An illustration by Yao Jian of a figure buying food at a Trader Joe's

Remembering Joe Coulombe: A Trader Joe’s Shopping List for a College Budget

The iconic grocery store offers plenty of budget solutions for hungry students.  
March 15, 2020
11 mins read

If there are a few things college students like, it’s themed events, cheap prices and late hours. But I’m not talking about a frat party; I’m thinking of something a little cleaner, a little brighter, but maybe just as crowded: Trader Joe’s (TJ’s). The beloved grocery store chain, with locations in 43 states, is adored for its low prices, nautical-themed interiors and friendly staff.

On Feb. 29, Joe Coulombe, the founder of Trader Joe’s, passed away. In a 2014 interview Coulomb said of the chain: “Trader Joe’s is for overeducated and underpaid people, for all the classical musicians, museum curators, journalists …” And this is what the grocery store has always been to me.

As I make my way through school, juggling part-time jobs and full-time expectations of success, it’s a haven to step aboard a grocery store-themed ship that welcomes passengers and crews from all backgrounds and classes, carrying them through the turbulent waters of everyday life. Knowing there is one place I can’t drown in choices of quality over price or a home-cooked meal over budgeted time makes life just a little sweeter, and sometimes that’s all you need.

Food is the gateway between conversations, the comfort after a busy day and the energy needed to make the world a better place. It is so much more than just a factor in human survival. There is a legacy and a purpose in creating a store that provides the ingredients to the human soul in an affordable manner.

To honor Joe, I compiled a list of foods that have made my life a little better over the years in hopes it can make someone else’s day a little easier, tastier or happier at an affordable price. While Joe may never have the chance to read this, I hope he knows his work mattered and made a difference

Disclaimer: Prices come from a New York City Trader Joe’s store, prices may vary based on location. Serving prices are rough estimates based on “recommended” serving sizes.

For a Cheap, Staple Breakfast

You can’t go wrong with eggs. They’re filling, rich with protein and can be prepared in so many different ways so breakfast is never boring. At Trader Joe’s a carton of eggs only costs $1.99. Pair it with a slice of toast from a $2.49 Tuscan Pane loaf and throw in a side of bacon for only $4.49. This meal comes out to about 74 cents per serving.

For a Twist on a Classic Lunch Sandwich

After coming home from a morning of lectures, nothing satisfies my hunger quite like a good sandwich. TJ’s has a wide selection of deli meats (there are vegan and vegetarian ones too), cheeses and toppings. However, I’ve recently been hooked on a brie, fig and apple sandwich.

You can make about five sandwiches from a baguette, making this meal about $1.80 per serving. The slight saltiness of the brie mixed with the sweet fig butter finished with a good crunch from the apple has changed the way I look at my midday meal. I usually get the TJ’s brand baguette for $1.69, a round of brie for $4.54, an apple or two for 69 cents a piece, and the fig butter is only $2.49.

For a Healthy, Fast Dinner

If you keep up with food trends, you might have seen a little vegetable that could replace hundreds of everyday foods from pizza crusts to rice to wings. Yes, I’m talking about cauliflower. Trader Joe’s sells a cauliflower “gnocchi,” a popular Italian pasta that is traditionally made with potatoes.

The ingredients are only cauliflower, cassava flour, potato starch, extra virgin olive oil and sea salt. I feel healthy eating it and like I’m indulging in a yummy pasta dinner at the same time. A bag is only $2.69 and it goes great with the same Tuscan Pane loaf I use for toast at breakfast. A serving of this meal will only set you back about $1.30 if you eat half the bag at a time.

For a Home-Cooked Date Night

If you feel like ~ spicing ~ things up in the kitchen, this one is for you.  Seasoning is easily the most important aspect of cooking, but one of the hardest to do right, especially with meats. TJ’s balsamic rosemary beef steak tips solve this problem!

It’s pre-marinated and only costs $9.99 a pound, making a steak dinner extremely accessible for a college budget. Fresh Brussels sprouts are only $3.49 and you can’t go wrong with Trader Joe’s famous two-buck-chuck wine (the price of Charles Shaw wine is now $2.99 but it’s still a favorite budget wine). The entire restaurant-level dinner is about $8.25 per serving.

