How a Nutritionist Spends $50 at Trader Joe’s

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
by Trinh Le, MPH, RD
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How a Nutritionist Spends $50 at Trader Joe’s

People often cite price point as a hurdle that undermines their goal to eat healthier, and the grocery bill tends to be the first place people look to when taming their budget. Healthy food can be expensive or at least there’s a widespread belief that it is. Fact: You can still spot healthy items for a fraction of the cost if you know where to look — and that’s true in any grocery store.

We sent a nutritionist to Trader Joe’s with $50 to see what she came out with. To keep the challenge exciting, she steer cleared of fresh, completely unprocessed foods like fresh fruit, veggies, seafood, meat, nuts and grains. Let’s face it: A list of sweet potatoes, bananas, black beans and canned tuna is pretty predictable (yawn).

The total cost came out to be $49.95 for these 15 items from Trader Joe’s. Here’s her report:

Steelcut oats take 20 precious minutes to get ready in the morning, but you might not always have time for that. TJ’s frozen steelcut oatmeal warms up with a 2–3 minute spin in your microwave. It comes pre-sweetened, so no need to add more sugar. Dress it up with chopped nuts, chia seeds or fresh fruit. While you can buy oats cheaper in bulk, these are in my freezer because they are a great emergency breakfast.

Nutrition Info (1 package): 150 calories, 2.5g total fat, 0g saturated fat, 40mg sodium, 27g total carbs, 4g fiber, 7g sugar, 5g protein

Plantain chips make the cut for three reasons: plantains, sunflower oil, salt. No additives, no artificial flavors — and they taste absolutely amazing (like we’re on vacation in Cuba or something). These chips are thicker and heartier than standard potato chips and because they’re roasted, they also contain less fat.

Nutrition Info (1 ounce): 140 calories, 6g total fat, 2.5g saturated fat, 50mg sodium, 20g total carbs, 1g fiber, 0g sugar, 0g protein

Peanut butter is a staple on any penny pincher’s grocery list because it’s satisfying and nutritious. You get a dose of healthy fats, fiber and protein squeezed into each serving. TJ’s version is pure, dry-roasted peanuts, so you don’t have to worry about palm oil, sodium or added sugar.

Nutrition Info (2 tablespoons): 190 calories, 16g total fat, 2.5g saturated fat, 0mg sodium, 7g total carbs, 3g fiber, 1g sugar, 7g protein

Good thing “whole-wheat flour” is the first ingredient on the list because a lot of us struggle with eating more whole grains. I like these flatbreads because they’re versatile and can sub for sandwich bread, burger buns or flour tortillas. At less than $2 for six flatbreads, it’s a steal!

Nutrition Info (1 flatbread): 130 calories, 2g total fat, 0g saturated fat, 250mg sodium, 23g total carbs, 3g fiber, 1g sugar, 6g protein

Do you want to sample the cauliflower “rice” trend without starting from scratch? TJ’s riced cauliflower is pre-seasoned with tamari and balanced with other veggies like peas, corn and pepper, too. It’s a delicious, low-carb stand-in for rice that’s nutritious and low-calorie.

Nutrition Info (1 cup): 50 calories, 2g total fat, 0g saturated fat, 190mg sodium, 7g total carbs, 2g fiber, 3g sugar, 2g protein

TJ’s has a variety of salsas around the $3 mark. You can choose from mango salsa, salsa verde, habanero lime, the list goes on! Salsa is a good source of vitamin C from tomatoes, peppers, onions and lime. I personally like the Garlic Chipotle Salsa because you get a whopping 16-ounce jar for $2.99. Use it to garnish your tacos and burritos or to add extra flavor to your chili.

Nutrition Info (2 tablespoons): 5 calories, 0g total fat, 0g saturated fat, 180mg sodium, 1g total carbs, 0g fiber, 0.5g sugar, 0g protein

TJ carries a nice selection of lean, frozen burgers and these chicken burgers are one of them. Chile Lime Chicken burgers are juicy and flavorful. They go well with TJ’s sprouted-grain bread, sliced avocados, tomatoes and lettuce. You get four patties for less than the price of one standard burger.

Nutrition Info (1 burger): 150 calories, 6g total fat, 2g saturated fat, 310mg sodium, 3g total carbs, 2g fiber, 0g sugar, 19g protein

This bread is made from whole wheat berries, barley, spelt, soybeans, millet and lentils in various sprouted and soaked forms. No wonder that at 80 calories per slice you’re getting 2 grams of fiber and 4 grams of protein. The bread is on the dry side, but that’s a good thing unless you like a damp sandwich.

Nutrition Info (1 slice): 80 calories, 0.5g total fat, 0g saturated fat, 85mg sodium, 15g total carbs, 2g fiber, 0g sugar, 4g protein

A one-pound tub of hummus for less than $3.50 is a good deal in my book, especially if it also contains pine nuts like this one. Hummus helps turn your baby carrots, celery sticks and cherry tomatoes into better (tastier) snacks!

