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Trader Joe's vs Whole Food: What to buy at each and why?

I found that a lot of CHs like to shop at Trader Joe's and Whole Food. I have been to both, and am very curious what everyone like to get at Trader Joe's and Whole Food. What's your favorite at each store? And anything that you consider as a must-buy at each? Anything that you will not bother to buy again after trying once? Feel free to share your thoughts!

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  1. Never been to trader Joe's but I like the Whole Foods cheese section (I go to the Hazelton Lanes location). The staff is always helpful when putting together a fancy cheese tray for a party.

    1. There are a lot of staples that are just cheaper at TJ. Oils, cereal, organic sugar, and the produce is generally good and decently priced, as long as you don't mind buying in their pre-packaged quantities. Meats are also well priced, and the frozen fishes are generally good quality at decent prices. The best thing for me is the nut section, the prices are way better than other stores and the quality is high. I also tend to get a lot of dried fruits at TJs. Chocolate is also quite good, they often have Ghirardelli or other brands repackaged as TJ brand. The sweets are actually all good, from my experience. I especially like the peanut butter cups, I think they're better than Reese's (which is saying a lot for me). They also have good bacon, chicken sausages, and some of their cheeses are really good, especially for the price. Oh, and they have some great potato chips and stuff, and a few good salsas and sauces. SOme are not so great, but you've just got to try them and decide what you like, like any other brand.

      TJ's also has good prices on their few household items, like toilet paper and paper towels from 100% recycled paper, some soaps and personal care items (i'm not always a fan of their house brand items for that), and their laundry detergent. I'm not a huge fan of their dish soap (i think it doesn't stay powerful enough if you're not filling a sink with water, which I don't always do), but they actually have some great 100% cellulose sponges that don't have that antibacterial treatment, which doesn't do anything but promote supergerms. They're the ones that you need to wet for them to spring up, I can't remember what they're called. But you get 12 for $5 or somethign like that.

      At Whole Foods, I am a big fan of the bulk section. I tend to buy a lot of things like flours, grains, beans and lentils, etc. in the bulk section, and they have sucanat and other sorts of natural sweetners. Some dried fruits I prefer to buy bulk, so I get them at WF or Wild Oats.

      Whole Foods also tends to have more specialty items, and therefore more expensive items. I'd just start shopping around at both. First, figure out some of your personal staples, and just try products from both stores, as sometimes the quality can vary more than you'd expect. You'll soon figure out what you like from both stores.

      I personally didn't buy a lot from Trader Joe's until I was actually on my own and supplying my own kitchen. Then one opened up 2 blocks from my office, which was really dangerous. I'm already 4 blocks or so from a Whole Foods, so I pretty much visit one of them almost every day, just because I really lke going to grocery stores (I love that I can say that here and not feel embarrased).

      sorry this was so long but i love grocery stores. last time I was at TJ's, i was advising customers more than the employees and I got a lot of "you should work here!"s.

      2 Replies
      1. re: annimal

        I love grocery stores too. At my local supermarket, Ralph's, I am always spying clueless shoppers in the meat department and steering them to sale items and having them buy boneless meat for the butchers to grind rather than buying prepackaged ground meat.

        I buy my milk at TJ's -- about 50 cents per half-gallon less expensive than the super -- and eggs and cheese. Wine, water, occasionally beer. Then the frozen foods aisle (which also has cookies) on my way to the cashier. Whole Foods -- pretty much only produce.

        1. re: nosh

          Haha, Nosh and Annimal! I love that you help others with grocery tips! How great!

          I also LOVE grocery shopping! But I have had mixed replies when I try to give advice :) One time I tried to tell this guy to buy Humboldt Fog because it was on super sale. He was standing right in front of it and I was like "Hey, I don't know if you like blue cheese, but this cheese is amazing and this is the best price I've ever seen on it!" He was like "Actually I am French" (with an accent). And I sang the cheese's praises again... and he just kind of wandered off! WITHOUT THE CHEESE! What a dumdum. I almost bought all they had, but I limited myself to three giant slabs. Ha!

