I Work at Trader Joe's. Here Are 7 Things I Never Buy There—and What to Get Instead

Photo: Christian Beltran

I started working at Trader Joe's in 2021. One of the biggest perks of being a crew member is that we get to sample almost everything. My coworkers and I love recommending our favorite items to customers in the store and on social media.

Since we're all diehard fans, we enjoy most of the foods. But every once in a while, we get questions about what isn't worth the hype.

Here are seven products I refuse to buy — and what to get instead:

1. Instant Cold Brew Coffee

What to buy instead: Organic Cold Brew Coffee, $5.49

Photo Courtesy of Trader Joe’s ©2023

Trader Joe's Instant Cold Brew Coffee is a fine, dark powder made of 100% Arabica coffee beans. But no matter how much powder I use, the result always tastes watered down.

I prefer the Organic Cold Brew Coffee, which is seeped for 20 hours, mixed with espresso, and finished with a nitrogen fusion. It's slightly more expensive, but comes ready-to-drink and has that smooth taste you typically find at a coffee shop.

2. Pesto alla Genovese

What to buy instead: Vegan Kale, Cashew & Basil Pesto, $3.99

Photo Courtesy of Trader Joe’s ©2023

I have a few problems with the Pesto alla Genovese: It's oily, salty and has a weak basil flavor.

But the Vegan Kale, Cashew & Basil Pesto sauce is a customer favorite. It has more of a nutty, rich taste. And because it's thicker, you can use it as a sandwich spread.

3. Chicken Tikka Masala (refrigerated)

What to buy instead: Frozen Chicken Tikka Masala, $4.49

Photo Courtesy of Trader Joe’s ©2023

The frozen Chicken Tikka Masala reigns over the version in the refrigerated aisle. It's much more seasoned and tastes closer to the traditional sauce. I also love how flavorful and fragrant the rice is.

4. Shredded Hashbrowns

What to buy instead: Hashbrowns, $2.49

Photo Courtesy of Trader Joe’s ©2023

I prefer Trader Joe's hashbrown patties over its shredded version, which tends to clump up in the bag and is more difficult to prepare.

The patties are perfectly portioned and easy to pan fry or cook in the air fryer. I've seen people use them as buns for egg sandwiches, in breakfast burritos, or just as a side dish.

5. Southwest Salad

What to get instead: Southwestern Chopped Salad Kit, $3.69

Photo Courtesy of Trader Joe’s ©2023

Customers are usually torn between the ready-to-eat Southwest Salad (that comes in a plastic container) and the bagged kit.

I always get the bagged version, which has a bigger portion size and an overall fresher flavor. I like to dress it up with an avocado, more Cotija cheese and some chicken.

6. Korean Short Ribs

What to buy instead: Bool Kogi Korean-Inspired Sesame Marinated Boneless Beef Ribs, $12.99 per pound

Photo Courtesy of Trader Joe’s ©2023

The Korean short ribs have a healthy amount of bones and nerves that can make them chewy and difficult to eat.

Instead, I'll spend a few extra bucks on the "Bool Kogi" marinated beef ribs. It's a great source of protein and is easy to grill. I usually enjoy it over rice.

7. Poppy Pinot Noir

What to buy instead: Loudenotte Cuvée Réservée Pinot Noir, $6.99

Photo Courtesy of Trader Joe’s ©2023

The Poppy Pinot Noir isn't bad, but it's more expensive than the Loudenotte, which we often recommend at the store.

The Loudenotte is medium-bodied with notes of red cherry and mint. It's also more complex and less acidic than the Poppy.

Christian Beltran is a senior at the University of California, Los Angeles majoring in psychology. He works at a Trader Joe's nearby. During his free time, he likes to hang out with his friends and go to the gym. Follow him @christianfromtraderjoes.

*The opinions expressed here by CNBC Make It contributors are their own, not necessarily those of CNBC Make It or the contributors' employers.

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