Of lemons and rice: a price comparison of pantry staples

Ah, Trader Joe’s. The bargain store spoken of in hushed tones of reverence usually reserved for sacred spaces and museum exhibitions of old masters (or no, is that just me speaking as an history nerd?).

Despite the many glowing reviews, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve shopped at TJ. The closest one to me was either in Virginia or a drive halfway across the city. I’m a fundamentally lazy person at heart but paradoxically living here has made me quite the city slicker: walking a mile or two is way less work in my opinion than having to get in the car to drive somewhere (and losing the prime parking spot I usually snag on my block). Plus I generally refuse to drive across this city on principle.

But in all the ridiculous development that’s been popping up around this area for the last few years (hello, hilariously expensive luxury apartment buildings!) came a rumor a while ago that was of interest: they were putting a Trader Joe’s in one of the new buildings!

I’ll admit I wasn’t paying too much attention to when it was officially going to open because I wasn’t planning on shopping there regularly. It’s not as close as my usual grocery store and it’s not as much on my way to general life things either. But I did notice a few weeks ago that it was open and figured I should take a look at some point.

This turned into the idea of doing some pricing comparison because why the hell not? I decided I’d add Whole Paycheck Foods into the comparison mix as well, since rumor has it that since our Amazon overlords have taken over the chain, prices have gone down. I’m usually only in there if I need something from the bulk bins that I can’t find anywhere else so I couldn’t corroborate this based on my own experience. But it’s worth knowing if I can actually afford any pantry staples there!

I went into TJ, Whole Foods, and my usual grocery store (abbreviated RS for regular store to make my life easier while typing this up) with a list of basic items that I buy pretty frequently that I don’t get at Costco and wrote down the prices for all of them. I’ve tried to get accurate prices for as much of the produce as possible, since TJ does a lot of selling produce for a price per item, instead of a price per pound, which is more of what I’m used to.

Yes, my friends, I spent a few hours traipsing around my corner of the city and up and down many a grocery aisle price-shopping. Plus this involved some conversions and doing actual math. Don’t let anyone tell you I’m not dedicated to squeezing more savings out of my paycheck each month!

Comparison research
That’s some serious price comparison research

The list

Produce: avocados (yes, don’t @ me), limes, lemons, bananas, sweet potatoes
Dairy: milk, Greek yogurt, cheese
Other: bread, rice, frozen spinach, eggs

Prices are store brand wherever possible. Let’s see the fruits (heh) of my labor, shall we?

Produce

Avocados

Why I will never be able to buy a house.

TJ: $1.29 each
RS: $1.47 each
WF: $2.00 each

Mmm, saving $0.18 per avocado I buy? Sign me up!

Except they were on sale when I checked prices at Whole Foods for $1.25 each, so I picked up two. Apparently sometimes the store is good for more than bulk bin products!

Limes

I do have a little container of lime juice that I use when I just need a tiny bit for something, but a fair number of recipes do call for the juice from a whole lime.

TJ: $0.29 each
RS: $0.33 each
WF: $0.39 each

Honestly I’m going to call that price difference negligible. If I need limes and I’m at TJ, I’ll pick some up. Otherwise I’m sticking with my regular grocery store.

Lemons

I had to do some converting here because some stores sell lemons by the pound, and some sell them individually.

TJ: Based on the one lemon I weighed, which was 0.43 pounds, their $1.49/lb price works out to be around $0.64 per lemon
RS: $0.69 each
WF: $0.79 each

Same here as with the limes: if I’m at TJ I’ll pick some up. If I’m at my usual store I’ll buy lemons there.

Bananas

Why does TJ price bananas individually??

TJ: Bananas were $0.19 each. The banana I weighed was 0.32 pounds, so let’s call three bananas a pound. That total would come to $0.57/lb
RS: $0.49/lb
WF: $0.49/lb

Wasn’t expecting a tie there! Whole Foods was definitely advertising that price as a newly lowered one.