      2. It depends on where you live, I think. For me, I only buy certain packaged goods at TJs -- too often I've encountered rancid nuts or moldy cheese, and that's at different locations. Some people go on and on about TJ's produce, but what I've seen always looks like an afterthought -- like, oh yeah, we're supposed to have some veggies here, right? The produce at WF is fresh and appealing, and while there's a lot of turnover at both, I feel more confident that produce, grains, and nuts at WF are fresher and haven't been sitting in a warehouse for a while. And it's not that I don't like TJ's -- I was just there this evening, but as I said, there are only certain things I buy. I love their bbq sauce (it both tastes good and it contains no HFCS, which is unusual), their roasted red pepper/artichoke spread is great (also on pasta or pizza), etc. Some people will say that WF is more expensive than TJs, and I'm sure it is for some things, but the WF near me has a price comparison right now that shows them as being cheaper.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Chocolatechipkt

          TJ's just saved me -- they are apparently the ONLY ones in the area with fresh cranberries. What's up with that?

        2. interesting... so far, i haven't had anything funky from trader joe's (unless it was supposed to be funky... mmm stinky cheese). i find the produce at WF to be far more expensive, though sometimes their sales are great. I don't actually buy much produce from TJ, as i can't go through their prepackaged sizes on my own. I've got a lot of products from both. In general, I prefer Wild Oats because they've got most of the selection of WF with better prices, a good produce section, and not as much to tempt me for impulse buys as at WF.

          and this really just makes me miss my old co-op.

          1. i like trader joes pizza dough and they make a great chocolate truffle. yum yum.

            3 Replies
            1. re: soypower

              Really? I think their pizza dough is absolutely vile!

              1. re: sundevilpeg

                i could possibly possess an unrefined palate. after all, i do love funyuns and the occasional double cheeseburger from mickey d's. :o)

                1. re: soypower

                  Nah, it's not you - it's them. The consistency of the stuff is just awful, making it hard to work with, IMO, and the flavor and texture of the baked product is unpleasant at best. Very disappointing all around.

            2. I think Whole Foods has better breads than TJ's (English muffins for example). Of course they have fresh seafood (and usually fresher produce and meats) and TJ's doesn't. But in most other respects, TJ's is the better bargain.

              Random Faves:
              WF: they have these tamari rice crackers that are highly addictive. great ice cream selection. good fresh meat and produce.
              TJ: some standout frozen ethnic entrees (Italian ones straight from Italy are great like the risotto and gnocchi, good pad thai bowls). strawberry rhubarb pie from here was great.

              7 Replies
              1. re: jeanki

                TJ's has the same rice crackers in slightly different packaging. It's gotten to the point where I can't buy them. I will literally eat the whole bag in one sitting!

                1. re: jeanki

                  Whole Foods bread is the best! Go for their ciabatta with sea salt, piping hot fresh out of the oven. And their muesli bread is some of the best breakfast bread you will ever try.

                  1. re: laurie

                    Try a comparison test with VON's Renaissance Artisan bread. But you have to get there early, since it runs out by dinner time unless you call to have them save one for you.
                    I too thought the Musesli bread was good, but it got moldy fast, and not as savory as the one above.

                    1. re: nutrition

                      Yeah, I agree. I generally dislike Vons, over priced and too much crap to find the good stuff. But their bakery is the exception. I find it has a good selection, good quality. Some crap, too, of course. But they are the only place I can buy bagels within 10 miles of where I live (only 1 bagel shop in my area, and super crappy... and TJs bagels are lame).

                    2. re: laurie

                      Muesli bread? That's sounds nice. I dig their honey roasted peanut butter too. There's a good brekkie.

                    3. re: jeanki

                      Yeah, TJs english muffins are sub par. Their breads I like, but there other baked goods tend to be poor.

