stealthy one-off TJ grocery shop for struggling family
December 12, 2014 11:18 PM   Subscribe

I'm visiting some dear friends who are barely scraping by in the South (US) with two kids and a third on the way. I'm plotting a covert op to Trader Joe's tomorrow to buy them a whole bunch of groceries before I leave. I'd welcome all ideas or suggestions on what would be most useful for them! details inside

They have most of the cooking basics, run a vegetarian household, and have always valued much better quality food than their present (bad) circumstances permit. I'm thinking of a combination of short-term treats they can't presently spend money on, but which would be lovely as pick-me-ups at the end of a long tiring day, and things which cost a lot but which if they had good quality versions of and can use over a longer period of time would make a real difference in their food. They're pretty well stocked on spices, so not those. I'm open to general ideas as well as specific recommendations of Trader Joe brand foods which you especially like! e.g. because I was visiting, they bought a large and very delicious frozen TJ chocolate cheesecake to share with me, and which there is no way they would have ordinarily bought had I not been visiting. Very grateful for all suggestions.
posted by idlethink to Shopping (29 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I love their "European" chocolate and mocha yogurts, and they're vegetarian (no gelatin). A lot of their frozen dinners are really high calorie-wise, but their frozen personal greek pizzas are good. Produce is costly and spoils fairly quickly relative to canned/dehydrated goods, so they're probably eating less fresh produce and would welcome some spinach/asparagus/avocado/mushroom/squash/berries/clementine assortment, depending on what fresh and good produce your local TJ has. Root vegetables last a surprisingly long time, so turnips/carrots/beets/etc are good buys, too, that they can add to rice/pasta/lentils. TJ does have really cheap dried fruit and fruit leathers, too, which lasts for ages. I am a fan of the fake meat sausages they sell in the refrigerated section, and they have some nice cheeses that I doubt your friends are splurging on due to the relative cost of brie to, say, rice. Organic milk costs a ton but it lasts for way longer. If they're buying bread at the equivalent of Wal-Mart they'd probably love some sturdier multigrain loaves.

In the frivolous category, the TJ frozen tiramisu is quite tasty.
posted by vegartanipla at 11:47 PM on December 12, 2014

I would get frozen produce if I were you. Quality's pretty decent, and it lasts far longer. Root veg, absolutely. Seconding bread and decent cheese. My local TJs has a good selection, but watch for anything that has animal rennet.
posted by Tamanna at 12:11 AM on December 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I was also going to suggest their frozen produce. You could add bags of the dried fruits and nuts and a few jars of that olive tapenade and roasted red pepper stuff. Also, with it gift season, think about defraying other cash outlays (soap, toilet paper) or buying them things they can regift (those big tobelorone chocolate bars).
posted by salvia at 1:07 AM on December 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

We are vegetarian and my fiance was bedridden for ~2 months in 2009. I was getting some veggies from the the CSA and had a well-stocked pantry. Some friends did a much appreciated TJs run and got me ~4 grocery bags of: parmesan cheese, frozen meal stuffs (fake chicken nuggets, cheese pizza, risotto, thai dumplings, burritos), frozen veggies, grains (quinoa, couscous, pasta, rice), canned beans, jarred/canned pasta sauce, frozen thai food (Tom Yum Soup!) and boxed/frozen indian food. Def agree with Tamanna that animal rennet might be an issue for some folks, so check; most labels at TJs specify vegetarian rennet source, if they say just rennet I assume it means from animal, but FYI if you draw the line in different way. All the items I list are available in Los Angeles area Trader Joes', but YMMV.
posted by holyrood at 1:13 AM on December 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

The frozen veggies are great, as are the Dorot frozen herbs and garlic.

Pasta, rice. beans and other meal makers.

Canned beans, tomatoes, spaghetti sauce are all useful and will stay in the pantry and not spoil.


Peanut butter and Jams

Flour, sugar, shelf stable milk.


Treats like candy and cookies
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:21 AM on December 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

Toasted sesame oil! Probably there are some other good oils but that's my favorite. Also, peppermint Joe Joe's, the focus of the Gods.
posted by mskyle at 4:44 AM on December 13, 2014

nuts. nuts nuts nuts.

