How best to sensibly splurge at Whole Foods?
December 13, 2008 9:15 PM   Subscribe

How best to sensibly splurge at Whole Foods?

I have just acquired, as a generous birthday gift, a $100 gift card to Whole Foods--with a note imploring me to "treat myself" with it. Generally I am the most frugal person I know; I live the starving student/artist lifestyle and buy the cheapest of everything that I can.

I'd like to treat myself to some nicer things with this gift card, but also keep it sort of practical. I don't want to blow $60 at the salad bar. I'd like ideas for things that are practical, but that I'll be able to get at a higher level of quality than I'm used to with my gift card.

One idea I had, for example, was a nice bottle of olive oil to replace the bargain bin Goya stuff I'm using. Any other ideas?
posted by scarylarry to Food & Drink (33 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Depending on where you live, they tend to get good fish.
posted by ageispolis at 9:22 PM on December 13, 2008

My Whole Foods has a particularly nice cheese selection. Pick out some of the more exotic types and try them.
posted by IvyMike at 9:24 PM on December 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Oh, btw, if it makes a difference, I live in New York City. I work literally down the block from the Union Square Whole Foods.
posted by scarylarry at 9:28 PM on December 13, 2008

Best answer: Definitely useful to identify areas where increased cost actually does or can buy increased quality. Cheese is one. If you like, I'd also look at chocolate, beer, and quality meats.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 9:35 PM on December 13, 2008

Buy a chunk of really good parmesan. It'll last you a while, and it is de-fuckin-licious.
posted by SansPoint at 9:37 PM on December 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

Even good bread is relatively cheap, and the difference in taste and texture between really good bread and ordinary bread is huge.
Then maybe some cheeses and/or spreads and/or hand-peeled shrimp to go with it, and a bottle of wine.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:47 PM on December 13, 2008

When in Whole Foods, I always pick up Earth Friendly's almond-scented dish soap. It makes washing dishes a little more pleasant. My local stores also carry a really great vegetarian "chicken salad" in plastic tubs.
posted by Morrigan at 10:00 PM on December 13, 2008

Best answer: I think the meats are where you'll find the biggest difference between Whole Foods and other marts. They have great store-made sausages, and their steaks are a real treat too. You know what's great with steak? Fresh grated horseradish mixed with sour cream.

In season vegetables are always nice. How about nice butternut squash soup?

Another idea would be to make some of the Time's more decadent recipes, such as Macaroni and Humboldt Fog Cheese:

Or, lobsters are at their lowest price in a decade. You'll never have a better excuse to treat yourself:

If you're looking for the best foodstuffs to buy that will make a difference in general, I would say nice olive oil is a must, but only use it when you are not cooking with it. Otherwise, it won't make a difference. Some folks swear by gourmet salts. Fresh pepper in a mill. Real Parmesan. Whole Foods also carries a nice selection of stocks in their frozen foods section.

If you're doing pasta, get some real fresh pasta from someplace like Raffetto's to go with what you buy. That's a real treat, and it costs no more than it does anywhere else.
posted by xammerboy at 10:02 PM on December 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

The Bowery WF has a large beer selection with to-go growlers. Seconding cheese.
posted by kcm at 11:49 PM on December 13, 2008

Definitely cheese. The Whole Foods nearest me carries a double-cream gouda that makes me want to stab myself in the leg, it's so good. I remember seeing the word Roomkaas on the price sticker, if you like cheese at all I would seriously recommend getting your hands on some of that.

They also carry decent wines at not-horrifying prices, if you're into that sort of thing.
posted by palomar at 1:04 AM on December 14, 2008

If your local Whole Foods has a body care area, you might try some of the bath/body products. (Make sure to check the ingredients if you have any allergies.) New exciting scents!
posted by NoraReed at 1:15 AM on December 14, 2008

I have to second the parm. A good one is incredible and you can use it down to the last little nubbin then toss the rind into a pot of beans.
posted by Foam Pants at 1:38 AM on December 14, 2008

In season vegetables are always nice. How about nice butternut squash soup?

Since this was marked best answer, I recommend this recipe.
posted by Jaltcoh at 2:40 AM on December 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

I recommend Kiss My Face face care products. They are relatively expensive because they are made with organic ingredients, but I really like the ester C serum and the moisturizer.
posted by val5a at 6:29 AM on December 14, 2008

Best answer: Find some awesome-sounding recipes that require ingredients normally out of your budget. Buy the food, make the dishes, then freeze them--you can "treat yourself" months from now.

Also, buy lots of good dark chocolate.
posted by ethorson at 7:23 AM on December 14, 2008

Best answer: Don't buy vegetables, their vegetables are overpriced, and you can get better quality (and cheaper) at one of your locally owned shops or farmers market.

