Any time I mention shopping for food at a store, someone asks, “So…what do you buy there?”
I’ve had conversations on Facebook recently about the quality of produce at Costco in various parts of the country, for example. It’s the same thing I do myself: Ask people how they do things in order to pick up tips that I might be able to use.
This week’s series, “What Does a Real Foodie Buy at…?” is going to do just that for various stores and online options, starting with Costco, where I’ve had a membership for just barely a year. Edit: Now that this post is nearing three years old, I wanted to let you know that I STILL love shopping at Costco and this list is still accurate as to what I add to my cart!
I thought about organizing this list by section in the store, like “frozen foods” “meats” “grains” etc., but what would be the fun in that? Instead, I’m doing it like this:
- The Essentials (the best – things that make me say, “Whatever did I do before I had a Costco membership???” The best deal or only place to find something.)
- The Basics (stuff that’s a decent deal at Costco but that I could also probably find somewhere else for similar if I worked at it)
- The Fun Stuff (things we don’t really need, but it’s nice to buy them in bulk for a decent price)
- The Bonus Items (the stuff I probably shouldn’t be buying, but do, because it tastes so good. Also sometimes makes me say, “Whatever did I do before I had a Costco membership???” and others times makes me say, “Maybe it’s not such a good thing to shop at Costco…”
I also want to let you know about Thrive Market – if you don’t have Costco near you, you will definitely want to check them out. It’s a membership site, like Costco is a membership store, but you can browse for as long as you want before placing your first order. At that time you’ll get 15% off (no coupon required) and then a 30-day free membership to make sure it’s for you. They carry a lot of organic options so don’t miss out.
This is why I love Costco – lots of well-sourced foods at good prices that I can’t find anywhere else.
But be careful – not everything that’s packaged as a health food ends up being so. Case in point: I fell for some Acai berry juice that I read about in the Costco magazine and how wonderful the company is, sustainable, super food, all that jazz. I thought it would be fun for smoothies.
Foolish of me, I know, but I didn’t read the ingredients until I got home and had used it a few times. I thought it was “just juice.” It was acai berry juice with agave syrup and maybe even some other questionable ingredients. I was bummed! It’s not the first time I’ve been burned by an impulse grocery buy, especially at Costco.
Here are the things I really do buy:
- Organic Frozen Veggies – the broccoli is heavenly, the peas were there once and I want them back, if I didn’t have so much dehydrated greens on hand and such a small freezer, I’d buy the kale or spinach, and the green beans have changed my life because I make these crispy green beans for snacks, five pounds at a time:
- Daisy sour cream – we make homemade ranch dressing with it and can get through the 3-pound tub; the price point is far less per pound than a sale price at our local box store
- Organic corn chips – almost worth the membership price for this item alone! Two pounds for $5 and slightly less guilt about my biggest compromise convenience food, since at least I’m hoping to avoid GMOs this way. Plus, they’re really, really good chips.
- Canned tuna and salmon in BPA-free cans – still kind of expensive, but the BPA-free cans and well-sourced Alaskan salmon are worth it to me. I stocked up as a preparedness measure. The “boneless, skinless” in the black cans makes a really great cold salmon salad.
- Organic chicken breasts, thighs, and whole birds – I’d rather source from local farmers, because I know these birds are probably still raised in confinement and kind of nasty conditions like we chatted about yesterday on Facebook (see the conversation here) – but I just don’t have a consistent source right now that is worth the drive. Chicken breasts are my splurge convenience food – when other people would order a pizza, I cook with organic chicken breasts.
- Bottled lemon juice – I was so excited to find this organic lemon juice with zero extra ingredients after I realized all the junk in other bottled lemon juice that I had been using in dressings and such for years. It’s so much easier than squeezing whole lemons and freezing the juice! I use lemon juice regularly to make water kefir, so this is a HUGE timesaver, and not even very expensive.
- Cheese – I know I’d rather have grassfed cheese, but when I can’t get it, it’s nice to have a few of Costco’s options: the 2-pound mozzarella is really cheap and tasty, although I don’t think it’s particularly well-sourced. Eh. I do what I can. The organic pre-sliced colby jack is a total convenience splurge, but nice for a super busy week. Kerrygold cheese is a little pricey but well-sourced and tasty.
- Butter – Kerrygold butter is grassfed and a gorgeous yellow; I got the Costco membership to get the sticks of Kerrygold butter in the gold packages. Costco organic butter is a better price than Meijer but bright white. Neither are optimal, but they’re the best I can get locally without resorting to online ordering.
- Quinoa – organic, best price I’ve found
- Rice – most kinds are a better price than even bulk ordering at Country Life, but I do need to finish my price book to really get a handle on all the different kinds. We bought some black rice once that was supposed to have as many antioxidants as blueberries, and it was marvelous and such a FUN little experiment. They don’t carry it anymore though.
- Dates are a good price, as are some other dried fruits, but I don’t get raisins there, and you really need to watch the ingredients. I grabbed some dried blueberries once only to find out that they were practically candy because of the added sugar. We don’t get those anymore, but the Easter Bunny did get some sugary mixed dried fruit to fill the eggs. Better than jelly beans, but not health food.
- Freeze-dried fruit in individual packages – this was a great option, although sadly not organic, for emergency quick snacks for John (and the other kids love them too). I can’t always find them anymore (both Mrs. May’s and Costco’s house Kirkland brand have been available in the past).
- Frozen fruit – when our U-pick blueberries for homemade yogurt ran out recently, a 3-pound bag of organic raspberries called my name. Yum. So Yum.
