Trader Joe’s Must Haves: The Best Finds!

Well, it’s been a minute since I updated my blog. In reality, it’s been more like 481,800 minutes (which equates to 11 months). Yikes! Starting a new job this year, planning a large celebration and more have unfortunately kept me focused on things other than this blog. I can’t think of a better topic to reemerge from my hiatus, though, than one that involves one of my favorite stores: Trader Joe’s.

My obsession with Trader Joe’s is almost two decades in the making. When I think of Trader Joe’s, I am always taken back to my college years spent in Fairfield, CT. My friends and I would flock to the Trader Joe’s on the Post Road a few times a month and stock up on essentials and the latest unusual finds. Back then, Trader Joe’s was one of only a few alternatives to traditional grocery stores.

When I moved to New York City years later, my regular weekend routine would include walking 17 blocks to the Trader’s Joe’s in Union Square. At the time, it was the only Trader Joe’s in NYC – so the lines were beyond insane and would literally wrap around the entire store. It was not unusual to have to wait 45 minutes or more (gasp!) on the checkout line. Despite the crowds and lengthy checkout wait, shopping there was always an experience. I would often head into the store with the intention of buying 3-4 items, and leave with about 20 or more. At that point, walking the 17 blocks home was not an option; so my bags were often taxied home in the trunk of a yellow cab.

Fast forward several years and another state later, and I am still a Trader Joe’s regular.  The best thing, in my humble opinion, about Trader Joe’s is that they are always changing things up. They update their stock with the seasons and are quick to embrace the latest health trends. As an added bonus, Trader Joe’s always stock their stores with many healthy, gluten-free, dairy-free and other options. Plus, they have some of the best prices around on organic produce.

When it comes to my favorite products at Trader Joe’s, I can easily think of 20 products to feature in this blog post.  But, in the interest of not losing your attention, I will limit my favorite things list to just seven. Well, without further adieu, here are my Favorite Things: The Trader Joe’s Edition:

DBD96077-A201-4849-82E8-D310289DFA181. Organic Coconut Oil Packets To Go – Trader Joe’s sells these amazing coconut oil packets that you can take with you on the go. Every store it seems these days sells coconut oil containers; however, these packets take things to another level of cool.  Instead of practically breaking my spoon attempting to retrieve some coconut oil from the containers, I just grab one of these packets. I use these packets in smoothies, on sweet potatoes and even use it as a make-shift lip balm in the winter months. You can’t beat the convenience! Check out 101 ways to use coconut oil here.

142CA78A-93ED-4A83-9EB2-2841C6E071112. Frozen Cauliflower Pizza Crust  – Oh my goodness! This frozen crust made of cauliflower and corn flour is absolutely amazing. Let’s face it; gluten-free pizza crust is usually pretty dreadful. (In fact, cardboard is probably more flavorful.) But, this pizza crust is delicious. My favorite “pizza” to make using this crust is topped with pesto (see next item) and arugula. On Christmas, I used this crust to make an appetizer with tomato sauce and veggies – which received rave reviews from my family of taste testers.

E991E68D-3E26-4D0F-AA57-BFC25D5DAB303. Vegan Kale, Cashew & Basil Pesto – While I am definitely not a Vegan (see next item for proof), this pesto is mouth-wateringly good. It is next to impossible to find a pesto made without some form of cheese. Finding this pesto, which has a tendency to sell out quickly at Trader Joe’s, has saved me from having to make my own dairy-free pesto.  Try this pesto as a dip with vegetables, with chicken or turkey, as a burger topping or on a cauliflower crust pizza. It can be found in Trader Joe’s hummus section.

1ED5F327-E1B2-4230-B392-E698CE75086B4. Grass-Fed Angus Beef Burgers – Quality beef can be expensive. Trader Joe’s, however, sells these tasty grass-fed burgers for a reasonable price compared to their competitors. I don’t eat beef too often, but when I do, this is my go-to burger.

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5. Unsweetened Golden Oolong Iced Tea – Unsweetened iced tea can sometimes be a bit bitter and unappetizing. This tea, made from oolong tea leaves, has a natural bit of sweetness without any added sugar or artificial sweetener. This tea is a staple in my refrigerator.

