I worked in the produce department in one of Seattle’s Whole Food stores for almost a full year right out of college. At the time, it was a great job that fit well into my schedule and lifestyle that year and the company overall was something I could get behind.
As a foodie before I even took the job, I made sure to pick up on some of the best ways to take advantage of shopping at Whole Foods beyond my employee discount. Some of these tricks and tips may change in the coming months with the Amazon acquisition, but I think most of them will continue to hold true. In addition, most of these are also applicable to your local high-end grocery store or co-op, but since Whole Foods is a national chain, it works well as an example.
- Shop Seasonal. Whole Foods has one of the best produce departments in Seattle and while going to farmer’s markets is always great, a grocery store can often be a more convenient option for busy people. The challenge with it is that I would estimate 95% of the produce is USDA-certified Organic which means it does come with a price increase, sometimes warranted and sometimes not. However, some of the most slam-dunk sales in the grocery store are in produce. Often a huge shipment of a seasonally special item will have a three-day sale, and then a featured one-day sale which is a killer price. Be on the look out for a schedule of these. All the stores plan for them.I have discovered some of my favorite fruits this way including Pink Lady Apples, Champagne Mangos, Muscat Grapes, and Green Figs. And when kale is on sale, that’s always great too 🙂
- Full-service Butcher Shop. Similar to the farmers market example, Whole Foods’ Meat and Seafood departments are really full-scale butcher shops. If you’re not sure of a local one in your area, this can be a fine substitute. These are always going to be higher-price tag items anyway (as they should be) but definitely take advantage of picking your favorite cuts of meat and have them prepared the way you like it. I think they even have some basic seasonings available to save you time!
- Shop the 365 Brand (Store Brand.) Especially for Organic items, the Whole Foods store brand 365 is an incredible value. Everything from beans, to chips, to sparkling water is always well-priced and comparable to somewhere like Trader Joe’s. As with any store brand, you’re often getting the exact same product from one of their vendors without paying for the name.
- Return Policy. There is a no-questions-asked return policy if you keep your receipt (even without it except for the cosmetic section.) Splurged on some $4 a piece protein bars, tried every flavor and hated them all? Bring them back for a refund and they will take the feedback, too.
- Have a plan to conquer the grocery aisles. This is the money-sucker of the store. Every fancy food brand you have ever seen on Instagram is going to have a presence on the Whole Foods shelves. The company is actually an incredible incubator for new food products and helps small businesses get started, but that doesn’t mean that every tasty thing they bring into their stores is a good value for the consumer. Make your list and stick to it. As for the Speciality department which includes beer, wine, cheese and other high end items, these are all luxury goods anyway so use your judgement on how they fit into your budget and lifestyle. Side note — these are my treats 🙂 I would always rather have cheese, prosciutto and wine over cookies, cakes and ice cream.
- Avoid the prepared foods section. The markup on anything prepared in store is insane!!! Sometimes that salad bar looks sooooo enticing but if you’re really on the go and need to put together a small meal, I would suggest buying a small container of salad in produce (or there is even usually a bulk spring mix available!) and buying just a few pieces of protein and toppings from the bar to have on the go.Outside of the salad and hot bar, most of the other departments do “prepared in store” items too. Remember, all of these have a labor cost associated for them which you’re going to see in the price tag. I plan on doing another post soon on Cost vs. Convenience in healthy living, but in general I would say most of these items are overpriced and besides just the chopped veggies, still are not prepared in a way that I would consider appropriate for my day-to-day diet.
I hope you enjoyed my tips for tackling the store sometimes known as “Whole Paycheck!” Navigating both money-saving tips and the healthiest items is actually sometimes harder than you would think because of all of the options available but I’m so grateful to Whole Foods for making alternative means of eating more accessible and providing some education around it.