                    4. I love TJ's tortillas, packaged pre-washed mixed dark greens (when they have them), rennet-free cheeses, soy-flaxseed chips, chocolate bars (small for eating and large for baking), milk, dried soups, frozen spinach or mushroom pies, dried fruits like wild blueberries, chocolate-covered soy beans, frozen veggies like edamame succotash, rice (like jasmine), and much more. I'm really a fan of Trader Joe's. I used to go to the Whole Foods in New Jersey and found many interesting vegetarian items I couldn't find elsewhere. My last few times there they no longer carried the items I'd enjoyed (tasty vegetarian duck and chicken) and I couldn't find anything else to get excited about. Sure, the fruits and vegetables are gorgeous and there's lots of interesting things to look at, but I didn't feel like buying all that much. At the Columbus Circle Whole Foods I enjoyed the salad bar and the cheese section looked good, but I still prefer Trader Joe's for everyday shopping. The prices are good and there are lots of organic options.

                      1. First off, I love TJ's return policy. You can return ANYTHING, without a receipt, no questions asked. So I tend to try anything that looks remotely interesting to me. Staples I but there include milk, butter, eggs, flour and whole bean dark Sumatra coffee. Love their organic gingersnaps, black diamond white cheddar slices for grilled sammiches, the dried apricot stilton, the new sipping chocolate, nuts (cashews for munching, walnuts for baking), and morello cherries.

                        1. It's hard to tell because TJ's uses local producers for a lot of its stuff, so it'll change from one place to another.

                          Generally speaking, TJ's is cheaper than WF, so I go there more often. But it's worth hitting WF for breads and the fantastic buffet/takeout section.

                          At TJ's, I usually pick up: yogurt (both the TJ's Greek and the Fage); nuts; freeze-dried fruit (esp. the pineapple and strawberries); jarred pasta sauce; cereal (the shredded wheat is better than the original); frozen fruits and veggies; frozen naan, pizza, and veggie potstickers; store-brand diet sodas; chocolate.

                          The cookies aren't bad either - exactly why I try not to buy them too often.

                          1. I buy all my dairy and nuts at TJs. The organic milk (which is not UP) just tastes better and the cream is thicker and tastier, as well (can't buy regular supermarket cream anymore). I'm in SoCal and the dairy is consistently great and almost never goes bad before the sell-by date. As for nuts, TJs has a wider variety at better prices than other stores in my area.

                            1. TJ favorites:

                              Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc @ $6.99 (we call it Geezer Peak)
                              Sutter's Formula cookies: chocolate chip peanut butter. Killer!
                              Pre-made salads (pear & Gorgonzola is at the top)
                              Cafe Pajaro coffee
                              Basic hummus
                              frozen cheese & onion tart -- looks like pizza, but flakier
                              zillions of varieties of trail mix

                              And best of all, the prices!!

                              1. i am a die hard tjs fan. i've shopped there since i was a kid and love it b/c it is always trying to get better at what it does.

                                TJ's prices are MUCH lower than whole foods. every time i go -i always am just disgusted at whole foods prices. whether it's salad, herbs, cheese, bread, milk, eggs, beer, wine, ground hamburger, canned artichokes, bottled roasted red peppers, frozen shrimp/seafood/chicken breasts. . . all of it is cheaper at TJs! whole foods prices are just outrageous in my opinion. it's as if they just add about a 25% markup on everything they sell compared to TJs and other grocery stores

                                But - the meat selection at whole foods is far superior (even though TJs has been trying to diversify and have better meats). that's basically the only reason i ever go to whole foods. their meat department has a great selection and the butchers are helpful.

                                so - this leaves me shopping at 3 stores: regular grocery stores for ocean spray juice, "regular" soda. . . . whole foods for meat, and TJs for everything else.

                                1. I hit TJ's on occasion for special packaged goods and pre-chopped butternut squash. (I know, I know, but if you're making soup it's faster than roasting and scooping and safer than chopping everything up yourself.) However, I absolutely HATE all the excess packaging TJ's uses. What's up with the styrofoam?

