The 22 Best Trader Joe’s Groceries of All Time, According to a Former Employee

updated Sep 10, 2023
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Canvas bag filled with Trader Joe's groceries on countertop.
Credit: Sarah Crowley

Working for Trader Joe’s means you inevitably become some sort of culinary librarian. You live by a seasonal item calendar, sample hundreds (perhaps thousands) of products, and inevitably develop a lot of strong opinions on the absolute best-of-all-time items at the store. When it comes to Trader Joe’s, there are a lot of feathers to ruffle when naming your end-all-be-all, would-take-with-me-on-a-desert-island favorite items of all time, too.

Let it be said: It really took a lot of deep contemplation to narrow this list down to just 22 items. The process was not unlike filling out a March Madness bracket. So many permutations and combinations to consider! I had to apologize to a lot of my besties in the process (namely, many seasonal faves) but these selections are, without a doubt, the 22 items I can’t imagine going without when doing my weekly shop any time of the year. 

Maybe these are some of yours, too? If they aren’t, let me know which Trader Joe’s picks I need to try ASAP for myself!

Credit: Mackenzie Filson

1. Comté, $12.99 per pound

If you’re unfamiliar with my cheese bestie, Comté, it’s my absolute pleasure to introduce you both! While you might think that Brie is the #1 most popular cheese in France, it’s time to set the record straight. Comté is the big cheese, so to speak, and Trader Joe’s has some deliciously affordable bricks of this nutty, buttery, lightly fruity cheese.

A close cousin to Swiss Gruyère (they basically can wave at each other from over the Alps), Comté is my go-to when it comes to gussying up a cheese board, mac and cheese, or omelet, or for simply snacking right off the rind.

Credit: Mackenzie Filson

2. Dolmas, $2.99 for 9.9 ounces

It’s not often you can just crack open a can and, bam! Lunch is basically already halfway made. But these stuffed grape leaves will have you on your way to a bomb mezze platter with just popping off the top of their unsuspecting can. In a very scientific taste test I conducted (just eating lots of grape leaves, including those of my favorite takeout joint), I’ve decided I truly cannot taste the difference between these grape leaves and that of a restaurant.

This packed jar contains perfectly briny grape leaves, with tender rice and plenty of herbs, already basically ready to accompany your Mediterranean feast. Please, by all means, do your own taste tests! I look forward to hearing your results.

Credit: Mackenzie Filson

3. Spicy Sweet Pecans, $4.49 for 5 ounces

“Swicy” (which means sweet + spicy) is taking over TikTok now, of course, but these Trader Joe’s nuts were on the trend way before it was the next cool food party to join. At any point in time, I always have an emergency bag of these in my pantry, ready to jazz up freshly popped popcorn or trail mixes. They’re exactly as their name suggests: roasted pecans coated in the ideal 50/50 coating of sugar, spice (in this case, cayenne, ancho chile, and paprika), and everything nice (that perfect sprinkle of salt). Think: freshly roasted nuts you’d get at the mall on the weekend, but just a bit more elevated.

Just be sure not to make the same mistake I often do when it comes to these nuts: Buy two bags. One will quickly become your post-grocery snack, and the second is for this kale salad with apple and cheddar I make on repeat just for this crunchy topper.

Credit: Mackenzie Filson

4. Raw Argentinian Red Shrimp, $11.99 for 16 ounces

I’m not sure what kind of technology the Trader Joe’s development team has in their lab, but somehow they’ve taken the experience of lobster and shrunken it down to shrimp-form (and at shrimp prices). One bite of these luxurious little shrimps will have you wondering how you got a buttery, sweet lobster-esque meal at a fraction of the price.

Plus, they’re much easier (and way quicker) to cook up. It’s nearly impossible to mess these guys up: Grill these on skewers with your favorite glaze, add to a creamy risotto, or stir into your next seafood paella ASAP.

Credit: Mackenzie Filson

5. Uncured Black Forest Bacon, $6.49 for 12 ounces

Don’t lie: You love it when a Trader Joe’s employee compliments the contents of your cart. Having worked at Trader Joe’s, I, too, shamelessly complimented anyone who had this in their cart. With a thick crust of spices that makes it ultra-reminiscent of a honey-baked ham, this pack puts all of the other bacon in the section to shame (and trust me, I tried them all in my two years at TJ’s).

