This time, instead of a product I’m reviewing an entire store! Why? Because Trader Joe’s has turned out to be an indispensable help when trying to eat low-carb. This is true in a whole variety of categories of foods that are hard to find in regular groceries. After having experience with them in college (home of the “pretty label” $2 wines and chocolate-covered macadamia nuts) I was quite happy to see them open a store here in Olympia, WA.
Frozen foods – This may seem like a strange topic for a cooking blog, but we all know there are those nights when there just isn’t the time or energy to cook. On any other diet you could walk into any regular grocery store and find tons of frozen meals catering to a low-fat diet – most absolutely filled with carbohydrates. Who knew that macaroni and cheese, stuffed potatoes, and lasagna could be diet food? ;)
Unfortunately, you can wander those aisles for hours and not find anything low-carb. Believe me, I’ve tried. I found one (1) Lean Cuisine meal (Steak Tips Portobello with Broccoli) that isn’t filled with stuff I can’t eat. To be fair, Safeway recently developed a seafood line called Waterfront Bistro that has a few low-carb seafood items. But Trader Joes, in contrast, has aisles of appropriate choices. You can find BBQ ribs with the sauce on the side, salmon and other fish dishes with flavorful sauces, pork roasts filled with spinach and cheese, Korean-style kalbi ribs, flash-frozen seafood of all varieties, pot roast, prepared chicken dishes, lamb and chicken skewers, and much more. Most of these just require heating in an oven or microwave with little or no preparation required. They are intended for couples or families and provide much more than one night’s meals, compared to the skimpy, 250-calorie portions found in most diet frozen “meals”. They taste a lot better, too – I’ve served these to guests without embarrassment.
Fresh Meats and Cheeses – One thing I appreciate is TJ’s attention to making cooking easy. We all know a low-carb diet requires more cooking from scratch, which sometimes I really enjoy and … other times I just can’t fit it in. One example is their line of pre-marinaded and cooked chicken breasts, whole or in strips for salad or snacking. They come plain, or with various flavors like Caeser, rosemary-garlic, balsamic vinaigrette, and curry. A nice alternative to deli meats. On top of that, they have specialty pates, sausages, canned oysters, mussels, and sardines, and an unusually wide variety of deli meats and hard-to-find cheeses (to go with their extensive wine selection). All of this makes it much less likely that you’ll get bored with your protein selections.
Produce – TJ’s produce is probably not their highest-rated item. They have a limited selection, and it is nearly all prepackaged. However, I have found that what they have makes cooking easier in two ways – it’s very crisp-fresh, and if you need to save time, you can get a lot of things pre-sliced, pre-chopped, or pre-peeled – and sometimes mixed in convenient ways. This may seem less frugal, in the sense that these veggies cost more – on the other hand, if it means you add it to your omelette in the morning because you don’t have to chop it, you’re getting more of the healthy vegetables you need and less of it may spoil and go to waste. I’ve noticed other grocery stores going this route as well, so it may catch on. I especially appreciate the very fresh veggies that steam in a bag with almost no work, and still taste fresh once cooked.
Condiments, Dairy, and Baking – TJ’s has lots of hard-to-find items for low-carb menus. It has an extensive selection of unsweetened alternative milks (almond, soy, etc.) that have better nutritional profiles than most other brands. TJ’s carries almond flour for baking, and almond butter that has NO sugar and comes in multiple versions (salted/unsalted, creamy/nutty, raw/roasted) – after eating the TJ’s brand for a while, I was shocked to taste Maranatha only to find it had added sugar. There is also a very large selection of nuts in a wide array of varieties and combinations. You can also buy no-sugar mayonnaise and other low-glycemic condiments. TJ’s carries stevia in several versions, which can be hard to find. They’re not exactly heavily stocked in the baking department, but what they do have can be hard to find anywhere else.
Now you know why TJ’s is on my list of grocery stores to visit at least once a month. I don’t have a Whole Foods near me, but I’m guessing there are many of the same products available there. Anyone know?