For On-the-Go Snacks

Fresh fruit, nuts and granola bars are my go-to snacks. I usually buy a pack or two of whatever sounds good that week. Some of my favorites are bananas for 19 cents a piece or grapes for $5.49; any flavor of cereal bar is only $1.99, and a bag of the “simply almonds, cashews, cranberries and trek mix” trail mix is only going to cost you $5.99.

For the Health-Conscious Shopper

I try to eat as healthy as possible, but it can be extremely hard to balance school life, limited time and a healthy diet. Luckily, at Trader Joe’s, there are a lot of really simple selections that aren’t too processed. I always like to grab a few bags of frozen vegetables; broccoli at $1.69 is my favorite. While it may not taste as good as the fresh stuff, the convenience of easy microwaving and preparation is definitely a benefit during a busy class-filled day. Of course, there are many fresh produce options if that’s something you’re looking for instead.

Trader Joe’s also has a great selection of lean meats; the chicken breasts are only $8.49 and can easily be baked or grilled. Another healthy staple in my shopping cart is quinoa or rice. These grains are filling, great as a side or base for another meal and can be prepared in a variety of ways so your meals never get boring. Jasmine brown rice is priced at $3.49 and the organic white quinoa comes out to $3.99. All of these groceries will cost you $17.66 but you’ll get many servings out of them.

For a Gluten-Free Diet

Maintaining a gluten-free diet can be stressful and expensive, but Trader Joe’s saves the day again with affordable and delicious options. There is an exhaustive list on the TJ’s website of all of their gluten-free offerings. Some standouts are the gluten-free brown rice penne for $1.99, gluten-free rolled oats for $3.99 and gluten-free everything bagels that are only $4.99.

For Vegan/Vegetarian Consumers  

Similar to the gluten-free list, Trader Joe’s also has a comprehensive list of vegan options I highly recommend checking it out! They have vegan butter $4.69 that lasts me a month or more, an array of cheese ranging from $2.99 to $3.99 and a bunch of fake “meat” options — my favorite is the “meat”balls ($3.99).  It also would be a crime to not mention TJ’s now carries its own line of oat milk that only costs $3.99 for 2 gallons.

 For the Sweet Tooth

 A day without dessert is a day wasted. Well, at least to me. Some of my favorite sweet snacks to end the night are banana chips with chocolate hummus (don’t knock it ‘till you try it!), mini vanilla sheet cake, and the mint chocolate chip ice cream. The banana chips are $3.49, the hummus is $1.99, sheet cake is $4.49 and the ice cream is $3.99.

If you bought everything on this list it’d only cost you $111.74. That’s not bad for what’s at least a few weeks of groceries, if not more. The entire shopping list can be found below for all of your TJ’s adventures. And to Joe, thank you.

Shopping List:

  • Carton of eggs
  • Tuscan pane bread
  • Bacon
  • TJ’s Baguette
  • Apples
  • Brie
  • Fig Butter
  • Cauliflower gnocchi
  • Balsamic rosemary beef steak
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Red wine: Charles Shaw
  • Bananas
  • Grapes
  • Cereal bars
  • Simply almonds, cashews, cranberries and trek mix
  • Frozen broccoli
  • Chicken breast
  • Gluten-free brown rice penne
  • Gluten-free rolled oats
  • Gluten-free everything bagels
  • Organic white quinoa
  • Jasmine brown rice
  • Oat milk
  • Vegan butter (Earth Balance)
  • Vegan cheese
  • “Meat” balls
  • Banana chips
  • Chocolate hummus
  • Mini Vanilla sheet cake
  • Mint chip ice cream

Katherine McLaughlin, The New School

Writer Profile

Katherine McLaughlin

The New School
Arts Communications

Katherine McLaughlin is a junior at The New School in NYC studying arts communications. When she’s not studying or writing she enjoys reading, watching rom-coms and drinking iced mochas.

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