IMG_03816. Organic Ginger and Turmeric Tea – Speaking of tea, Trader Joe’s has a fabulous assortment of tea bags that often change with the season. My pantry currently has about six or more different varieties of Trader Joe’s tea boxes. At the moment, my favorite is the ginger and turmeric tea. It is surprisingly sweet with a just a hint of spice. And ginger and turmeric are both soothing on the stomach and help combat inflammation. (My honorable mentions for tea are Trader Joe’s Winter Wake Up Tea and the Bed Time Tea. The Bed Time Tea is an effective cure for insomnia!)

DC833244-95FE-4880-A84E-2B18E2562E2C7. Colorful Carrot Coins – I am always looking for new foods to try in my air fryer, which I have had now for just over a year. Trader Joe’s sells a ton of great fresh and frozen vegetable options. These colorful carrot coins are my go-to veggies at the moment. I heat these in the air fryer as a side dish or on the stove as part of a stir fry. These carrot coins are also great on a pizza (see #2 above).

Well, I could go on and on about my love for Trader Joe’s and ramble on about their fabulous products all day. In closing, they also have some pretty excellent bath, face and body products too. (Check out their Coconut Body Butter…it’s considerably cheaper and arguably better than any body butter/lotion around.)

Becoming Less Reliant on Microwave Cooking

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A few weeks ago my microwave oven stopped working. I was attempting to heat turkey meatballs quickly between meetings while working from home when my microwave flatlined. Basically, it was completely dead; the time started blinking and the buttons refused to work.

I must admit that I began to panic a bit when my microwave stopped working. Would I have to (gasp!) use my oven to reheat my food? How long would that even take? With limited time for breaks due to my hectic work schedule, I had definitely become reliant on my microwave over the years to reheat or cook food in a pinch. In fact, probably too reliant!

The broken down microwave didn’t cause a total disaster. In reality, the meatballs only took a few minutes to heat up in the oven. And they tasted a million times better than they would have in the microwave. Most importantly, I still had plenty of time to prep for my next work meeting.

While my food was heating up in the oven, though, I began to ponder if it was necessarily a bad thing that my microwave oven seemingly went kaput. After all, as an otherwise healthy person, I knew that I used my microwave way too often. I began to think for a moment that maybe I wouldn’t even replace my defective microwave at all. I even daydreamed about what I would do with the extra counter space – as my microwave took up prime real estate in my tiny NYC area kitchen.

My daydream was short-lived, though. Later that evening, I noticed a small piece of paper towel wedged in the microwave oven door. I swiftly removed the paper towel piece …and my microwave came back to life again.

While my microwave is now in working order, I have decided that I am going to make a concerted effort to try to use it less often.

The 1980s: Where it all Began for my Family

I remember my family’s first microwave oven. My parents purchased it in the early 80s on the way home from a visit with family in New York. It was an enormous contraption that was so big that it wouldn’t even fit on the countertop. At probably two to three times the size of a microwave today, my parents had to buy a large stand to hold the darn thing.

For the longest time, the microwave oven remained pretty much idle. It was rarely used – almost as if we were slighly skeptical of it at first. Then, seemingly overnight, it became the most popular appliance in our kitchen.

By the mid to late 1980s, microwave cooking became a hot trend. All of the ladies in the neighborhood, like my mother, had cupboards filled with microwave cookbooks and recipes. There were even cake mix kits that allowed you to make entire cakes in the microwave. (They tasted pretty dreadful, had a sponge-like consistency and didn’t last too long on the store shelves, though.) During this time, grocery stores started carrying TV dinners galore, microwave popcorn, soup that could be microwaved and so much more.

Almost everyone had a microwave. And it also became the go-to appliance for reheating food for families – moving ahead of even the regular oven.

Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, word seemed to spread that microwave cooking was probably not the safest method of cooking. I remember being told repeatedly by my mother to step back from the microwave while it was in use. The words “radiation” and “potentially dangerous” became synonymous with microwave oven use. However, that didn’t stop most people from using microwaves.

Fast forward 30+ years, microwave ovens are now much smaller and sleeker than the 1980s models, and most of us still use them at least once everyday. It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t use a microwave for at least some form of cooking/reheating.

In fact, I have only met one person in my adult life who didn’t own a microwave. A former boyfriend lived life microwave free and cooked all of his meals strictly on the stove or in the oven. He would even buy TV dinners, transfer them to oven-safe dishes and heat them in the oven. I used to think it was kind of unusual that he didn’t own a microwave (and had no desire to ever own one), but now I think he was kind of on to something!

