“I love eating cookies, but I sure wish I could turn them into a spread,” is apparently what all America was secretly thinking before Trader Joe’s took Belgium’s famed Speculoos biscuits and reimagined them in spreadable form. Cookie Butter became a near-instant icon as the chain grew in status and popularity, with supplies selling out at some stores. It took on a life of its own on social media, and in 2016, it was declared Trader Joe's most popular item. Cookie Butter fever has since cooled, but it remains a strong contender for the most versatile dessert on shelves. Like another of America’s favorite dessert spreads -- Nutella -- it’s perfect for dipping pretzels into, spreading on bread to make a sweet ‘wich, and topping waffles, pancakes, and ice cream. But whereas Nutella is a UFC fighter punishing your tastebuds with hazelnut and cocoa until you submit, Cookie Butter is a librarian, tucking your taste buds into bed with a cup of tea and a buttery shortbread cookie. It was an innovation that eventually, blissfully, became part of many shoppers weekly lists.
Diner Mac 'N Cheese
No, we're not talking about TJ's regular and gluten-free boxed mac. The Diner Mac is a beast all its own, an unconscionably salty and fatty blast of comfort that stands tall next to the likes of Stouffer's or, dare we say, your grandmas. After five minutes spinning in the microwave, it will emerge basically on fire, and you have to wait at least a minute or two for it to cool down or you’ll be driving yourself to the ER with burns from the gooey blend of Cheddar, Swiss, Havarti and Gouda. Once it’s cooled down and is only semi-scalding, every single forkful is a step toward a better day.
Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups
This snack encapsulates exactly why Trader Joe’s sells so much junk food. First: these peanut butter cups are tiny and you buy ‘em in a huge plastic bin. Eating a few of them puts absolutely no dent in the larger bucket. So what’s the big deal about eating a few? It’s almost healthy, you know? Dark chocolate? Healthy. Peanut butter? Healthy. Consuming snacks in moderation? Healthy. Now, in reality, you’re probably eating five or six at a time of these absolutely addictive mini Reese’s-for-grownups. TJ’s says there are 36 cups per tub, which means you can eat five a day and the tub will last a week. Perfectly reasonable. It’s almost like you didn’t eat any of them at all.
Steamed Chicken Soup Dumplings
Who knew that Trader Joe’s, of all places, would be the ones to crack the code of the frozen soup dumpling? And why hasn’t Din Tai Fung rolled out these bad boys yet? These are definitely reminiscent of your favorite xiaolongbao spots, with a delightful burst of soup packed into each little dumpling. They're made from chicken instead of the traditional pork, but packed with ginger and onion so it’s hard to notice a stark difference. The dumpling skins aren’t as thin and delicate as you’d expect, but come on, it’s a microwaveable soup dumpling from a major grocery chain that actually tastes good. The worst part is that there are only six to a box, and anyone who eats soup dumplings knows you need at least three trays of those bad boys.
Japanese Style Fried Rice
Another gem from Joe's apparent travels to the East, this is perhaps the most satisfyingly simple of all the pan-Asian fare in the freezer. The lightly oiled rice is packed with edamame (just the beans, no pod weirdo), julienned carrots, protein-packing tofu, and, most crucially, hijiki seaweed, which adds a completely different profile to what many associate with garden-variety takeout fried rice. It's layered. It's thoughtfully composed. Balanced. Dare we say it's almost restaurant quality? We won't say. It's rude to talk with your mouth full of seaweed strands.
Charles Shaw Wines
Two-Buck Chuck might have become Three-Buck Chuck since debuting in 2002, but the fact remains that the chain offers up perfectly drinkable wine for less than the price of bottled water. The line has become the stuff of legend, raising the profile of cheap wine and making the idea of a low-budget wine party even more feasible than a kegger for cash-strapped folks who want to pop some corks without being snooty. It has done more to generate the taste for good(ish) wine than any other budget bottle. It's got an interesting history that you can read all about right here... preferably by candlelight with a nice bottle of red.
Organic Tricolor Quinoa
Quinoa is high in fiber and protein, offers more flavor than plain white rice, and is a great side dish with any meat, fish or veggie. Yet for many Americans, it was abstract, a product you could only dig out of a bulk crate in a food co-op in the minds of many Americans. Then Trader Joe's came along and suddenly, your uncle in Iowa was all about it, which is great. It’s organic! It’s colorful -- white, red, and black! You can cook it in an Instant Pot in 11 minutes! You can even prepare this while a TJ’s frozen dinner is cooking in the oven or microwave. It’s more than a seed that acts like a grain, it can change your life. You thought you were a lazy bum, but then you buy this bag. All of a sudden you’re the type of person who eats quinoa, who hikes on the weekends, who goes to SoulCycle.
Everything But The Bagel Seasoning
Never has there been a more perfect seasoning for avocado toast. Or scrambled eggs. Or quiche. Hell, this would be a perfect seasoning for a two-by-four. “Hmm, this tastes a little bit like wood, but the onion, sea salt, and garlic flavor really take this to the next level!” This brilliant, versatile seasoning can make every breakfast food imaginable taste like the best-tasting bagel at the deli without all that dang gluten. It’s so delicious and popular that one couple sold enough of this seasoning online (and other TJ products) that they profited to the tune of $30,000. Given the choice between selling bottles of this online for a few extra bucks or making our scrambled eggs taste 100x better, we’ll take a tastier breakfast every time. Wait, $30,000?! Let us think about this one some more...
Chicken Tikka Masala
No, this isn't on par with anything you'll get at a good Indian restaurant. It's probably more on par with the type of thing you'd get at a late-night window in London. But it's still pretty damn good. And the fact that the Chicken Tikka Masala -- along with butter chicken and more than a dozen other Indian offerings -- is so prominent in the freezer just goes to show that, when given the option, Americans crave more than pizza and TV dinners when it comes to the grocer's freezer.
Pizza dough is actually remarkably easy to make. But it's time-consuming. And it can leave your kitchen coated in flour. These days, many grocery chains will offer up a ball of pre-made dough. When TJ's first did it, it was a game changer, a way for lazy home cooks to create pizzas, breadsticks, rolls, pockets, and everything in between while passing them off as their own. The chain has made a cottage industry out of offering things that people can pass off as homemade. The dough, though, lets you have your chef-inspired whims, your sense of self-satisfaction at a dinner party, and your clean kitchen at the same time.