- Organic salsa – we love Mexican food, and Kirkland brand organic salsa is delicious and quite hot, the way we like it. Unfortunately, it’s in a plastic jar and contains sugar, so Meijer Naturals, no GMO, in a glass jar, with no sugar, is awfully good competition. I might not buy the Kirkland stuff anymore now that I really registered the sugar during Lent and couldn’t eat the salsa in our house!
- Spaghetti sauce – It’s not organic, but it’s in glass and has no sugar or odd ingredients, and we like it. It’s not a great deal…but it’ll do. See comments for some very helpful notes on canned tomatoes at Costco!
- and pecans – I get a better deal elsewhere on , which are chemically pasteurized at Costco, and , but walnuts and pecans are my best price point currently. Chia seeds too, although I need to doublecheck price.
- Produce – we get quite a bit there, just because when I hit Costco I’m going to try not to hit another grocery store for a week or more. Organic lettuce, spinach, carrots, and sometimes fresh broccoli, and non-organic pea pods (my newest addiction!! So good for the munchies!), cucumbers (they’re expensive though), colored peppers, oranges, pineapple, bananas, garlic (from California), and avocados, which are always under $1 each and a good deal. If they have organic apples, sometimes I spring for those, but I cringe at the plastic packaging. 🙁
- Note: Produce is probably the area most of all that you need to know price points and sale prices from other grocery stores, particularly fruits like berries. Also, consider seriously whether you’ll get through four pounds of broccoli or raspberries before it goes bad. Throwing away your food is never a good deal. I do not buy fresh berries at Costco because they’re still darn expensive!
- Gluten-free pasta – they have carried an organic corn/quinoa pasta in the past that was tasty, but still kind of expensive. I get a whole case of rice pasta from Country Life and we’re pretty happy with that.
- Organic sugar from Wholesome Sweeteners – the five-pound bag I bought last May is still around, so it’s safe to say that we don’t go through too much of it. I use sucanat whenever I can, but for water kefir I like to alternate, and some baked goods, especially for company, just need some “regular” sugar.
- Spices – again, you really need to know your price point. Country Life and our local health foods store have really good spice prices, so it’s a balance. I noticed the garlic powder was from California, not China, so I got some…and then got home and remembered I should check about spices being irradiated before I buy. Too much to remember!
- Broth/Stock – you know I don’t buy this stuff as a general rule (it’s too easy, frugal, and nutritious to make homemade chicken stock), but I decided to read ingredients at Costco one day thinking preparedness, since I don’t can my stock. The organic chicken stock was actually made with bones – halleluiah! – so I bought a six-pack. I’ve used one carton when I was out of stock and really wanted soup, and truly – it’s only okay. The flavor is pretty weak, but I’m spoiled. The beef “stock” however, even the organic (I think the brand was Pacific something-or-other) had no bones and something totally wrong in there – maybe MSG, I can’t remember. It was a definite “no buy” even as a compromise food.
- Extra virgin olive oil – I hear really good things about Costco’s Toscano here, but many Costco stores also have organic virgin coconut oil for a very competitive price. Know your price point, folks! I’m working hard in the background on my own price book… , and I bought a bottle – pricey, but very good. They also have organic EVOO under the Kirkland brand. I still buy my EVOO and coconut oil from
Let me show you how easy it is to put together those freezer meals:
The Fun Stuff
- Apple & Eve fruit and veggie juice boxes – I’d like to push the system and say, “I’ll bring a snack, but not a drink,” for sporting events, but until we run out of these boxes, I think I’ll just use them. They’re far better than Capri Sun or Gatorade!
- String cheese – good to have on hand for emergency snacks, preschool classroom-wide snacks, and sporting events (see above). I do still need to do my price book for string cheese and make sure I’m not being hoodwinked into paying more than a regular sale at Meijer.
- Nitrate-free sausages – another “convenience” food for us, to go on top of homemade mac and cheese (from Better Than a Box). I’m sad that the one we liked which did not have any sweetener (pictured above) has been replaced by one that’s not so tasty, does include sugar, and has more “kind of weird but not exactly toxic” ingredients.
- Dried apple snacks – I only saw these once, but the only ingredient was “apples.” Great for backup snacks and the kids love the rings.
- Almond and peanut butter – neither are organic, but the Maranatha almond butter is pretty good, and they have this natural peanut butter in the refrigerated case right now that’s just yummy. One ingredient. I can’t betoo picky all the time!
The Bonus Items
- If you have a sweet tooth, don’t even go down the fancy candy aisle at Costco. They have these sea salt caramels…and these macadamia nut caramel thingys…and…oh, dear. Now I’ve outed myself. There’s nothing good for you about the candy at Costco, but it does have slightly better ingredients than your average mass-produced candy. It’s a horrible temptation! We gave mixed bags of all our favorites to family at Christmas.
- Kirkland brand chocolate chips – the ingredients surely aren’t perfect (soy lecithin for one), but they’re sustainably sourced fair trade chocolate and good for a quick fix! 😉 Only 51% cacao, which is a bummer compared to the 60% Ghirardelli chips that Sam’s Club carries.
- Snapea Crisps – unhealthy fats in these crispy little buggers, but I get hoodwinked that they’re gluten-free and at least include a vegetable. They’re probably extruded and awful for us, though! We get tempted by other fun chips every so often too, like sweet potato chips, that I KNOW aren’t good for us, but are a fun indulgence.
- Local and seasonal beer – We’re finally old enough to drink for fun and not buy cheap lite beer. It’s an 80/20 lifestyle!
Is Everything Less Expensive at Costco?
In fact, I typically shop at ALDI weekly and Costco just once a month, tops.
Here’s a comparison of what costs less at Costco and ALDI. I’ve also compiled all my Aldi vs. Costco comparisons in a printable PDF format you can take with you to the store – plus room for you to add your own notes!