Some people may associate Trader Joe's primarily with inexpensive, yet well-regarded, coffee and wine. Others might consider it a poor man's Whole Foods because of their selection of organic and minimally processed food. With their low-priced private label items and small stores, Trader Joe's is actually more like an Aldi's, but with friendly and abundant staff, free samples, good meat, generally short checkout lines and higher quality products.
If you've shopped at Aldi's, you've no doubt waited in a line for 10 or 15 minutes, or longer, since the stores operate on a skeleton staff of part-timers. While waiting in line by yourself is simply an exercise in patience, waiting in line with a couple of small children should be considered cruel and unusual punishment.
If you have a Trader Joe's nearby, you can skip the long lines and still buy many staples at prices cheaper than at Walmart. Here are some types of items to look for at Trader Joe's. Since prices can vary widely by region, you'll want to verify that an item is actually a good deal in your area before buying.
1. Spices, sweeteners and other ingredients are a steal at Trader Joe's. Name brand unsweetened cocoa powder costs about $3.75 per 8 oz package at most grocery stores. Trader Joe's brand costs just $2.49 for a 9 oz container. A 12 oz squeeze bottle of clover honey costs only $2.99, and I saw a sign advertising semi-sweet morsels for $1.99 per 16 oz bag. In case you don't want to wait for spices to go on sale at CVS or Walgreens for $1 or they don't have the spice you need, Trader Joe's has an excellent selection of common spices every day for less than $2 each.
2. You can find some excellent deals in the dairy section. Trader Joe's cream cheese sells for $1.69 per 8 oz package, compared to about $1.99 for store brand at Walmart. You'll also find tofu in the dairy section at Trader Joe's, and it's significantly cheaper than I've seen anywhere else - only $1.99 per package. Tofu sells for $2.79 or more in other stores, and you almost never see tofu on sale.
3. Juice boxes for kids are reasonably priced and a decent deal if you don't have any brand-name coupons to use toward them in other stores. Trader Joe's doesn't carry many brands that you'll see elsewhere, but I've yet to buy something of poor quality there. Their juice box selection includes lemonade, 100 percent juice and reduced calorie juice beverages. Also, their refrigerated orange juice, at $2 per half gallon, is cheaper than most other store brands.
4. The produce section at Trader Joe's can yield some moderately good deals, and their fruits and veggies are fresh and tasty. My latest produce find was a 1 lb. package of especially sweet, seedless red grapes for just $2.99. Their frozen bags of fruits and vegetables can yield some unique finds, too. You can get a one-pound bag of frozen pineapple tidbits or mango chunks for about $3. Put a kid-size portion in a zippered sandwich bag and you can use it to keep lunchbox items cold. Small, prepackaged pineapple tidbits come two small portions to a package for about $3 in a regular grocery store. Sometimes, I can snag 1 lb. bags of frozen Brussels sprouts for $1.19 each, but my local store doesn't always have them.
5. Vinegar and oil sell for good prices at Trader Joe's. The last time I bought a liter bottle of balsamic vinegar, I paid about $9.99 at B.J.'s Warehouse Club. The liter bottle from Trader Joe's cost less than half that price - only $3.49. Olive oil was $3.99 for a 16.9 oz. bottle, which is similar to sale prices at other grocers.
6. Trader Joe's has their own brand of pasta sauce for well under $2 per jar, and delicious potato gnocchi pasta for only $1.99 per 17.6 oz container - at least 50 percent lower than you'd find in other stores.
My list doesn't include Trader Joe's famous coffee and wine (including its iconic "three-buck chuck" Charles Shaw line), since I don't drink enough of either to make a good judgment call. However, the wine does make an excellent and cheap cooking wine. If you visit Trader Joe's, you'll likely see some folks buying multiple cans of coffee or cases of wine.