I don’t remember the first time I shopped at Trader Joe’s, but I can say that the grocery store has been a constant in my life since I moved to New York City almost six years ago. Despite the fact that I’ve never really lived a convenient distance from one, I’ve nevertheless made a pilgrimage there at least once a month. Once inside, I proceed to be continually vexed by things like how crowded it is, how many times I have to quietly murmur “excuse me” before the sea of shopping carts is parted and I am granted access to the elusive cheese shelf, and whether or not that lady behind me just rammed her cart into the backs of my legs on purpose. I emerge an hour later, having spent half that time waiting in line, with two to three brown paper bags overstuffed with snacks, microwaveable dinners, and stunningly cheap wine. Let me make one thing clear before we move any further: What I’m about to say is not meant to in any way disparage the Trader Joe's wine section (or, if you live in New York and shop on 14th street, the beloved Trader Joe's wine store). Anywhere that I can purchase three bottles of very decent wine for under $20 total is alright in my book. But I do have something I need to get off my chest: I’m kind of over Trader Joe’s.
I know, I know, call the millennial police and throw me in millennial prison, for I’ve committed the most millennial of sins. But when I say I’m “over Trader Joe’s” I don’t necessarily mean I’m going to, like, stop shopping there. For one thing, we’ve already established that I greatly value the chance to pay $5 for a bottle of wine. I am also deeply enamored with much of the store’s snack range, which, to the chagrin of anyone who just wants to pick up a box of Coconut Cookie Thins and some Oven-Baked Cheese Bites without having to wait in line for three hours, are unavailable anywhere else. But what I am ready to swear off is their microwaveable meals.
You see, much of my 20s have been sustained by the likes of TJ’s Paneer Tikka Masala and Hatch Chile Mac & Cheese. Why? For one thing, they’re cheap. They’re also absurdly easy to make. This is crucial for anyone who doesn’t know how to cook, is too lazy to do so, or is simply trying to avoid any prolonged, kitchen-based interactions with their roommates — each categories I have fallen into at various points in my trek through early adulthood.
But suddenly, what once signified convenience and the act of saving money for things naively deemed more important than dinner (see: concert tickets, out-of-my-price-range footwear) is now feeling an awful lot like a single serving of sadness in a microwave-safe container. Is there anything more depressing than ending a long day at work with… a Trader Joe’s frozen burrito? If you’ve put in eight or more hours of work in a day — be it at home, in an office, or elsewhere — you, my friend, deserve a meal. One that is not a frozen burrito.
I’ve also, coincidentally, spent much of my 20s battling depression. I do not blame this on Trader Joe’s and their proliferation of frozen dining options. If anything, said meals have kept me from being sad and hungry. But depression is one of those things that everyone deals with in their own way, and often, those coping mechanisms must necessarily change over time. In the past, I haven’t always been the best at this, responding to my overwhelming sense of melancholy by ignoring all text messages, not leaving the house for days in a row, and, yes, subsisting largely off bowls of microwaveable whatever. When I'm in the fog of depression, this behavior often feels right, but it’s also not exactly constructive. And in the spirit of better managing my mental health, I’ve decided to actively try to resist the urge to allow any future depression that should befall me to spiral and take over my life. Grooming, socialization, and eating habits included.
To be totally honest, it’s a work in progress. I may or may not have eaten an Annie’s Organic Country Cheddar bowl for dinner last night, and it may or may not have been delicious. (Is Annie’s Organic an upgrade or a downgrade from Trader Joe’s? I know it’s more expensive, but I’m genuinely not sure where it falls on the microwaveable entree hierarchy. Please @ me if you’re an authority on this sort of thing.)
It’s also important for me to acknowledge that my ability to even consider distancing myself from TJ’s and its expansive frozen food section is predicated on the fact that I’m finally at a point in my career that includes regular paychecks with enough in them that, assuming I temper those concert ticket and shoe purchases, I can eat quality food of my choosing. If you are not at this point, or feel perfectly fine about microwaveable dining, thank you very much, Trader Joe’s is truly a godsend. But for me, it’s now become a crutch that allows me to be lazy, uncreative, and often not as nutritious as I’d like when it comes to dinner. Such is the double-edged sword of TJs.
But recently, after spending a Sunday afternoon in a hangover-induced haze on my couch, I was faced with the reality that it was dinnertime. This meant I had three options: Seamless something (expensive, and guess what? I didn’t acquire said hangover for free), raid the stockpile of frozen Trader Joe’s meals still languishing in the freezer (in the words of one Donald Trump: sad!), or get up off my ass, go to the grocery store around the corner, and cook something. Revolutionary, I know. And I’m proud to say that, for once, I actually chose the latter, roasting a massive portion of sweet potato and butternut squash to combine with sauteed broccoli and onions in a quinoa bowl topped with peanut sauce and avocado.
This whole process took an hour, while my typical TJs bowl might have taken five minutes, max. But in that time, I got to listen to a podcast, have a glass of wine, apply a face mask, and even tidy up the kitchen table. This gave me a burst of energy wholly unexpected for 8 p.m. on a Sunday. Had I opted for the bowl, I would have been back on the couch almost immediately, having missed out on the opportunity to accomplish those little things that have a way of making me feel good about an otherwise lackluster day.
While becoming the type of person who cooks large batches of vegetables in the oven on Sunday nights is both foreign and intimidating to me, I have to say, it felt really good. Meal prep culture still feels slightly off-brand for me, but you know what? It’s not like I have to Instagram it, or start making super complex recipes, or do anything beyond curb my reliance on frozen food that doesn’t make me feel good about what I’m eating. And I think I can handle that. But then again, just try prying that Unexpected Cheddar cheese (which I believe is worth the TJ’s schlep in and of itself) and $5 red out of my newly-responsible, meal-prepping hands.
If you are experiencing depression and need support, please call the National Depressive/Manic-Depressive Association Hotline at 1-800-826-3632 or the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-775-784-8090.