Nutrition Info (2 tablespoons): 70 calories, 4g total fat, 0.5g saturated fat, 80mg sodium, 6g total carbs, 2g fiber, 1g sugar, 3g protein

Even if you cook on a daily basis, you’ll want some meal insurance against a sad dinner of cheese and crackers. Here’s where this frozen chicken burrito bowl comes to the rescue. It’s one of my just-in-case meals made with chicken, black beans, quinoa, corn and cheese.

Nutrition Info (1 bowl): 370 calories, 10g total fat, 4.5g saturated fat, 630mg sodium, 51g total carbs, 9g fiber, 2g sugar, 22g protein

Gone are the days of cardboard veggie burgers. Today’s plant-based patties are way tastier. Quinoa is the whole-grain glue holding together black bean, corn and peppers. This Tex-Mex patty goes well with guacamole and salsa. Each serving delivers 6 grams of fiber and 5 grams of protein.

Nutrition Info (1 burger patty): 180 calories, 8g total fat, 1g saturated fat, 280mg sodium, 22g total carbs, 6g fiber, 2g sugar, 5g protein

Despite being frozen, TJ’s superfood pilaf heats up as a bright, not-too-mushy mix of quinoa, sweet potato, kale and carrots. Psst … this convenient side dish is also vegan-friendly! You can add beans, tofu or tempeh for more protein. For omnivores, you can pair it with a helping of store-bought rotisserie chicken for a quick dinner.

Nutrition Info (1 cup): 160 calories, 5g total fat, 0.5g saturated fat, 230mg sodium, 25g total carbs, 3g fiber, 3g sugar, 5g protein

Want paella but don’t want to cook it from scratch? TJ’s version includes lean seafood (shrimp, calamari, mussels), peas, peppers and rice cooked in saffron and other paella spices. It’s no authentic Spanish delicacy, but considering it’s less than $5 and nutritionally balanced, I’m willing to turn a blind eye.

Nutrition Info (1 ½ cups): 220 calories, 0.5g total fat, 0g saturated fat, 460mg sodium, 29g total carbs, 3g fiber, 1g sugar, 13g protein

Another emergency meal: This is a lighter substitute for TJ’s popular Mandarin Orange Chicken, which contains 320 calories, 16 grams of fat and 6 grams of sugar in the same 1-cup serving. Plus, you get some edamame and green beans, too. I like to add about two cups of steamed broccoli into the mix to dilute the sodium, then serve it with brown rice.  

Nutrition Info (1 cup): 180 calories, 2g total fat, 0g saturated fat, 480mg sodium, 9g total carbs, 2g fiber, 3g sugar, 20g protein

A special splurge on dark chocolate, but at less than $5 for a pound of chocolate it’s still a bargain. Dark chocolate is full of antioxidants, so as far as desserts go it’s a no-brainer! Shave it into oatmeal, sprinkle it into cookies or savor it as it is. The serving size is for three squares, but I’m usually satisfied with one since they’re pretty big.

Nutrition Info (3 squares): 230 calories, 15g total fat, 9g saturated fat, 0mg sodium, 19g total carbs, 5g fiber, 10g sugar, 3g protein

About the Author

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh is a registered dietitian by day, blogger at Fearless Food RD by night. She loves helping folks develop a better relationship with food, which includes lots of cooking, eating and learning about nutrition. When she’s not snapping mouthwatering shots of (mostly) healthy food, you can find Trinh HIIT-ing it at her local gym. For more, connect with her on FacebookInstagram and Pinterest.

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19 responses to “How a Nutritionist Spends $50 at Trader Joe’s”

  1. Avatar Debbie says:

    I wouldn’t buy any of these as they’re not really very healthy. For one thing, I don’t want any added sugar in my diet, except what’s added in bread. I used to go to Trader Joe’s, but stopped going for several years. However, I went back last week and was really disappointed. Even their cottage cheese has carrageenan in it. No, thanks. I now buy Daisy cottage cheese at Walmart Neighborhood Market. No junk added, and it’s inexpensive. Save a lot of money instead by going to Aldi and buy real food. If you want to splurge, buy organic instead of conventional.

    • Avatar Gina P says:

      I would NEVER buy Daisy brand products. Do you know how terribly their animals are treated? Daisy is one of the WORST in animal cruelty. Have you no heart? Instead of coming on here to grandstand your biased opinion on what you would and wouldn’t eat, maybe do a little research into your “no junk added and it’s inexpensive” food you’re choosing to buy.

      • Avatar Maria says:

        He’s actually right. Carrageenan is terrible and guess what? I care more about my health than of an animals health. Most people don’t care how cows die. Hippies and millennials do but everyone else wants to eat well and for cheap.