This extra-thick-cut bacon improves basically everything it touches: shrimp and grits, a BLT, black beans, and yes, breakfast tacos. Don’t toss that bacon grease, either! It’s liquid gold — perfect for roasting vegetables, frying burgers, or drizzling on popcorn.

Credit: Mackenzie Filson

6. Fresh Squeezed Lemonade, $3.49 for 52 Fluid Ounces

Many people look forward to pumpkin spice latte season, but I wait all year for another, completely opposite season: Arnold Palmer season. I get all kinds of elaborate with my perfect iced tea-lemonade combos, and this lemonade is my all-star for when I want something classic. When I had a taste of this Fresh Squeezed Lemonade at Trader Joe’s, I was shook. 

It tastes just like the lemonades of my childhood (especially those sold at baseball fields and state fairs), with the right amount of sweet-to-tart flavor that comes from only lemons, sugar, and water — no powdery ingredients in sight. I love muddling this with a bit of mint or basil, but my summertime standby is mixing up a 1:1 ratio of lemonade and iced tea with this and freshly brewed Mango Black Tea.

Credit: Mackenzie Filson

7. Triple Ginger Snaps, $3.99 for 14 ounces

I can’t be the first one to tell you that these gingery cookies pack the most memorable punch in the whole cookie aisle at Trader Joe’s. If I am, well, your tea time and midnight snacks are never going to be the same once you bring a tub of these home. Packed with three different kinds of ginger (fresh, dried, and crystallized), Trader Joe’s Triple Ginger Snaps are not just for eating straight-up, although they’re very well-suited to that as well.

Most notably, a crew favorite way of eating these involved sandwiching two of these cookies around a dollop of sweet-tart lemon curd. The kick of ginger mixed with the tang of lemon will send your tastebuds to the stratosphere. Plus, the texture of these cookies is 12/10; crisp on the outside and tender on the inside, these cookies are perfect for crumbling up to make a pie crust or layering into icebox cakes, where they become soft and cakey and irresistible.

Credit: Mackenzie Filson

8. Organic Vodka Sauce, $3.29 for 25 ounces

One magic trick I’m sure we’ve all noticed that Trader Joe’s performs is how close it can come to nailing the flavors of those somewhat-secret family recipes. This jar of Organic Vodka Sauce is absolutely one of those sleight of hand tricks that’ll fool anyone into thinking it’s a homemade sauce. I first stumbled upon this after my friend (who has her own honest-to-goodness Italian American nonna) sang its praises. She couldn’t believe how close it tasted to the jar brought to her by the aforementioned nonna. We did a taste test of both and could truly not tell much of a difference — it’s really that good! 

If you’re new to vodka sauce, it contains, yes, vodka in it (and no, you won’t feel “sauced” on this sauce!). It also traditionally includes heavy cream, onion, crushed tomatoes, and butter, which get emulsified by the vodka to create this iconic silky, creamy sauce. It’s one of my favorite pantry “little luxuries” to break out when I’m feeling like a fancy-ish dinner in. It’s great when using it with penne pasta, but it’s also a next-level ingenious move to use it for topping pizza, dipping breadsticks, or tossing with lobster ravioli.

Credit: Mackenzie Filson

9. Dark Russet Potato Chips, $2.99 for 7 ounces

These chips are delicious proof that you, too, can wish your favorite snacks back from the Land of Discontinued Items. As it turns out, it took just a bit longer than usual for Trader Joe’s to find a new supplier to keep up with the demand of producing this objectively perfect chip, leaving their space on the shelf to be empty for much of 2023.

I’m so glad they didn’t give up, because I certainly demand them for many things, like Spanish tortillas. Roasted to an earthy crispy crunch, these hearty chips make chips and dip feel like an event. Which it kind of is, right?

Credit: Mackenzie Filson

10. Beef Birria, $7.99 for 16 ounces

Unfortunately and fortunately, living in Los Angeles has ruined me for any other tacos in my life — especially when it comes to good birria, the savory, spicy Mexican meat stew that is often served at celebrations like birthdays and Christmas.

I’m sure you could see why I had to truly celebrate when I spotted this beef birria in the Trader Joe’s freezer section. It’s truly so frighteningly spot-on that I had to corroborate my feelings with a Californian friend to make sure my tastebuds weren’t tricking me. (She agreed.) The birria is ridiculously tender, brothy, and needs no embellishment outside of perhaps some fried tortillas, a bit of chopped white onion, and cilantro. Throw in a Michelada and it’s basically like you’re eating a street taco fresh from the stall.