You’re definitely better off buying per pound, where you can break up large bunches into however many bananas you want. If I want a single banana for a smoothie, it’ll probably cost me about $0.16 instead of $0.19. Obviously the difference is negligible there too, but it matters a lot more if you’re buying many bananas at a time (banana bread, anyone?).

Sweet potatoes

The amount of sweet potato fries I’ve been making since it got cool enough to turn the oven on again is unreal.

TJ: Again with the damn individual pricing. This isn’t going to be as accurate because sweet potatoes vary a lot more wildly in size than lemons or bananas, but the one I weighed was 0.53 pounds (dammit, we’re gonna call it half a pound even). At $0.49 each, that would make them approximately $0.98/lb.
RS: $0.99/lb
WF: $0.99/lb. Another tie! More or less a tie across the board!

Stick to potatoes per pound. Sometimes I want a huge sweet potato to put in a chili or soup, sometimes I want a smaller one to cut up for fries.

Dairy

Milk

I hate milk, but I do a lot of cooking with it. I generally tend to buy half gallons and can usually use that amount up before it goes bad. I also looked up prices for a quart, because I bring one of those in to work two or three times a month for my coffee. Not trying to ruin my lovely Nescafé with the disgusting chemical powdered creamer they provide at work.

TJ: quart $1.19, half gallon $1.69
RS: quart $1.89, half gallon $2.29
WF: quart $1.39, half gallon $2.39

Damn. I’ve been inadvertently upping my per-cup price of my morning coffee! TJ is definitely more out of the way for me, but if I have a coffee emergency (the days I forget to bring more milk in to work are tough, y’all) I’ll have to remember to run by Whole Foods instead of my usual store.

Greek yogurt

I’ve started cooking with plain Greek yogurt in the last few years. Makes a decent mayo base (because mayo itself is disgusting) and is a good substitute for sour cream, which I never use enough of before it goes bad. I also have been eating it with granola fairly often for breakfast.

TJ: $4.99
RS: $3.79
WF: no store brand available, Chobani is $5.99

Ah, I remember the days when I naively used to buy Chobani instead of the way cheaper store brand!

Cheese

Cheese is amazing, y’all. I compared prices for shredded (good for cooking) and for slices, which I’ll put on top of an egg and toast in the morning. I did not bother comparing hunks of fancy cheese because I can’t afford to indulge those fancy tastes at the moment (cue the tears!).

Shredded cheddar/mozzarella per pound (I didn’t know some stores price types of cheese differently)
TJ: $5.32/$3.79
RS: $4.78/$4.78
WF: $5.99/$5.32

Slices of provolone
TJ: $5.99/lb
RS: $4.49/lb
WF: $5.99/lb

I knew my grocery store had pretty decent cheese prices but I’m surprised by just how decent they are! I don’t care enough to price out the differences between every kind of cheese—I’ll just stick to my regular store, which has the same price for the store brand of all the kinds of shredded cheese they sell (plus I stocked up the last time cheese was on sale).

Other

Bread

I looked at prices for loaves of whole wheat bread. For TJ and WF I went with the generic, but for my regular store I wrote down the price of Nature’s Own (which is what I buy purely out of habit/my parents buy it). I bought a loaf of the store brand once and regretted it.

TJ: $1.66/lb
RS: $2.39/lb on sale (which it frequently is), $2.71/lb not on sale
WF: approximately $1.99/lb

Yikes, there’s a clear loser there. I should probably see how the TJ or WF brand bread tastes.

Rice

Brown rice for the win. I only buy white rice if I’m making sushi.

TJ: $1.50/lb
RS: $1.33/lb
WF: $2.00/lb

Plus the rice at my usual store comes in a three pound bag instead of the two pound bag at the other two stores. Yay for mini economies of scale!

Frozen spinach

Chopped frozen spinach, which is an essential in my cooking.

TJ: $1.49/lb
RS: $1.74/lb
WF: $1.69/lb

Guess I’ll be going to TJ for frozen spinach from here on out! I also like that it comes in a bag instead of a huge hunk in a package, so it’ll be easier for me to use a specific portion instead of having to partially thaw the mass of spinach to be able to break it apart.

