Note: This series isn’t about endorsing any particular company or brand. My goal is to cover major stores, where most Americans shop, to show people that just making a switch in the products they purchase is a huge first start in adopting a real food lifestyle–this only requires changing what you put in your cart. Once this hurdle is conquered, other options may be explored–farms, co-ops, and local health stores. Small, but practical changes lead to a doable lifestyle! Learn more about shopping for real food under the “Shopping 101″ section on the blog.
Gone are days of only finding real food at specialty stores. Today, real food options abound in stores most of us would least expect. I find the idea of accessible real food to be incredibly encouraging. No matter where you live, what your food budget may be, or which stores/farms are available in your area, real food is an option.
Today, let’s continue our shopping series. So far we have visited five stores in this series: Target, Walmart, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Meijer. Last week we took a break from the big chain stores to talk about the importance of sourcing local food. This week, we’re going to visit Costco.
To be fully honest, I am a member of the local Costco in my area. In fact, while I try to remain as neutral as possible in this series, I must say: I really love Costco!
For many years, before becoming a member at Costco, friends would rave about the member-only store. At that time, we were members at Sam’s Club (thanks to Dustin’s employer). I rarely visited Sam’s so I figured Costco was probably not worth my time or money. Finally, I took a friend up on her Costco tour offer and visited a store. As we walked down each aisle, I noticed junk food along with quite a few real food options: Kerrygold Butter at an AMAZING price (3 bars for $6.99), produce sold in bulk, and well-priced healthy pantry items. I’ve been a member ever since that day.
The food selection at your regional Costco may vary from the food I highlight below. I know my friends in California often find pantry staples–like almond and coconut flour– that I can’t find at my local Costco. Keep this in mind as you read through this post and print the shopping guide. I highly recommend visiting the Costco in your area and asking to tour the store so you can get a feel for the food selection. Also, if you’re a member at Costco and you find real food options not listed here, please share in the comment section below.
Remember, I’m not affiliated with any food company. I haven’t been paid by any store or brand. The selections highlighted in this post include my top food picks based on the Live Simply definition of real food and my visit to Costco. While everyone defines “real” in various ways, here’s my definition:
Practical Shopping Tips
1. Make a List:
Costco is one of those places where I can easily overspend! I can visit the store for six items and easily walk out with a full cart. Costco is constantly bringing in new items, both food and household related, so the lure of “Ooo, I need that!” is always just an aisle away. My best advice for maintaining a food budget and shopping at Costco is to never enter the front doors without a shopping list! And remember, stick to the list!
2. Stock Up On Asterisk* Foods:
I haven’t confirmed this statement with a Costco representative, but from my experience, when a price sign at Costco includes an asterisk* in the top corner the item is only available temporarily in the store, meaning it’s a one-time product. This is important to note since some real food options may include an asterisk on the price sign. This means it’s time to stock up on that particular item. While I don’t normally recommend wavering from a shopping list, now is the perfect time to do just that. Waver, my friend! Fill that freezer or pantry.
3. Buy Foods You’ll Actually Use:
This tip applies to just about any store, but at Costco it’s important to keep in mind since stores bring in some unique real food options (for example: organic black rice). If you find a new real food and you’re thinking about adding it to your cart ask yourself, “How will I use this?” If you can answer this question, buy the black rice!
4. Shop Kirkland:
Costco offers an exclusive line of products under the brand name, Kirkland. I’m often surprised by the high-quality and clean ingredients found in many Kirkland packaged foods.
5. No-Risk Membership:
Costco is a member-only store. This means you must pay an annual fee to shop in the store. My initial concern about joining Costco and paying the annual $55 membership fee was the fact that I never used our Sam’s Club membership. Would my $55 go to waste?
The no-risk membership sold me! According to Costco.com: “We will refund your membership fee in full at any time if you are dissatisfied.” It’s been three years since I became a Costco member, and so far I haven’t found a reason to ask for my annual membership payment back.
6. Shop the “Buy Organic” List:
Costco offers a large selection of bulk produce. No matter where you purchase food, I recommend shopping according to the “Buy Organic” list (based on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen). This list includes the top fruits and veggies to prioritize when making the decision to purchase organic produce. Most of the produce at my local Costco store is conventional (not certified organic), so I use this list to help prioritize produce choices.
For example: My local Costco sells lots of berries. Strawberries are on the Buy Organic list, so I avoid purchasing the conventional bulk strawberries from Costco. Raspberries and blackberries aren’t on the list which means I can safely purchase them and save a significant amount of money compared to purchasing berries from another store. With my savings I can purchase the organic strawberries from the market or local health food store.
Shopping for Real Food at Costco: My Top Picks
Costco offers a lot of produce, from seasonal finds to regularly stocked fruits and vegetables. If organic produce isn’t a priority, a customer could easily find enough produce at Costco to feed a family without the need to visit another store. If organic produce is a priority, shopping from the Buy Organic list (see above) is the best option.
Remember most of the produce from Costco is sold in bulk (melons are usually an exception).
2. Frozen Produce:
Costco also offers frozen fruits and veggies in bulk. I regularly purchase berries and fruit for smoothies and smoothie packs. The frozen broccoli is handy to keep in the freezer for soups and casseroles. Purchase fruits and veggies with clean ingredient lists (just the fruit or veggie listed) versus packages containing special sauces or “smoothie blends.”
I recently found Froozer fruit pops (pictured above). This product is an example of some of the amazingly clean real food convenience foods you can find at Costco these days. The product contains: mangoes, bananas, pineapple, and a small amount of guar gum.