                                  As for Whole Foods, it's pretty good, but insanely expensive. That said, I do enjoy the cheese section...

                                  1. I don't shop at WF for reasons of conscience, and TJ's is of limited value for staples. I do go there to but milk (much cheaper than Safeway), that ersatz naan bread (good for sandwiches) and nut butters. TJ's also has a couple of the all time bargains in quality chocolate, an Arriba and a Criollo from Guaranda (two bucks for an 80g bar).

                                    3 Replies
                                    1. re: Gary Soup

                                      hey gary without getting into a confrontation here i'm curious why you say that about whole foods. see i shop there simply because out of any grocery store i figure at least i can be assured the livestock is being treated humanely and i appreciate the products that feature fair trade ingredients, etc.

                                      please enlighten me as to why they don't match with your conscience?

                                      1. re: curiousaboutcafos

                                        Gary Soup made that post nearly 8 years ago and hasn't posted anything else since 2007, so I wouldn't hold your breath waiting for enlightenment.

                                        1. re: curiousaboutcafos

                                          Not to speak for Gary Soup, but as pointed out, a reply from him is unlikely. Many people do not appreciate the political views of John Mackey, WF's founder and CEO. Do a Google search for more information.

                                      2. TJ: Chocolate, carefully-selected alcoholic beverages, dried organic cranberries.

                                        WF: peanut butter from the peanut-grinding machine.

                                        Pretty much nothing else from either place. TJ has almost completely
                                        stopped labeling the country of origin of their food, which is frightening to me,
                                        and I've had really bad (talk-to-the-regional-manager level bad) experiences
                                        with both the meat and seafood departments at WF.

                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: Chuckles the Clone

                                          Aren't they required to label the country of origin if other than the USA, because of the "Buy American" provisions of the food stamp program?

                                          1. re: Chuckles the Clone

                                            I thought I was the only one w/ bad experiences w/ the meat dept! Some of the butchers are great, while some are just hackers, and management doesn't seem to care.

                                          2. WF is usually in a higher rent area and a more visible location, where rent will be more the TJ.
                                            The NYC Columbus Circle WF rent must cost a fortune and of course, that cost is added to the price of goods, but convenience costs more.

                                            Labor would be another heavy addition to the prices already more from better sources, then what you would find at the super grocery chain stores.

                                            TJ generally has lower quality goods at a good price with many imports. Though I have shopped there for many years, it usually for unusual items. The quality has improved over years ago.

                                            Now that WF is getting more competition from Bristol Farms, Wild Oats and Jimbos here in San Diego, I expect prices to be better. Buying a picture perfect aromatic large pear at $2.49/# is a lot nicer then a medium size dull tasting one at $1.49/#, even if they both are labeled 'organic'. Same for wild caught fish verses farmed, grass finished beef verses feed lot bound where the cows stand in manure all day, or free range chickens verses pen bound.

                                            1. TJ's: fresh buffalo mozz, Joe Joe's (TJ's brand oreo's), King Arthur flour, Rumford baking powder - mostly available during holiday baking time, dairy products (though that seems better in CA than other states based on CH feedback), chicken potstickers, Acme Bread relabled under TJ's brand, Bay Blend coffee, organic dried cranberries, canned Roma tomatoes.

                                              Whole Foods: Parmagiano Reggiano (worth the $$$, 10x better than TJ's), boxed chicken broth (360 brand), Amy's bean and cheese burritos (frozen).

                                              4 Replies
                                              1. re: kivarita

                                                is the parmagiano reggiano a specific brand?

                                                1. re: dtud

                                                  No specific brand - it's usually in the case w/ the other "regular" cheeses, they do a fine shred and a more coarse shred.

                                                2. re: kivarita

                                                  unfortunately, I heard that they discontinued the chicken potstickers!!!! They were soooo good.

                                                  1. re: annimal

                                                    I agree, I've been wating around for them!