Do buy Meat, Cheese, and specialty products! I personally love some of the cleaning products. Bath and body products are excellent as well.
posted by Sdavisart at 7:45 AM on December 14, 2008

Here's another vote for the salts. Don't get the larger shaker; get the smaller fleur de sel or French coarse grey or something similar. Makes a HUGE difference; try it on some simply roasted root vegetables with onions and kale.
posted by Madamina at 8:20 AM on December 14, 2008

Nthing meat and cheese. Maybe some nice wine to go with it?
posted by solipsophistocracy at 8:37 AM on December 14, 2008

well, since you didn't mention any vegetarian tendencies, i am assuming you're not. but in case you are (or just want to try something different) I go to Whole Foods to buy the amazingly delicious Quorn brand "chicken" nuggets. I can't find them anywhere else. That's what I usually buy at Whole Foods- stuff I really can't find anywhere else. I also buy red curry paste and organic bananas there, for that reason.

but i agree with cheese and wine! i like to buy fresh mozzarella there and make caprese salad.
posted by lblair at 8:57 AM on December 14, 2008

My wife, who works there, says you don't need the top-shelf olive oil, as it's not really worth what you're paying for it. Try the Perfect Pear brand of olive oil (also their vinegar). For chocolate, try the 365 brand truffled walnuts and truffles. They're fantastic.

Definitely check out the cheese selection. Their meat is good, but $100 won't go all that far, and you can probably get more bang for your buck in the other departments. Right now, there are some sales on seafood in our region, like shrimp, salmon, and mahi mahi. The fish is really good, and you get more for your money than you will on the meat.
posted by EarBucket at 9:16 AM on December 14, 2008

Also, try the Marcona almonds.

She said to tell you that they're required to let you taste anything in the store before you decide if you want to buy it. Seriously--they'll open anything for you and let you sample it. Company policy.
posted by EarBucket at 9:19 AM on December 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

How about some really nice wine/scotch/whatever you prefer? You can invite your generous friend over and share some.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 9:29 AM on December 14, 2008

I recommend buying the best pantry ingredients so that you can have pleasure throughout the year. Here is a list though I would not buy certain Asian ingredients at Whole Foods price but definitely good honey, capers, salt and other essential items.

I agree upthread that Whole Foods vegetables are over priced but the cheese and meat selection is good unless you have access to Amish or local organic producers found at Local Harvest's directory or a VERY good grocer with reliable meat counter then Whole Foods is it. Choose a good long lasting cheese like a Parmesan Reggiano for the long term but do indulge yourself with more volatile cheeses or you could get real cheap and sample a lot at the cheese counter. A good book on how to pick the best of a particular product with names is Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating which you can get at the Library before heading to Whole Foods.

Determine your pantry based on what cuisine makes you happy and stock or indulge accordingly.
posted by jadepearl at 9:59 AM on December 14, 2008

Whole Foods bacon hack.
posted by subtle-t at 10:13 AM on December 14, 2008 [5 favorites]

posted by sulaine at 10:23 AM on December 14, 2008

Seconding olives and especially...

THE HOT/COLD BAR. Seriously, I wish I could spend $20 alone on a delicious meal from the hot bar. It's ridiculously worth it to stop by one day for lunch or dinner, bring a nice book or some work to do and just get a heaping portion of all the prepared goodness that they have to offer.
posted by saxamo at 10:49 AM on December 14, 2008

I don't know if it's the same where you are, but Whole Foods here keeps a little discount basket of "under $2" cheeses -- usually they're small pieces of the full-price cheese. These are a great way to try a bunch of great cheeses without paying a ton for them; then you can just buy a big chunk of whichever cheese you liked best. My favorite cheeses are Maytag Blue (a must-try if you like blue cheese) and the Drunken Goat (this is a goat cheese with wine in it, rich and dry). The stoner working the cheese section (there's always a stoner working the cheese section) will be glad to very slowly cut you some free samples of these. :)

As others have said, a good parmesan cheese is also perfect for the home cook. You can use it in of my favorite frugal recipes: take some garlic, chop it up, and then fry it in olive oil until it turns golden. Toss a ton of spaghetti (boiled until just done) in the oil/garlic mix, then throw in some finely-grated parmesan cheese. If you like red pepper flakes, you can put some of those in as well. Mix until the cheese/garlic/oil is evenly distributed throughout the pasta, then eat. This is so much better than it sounds, a meal unto itself! It's good both hot and cold.
posted by vorfeed at 1:32 PM on December 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Cheese (overpriced, but great selection and good service):

Blue - Valdeon or Calabrese (or Stilton if you prefer something milder)
Brie - Brilliat Savarin (triple creme)
Goat - A nice little Crottin, or of you like something more adventurous, an ash dusted local.