        • Avatar Gina says:

          It’s possible to care about both at the same time, you know. There’s no reason to be a callous, uncaring, pretentious lump. Also, you are very incorrect. MOST people actually DO care about how the animals are treated, which is why many companies are changing their practices, Daisy included. Perhaps you should rethink your position rather than outing yourself publicly as a soulless automaton.

  2. Avatar Balthazar Pixer says:

    Mmmm, pretty good list. I’ll give it a try except for the chocolate bar. Dark choco is just too bland for me (but frankly the milk choco is worse due to my milk allergy). I like the chicken, turkey, and veggie burgers

  3. Avatar Lori C. says:

    I don’t see the point of giving someone $50 and telling them they can’t buy any fresh fruits or vegetables.

  4. Avatar Albert Motz says:

    Just like the doctors that dietitians get their advice from, only a handful think outside the corporate approved box. There are a few that think for themselves and I don’t think this is one of them.

  5. Avatar Golda Smith says:

    This could have been a very helpful list but it wasn’t! While it does to time to prepare steel cut oats, you can prepare them the night before (while cleaning up your dinner dishes). One cup dry makes enough for a few days (and I have two children).

    To many processed items on this list. Also, where’s the fresh fruit and veggies? I can get a bag of organic Romain lettuce for less than $3, a bag of avocados for less than $4 and bananas for $0.19 each at my Trader Joe’s.

  6. Avatar Chell says:

    This isn’t a bad list but why did you put that horrible filter over the pictures? It looks horrible

  7. Avatar Allison Branch says:

    How many meals does this bag of groceries provide?

  8. Avatar Scott Denman says:

    soooo…Family of 4…$200 for maybe 8 meals?? no fresh fruits or veggies? 93% ground beef is around $3 a pound from our local butcher, if you buy 10# chubs…

  9. Avatar Carole says:

    Lot’s of CARBS here folks except the Salsa. Carbs are the same as sugar. Just a few “healthy” items I buy are the frozen Grilled Asparagus, Organic Arugula, Vintage Brown Whole Tomatoes, Unexpected Cheddar Cheese, Frozen Wild Cod Fingers (bake with butter and garlic) and Trader Joe’s Italian Olive Oil.

    • Avatar Bob Latter says:

      This is not quite correct. Some carbs are simple sugars or alcohols that get converted in to usable energy and absorbed immediately. These are the kinds to avoid. Others, more complex energy sources such as starches (pasta, potatoes) are converted to simple sugar (glucose) and are absorbed much more slowly. Otherwise that energy-filled carbo loading my marathoners would not work. These you can use responsibly and not ruin your diet.

      • Avatar Carole says:

        All Carbs increase insulin and insulin stores fat. Not so much for your marathoners Bob because they burn it off. But the typical everyday person is not this active and stores fat instead of burning it. Read “The Obesity Code” and it gives great examples of why America is so fat. It is all about controlling insulin. Here is the Code- Carbs=Sugar=Insulin=Stored Fat.

        • Avatar Bob Latter says:

          Note that I said not QUITE right, because your comment is correct too. You simply cannot eat a lot of calories and be sedentary. You will gain weight that way. Also, you will gain weight if you eat certain stuff that humans did not evolve to eat such as corn-feed stock animals. Take note you paleo types (who are supposed to stick to grass-fed stock animals). Also, according to Wikipedia, legumes, which are largely carbohydrate, are digested in the intestines by our gut biome which is fed (some scientists believe) by the substantial amount of fiber in legumes. Paleos are also supposed to skip legumes due to some data which is almost surely wrong according to studies of the longest-lived peoples (the “Blue Zones”) around the world (which do not include any European peoples). These people eat prodigious amounts of fresh fruit, fresh greens, legumes and whole grains (also to be avoided by Paleos). They also have noted that people who do stick to this kind of diet, known as the Mediterranean diet, are rarely overweight. I think scientists have it right that diet is very important to health, but THE healthiest diet remains a topic of vigorous debate. Personally (and this is only me), I think that the Mediterranean diet makes the most sense in terms of both human evolution and the recent “Blue Zone” studies.

  10. Avatar Bob Latter says:

    I cannot believe that an RD, especially a younger one, would eat this kind of food. Look at the sodium content, e.g. Almost 500 mg (or 20% of a maximum recommended amount) per serving is beyond the pale. I’m an old guy trying to keep my blood pressure under control. I am learning to make my own processed staples like broth for soup or substitutes for the salt-filled staples used in Asian cooking to keep the sodium content of my diet down, and here is some dietician saying basically that people do not need to worry about that. People should instead be encouraged to avoid processed food with added salt, sugar, preservatives, etc. Consumer Reports felt it had to initiate a campaign to get TJ to not use hormone-raised meats. TJ does NOT sell healthy foods (other than the fresh vegetables and fruit). I never buy processed foods from them.

  11. Avatar suziern says:

    For someone who has to watch their carbohydrates most of these options are a no go. Plus, I agree for $50 no fresh fruits or vegetables?

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