Credit: Mackenzie Filson

11. A Dozen Sweet Bites, $5.99 for 9.16 ounces

If there was anything I loved doing while working at Trader Joe’s, it was hyping up products that were so very much overlooked. Peep in the dictionary under “sleeper hit,” and you’ll see a picture of this selection of little sweet bites. Each box of frozen bites contains four individual pieces of three distinct mini desserts: a light and crackly raspberry cake (macarons aux framboises), a chocolate and coffee “Opera”-style cake, and a chocolate and caramel layer cake reminiscent of a chocoflan. 

No matter the flavor, you’ll find that each slice is just the right amount of richness for a bite and feels like a perfect (and affordable) treat to set out instead of those often-overpriced pre-made desserts from the grocery bakery. It also saves you from any dessert-related FOMO, and aren’t we always trying to avoid that?

Credit: Mackenzie Filson

12. Garlic Spread & Dip, $2.99 for 8 ounces

You know how, in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the dad always thinks Windex improves everything? Well, that’s absolutely how I am with Trader Joe’s Garlic Spread & Dip. Also known as toum, this fluffy, white spread is likely a familiar sight at your neighborhood Lebanese takeout spot. 

More complex than the sum of its parts, Trader Joe’s Garlic Spread is made with garlic, lemon juice, and oil, whipped into a light, mayo-esque spread. Trader Joe’s Garlic Spread is great for topping kebabs and avocado toast, tossing with roasted vegetables or pasta, or stirring into rice or mashed potatoes. My new favorite use? Using it in a grilled cheese.

Credit: Mackenzie Filson

13. Kung Pao Tempura Cauliflower, $5.49 for 24 ounces

Cauliflower is having a major glow-up moment, and I especially am all about it when it’s coated in tempura batter, fried to golden and crispy perfection, then slicked with a sweet-spicy sauce (and maybe a drizzle of Chili Onion Crunch for good measure). I’ve also been known to forgo the sauce provided and toss these florets with a buttery Buffalo sauce, too, and they’re a pretty delicious canvas for riffing. It’s never been easier to eat my vegetables, honestly.

Credit: Mackenzie Filson

14. Chile Spiced Mango, $2.49 for 8 ounces

I first fell in love with Trader Joe’s on a road trip. You see, they have the best (and often most affordable) options for taking on the road. Plus, Trader Joe’s stores are also scattered along many major highways, which means I don’t really ever have to go too far without my favorite snacks — namely, the Chile Spiced Mango. 

Don’t get me wrong — I love the original slices of dried mango available, but these really keep me going when I’m in need of a bit of a pick-me-up on those last miles of a road trip. They’re sweet, spicy, a bit smoky, and very reminiscent of getting a bag of freshly sliced mango (dusted with chile-lime salt) from a street vendor on a sunny New York day. Big fan, can’t live without them.

Credit: Mackenzie Filson

15. Pork Gyoza Potstickers, $3.99 for 16 ounces

I love using Trader Joe’s items as a foundation on which to build a fancy-adjacent dinner — and the gyoza selection is perhaps the most delicious of all starting points. In a pinch, TJ’s Pork Gyoza Potstickers are great, simply fried until crispy and ready to take a dive into soy sauce. But one should never just stop there. I like to pop these in a hot and sour-style soup, sauté in a stir-fry, or even use for topping an Asian-style slaw or salad. 

Credit: Mackenzie Filson

16. Thai Lime & Chili Cashews, $7.99 for 16 ounces

Speaking of road trip snacks, meet my other BFF: Trader Joe’s Thai Chili Lime Cashews. Alternate a handful of these tangy, herby cashews with the Chile Spiced Mango (sensing a theme here?) and you’re in for a real (albeit spicy!) good time. And when you reach the bottom of your bag, don’t chuck out any remaining seasoning; I like to use any leftovers to sprinkle over freshly popped popcorn.

Credit: Mackenzie Filson

17. Japanese Fried Rice, $3.49 for 16 ounces

Having worked for Trader Joe’s before, I noticed customers passing on this frozen find for the more popular rice options (i.e., the bags of Vegetable or Chicken Fried Rice). But I’m here to tell you, this is the only bag of frozen rice I’ll ever buy at TJ’s. Why, you might ask? Well, this Japanese-Style Fried Rice has so much going on — shreds of hijiki seaweed, crispy bits of fried tofu, and plump green edamame beans. 