They are healthy, they fill you up, they are great as snacks, but are also important to many vegetarian entrees. If they are the type who might be into christmas baking, nuts are often an expensive but important component of that.
posted by juliapangolin at 5:13 AM on December 13, 2014 [7 favorites]

You are a very, very good friend. When I was struggling financially with me and my three kids, I would have blessed you for these specific TJ goodies:

teas, coffees, chai, cocoa
ice creams, frozen desserts, sorbet, frozen fruit pops
all the chocolates and sweets
Joe-O's cookies
the nuts and granolas and trail mixes
granola bars and cereal bars
their awesome olive oils
quick cooking sauces
chocolate covered peanut-butter filled pretzels
all the different rices and noodles for variety

AND a bouquet of flowers.
posted by kinetic at 5:26 AM on December 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

Do you know how much spare freezer space they have? I'd be very wary of giving someone a lot of frozen food without first checking this. If they do batch cooking on a regular basis, they may not have much spare freezer space for bulky items.

I'd go for bottles, jars, tins and packets that have a shelf life of a year or so, that could still be livening up their meals months down the line.
Bottles: rice wine or cooking sherry, good balsamic vinegar, good soy sauce, Worcester sauce.
Jars: Kalamata olives, stuffed olives, artichoke hearts, stuffed peppers, grilled courgettes and other antipasti in oil. Preserved lemons, capers and green pepercorns in brine. Good quality fruit in alcoholic syrup. Good honey. Tahini paste. Thai green or other curry pastes (even if they have a good stock of spices, curry pastes are generally used in fairly large amounts).
Packets: Pine nuts, walnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds. Dried apricots, other dried fruit. Puy lentils.
Tins of coconut milk.

I love food, and in the stretches when I've been really broke being able to produce one or two of those items from the store cupboard has been a real treat.
posted by Azara at 5:38 AM on December 13, 2014 [8 favorites]

Olive oil. I don't have a lot of money and it's hard to plunk down the $10 or whatever for a big bottle, but also hard to pay more per ounce for a smaller one!

Nuts and dried fruit are good. I would look for staples in large quantities. Definitely peppermint Joe Joes and some other treats too!
posted by apricot at 6:13 AM on December 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

Dried fruits and nuts can be so expensive and TJ's has a huge selection. I'd get a good amount of those for sure.

A large container of plain Fage total. Delicious on its own, can be used in everything.

Double check on the vegetarian front (I don't know how gummies work), but get a few packs of those gummy tummy penguins for the kids. They are so so good.

I definitely agree on the suggestion for the jarred tapenades, and would add to that a few other luxury (non staple) items like lemon curd and cookie butter.

Breakfast cereal (WHY IS CEREAL SO EXPENSIVE)--the Puffins are great in all flavors and I also like the TJ's version of frosted flakes.

If they have a pet, TJ's pet stuff is great.

Maybe a few flavored teas or coffee or a bottle of wine if they drink.

(When I was poor I got really, really good at feeding myself for cheap. It was the special little things that I didn't strictly need to live that got cut, and those were the hardest mentally. I don't mind eating basic rice and cheap veg 5 meals a week. I did mind never feeling like I could afford a fancy chocolate bar or a nice cheese.)

You're a good friend.
posted by phunniemee at 6:14 AM on December 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh and TJ's has these graham crackers? I don't know what they're called more specifically but they're the ones in the clear tub. Amazing. The yogurt stars are great, too, imo.
posted by phunniemee at 6:15 AM on December 13, 2014

If you think they have the time or inclination to do it, you might consider looking up some decadent, but easy to prepare recipes that are each good for leftovers if you make enough, then buying the ingredients for those and leaving a little note saying, "Thought you might enjoy making this with the kids, all ingredients included," or something. Really good macaroni and cheese with amazing cheeses, hearty soup or vegetarian chili where you can throw all the ingredients in a big pot and then let it simmer all day, homemade pizza with fancy vegetable toppings (TJ's premade pizza dough is amazing), cookies with amazing chocolate chips and colored sprinkles for the kids to decorate their own, etc. That way, it's not just a gift of food, but also a gift of family time together, and a gift of you doing all the planning for them, and a gift of leftovers. I'd love it if someone did this for me.