How Does a Microwave Oven Work?

A microwave oven heats food through microwave radiation. Rather, than boring you lovely readers with my attempt at scientific speak, I found a few articles that explain the science behind microwave ovens succinctly:

How Do Microwaves Work?

Explain that Stuff – How Microwave Ovens Work

What are the Dangers?

Well, the good news is that most experts agree now that the radiation that emanates from microwave ovens is not as dangerous as originally thought. Back in the day, it was widely believed that microwave ovens could cause cancer through excessive radiation exposure. No studies related to modern microwave oven models seem to suggest that this is a valid worry, though. Many experts still recommend standing a few feet away from a microwave that is in use, as a small amount of radiation exposure is possible.

All of the news about microwave oven use is not positive, though. Research indicates that microwave ovens can alter the nutrients of food, heating food in some plastic containers could be dangerous as toxins from plastic could leach on to food during the heating process and microwave ovens heat larger food items inconsistently which could result in some food borne illnesses. And that’s just the beginning. For more details about potential microwave oven dangers, check out the articles below:

The Hidden Hazards of Microwave Cooking

Why You Should Never Microwave Your Food

Tips for Using the Microwave Less

As I previously exclaimed, I am now committed to using my microwave less often based on the articles above and my own belief that microwave cooking is probably not the healthiest heating/cooking option. I have done a pretty good job so far of weaning myself off regular microwave use. It can be done! Below are tips that may help if you too are ready to give your microwave a bit of the cold shoulder treatment:

  1. Plan your meals and snacks for the day: The simple task of planning your meals will help you avoid using your microwave so often. For example, I will often have a sweet potato with lunch or dinner. I’ll now factor into my schedule that I need to place the potato in the oven about 45 minutes before I plan to eat. This planning also helps to curb mindless eating throughout the day or in the evenings.
  2. Consider buying an inexpensive electric kettle for heating liquids. This was the best $22 I’ve spent in a long time! Instead of plopping a mug in the microwave and having some of the liquid explode all over the place (not to mention having to use a towel or oven mitt to handle the scorching hot mug!), I now heat liquid in my stainless steel electric kettle. The kettle only takes about 2-3 minutes to heat liquid and shuts off when it is done. I no longer have to worry about being burned by a hot microwaved mug when making tea again. Here is an electric kettle for only $20 and change at Amazon!
  3. Use small/medium glass storage containers for leftovers. Transfer your restaurant or home cooked meal leftovers into versatile glass storage containers. These glass containers make reheating food in the oven super easy. Just make sure that your glass containers are safe for the oven. Here are affordable Pyrex glass storage containers for under $20! (If you must use your microwave, these glass containers are also a much safer alternative than most plastic containers.)
  4. Keep more raw foods and snacks handy. One way to use the microwave less is to keep your fridge or pantry stocked with fruits, salad ingredients, nuts, nut butters and snacking vegetables. I always keep some protein handy that I can to salads. If I make grilled chicken or meatballs for dinner, I will often refrigerate the leftovers and add them cold to my salad. These meals are quick, easy and don’t have me going anywhere near my microwave oven.

 

Recipe: Ultimate Turkey and Veggie Burger Mashup

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A good turkey burger is hard to find! Ordering turkey burgers at restaurants is always hit or miss. Many times I have been completely let down when waiters or waitresses have delivered dry, whitish-looking pieces of meat that they attempt to pass off as turkey burgers. Sometimes the burgers even taste like they have been frozen for ages (even if they haven’t). Occasionally, I’ll find a good one that is tasty, juicy and looks appetizing – but sadly my experience is that most turkey burgers at restaurants are pretty lame.

I haven’t had too much luck with store-bought turkey burgers either. Most of the frozen turkey burgers are so incredibly thin, fall apart easily or include preservatives or other ingredients that leave them tasting like anything but turkey burgers. The pre-made and ready-to-cook turkey burgers, which are available in most meat sections of supermarkets, are most of the time okay; however, they are – let’s face it – a bit boring.

A Turkey and Veggie Burger Mashup

As the old saying goes: sometimes, when you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. So, I began experimenting and making my own turkey burgers with turkey ground meat and various other ingredients and seasonings. My favorite creation thus far is a turkey/veggie burger mashup.