Eggs

I usually buy a dozen and a half at a time from Costco, but I figured this would be good price to know in case the price at Costco goes up again like it did fairly recently. Prices are for extra large eggs—if I’m having an egg for breakfast, it’s going to be a large one. I also don’t buy organic free-range eggs—yes, I know I should—because they’re so much more expensive.

TJ: $1.99/dozen
RS: $1.59/dozen
WF: $3.19/dozen. There was no non-organic option here.

I should do a comparison with Costco the next time I’m there.

Bonus round

Cans of coconut milk. This wasn’t on my list because I don’t tend to use it too often, but I’ve always thought it’s pretty damn expensive at my regular store. A can of it caught my eye at TJ so I decided to add it to the comparison for fun.

TJ: They get fancy with their pricing: $1.29 for a can of low fat coconut milk, $1.69 for high test
RS: $2.99. An outrage!
WF: $1.99

We have a winner! Next time I make curry or some fancy dessert, I know where to go.

What now?

So Trader Joe’s is clearly the cheaper option for bread, milk, avocados, and frozen spinach (oh and coconut milk). I was expecting (and hoping?) my regular store would be the cheapest for everything:  TJ is so much smaller than my regular store so it naturally has a smaller selection. I was expecting size and a larger selection to keep prices competitive for everything. Whole Foods being about even for some things is a shock—seems the Amazon overlords are actually lowering some prices. This little experiment of mine just goes to show that it’s worth it to comparison shop sometimes!

It’s honestly going to take a huge habit change for me to remember to not buy things at my grocery store as usual and to go to Trader Joe’s instead for the things that are cheaper. This is going to involve far more planning than my current “oh I forgot something at the store yesterday, so I’ll just run by again today on my way home from barre” grocery shopping strategy. Remember how I said I’m lazy at heart? Yep!

But I’m going to make an effort to start shopping at Trader Joe’s regularly in order to capitalize on the cheaper options available there—but to not fall into the trap of buying all the prepared foods available there too.* I’m not buying those usually and that’ll negate any savings from shopping there—making my own food is generally cheaper and definitely healthier. Who knew grocery shopping could be so complicated!

Anyone a Trader Joe’s fan? Anyone pleasantly or unpleasantly surprised by the grocery prices here?


[*]Did I buy both a palak paneer and a chicken tikka masala entree while I was there scoping out prices? The world may never know.

(Yes, I did.)

8 Replies to “Of lemons and rice: a price comparison of pantry staples”

  1. Every time I read about other people’s grocery prices, I feel like I’m living in the wrong city. I’ve heard good things about TJ’s but the nearest store is too far from me to warrant visiting on a frequent basis and I’m not a fan of how much they packaging they have on everything, including their produce.

    1. Oh my goodness, YES, SO MUCH PACKAGING! I don’t care how much cheaper something is because if it’s wrapped in a ton of plastic, I’m not buying it.

  2. Love this! I made a price book of all the grocery items I buy regularly so I can keep track of where the best deal is (within a reasonable distance of course). My mom makes fun of me for it, but for me there’s pride in knowing I’m getting the best value for my money.

    1. Woah, your mom can make fun of you all she wants, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’re at ninja level when it comes to getting the best deal for your groceries! Now that I’ve done all this work, I should take the next step and create a price book for all the things I buy (with Costco included).

  3. When I was little, I was always amazed that my mom would just KNOW whether grocery prices were good or bad, no matter what store we were in. Now that I do my own shopping, I’m starting to get the hang of it, but I think I could really benefit from a physical comparison sheet. You’ll have to do a follow-up post so we can see how much money you save!

    1. The older I get, the more I appreciate the time and effort my mom spent grocery shopping for five of us-knowing that kind of thing off the top of your head is so hard to do! Emily commented above that she has a price book, and I love that idea because it would save me from having to KNOW the specifics haha.

  4. This is such a great idea! I do general comparisons and “know” good deals, but nothing beats the hard numbers. Worth it to make a weekly/bi-weekly trip to TJs for the regularly used, cheaper stuff? Only if you can stick to that list and not let other tempting free-range things jump in your cart. 🙂

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