Also, yes to shelf-stable, not too much frozen, unless you know they have the space for it. Canned vegetables and beans, a big bag of brown rice, pasta and sauce, oils, etc. They have great shelf-stable soy milk, including this chocolate soy milk that I know from experience that kids love. Snacks, like granola bars and dried fruit and nuts and crispy chips. They have lots of shelf-stable juices that are great for kids and families.

Also, consider non-food items. I love the idea of a bouquet of flowers. But TJ's also stocks toilet paper, and soaps for both bodies and housecleaning, and paper towels, and this amazing hand lotion that is great for dry skin in the winter, and nice smelling shampoo and conditioner, and whatever else is in that aisle. There's nothing worse than being broke and out of toilet paper or soap. And when you're broke, it's hard to justify spending money on face cream or conditioner, but you really miss those things.

And if they drink, get a bottle of good champagne. I know she probably can't or won't drink it now, but put a little note on it that it's for celebrating the birth of the baby, or New Years, or whatever in the future. Because when you're broke, it's hard to think about the future, much less luxuries for celebrating the future, and it's nice to just have something around that you can look forward to that will make you happy.

And get the kids lots of candy!
posted by decathecting at 6:35 AM on December 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

The vegetarian meatballs are really good, as well as felafels, and ready-to-heat indian fares are shelf stable, tasty for the price. The pizzas aren't bad.
posted by nickggully at 6:55 AM on December 13, 2014

Everyone's covered the basics, so for indulgence: Candy Cane Joe-Joes. I mean, what else does one buy at TJs around Christmas?
posted by cabingirl at 7:23 AM on December 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh - the baking mixes are really good. I've enjoyed the brownies, cornbread, cake mix, and the seasonal ones like pumpkin bread. Great pantry items that aren't just a can of beans, you know?
posted by cabingirl at 7:25 AM on December 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you can, maybe also throw a Trader Joe's gift card in there?
posted by jaguar at 8:01 AM on December 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

I would definitely go for their trail mix, dried fruit, etc.

Normally, I would recommend their spices since those are usually very reasonable, but they also have very good deals on olive oil (and other oils) so that would be good. I believe they also have good deals on peanut butter/almond butter/etc.

They also have soups that are in those large sized cardboard containers that are pretty tasty and shelf stable and would make a good pantry staple.

Cereals and granolas are usually reasonable and tasty.

Oh, and chocolate! Good chocolate and reasonable prices. Maybe pick up some cookies or other sweets. The chocolate chip cookies in the clear plastic container are pretty good, although I'm particularly fond of the brownies with sea salt. I also like they're chocolate covered raisins. Oh, and I am very fond of these chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwiches that they sell.

If you want to get any frozen meals, I particularly like their selection of Indian food. I usually get the chicken tikka masala, but I know they have vegetarian alternatives. If they stock those frozen pizzas that could be a good thing to have in the freezer. If they like making smoothies, then you could also get frozen fruit. As already noted, just do a quick check to see what kind of space is available in their freezer before you go shopping.

On preview, the gift card is a nice idea too.

This is very thoughtful, and I'm sure they'll be grateful to have any of this stuff!
posted by litera scripta manet at 8:31 AM on December 13, 2014

They had these dark chocolate covered ginger cookies/candy a couple years ago that were incredible. I've purposely not looked for them this year, at least until family comes to visit and people to share them will be here ;)

A chef friend of mine turned me onto their soups, not in the cans, but in the boxes. She also suggested to me mixing in a can/jar of beans. Love the roasted corn, red pepper, etc.

They advertised some sort of antipasta pickled veggie holiday jar in the last issue of the flyer. It seemed expensive (but I think it's a big jar) but also like the kind of thing that would turn a plate of crudites/cheese etc. into something special.

