How to Hack Whole Foods

whole foods free pineapple
Rebecca Feder/Thrillist (edited)
Rebecca Feder/Thrillist (edited)

If you're one of those people who complains that Whole Foods is too expensive... you are probably a lot of fun at group dinners. But also, you're doing it wrong! You don't have to spend a whole lot of money to get a ton of great food, as there are plenty of ways to maximize your experience and become one of the many people you see in Whole Foods every single day. We're sharing our knowledge from years of shopping there, and giving you the inside scoop from associate store team leader Perri Kramer.

bread at Whole Foods
Courtesy of Whole Foods Market

Buy the bread

Regular supermarkets have an enormous selection of bread from the same brands you've been eating since you were younger. Whole Foods bakes their own, and the difference in quality is staggering. You can't find freshness like this in the supermarket. In my area (Colorado), Whole Foods even beats my local supermarket's prices.

Check your receipt -- you might get free stuff

You know how they always ask if you want your receipt? You always want it. And not to put it in the bottom of your bag and never look at it again. Push your cart to the side after they hand you your receipt and stand by the customer service desk. Look at it closely. If you see they didn't give you the sale price on anything, or the price was just straight-up wrong, ask the person at the customer service desk to check on the price. They will almost always give you that item for free.

Sample basically ANYTHING for free

Other supermarkets that have sampling stations set up around the store have nothing on Whole Foods. Want to try literally anything on the shelf? Ask for a sample. Often when I ask for one, a team member will try it with me and then give me the whole box for free. And the sampling is company policy. Says Perri, "Globally, we have a policy that people can sample anything they want to -- so when you shop, you should never buy something you don't like."

salad bar at Whole Foods
Courtesy of Whole Foods Market

Get creative at the salad bar

We know that the lighter the item at the salad bar, the less it costs. Be smart about what you're getting. There are hidden gems that are worth way more than their weight -- bacon, for one. If you go during breakfast, bacon is airy as hell. You're basically getting it for nothing. Put the dressing on the side. Skip the tomatoes, they're mad heavy. Water weight, friends.

Buy 365 all day, every day

Many 365 products are competitively priced compared to the organic brands of other supermarket chains, but that's not what separates them from the pack. There are certain 365 products that, for the price, are the best in class, like the salsa, tomato sauce, pita chips, and even non-foodstuffs. The soap is excellent, and fairly priced. I go for the big ol' soap refill bottles, and they give me weeks of pleasant-smelling stuff that's good for the environment and my dainty, feminine hands.

Bulk up (also for free)

The bulk section might be the most boring-looking part of the store, but it's also the best place to find deals. Since companies don't have to pay to package that food, you can find sweet deals on everything from dried fruit (try the mangoes!) to grains and beans. Plus, you only have to buy what you'll use, which saves you even more cash. I take that to the nth degree by only buying as much spices as I need for a recipe. The other day I was baking something that required a tablespoon of cinnamon. I scooped a tiny bit from the bulk section. When the cashier tried to weigh the tablespoon, it didn't even register on the scale. Free cinnamon!

prepared foods counter at Whole Foods
Courtesy of Whole Foods Market

Prepared foods counter = cheap dinner

We love Chipotle. That's not a secret. But while no one blinks at dropping $8-10 on a burrito, very few people think of Whole Foods as a place to get an entire meal. No, not the salad bar. I'm talking about meal deals -- ones that are different dependent on where you live, but often provide the best value. Head for the display case where they keep all the freshly made grain salads, chicken cutlets, and themed foods for the holidays.

Plenty of regions offer an entree (chicken, salmon, tofu) and two sides (like a black bean/quinoa salad or a vegetable) for between $8-11. The Midwest has a “Health Starts Here” bowl with greens, beans, grains, and a protein for about $8. Pasta bowls are also about $8. Here in the Mountain region, there's a location that cooks Asian dishes. They allow you to pick your own veggies from the bar and then have them stir-fried. Unless your bowl weighs 5lbs, they'll cook up whatever you put in that bowl all for a flat price. You can get two meals out of one bowl, easy. And usually for not more than $8.

Make the butcher do the work for you

No need to ever break down a chicken -- the butcher will do that. See a recipe that requires tying up a pork loin roast -- the butcher will do that. Need some help paying off your student loans? The butcher probably can't help with that (he's got two kids of his own!), but he can pound the hell out of a chicken breast. Make chicken Milanese with that sucker and you'll feel like you're eating more chicken than you actually are.

Save mad loot by buying stuff on certain days

Wednesdays are when the new sales for the coming week are announced. Follow them on Facebook/Instagram and bookmark this Sales Flyer page to see deals specific to the store you shop at most frequently. Friday, for example, is a good day to visit for the deepest discounts on meat or seafood. Often, each store has a different deal every day of the week -- Monday means pizza is cheaper, Tuesday could be baked goods. Locations near me do a $6 rotisserie chicken deal on Wednesdays, which I turn into four or five meals.

produce at Whole Foods
Courtesy of Whole Foods Market

Produce is not your friend... until the weekend

While there's no debate that the quality of their produce is excellent (their produce employees make sure there are no bad apples in the bunch, literally), they're not always price competitive with places like Trader Joe's and other natural grocers. That changes on the weekend, when the five to 15 pieces of produce that were on sale during the week get discounted even further.

The juice bar's cheaper than your local place

If you're one of those cold-press juice freaks, Whole Foods is the spot to get your fix for much less than your local juice bar. Sure, your local spot is called something clever like Fresh To Life or Juiced: The Legend of Jose Canseco and Snack Bar, but their sweet drank is also going to be a few bucks more, at least.

Consult an expert

Sometimes certain sections of the store can seem overwhelming. Places like the cheese counter especially, where there's a ton of selection. Whole Foods hires food geniuses -- one of my local shops has a Certified Cheese Professional, of which there are only 406 in the country. And stores have experts in every section. Perry says, "If you can be an expert in it, we have that person somewhere. Ask around -- those people are also shoppers. And they'll tell you what's the best and the cheapest." One thing they don't have is a dating expert -- but we can help you pick up your fellow shoppers.

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Lee Bresloueris a senior writer at Thrillist, and always donates the bag credit because he's a hero. Follow him to free spices: @LeeBreslouer.