Since it is impossible to find a pre-made veggie burger out there that is grain-free, Low FODMAPs diet friendly and soy-free, I decided to add my favorite (and diet compliant) vegetables to the turkey burgers. After a few tweaks here and there, I think I found a turkey burger recipe that will blow you away! I literally can’t get enough of these burgers. Here is the recipe:

The Ultimate Turkey Veggie Burger

This recipe yields 4 medium to large burgers. Double the recipe for larger families.

Kitchen Supplies You Will Need:

  • 2 frying/skillet pans (or 1 frying/skillet pan and a grill or grill pan)
  • Measuring cups and spoons
  • Grater
  • Chopper or chopping knife (if you don’t buy pre-chopped veggies)
  • Mixing bowl
  • Spatula or grill utensil

Ingredients:

  • 1 package of ground turkey (for best taste, look for ground turkey meat that is pinkish in color vs. white)
  • 1 egg (egg whites only)
  • 1/3 cup of diced celery (I buy pre-diced celery at the store to save time. For those of you on the Low FODMAPS diet, you may want to hold the celery or reduce the quantity – as celery is high in FODMAPS if greater than 5 cm of the celery stalk is used. If you don’t have any FODMAPS restrictions, you can substitute the celery for onions.)
  • 1/3 cup of diced red and/or green peppers (I buy pre-diced peppers to save time.)
  • 1/3 cup of diced carrots (As you probably guessed, I buy pre-diced carrots. You could also substitute with shredded carrots.)
  • 1/3 cup of grated/shredded sweet potato (some folks on the Paleo diet do not consider sweet potatoes to be Paleo compliant while others do. (I eat them!) Simply skip this step if they are not part of your diet.)
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt (I prefer fine sea salt)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon of ground pepper
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 2 teaspoons of cayenne pepper (or chipotle seasoning or any spicy seasoning… cut this back a bit if you are not into food that is too spicy; add a bit more if you like your food super spicy!)
  • Cooking oil (avocado oil or other heat tolerant oil if you will by frying your burgers on the stove; olive oil is okay for sauteing the veggies. Click here for information about the best cooking oils.
  • 1 cup of Arugula (optional)
  • Juice from a lemon (optional)

Instructions:

  1. If you didn’t buy pre-chopped vegetables, chop the celery, carrots and peppers using a chopper or knife. You’ll need 1/3 of a cup of each vegetable.
  2. Peel the top portion of a sweet potato. Grate 1/3 cup of sweet potato using a grater.
  3. Add two tablespoons of oil to a hot frying pan/skillet. (Olive oil is okay for this step because you will be using low heat.)
  4. Add the celery, carrots, peppers and sweet potatoes to the pan.
  5. Saute on low heat on the stove for 8 minutes. And remove pan from heat and let cool for 2 minutes.
  6. Add one package of ground turkey to the mixing bowl.
  7. Pour in the salt, pepper, thyme and cayenne pepper.
  8. Add the vegetables to the turkey in the mixing bowl.
  9. Crack one egg and add just the egg whites to the turkey mixture.
  10. Mix all ingredients together well with your hands.
  11. Form 4 medium/large patties.
  12. In a separate frying pan, add 1 1/2 tablespoons of oil (avocado oil is great with this recipe).
  13. Add the turkey patties to the pan. (I tend to cook 2 at a time.)
  14. On medium-high heat on the stove, cook 6 minutes on each side. If your turkey burgers are not ready at that point, cook for an additional 2 minutes per side.
  15. Serve over a bed of arugula (drizzled in a bit of fresh lemon juice) if preferred.

The burgers are also fantastic on the grill (or on a grill pan)! Heat the grill to medium and cook for approximately 10 minutes per side or until the interior of the turkey burger reaches 160 degrees on a meat thermometer.

Enjoy!

 

 

 

The Great Olive Oil Mistake

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I used to make a colossal mistake when cooking with olive oil. Whenever I was frying or sautéing practically anything on the stove, I would crank up the heat to the highest possible level and drown the frying pan with copious amounts of olive oil. Growing up, this was pretty much the only acceptable way of cooking anything on the stove. Even the chefs on early cooking shows (and I’m talking way before The Food Network), would following this approach … well, when they weren’t cooking with lard and vegetable oils; it was the 1980s after all!