                                                3. Love TJ's but have to admit on several occasions the cheese has gone moldy and bad wayyy before the sell by dates. Have thrown out many chunks !

                                                  1. TJs's: Frozen foods section - dumplings, cheese & spinach pies, pizzas, the frozen marinated rack of lamb is great, frozen stuff I can't find anywhere else, mango chunks & other fruits, the little green beans I forget what they're called; also jarred pasta sauces, pastas, olive oil.

                                                    WF: Their meat section beats any of my other grocers' so I stock up & freeze; Muir Glen tomatoes, store brand rosemary crackers, dips like hummos (tho watch out for expiration dates); I'm careful buying bread there, I've gotten more than 1 loaf home & found it moldy.

                                                    1. Packaged nuts and fruits are a good value at TJs. But our WF has better quality and cheaper organic milk and eggs. TJs has very poor egg standards.

                                                      The cheese, meats, bread and produce at TJs are fine when they are not rotten but I find it totally unreliable. The frozen lamb is usually fine but I won't purchase any fresh meat there. WF has much better fresh meat but it isn't as good as other local stores.

                                                      I won't buy fish at either place. WF has a better cheese selection but awful and clueless staff.

                                                      2 Replies
                                                      1. re: JudiAU

                                                        Curious... what do you mean by poor egg standards? Quality of the eggs or the cage-free issue? I've been buying organic/free range eggs at TJs, but haven't tried WF.

                                                        1. re: JudiAU

                                                          I disagree - I love TJs eggs! They have such bright orange yolks! And the brown eggs have some variation in the coloration of the shell, which I like. And, Emily, all TJ store brand eggs are cage free. Plus one time 8 or 9 of my dozen eggs had double yolks! It was amazing! I am still talking about it a year later. Obviously a screw up on the sorting machine, but I wish they sold double yolk eggs by the dozen! Fried on a slice of toast it was so awesome!

                                                          You wanna talk about nasty eggs, not sure if you have "Fresh and Easy" in your town, but their eggs seem poor quality to me... thin shells, bland looking yolks... I bought once and never again!

                                                          I agree TJs has mediocre to sub-par fish. Also on the smelly side! I don't buy it there. Except their locks (sp?) and smoked salmon, we like those. Never had a problem with their baked goods, though their tortillas are just ok & the sweet stuff is too processed, but I like their variety of breads and all seem good to me. I like TJs cheese, but probably like WFs cheese better (I almost never go to WF because it is both farther and more expensive).

                                                        2. I got to TJ's whenever we're entertaining--they have great party-food appetizers (mostly frozen--try the mini-tacos), plus several varieties of salsa and chips.

                                                          One staple at TJ's that's consistently less than grocery or even warehouse clubs is their orange juice. I can't distinguish one premium (not-from-concentrate) juice from another. At our TJ's, it's $1.99 for a half-gallon, about 50¢ less than the best sale prices at grocery stores or at the warehouse clubs.

                                                          1. I mainly get the cheddar popcorn, rosemary ham, chicken egg rolls, and wine/beer at Trader Joes. At Whole Foods I've a long habit of getting some fresh OJ, black bean chips and salsa. Now I also usually get salmon maki rolls, smoked trout with pepper, sea scallops, almond biscotti, ginger ale, lemonade, mozzarella, yogurt, eggs, and cheese (they do have a great cheese selection IMO).

                                                            1. I actually buy a lot of the same staples-canned beans, cooking oils, inexpensive vinegars, canned tomatoes, tuna, etc-at either store. WF has house brands with prices that match TJ's, and they often offer an organic option for just a bit more.

                                                              I buy cheese and meat at WF. The selection and quality are great, and the cheese prices aren't bad at all. I don't like TJ's shrink wrapped, cut-last-week cheese at all.

                                                              I'm not a fan of produce at either place. At TJ's it isn't fresh and I don't like that pre-packaged stuff. Whole Foods has a great selection, and it looks good enough, but they don't emphasize local produce. I can get great local produce much of the year at farmer's markets or my natural foods co-op, but even in summer the lettuce, berries, peaches, etc (things that grow great here) are trucked up from California. Yuck.

