it’s saved me so much time in the long run.

There are plenty of ways to make your grocery list, but what works for me is keeping a running tally on my phone’s Notes app. One Apartment Therapy writer even categorizes her grocery list according to her local Trader Joe’s layout so she doesn’t have to double back on certain aisles. Given that my local store has enforced one-way aisles and taped off entry and exit points, such forward-thinking has helped me, too.

Research new products ahead of time

Between the official Trader Joe’s Instagram account, the brand’s time-honored Fearless Flyer newsletter, and the dozens of fan accounts dedicated to alerting shoppers to new wares, there are plenty of ways to read up on the latest products and how to use them. I’ve been known to peruse the Instagram accounts while waiting in the line outside my local shop to make sure I didn’t forget anything I wanted to stock up on or try. And when I saw Trader Joe’s List post that the brand’s gluten-free candy cane Joe-Joe’s were back in stock, they immediately went on my grocery list.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: Pearl Jones/Kitchn

Ask yourself if the products are truly “special”

The great paradox of Trader Joe’s is that it seems like you can only get many of their products at the store—they don’t sell through third-party retailers, nor do they offer online shipping. In reality, many of the products are likely generic versions sold under the house label, though Eater notes that some are truly exclusive to TJ’s.

Even if there are probably other versions of the same product at other stores, you can’t deny it’s convenient that Trader Joe’s stocks them all in one place. That’s why I prioritize the products I truly feel like I can’t find anywhere else. I know to opt for the pepita salsa because I can find a similar peach salsa at another store, and I grab several jars of the onion chili crisp because my local grocery store is often out of the gold standard Lao Gan Ma. This goes double for the chili-coated dried mango: I’ve been known to grab five packs at a time because I love the flavor so much.

Credit: Sarah Crowley

Only grab foods that freeze well or are shelf-stable

Because my Trader Joe’s runs are now tactical supply missions, I need to make sure my picks will last. I’ve learned to stock up on the shelf-stable products, and only grab perishable items that I know will freeze well. (Pro tip: The brand’s beloved Mediterranean hummus stays just as creamy after it’s been frozen and defrosted, so I always grab two tubs—one for now, and one for later.)

This process does require a bit of forethought, given you’ll have to put any foods you’ve frozen into the refrigerator well in advance of when you actually want to eat them. But once you get into the hang of freezing the dips, soups, and even brownies, you might never go back.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Bring more bags than you think you’ll need

Not only will this save you from an extra charge if you live in a state with paper and plastic bag regulations, it helps you reduce waste at home. I invested in a set of six canvas totes from Amazon and keep them rolled up by my front door for easy access whenever I need to run errands. They save me money in the long run, and hold up against a heavy Trader Joe’s haul better than their paper counterparts. Now, I don’t fear throwing three or more cans of the brand’s lentil vegetable soup in my cart. I know my canvas bags will survive the long subway ride home.