Each bite is different and not at all “same-y” (a very technical term, I swear), that I’d use to describe other pre-made bags of fried rice. It’s great whether you serve it on the side of soy-marinated steak, if you scramble a few eggs into it, or honestly? It’s great just on its own — 12/10, it has never disappointed me.

Credit: Mackenzie Filson

18. Cheddar & Gruyere Melange Cheese, Priced Per Pound

As much as I love buying all different kinds of cheeses, it’s easy to venture into the budgeting danger zone in the cheese aisle. This is why I always like to make sure I have a cheese on hand that doubles as a kitchen workhorse. And by that I mean a cheese that can be seamlessly used in many dishes, yet still has plenty of depth on its own for snacking (very crucial and very important). 

Consistently, this Cheddar & Gruyère Melange Cheese has proven to be a culinary MVP. The nuttiness of the Gruyère mixed with the buttery, crumbly English-style cheddar is a match made in heaven; I like shredding it into a macaroni and cheese, slicing for any and all grilled cheeses (especially with a layer of either toum, apples, or cherry jam), or cubing into a kale-apple salad tossed with a garlicky vinaigrette.

Credit: Mackenzie Filson

19. Sea Salt & Turbinado Sugar Dark Chocolate Almonds, $3.99 for 10 ounces

Do you have those snacks that, without realizing, you find yourself in the kitchen snacking on? Like, you truly don’t remember grabbing a handful of said snack, but there you are, deep in bliss and snacking with reckless abandon. Well, that’s how I usually describe just how delicious these almonds are. 

I’m not sure how I end up finding myself with the container in my hands, but I just do. It’s easy to see why, too: Each roasted almond is coated in a layer of dark chocolate that’s then studded with flaky crystals of sea salt and crunchy turbinado sugar, before then being covered in, yes, more chocolate. What else could you want in a snack? I’ll wait.

Credit: Mackenzie Filson

20. Truly Tortilla Chips, $2.79 for 9 ounces

Having worked for Trader Joe’s also means I’ve really eaten every single variety of most items, and that’s especially true of the chip section. Not a week goes by where I don’t re-up my stock of the Truly Tortilla Chips. Each restaurant-style chip is coated with plenty of tart lime and sea salt, thankfully void of that weird chemical lime taste you’ve maybe experienced from other lime-flavored tortilla chips. 

You can’t go wrong with dipping these into my favorite dip of choice (ahem, Trader Joe’s Pepita Salsa) or using a hearty handful as a nacho base, of course. But they’re good for so much more — namely, Alison Roman’s recipe for short-cut chilaquiles that’ll make your next weekend brunch feel very deluxe.

Credit: Mackenzie Filson

21. Quartered Marinated Artichoke, $2.99 for 12 ounces

When I worked at Trader Joe’s, this was overwhelmingly (yet quietly) one of the most popular items. Customers would even tell me they drove well across town in order to pick up a few jars, and I now do too. Each artichoke quarter is packed in a herb-packed brine that is basically liquid gold on its own. 

My weeknight stand-by pasta dish is one I learned from an old, thrifted copy of Alice Waters’ cookbook, Chez Panisse: Pizza, Pasta, and Calzones (with a few of my own liberties, of course). My take includes tossing together an entire jar of these artichoke quarters, crisped up pancetta, and degreasing the pan with a bit of the leftover artichoke brine. Toss that magical mixture with your favorite wide noodle (I like fresh pappardelle and fettuccine), and then shower with plenty of Parmesan and you have a dish worthy of a dinner party (or leftovers you’ll really look forward to). 

Credit: Mackenzie Filson

22. Pastrami-Style Smoked Salmon, $5.99 for 4 ounces

I’ll never get tired of singing the praises of this Pastrami-Style Smoked Salmon. I’m nearly about to write an ode about it, I love it that much. It’s got a sweet-smoky char that really upgrades a bagel with cream cheese, and I especially love this for an infinite (it seems) number of uses. 

It makes for a perfect weeknight-friendly poke bowl when used for topping vinegar-y sushi-style rice, rolling into teriyaki-seasoned seaweed sheets as a snack, or folding into an omelet with plenty of dill. My new favorite use involves using it in a LEO-style scramble (lox, egg, onion) that’ll surely have you feeling like you’ve been transported to a New York-style diner instantly.

Did your TJ’s favorites make the list? Sound off in the comments below.