                                                              1. Man, TJ's drives me crazy! I've found that I can never go there with a list... inevitably, they will be out of something (yesterday it was parmesan), or they just plain don't carry it anymore (anchovies). I do usually like what I buy there (great buffalo mozzarella!), but I always end up leaving mad because I'll need to go to another store to buy what's left on my shopping list. It's a good store for browsing and just buying what looks good... munchies and snacks and prepared foods. But that's not stuff that I buy very often.

                                                                1. As many others mentioned, TJ's for staples like oils, vinegars, eggs, tofu, milk, frozen fruit, israeli feta and much more. I also love the snack/nuts aisle. The closest TJs is actually decent when it comes to having things in stock. I agree with some of the other comments about the bakery goods though. I find them too sweet and not very satisfying. Produce is hit or miss at TJs too.

                                                                  I WF for its bakery, specialty cheeses and their meats and seafood dept. Their produce tends to be very consistent as well. This last weekend, I bought some strawberries and they were amazing!!

                                                                  1. Prices on Valrhona and Chocovic chocolate bars at Trader Joe's are as low as I've seen them anywhere.

                                                                    1. Originally I'm from the East Coast, but there weren't Trader Joe's (TJ's) when I lived there. Here in So Cal, I shop at Whole Foods and TJ's, but cannot afford WF very often. I love Trader Joe's! (C'mon, everyone has tried the "Two Buck Chuck" at least once, right?!?)

                                                                      Living in So Cal the last decade or so, T.J.'s has always been a staple for me. As someone else noted, they'll take back ANYTHING even without a receipt-they're very accomodating about that-even if the cheese is "old and moldy" --> (credit to 'Encino Man') I miss the potstickers and the shrimp shu mai...please don't tell me that they aren't making those anymore?!?

                                                                      1. I'm hooked on the TJs lemongrass chicken bowls.

                                                                        Why go to "Whole paycheck" when you have other choices?

                                                                        1. For more information than you probably want about what to get at Trader Joe's, have a look at the Yea-Nay threads in this forum.

                                                                          1. Things I tend to buy at Trader Joe’s:

                                                                            Half salt peanuts
                                                                            Avocados number guacamole
                                                                            Chocolate chips
                                                                            Broccoli cheese quiche
                                                                            Frozen broccoli
                                                                            On good days, I buy the romaine hearts
                                                                            A russet potato (only one – they sprout as I leave the store)
                                                                            Olive oil (which I used to buy at Whole Foods but some moron refigured the bottle a half inch too tall for average cupboards)
                                                                            Multigrain oat bread

                                                                            Things I tend to buy at Whole Foods:

                                                                            Bulk spices and herbs
                                                                            Water crackers
                                                                            Most of my fresh veg (they are across the street from my condo) - and they are MUCH fresher than Trader Joe's in the St Louis Park Store anyway
                                                                            Frozen peas, broccoli, and fruit
                                                                            Tortilla strips – once a year but I really like them
                                                                            Also a bunch of local foods not likely available to you: Holy Land hummus and pocket bread, Larry Schultz eggs, Fini cheddar (I am so sorry for folks who have never tasted this)

                                                                            People may dis Whole Foods for their outrageous prices, but there are deals to be had by using their flyers and buying their 365 brand items.

                                                                            1. TJs- gruyere, organic jack, grass fed cheddar, a few nuts, organic wallaby yogurt, plain organic yogurt, frozen wild shrimp, cooked beets, snacking seaweed, canned sardines

                                                                              WF- meat, milk, cheese, vegetables, canned tuna, punitive single rolls of brown paper towels, laundry detergent

                                                                              Various organic staples fluctuate between the two with similar prices/quality - oats, beans, good cream,

                                                                              Both stores have unacceptable fresh fish, lame bakeries,