In college, I lived on breakfast bars and peanut butter crackers. Selections were nowhere near as plentiful as today. Now I can find far tastier and healthier choices at supermarkets, especially at Trader Joe’s, where the options are seemingly endless and quite affordable. Lucky college students!
“Trader Joe’s offers reasonably priced ingredients, along with a vast array of unique flavor profiles,” says Andrea Lynn, author of The I Love Trader Joe's College Cookbook. “They reel you in with the ingenious flavor combinations and ease and then break your heart when they discontinue them. I’m looking at you, eggplant cutlets which I used to make a fast eggplant Parm.”
Trader Joe’s also has a huge organic selection that’s typically more affordable than other stores, plus more options for global flavors. “You can mix and match ingredients to make complete meals and stretch ingredients—like the frozen shrimp and vegetable fried rice or the turkey Bolognese and the microwave mac and cheese,” says Lynn.
So what are absolute dorm-room musts from Trader Joe’s for college kids? One student posed this question in a Reddit post and commenters obliged with fresh, frozen, and shelf-friendly ideas for every meal and snacks in between.
The questions got so many amazing responses, so I’ve combined them here—along with recommendations from Lynn—in eight broad categories, from favorite frozen meals to easy on-the-go snacks. Pick some up for your grad on your next shopping excursion or send them a Trader Joe’s gift card so they can snag their favorites!
1. Frozen Meals Beyond Pizza
There are loads of hearty, satisfying meals in the freezer section that go way beyond just frozen pizza—although there’s a tasty selection of those, too. Frozen Indian food is incredibly popular at Trader Joe’s. One customer favorite is the Butter Chicken with Basmati Rice. There are also mini tacos, veggie burgers, and teriyaki chicken, as well as several kinds of mac and cheese. “I always keep some of the frozen spicy chicken wings in hand to air fry in case I have a fast food craving,” says one Redditor, who points out that it’s way cheaper than eating at a wings restaurant.
2. So Many Dips
Scooping up some dip with crackers or naan is always an easy snack or meal option, and TJ’s has plenty to choose from. There's guacamole, hummus, and bruschetta, as well as tzatziki, caramelized onion, and jalapeno-cauliflower dips. “I think it’s a cute idea to get with friends and get a bunch of different flavors and a ton of naan and share,” suggests someone on the Reddit thread. “Perfect for Bachelor Mondays with a bottle of wine.”
3. The Easiest and Tastiest Lentils
Here’s a smart and healthy pick that deserves its own category. Just half a cup of lentils has 10 grams of protein and six grams of fiber. Besides the nutritional boost, these legumes add a hearty, earthy taste to a meal. TJ’s steamed lentils are pre-cooked and can be heated up quickly or eaten cold. One fan suggests making a salad by combining a package of cooked lentils with one diced red pepper, two to four sliced green onions, and a handful of chopped parsley.
4. Pre-Made Soups For Now and For Later
What’s easier than microwaving a bowl of soup? Check out refrigerated options like Kettle Cooked Chicken Soup or Unexpected Cheddar Broccoli Soup, or frozen soups like Kimchi and Tofu Soup or Beef Pho Soup.
If refrigerator and freezer space is limited, try ones that don’t have to be refrigerated until after they’re opened. There’s Italian-Style Wedding Soup, Garden Vegetable Soup, and Organic Tomato & Roasted Red Pepper Soup, all of which are shelf stable. “Sometimes with the larger boxes (the butternut squash or roasted red pepper and tomato), I’ll add pasta and Parm,” one Redditor suggests.
5. Load up on Veggies
There are easy ways to add more veggies to your diet. Browse the produce section and grab a sweet potato to zap in the microwave. Snack on TJ’s frozen edamame from the freezer section right from the bag. Heat the Stir Fried Garlicky Cabbage and enjoy them with a bagged salad mix. Or smash a fresh avocado for toast or load up on individual servings of guacamole packets, which don’t go bad as quickly.
6. Rice You Don’t Have To Cook From Scratch
No need to make space for a rice cooker. TJ’s Frozen Organic Brown Rice comes in packs of three and takes about three minutes in the microwave. Heat frozen vegetables for a quick stir fry or add them as a side dish. You can also find easy-to-microwave all-in-one meals like frozen Vegetable Fried Rice or Japanese Style Fried Rice.
7. Don’t Skip Breakfast
For the most important meal of the day, grab one of Trader Joe’s inexpensive yogurt cups. There are also lots of protein, granola, and breakfast bars like ABC Bars (it stands for almond butter and cocoa) and chewy chocolate and peanut butter protein bars. If you have a toaster, consider TJ’s frozen waffles.
8. The Best On-the-Go Snacks and Meals
When you need to grab something on your way to class, consider Trader Joe’s refrigerated tamales or wraps—they are easy to eat while you’re walking. Stash a few in your refrigerator. Premade salads (the kind in the prepared food section, not the bags) or Quinoa Stuffed Dolmas are a convenient snack or quick lunch. Add avocado if you have time for an extra nutrient boost.
The Right Kitchen Tool To Make Easy and Delicious Trader Joe’s Meals
Some of the suggestions by Redditors depend on which appliances you have available. Air fryers and Instant Pots are all quite popular in dorm rooms now and have expanded the types of foods college students can make without access to a kitchen.
“You can make low-ingredient masterpieces in both devices—like using the frozen spinach-artichoke dip and fettuccine in the Instant Pot for an easy dinner. Or add one of the marinated spatchcocked chickens to the Instant Pot and let it do all the work,” says Lynn.
You can, of course, also do quite a lot with a microwave. Lynn likes to lightly steam salmon in it, then pair it with steamed lentils tossed in a dressing. She also makes eggs in the microwave to go with a whole-wheat English muffin and cheese.