Precooked black lentils (in the produce section) mixed with a container of their bruscetta is so tasty. You can serve it on/in toast or pita, or just eat it straight out of the bowl.

They have an incredible feta cheese, we're out of it so I can't tell you the brand, but it's in an orange/green/white package and actually tastes like something instead of just rubbery salt. Also nice little rounds of goat cheese that can elevate a salad. Same with precooked beets, already prepped pomegranate seeds, etc.

If they have room in their freezer, frozen pineappe/mango/berries. Also their veggie lasagna & indian food as noted above. Sweet potatoe fries, um, for the kids. I bought a package a frozen precut leeks the other day, I wouldn't normally mess with prepping leeks these days, but now I can make a soup. Their rise overnight croissants aren't exactly staples, but would be a nice treat over the holidays.
posted by snowymorninblues at 8:33 AM on December 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

The dried fruit is amazing. They have boxes of lollipops that my kids do cartwheels over. Maybe some nice ginger soda?
posted by bq at 8:39 AM on December 13, 2014

Also there is this butternut squash/spinach (or maybe kale)/cheese casserole. You'd need to check the ingre to make sure it's really veggie friendly, but a couple of those could be a nice easy entree after a long day, and is the kind of thing you can make yourself but takes a while....
posted by snowymorninblues at 8:44 AM on December 13, 2014

They have some jarred cherries my mother likes on yogurt. Big bottle of olive oil. They have decent baklava this time of year. Some chocolate candies. Wine and cheese if those are in the cards. Frozen berries and veggies if your friends have space. The 100% cranberry and tart cherry juices are great to flavor a glass of water with (I don't drink 'em straight but a little in a glass of water is good.)
posted by telepanda at 10:58 AM on December 13, 2014

Cereal is great, especially for the kids, who can eat it dry if you get Puffins or ones in fun shapes. They're probably subsisting on Malt-o-Meal now, so a nice cereal or three would be a fantastic addition.
posted by juniperesque at 12:20 PM on December 13, 2014

Do they eat oatmeal? TJ's has some pretty good oatmeal options, in various formats depending on one's speed of cooking/storage preferences for oatmeal. I've heard really good things about the frozen steel cut oats (although I've never bought them, because freezer space). The quick-cooking steel cut oats are also good if you make them on the stove. Slower still is the McCann's knockoff, which I think is called Country Choice - it comes in cylindrical cardboard containers.

I also nth the Dorot frozen garlic cubes, the olive oil, and the rosemary roasted marcona almonds.
posted by deludingmyself at 12:28 PM on December 13, 2014

Nut butters (almond, cashew)
Frozen croissants (almond, chocolate, etc) - such a delicious treat.
Salad dressings
posted by pennypiper at 1:04 PM on December 13, 2014

Since they have kids, here's some of the stuff my picky-eater kids especially like from Trader Joe's:

turkey meatballs
canned black beans
organic mac and cheese (the shells kind)
peaches in jars
frozen bean and cheese taquitos
A [Fruit] Walks Into a Bar bars
peanut butter Puffin cereal
frozen blueberries, the teeny ones (they're seasonal; I fondle the bags to find them)
frozen peas
blue corn chips
spinach tortellini (fresh)
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:42 PM on December 13, 2014

Response by poster: thanks everyone so much for all these terrific suggestions! I ended up getting a large range of nuts and dried fruit, tapenades, sundried antipasti and pesto/pasta sauces, bottled oils, various cool candies for the kids, and a bunch of freezer ready-meals for the truly nuclear days. I decided against flowers (though lovely idea) because their children are uniquely destructive. in the brief time I've been here they have managed to break a kitchen scale, plate and milk jug, and decorate the floor with up to half of every meal. (food waste and food scarcity are a truly awful combination, alas). thanks again!
posted by idlethink at 5:34 PM on December 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

> ...their children are uniquely destructive. in the brief time I've been here they have managed to break a kitchen scale, plate and milk jug, and decorate the floor with up to half of every meal

That's pretty normal for small children, not "uniquely destructive." I point this out only because I'd hate for you to be subconsciously raising an eyebrow at your hosts.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:40 AM on December 14, 2014

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