The first time I entered into the heavenly oasis of tropical shirt-clad angels (otherwise known as Trader Joe’s) was in middle school. My family lived in Colorado Springs at the time (military family) and I am not embellishing when I say that wandering the aisles, choosing random grocery oddities to try was a favored Friday night activity for all of us. My fondness for the store and its unique items remained with me for many Trader Joe’s-less years after that.
I could hardly contain my excitement when I realized the house we bought in Knoxville a year and a half ago was only SIX minutes away from Trader Joe’s, or TJ’s as it is affectionately known to those of us in the know.
If you have never ventured into the unassuming little store across from West Town Mall, let me paint you a picture: each store is designed and decorated specific to its city. Our store includes a replica of the Sunsphere, a “tasting holler” for giving out samples and even a bathroom with Vol orange and white tiles. The employees all wear Hawaiian shirts and seem genuinely glad to be at work. Most of their products are made under their Trader Joe’s label (which might read Trader Jose’s, Trader Ming’s or Trader Giotto’s depending on the ethnic inspiration for the products) and taste like luxury items from specialty stores for the same cost or less than big chain stores. Trader Joe’s offers their products at the lowest prices they can all the time so they don’t run coupons or sales.
If you can’t tell, I am slightly obsessed with this store.
I actually enjoy going there weekly to stock up on my favorite items and have been trying to convince my almost five-year-old daughter, who describes TJ’s to others as her “favorite place of all,” to have a Trader Joe’s themed birthday party. Maybe my friend Laura, a Trader Joe’s newbie, said it best when she texted me, “Okay so. I just went to Trader Joe’s for the first time. That place is amazing. They had warm chocolate chip cookies with vanilla ice cream for samples. Stuff was cheap. Checkout people were super friendly. I can’t believe I’ve gone this long without shopping there.” YES. Welcome to the club!
To get to the point of this post, TJ’s has an awesome selection of pre-packaged fresh or frozen foods that taste much better than any others of their kind I’ve tried.
We all know and fear the nights when it seems it will take a small miracle to make dinner happen in and around all the other stress of the day. Having a few of the options below waiting in my pantry or freezer makes the meals I throw together on busy days actually feel like a win. It’s true that many pre-packaged or frozen meals come with the unfortunate addition of increased sodium levels and I can’t claim Trader Joe’s foods are an exception. But if the food is going to come from a box or can, at least it is cheaper, more delicious and hey, even frequently organic when purchased at my beloved TJ’s.
Below are just a few of my family’s favorites. *P.S. An ode to all of Trader Joe’s delicious snack foods must be another post entirely.*
1. Pork carnitas with salsa verde
This Mexican-style oven roasted pork is fully cooked and just needs to be heated in the microwave for two to three minutes and shredded. You’ll find it in the refrigerated section near the sample area below some of the other pre-made soups and salads. We usually have ours on tacos with sour cream, lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, and Trader Joe’s Salsa Verde. They have many great salsa options but since few in our family like any heat in their salsa, this is an awesome mild option with great flavor. I add chips and guacamole when I have time to make it and this is always a favorite. This pork is so delicious and its neutral flavor means it can also be used in many other quick dinners. Some alternate uses could include adding some barbecue sauce and putting it over a bun or a baked potato or using it on a salad.
2. Spinach tortellini
Located in the same neighborhood as the carnitas, this tortellini makes a fabulous quick pasta dish because it only has to be boiled for two to three minutes! We used to eat the Buitoni variety fairly often until I discovered Trader Joe’s version. It is cheaper, cooks faster and contains veggies my kids don’t even notice under all the sauce! We love both the three cheese pomodoro and alfredo sauces over this pasta. Sometimes I serve a salad on the side with this and sometimes it’s just a meal in and of itself because cheese. noodles. spinach. done.
Mediterranean food is my absolute favorite and I will eat just about anything wrapped in a pita and covered in tzatziki sauce. These fully cooked gyro slices take seconds to reheat in the microwave or a skillet and taste just like the fresh meat you get shaved off a spit at a Greek restaurant. If you aren’t into red meat, Trader Joe’s also has some wonderful frozen falafel that would taste great in a pita. We grab some naan bread (because I prefer the pillow-y, flat bread style to actual pocket pita bread) and layer in the meat, romaine lettuce, chopped red onion, tomatoes, lots of feta cheese and creamy tzatziki sauce. Again, I feel like this one dish covers most of the important food groups but we also frequently add a side of yellow rice topped with more tzatziki (though boiling the rice adds time if you’re in hurry). Or throw out some pita chips, veggies and one of the many varieties of delicious hummus TJ’s offers.
4. Pork gyoza (dumplings) and roasted broccoli
I have a dear friend in Knoxville who is originally from China and she has made me homemade pork dumplings on several occasions. These bites of heaven are labor intensive to make, fill, and shape but oh so worth it. I feel a little guilty even saying this but the pork gyoza from Trader Joe’s taste nearly identical to her incredible homemade version. This is a favorite of both my two- and four-year-old. They can be pan-fried or boiled in a soup, which is how we most often eat them. I boil 6-8 cups of chicken broth and drop the gyoza in for three to four minutes. We usually have roasted broccoli as a side. Trader Joe’s pre-washed and chopped broccoli eliminates a lot of the effort for the same cost as I would pay for heads of broccoli elsewhere. I toss the broccoli in olive oil and coarse salt, and roast it at 425F for 18 to 20 minutes, spritzing a little lemon juice over the top immediately after removing it from the oven.