Welcome to a column from The Financial Diet, one of our very favorite sites, dedicated to money and everything it touches. One of the best ways to take charge of your financial life is through food and cooking. This column from TFD founders Chelsea Fagan and Lauren Ver Hage will help you be better with money, thanks to the kitchen.
If you are someone who cares a lot about sticking to a frugal budget — and frankly, everyone should — it can feel really easy to scoff at Whole Foods (or "Whole Paycheck," as my mother likes to call it) as a concept. Yes, it's a rather expensive store, and yes, they often stock items so ludicrously unnecessary and laser-targeted on bougie hipsters that it can feel like one big practical joke (I'm looking at you, asparagus water), but there is a lot of good to be found in the aisles of the big W-F. Not only are there certain items that are actually distinctly cheaper to buy at Whole Foods, but there are also things the store just does damn well.
And before you ask, I am not a devotee of the hot bar, as I know many people are. I will simply state that the hot bar is all a question of how you use it and to what end, as well as personal preference, and I'm just simply not the kind of gal who likes to spend $12 on five-sixths of a pound of mediocre ziti.
Our "Buy This, Not That" Guide to Whole Foods
Beyond the undeniably tempting lunch bar area, there are still plenty of good (and bad) calls to make when shopping there. Here is TFD's non-exhaustive list of what to buy (and what not to buy) the next time you hit your local Whole Foods.
Veggies & Fruits
When it comes to veggies and fruits, Whole Foods has it all. But what should you buy and what should you skip? We have some feelings.
Buy This: 365 Brand Frozen Fruit & Veggies
Long story short, you can never go wrong with some frozen fruits and veggies. Not only are they super versatile and (obviously) keep for a really long time, but they also arguably often contain more nutrients than produce that is shipped fresh great distances (read: basically everything out of season where you live). Whole Foods has a great house brand for these, and they make everything from random Tuesday night stir-fries to morning smoothies a more seamless experience.
Not That: 365 Brand Veggie Straws
What the hell even are these things? Honestly, veggie straws are the worst, and Whole Foods' version is no exception. They're the horrible combination of "makes you think they are somewhat healthy" and "actually not healthier at all, so you might as well just be eating kettle chips." And while there are other foods that fit that bill — I'm looking at you, granola — they at least taste good as individual items.
These straws just taste like the corrugated wood material that's inside IKEA furniture.
Convenient Lunch Items
Can Whole Foods help you get out of that Sad Desk Lunch life? Yes. But there are some things to consider when shopping for lunch items.
Buy This: 365 Brand Organic Frozen Brown Rice
I'm actually not a huge brown rice person, but my TFD partner (and the designer of this very article!) Lauren swears by this stuff. You can quickly microwave it; add in whatever protein, veggies, or condiments you have on hand; and have yourself a healthy, filling, and hot lunch in mere minutes, even at the office.
Not That: Hot Bar Food
On the other hand, you can overspend on a not-so-great, usually unhealthy, almost-always-regret-inducing lunch at the hot bar. Come on, admit it: Even if you do enjoy the occasional trip to the Whole Foods hot bar, you never really leave feeling like you made a great decision. Either you buy something that generally sucks, flavor-wise, or you get yourself a bunch of mac and cheese and baked chicken and basically just delude yourself into thinking it's kind of healthy because it came from a store you mentally code as "healthy" for no reason.
Save your wallet (and your stomach) the trouble, and pack yourself a lunch.
Fancy, Artisanal Items
Whole Foods is filled with lots of fancy, artisanal things. Some are actually helpful when you're cooking something special or specific, and some are just fancy for no reason at all.
Buy This: Anything from the Bulk Spice Section
Whole Foods' bulk spice section is actually one of the few parts of the store that often turns out to be less expensive than many generally cheaper stores. Not only do they have a more diverse selection than most normal grocers, but the prices are actually solid. If you are at all into home cooking (and come on, you should be!), it's definitely worth a stop.
Not That: Infused Water
This stuff is honestly some kind of Old Testament trial to separate dumb health-food nuts from their money, and rightfully so. Doing anything but avoiding this stuff is unforgivable.
Whole Foods is full of small things that will make your house feel cozier when entertaining. What things should you skip and what should you buy? Here are our thoughts.
Buy This: Fresh Bread & Pastries
Whole Foods actually has a great bakery section, where most items are actually baked on site. As someone who is always suspicious of grocery store bread and expects grocery store cake to taste like the stuff you get at elementary school functions, this bakery consistently blows those expectations out of the water. It's a good place to grab your bread to go along with dinner, almost without exception.
Not That: Fresh-Cut Flowers
Their flowers are overpriced and tend to die quickly. You are much better off getting your stems at a Trader Joe's or, honestly, at your corner bodega with a decent flower shop attachment.
Fancy Meal Accessories
If you're throwing a semi-fancy kinda last-minute dinner party, you're going to need some things. If you're heading to Whole Foods, here's what to get and what to skip.
Buy This: Value Wine
Whole Foods has a pretty great wine shop in many locations with a sizable budget section and a ton of information posted alongside each wine if you, like me, often have no clue what the hell you're doing when you go to pick up a bottle. And if organic wines are more your thing, as you might expect Whole Foods has a really good amount of those, too.
I'm not saying you should make an out-of-the-way trip to go just for the wine shop, but if you happen to be there and there is one attached, definitely feel free to pick up a bottle (or several) while doing your shopping.
Not That: Specialty Cheeses
Here's the thing: If you are getting more basic cheeses, you might as well shave almost half the price off and get it at Trader Joe's. If you want a really nuanced cheese selection for a good cheese plate or special dinner, you are better off actually going to a cheese shop if you have access to one. Whole Foods cheeses tend to be highly priced for what they are, with a not-great selection of anything more fancy than, like, camembert.
If you are a true cheese-head, or want to make sure and get something special, it's worth the trouble to go to a great cheese shop where — and I'm not exaggerating — you'll usually end up spending less for a better dairy product.
Bonus! Body Care
OK, yes, this has nothing to do with food, but it's very important to us here at TFD and we wanted to talk about it for a second. Plus, if they sell it at a grocery store it kinda counts, right?
Buy This: Alaffia Authentic African Black Soap
We have a few members of the TFD team who are serious devotees of this product, and for the price there are few items you can buy off the shelf which will do so much for so little money when it comes to problem skin. I actually haven't tried it myself yet, but considering the massive amount of good reviews both within and outside of my immediate circle, I feel confident in recommending it for your bathroom cabinet.
Not That: 365 Brand Facial Cleanser
This stuff is weirdly liquidy, doesn't actually cleanse very well, and also smells kind of off. It's definitely one of those products that suffers greatly for being super organic, and doesn't deliver enough results to justify its price tag. Better to steer clear of this stuff.