Why Trader Joe’s Depresses Me

Trader Joe’s depressed me because it’s about as good as it gets. And I think we humans deserve better than frozen turkey burgers, fried orange chicken pieces and mixed nuts with chunks of peanut brittle in them.

For the best combination of quality and value, I’m convinced that Trader Joe’s, a chain of cut-price gourmet grocery stores, is the best choice in areas where the company has stores. Products have no preservatives, colorings or other icky things and are available at lower prices than in high-end grocers.

But the company specializes in frozen ready-made meals that require little or no cooking.

Actually, it’s the chef’s case at Central Market in Fort Worth that first got me thinking about the miserable state of the food most people eat and its uncertain origins. Central Market is an upscale grocery store that prides itself on a large deli where people can buy cold foods designed to be warmed up in a microwave. Whole Foods Market offers something similar in its stores. Like Central Market, Whole Foods is praised for the quality of its fresh-made deli offerings.

Trader Joe’s, Central Market and Whole Foods all depress me a bit, however. I’ve tried frozen and prepared products from all three stores, and I’ve been disappointed by most of them. I find that I’m most satisfied by food when I cook it myself because I know that it was prepared to my standards and tastes.

The frozen products I’ve found at Trader Joe’s are, in fact, superior to similar products I’ve found at my favorite grocery store, Aldi. And there’s nothing wrong with the potato salad or fresh sandwiches at Central Market either.

But surely we deserve better than that. Don’t we all deserve freshly made foods prepared with love by our own hands or the hands of people we know? Don’t we deserve fruits that haven’t been processed by professional canning companies and veggies that aren’t pre-trimmed and vacuumed-packed?

Isn’t it time to turn our backs on prepackaged, pre-made and flash-frozen?

You see, it’s precisely because Trader Joe’s, Central Market and Whole Foods are so well regarded that I wonder how many of us are eating well. I know I struggle with this every time I purchase something that disappoints me.

When I sample an item at an upscale deli counter known for its spectacular quality and find it uninspiring, unappealing or even unpleasant, one thought runs through my head immediately: This is as good as it gets. There may be no better prepared food on the planet, and it’s only fair.

We deserve better than this — better than bland and tasteless food provided to us in biodegradable plastic-like containers or cardboard freezer-proof boxes. We deserve food that’s actually been in a real skillet, pan or mixing bowl.

As I stand alongside aging executives in tailored suits and young mothers dragging along small children, I see what they get from these cases and freezer cabinets and feel a bit depressed.

I’ve often had what they’re having. It’s the best in the world, experts say, and I don’t think it’s very good.

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  1. You are so right once again. I buy ingredients to make meals at home and never use them for one reason or another. I decide that is such a waste so I just buy something ready-made.

  2. I too feel a bit underwhelmed by Trader Joe’s… I pass by the Hulen store almost every day and there is still a far amountnof traffic in their parking lot. My first thoughts were what’s so special? I can get many of these items at Costco for less cost. If you are looking for Boutique shopping; ie. RETAIL PLUS then I suppose it hits the mark and pocketbook. I did find a couple unique items, but overall, ehh… At least for a boutique price at Central Market I get the choice or fresh, fresh prepared or packed, but a Trader Joe’s its all pre-packaged, and what NO BAKERY? Maybe that’s why I’m always driving past from Central Market or heading to Costco. Aside from the construction on hulen its just another traffic jam.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Henry. I’m most impressed with Aldi these days: fair quality for a fair price. Yes, it’s disappointing that there’s no fresh food at Trader Joe’s. They focus heavily on frozen stuff, and that’s especially unappealing this time of year when I don’t want to generate heat by cooking. Aldi has very little fresh food either, but they don’t present themselves as a gourmet shop.

  3. A follow-up on Trader Joe’s…

    I have found a few items that make for quick meals. There oriental frozen items turned out better than expected. But I prefer to forgo their microwave instructions and re-heat on the stove add some fresh veggies to finish off the dishes, add a side of rice and it’s ready to go to the table. Also found their sourdough breads regular, wheat and whole grains to make a nice toasted sandwich. While my normal preference is Central Market for bread, they don’t offer the wheat and whole grains in a sourdough mix, only in other varieties.

    But what’s really new for us that has made a big dent in our fresh produce bill is “Bountiful Baskets” a food CO-OP that offers only fresh fruits and vegetables off the truck (http://bountifulbaskets.org). We found the quality to be high and amount enough to get us through two weeks for just a $15 investment for a ~$50 store cost assortment that varies by local markets and seasons. While our location does a weekly distribution we are fine with every other week.

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