Olive Oil is Best Served Cold

In recent years, I’ve been enlightened that olive oil is best used in cold dishes such as salads or on low heat settings. All oils have something called a “smoke point,” where the oil begins to lose its nutritional value and flavor. With olive oil (especially extra virgin olive oil), the smoke point is relatively low. So for years and years, I thought I was making extremely healthy dishes when cooking with olive oil in high heat; in reality, I was smoking out most of the nutrition, antioxidants and flavor.

On occasion, I will still add olive oil to dishes on the stove; however, I will keep the heat extremely low to retain the oil’s natural nutritional value and flavor profile. While olive oil isn’t ideal for medium-high or high heat cooking, there are plenty of oils and fats that are perfect for more intense flames.

The Best Olive Oil Alternatives

Unrefined and Refined Coconut Oil

My favorite olive oil alternative is coconut oil, which I use on a daily basis. I fry vegetables, turkey burgers and chicken in coconut oil, add it to smoothies and even use it as a butter/olive oil replacement on sweet potatoes. I believe that coconut oil adds such a unique flavor profile to most dishes. I truly cannot get enough of coconut oil!

Coconut oil not only tastes amazing – it contains some of the healthiest fats that you can consume. Coconut oil contains medium-chain fatty acids (e.g., Lauric Acid, Caprylic Acid and Capric Acid) which research has shown to be easier to digest and process than other fats. The Internet is riddled with thousands of articles about the benefits of coconut oil and I happen to believe every single one of them. I totally drink the coconut oil “Kool-Aid!”

And, coconut oil is ideal for medium and high heat frying. For high heat, I recommend refined coconut oil. Unrefined coconut oil is ideal for medium or low heat dishes on the stove.

Coconut oil is gaining quite the following. In addition to its traditional cooking uses, many are also discovering other fabulous multi-functional uses of coconut oil, such as using it as a facial moisturizer, scalp treatment, body lotion, shaving lotion, conditioner and more. Manufacturers are even adding it as a key ingredient to many leading beauty brands and products.

Avocado Oil

My second favorite olive oil alternative is avocado oil. I only started cooking with avocado oil about a year ago, but it was love at first taste.

Avocado oil has a slightly nutty taste. It really is a super oil, though, as it is tasty in cold dishes such as salads and in hot dishes alike. I use it in salads as well as cook chicken, turkey meatballs and veggie burgers in avocado oil. Avocado oil is excellent in stir fried recipes!

Similar to refined coconut oil, avocado oil retains its nutritional value in high heat. Avocado oil is packed with monounsaturated fats, potassium, vitamins (such as A, E and D) and antioxidants. Like coconut oil, avocado oil makes a great moisturizer or deep conditioner for your hair. You can’t go wrong with avocado oil!

Refined Sesame Oil

My third olive oil alternative recommendation is sesame oil. While not the perfect oil for all dishes due to its strong flavor, sesame oil is spectacular in any dishes that you want to create with an Asian flair. I typically saute green beans, carrots and sometimes chicken in sesame oil. And of course, sesame oil is ideal for most stir fried dishes.

Sesame oil, which is best in medium or low heat dishes, also contains a healthy dose of fats as well as minerals (copper, zinc and calcium) and amino acids.

Honorable Mentions

Here are some other olive oil alternatives (oils and fats) that are medium and high stove heat friendly:

  • Macadamia oil (best for medium heat)
  • Almond oil (best for medium heat)
  • Walnut oil (best for medium heat)
  • Ghee (best for medium or high heat; ghee is a clarified butter where most of the milk solids are removed; tread lightly with this one if you have a dairy allergy)

I personally don’t cook with these oils/fats but many others do and they too can withstand higher levels of heat.

For many health reasons, that I won’t get into now, it is always a good idea to avoid the following oils/fats (even if they are high heat tolerant):

  • Vegetable oil
  • Canola oil
  • Peanut oil
  • Butter

A Little Goes A Long Way

Just remember to avoid having a heavy hand with any oil that you use. A healthy meal can quickly turn unhealthy if your food is saturated in oil. For most dishes, a few tablespoons or less is sufficient. Here’s to creating healthier dishes with healthier oils starting today!