3. Meat and Seafood:
Costco sells “better” meat options: organic chicken and organic ground beef. While these choices aren’t pastured or grass-fed (at least the label doesn’t claim to be from animals living in these conditions), I would recommend both options over conventional meat. Pastured chicken can be really expensive and hard to find my area, so a whole organic chicken from Costco is often my best option. As Costco expands the real food found in stores, I hope we will soon see grass-fed beef selections.
Along with a good selection of canned fish (sustainably sourced tuna and salmon), I also found wild-caught frozen fish: snapper, salmon, shrimp, and mahi-mahi. Fresh sustainably-source seafood can also be hard to find my area (which is crazy since I live in Florida), so I’m thankful Costco sells these options. The countries of origin are usually printed on the bags.
I haven’t been able to jump on the sardine food train yet (yuck!), but I know many real foodies love a healthy sardine. If you have an appetite for sardines, Costco is your store!
4. Dairy and Eggs:
Eggs aren’t considered dairy. I know this is often a point of confusion for many people, so while I’m lumping them into one category in this post to maximize space, please remember eggs aren’t a member of the dairy family.
Costco sells my favorite store-bought butter: Kerrygold. While Kerrygold has come under scrutiny in the past for not being 100% grass-fed (more like 90 something), I still believe this butter is the best store-bought option, and the one I purchase and use in my home. Costco also sells Kerrygold Dubliner cheese for $13 per 2 pound block. This same cheese sells at other stores in my area for $6.00 per 8-ounce block. Talk about a nice savings!
Costco also sells Cabot cheese (a brand I purchase when I don’t trust other brands), along with lots of imported cheeses (European countries often have higher standards for food production). As always, read the label before purchasing dairy products.
The best find for eggs at Costco is the Kirkland brand. These eggs are cage-free and organic. Granted, cage-free doesn’t mean free-range. If you need to purchase eggs from the store, and you don’t have a local farmer in your area who sells pastured eggs, these are a decent option.
Finally, let’s talk about milk. As we’ve seen from visiting other stores, good dairy milk can be really hard to find in conventional stores. Most organic dairy milk is ultra-pasteurized, a practice I can’t endorse. Once again, finding a local farm or visiting a local health food store is going to be your best option for finding high-quality dairy milk.
Costco sells Silk Almond Milk (this brand doesn’t contain carrageenan) and So Delicious Coconut Beverage. If you need milk from Costco, both these milk alternatives are your best buy. Another option for a dairy-free alternative milk is to purchase the large bags of nuts from Costco and make your own nut milk.
As mentioned above, if you need to purchase milk from Costco I recommend either purchasing nuts to make homemade nut milk, or purchasing Silk Almond Milk or So Delicious Coconut Beverage. Both have minimal ingredients.
While most of the time my kids drink water, the Apple & Eve Organics Juice comes in handy for classroom parties or events where juice is requested. Of course, these are a treat and, in my opinion, should be treated as treats–used for special occasions.
Another great real food drink option at Costco is Pellegrino Sparkling Water. This brand of sparkling water can be expensive when purchased individually from a food store, but Costco offers a very affordable price! When I need something fizzy (other than kombucha), this is my go-to drink.
PS: It would be amazing if Costco started selling kombucha in bulk–hint hint, Costco!
6. Dry Goods:
Yes, you’ll find junk food at Costco, but real food options are starting to fill the aisles more and more. The manager at my local Costco estimated that 19% of his store consists of organic foods.
Costco sells a large selection of products I already purchase from other stores, at a bulk rate. For example: Maple syrup from Costco costs $14! The same size and grade maple syrup from other stores costs $20-25. It’s little savings like maple syrup that make the annual $55 membership fee (FYI: that’s a standard membership) worth the expense.
The selection of dry goods I found at Costco recently includes: organic tomatoes (canned–not sure about the BPA), virgin coconut oil, avocado oil, extra virgin olive oil (a few varieties), dried herbs (a few organic selections), sea salt (just like Real Salt), organic white sugar (perfect for kombucha), rice, raw honey, almond butter, nut and seed butter, dried fruit (read the ingredient lists), quinoa, quinoa pasta, raw nuts, dry beans, rolled oats, organic ketchup, salsa, and organic jam. I’ve listed my favorite items and some brands in the printable shopping guide.
There are also a few items pictured above which I consider to be more convenience foods. These foods come in handy when I really need some extra help in the kitchen: spaghetti sauce (a very clean ingredient list) and organic mac and cheese.
7. Beauty/Health Products and Books:
Costco sells some of the best new cookbooks on the market. And guess what?? Most of these books are real food cookbooks.
Costco offers a few DIY ingredients: hydrogen peroxide (stain remover, toilet bowl cleaner, soft scrub), rubbing alcohol (glass/window cleaner), white vinegar (surface cleaner and just about everything else!), baking soda (so many uses) and epsom salts (bath salts). You can also find some products from The Honest Co.
8. Treats and Convenience Foods:
Finally, let’s talk about the “better” processed food options. Here are a few options I found for treats/convenience foods at Costco: Squeeze fruit pouches, Stonyfield Drinkable Yogurts (these have lots of sugar so treat them as a dessert), fruit leather/strips, Lara Bars, Mary’s Gone Crackers, Kirkland’s Organic Corn Tortilla Chips, and Nature’s Path Organic Pumpkin Flax Granola. Raisins are more of a pantry item, but I’ve also included them here as a treat/snack.
My Costco Shopping Guide
Thank you so much for joining me for another shopping trip! Before we part ways, I want to leave you with a special gift–a printable shopping guide!
Click on the image below to download and print your shopping guide. I’ve found some of the brands at Costco can change frequently, so I’ve only included the brands I regularly find stocked.
Special Note: Thank you to Costco for granting us permission to come in and take photos at the Costco in our area.