Lunch (a good Whole Foods lunch):

Baguette + Brilliat (or a Scandinavian butter for spreading) + prosciutto + sundried tomatoes

Others (what we've had luck with):

Olives (nice selection)
Lox (pricey, but great selection)
Specialty salt (cheaper to buy online but who needs a pound)
Sausages (really, a great value)
Specialty drinks (good variety)
Sauces/Condiments/etc. (again good selection)
Bulk goods (one of their better values)


Other meat (criminally overpriced for choice cuts - go to the local grocery and special order)
Produce (generally again, price versus quality disparity)
Prepared foods & deserts (tastes like cafeteria food, but Mrs. Mojo and I are a little picky)
Alcohol (again, price)
Seafood (great presentation, average quality)
Most bakery breads (we've had serious quality problems with their breads other than baguettes, they're just not that consistent)
posted by mrmojoflying at 1:56 PM on December 14, 2008

I suggest using at least $20 of that $100 to stock up on organic bulk -- grains, nuts, dried fruit -- which have lots of mileage. Bulk isn't available at the Union Sq. WF but is at the Tribeca location.

In addition to the categories mrmojoflying above recommends avoiding, I'd stipulate dairy and oils -- as equal or better quality at significantly cheaper prices for these things can be had at the Trader Joe's a few doors down in Union Sq.
posted by taramosalata at 2:23 PM on December 14, 2008

Marcona almonds.

Yes. Oh my god yes. Like no almonds you've had before.

"Good parmesan," in case you don't know, is labeled Parmigiano Reggiano and has a rind with black dots and/or writing on it. Totally worth splurging on, as advised above. You can get a hunk of any size and it lasts a while.

I'd skip the olive oil altogether. Get it at Fairways instead - they have amazing extra virgin olive oils from all different regions for about $10 bucks a bottle. (Try the Pugliese.)

If you've never had real Prosciutto di Parma sliced so thinly that you can read through it, try some of that. With olives from the olive bar, a bit of cheese and a nice fresh baguette, you have a truly great meal.

Also, real smoked salmon - Scottish or Irish - sliced as you wait at the fish counter.
posted by CunningLinguist at 3:07 PM on December 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Just so I'm sure you know, the Bowery WF has a much bigger beer and cheese selection than the Union Square one. I'm not much of a cheese guy, but for beer I'd recommend any of the Dogfish Head singles they have on the shelves in back of the registers in the beer room. Or a Rochefort 10 (or an 8, but they haven't had them much recently). I'm also partial to Dale's Pale Ale, but it's not universally liked.

Also, the beer room tends to have interesting snacks for sale. For a while they had curry-dusted almonds. Delicious. Definitely check to see what they're selling there.

They have sporadically had Scharffen-Berger chocolates in the chocolate area. I recommend them, also.

But the produce is not the best you can get in NYC--avoid it.
posted by A dead Quaker at 8:02 PM on December 14, 2008

Bulk foods is an excellent place to actually be thrifty at Whole Foods. Their organic beans and rice are a great value and I think would be much cheaper than getting them non-bulk anywhere else.

as equal or better quality at significantly cheaper prices for these things can be had at the Trader Joe's a few doors down in Union Sq.

Neither Trader Joe's or Whole Foods are bargain shopping locations, in my opinion. I don't know that I'd buy dairy or oils at either location.

Another way you can make your dollar stretch farther at Whole Foods is by going with their generic 365 brand, which is reasonable for many products. Their canned (not boxed) vegetable broth is extremely tasty and fairly reasonably priced, and I imagine a lot of their canned items are of similar quality. Whole Foods probably does have the best deals on soy milk (or, at least, the best deals on soy milk that you can be reasonably certain isn't GMO).

Whole Foods has really nice cheeses but long term, once you spend all the money in the gift card, I am certain that there are other places you can get the same cheeses for cheaper. Basically, overall Whole Foods is serving a semi-niche market of people who are both interested in healthy foods (and/or foods of an international and gourmet nature) who are also relatively well off.

So really a large component of it is that you do have this $100 to spend. If someone had given you cash, you could stretch it a lot further elsewhere, even for similar quality food. If you live in a small town without good gourmet/healthfood shopping options then Whole Foods is a godsend, otherwise it really is kind of like paying a 5-20% luxury tax on everything you buy there. The only reason I'm saying this is a lot of people go to Whole Foods because they assume that because it is larger, it will be able to offer better prices, and this is just not the case. Unless your time is more valuable than the money saved, it pays to shop around a bit.

I agree that you should avoid the produce at all costs. Even when it is decent it seems like it's twice the cost of anywhere else. I do think the bread can be very good, and it's reasonably priced compared to everything else in the store. There's nothing that says you have to spend this gift card quickly, so maybe one option would be to buy a ciabatta every week and some quality cheese. Even for a really excellent cheese this would cost you under $15 total for enough bread and cheese for a few sandwiches. So this $100 could get you 7 weeks of really, really fantastic sandwiches 2-3 times/week.
posted by Deathalicious at 10:26 PM on December 14, 2008

In my area Whole Foods is the only grocery store to carry Salsa De Rosa salsa, which is by far the best salsa I've ever had outside of a restaurant.

I recommend the "Hot" variety for the best balance between great taste and a nice hot salsa that will make you sweat a bit, but not too hot. The "Extreme Heat" variety is too much for me and probably most people. I haven't tried Mild/Medium because that's no fun. :)
posted by GoldenShackles at 6:19 PM on December 15, 2008

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