Kale, Mac and Cheese, and Scallops: Grocery Shopping at Trader Joe’s with a Vida Fitness Dietitian

"There's usually a lot less cheese."

Addie Claire Merletti grabs a cart and sets off on one of her weekly grocery shopping trips. We’re at the Trader Joe’s on 14th Street, Northwest, and Vida Fitness’s head dietitian has agreed to let us tag along to see what she actually tosses into her cart. Refreshingly, Merletti doesn’t follow any specific eating plan. She does, however, track her food using the MyFitnessPal app—which she also encourages her roster of 60 clients to use—and aims for 41 percent of her intake coming from carbs, 33 percent from protein, and 26 percent from fat (more on math later).

But, before we proceed, some practical advice: “What works for me will likely not work for you,” she says. “If we all ate the same and worked out the same, we would still look different.”

Ok, let’s get shopping.

First thing’s first: the list, which Merletti hand-writes rather than stores in her phone, “because it’s a little easier to organize by section of the store for me, and because any time I take out my phone I get distracted and it makes it take longer,” she says.

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The first stop is the coffee section, where Merletti typically goes for beans from a single source. Today’s pick from Trader Joe’s ever-changing java selection is small-lot coffee from Cameroon; the name indicates a limited number of bags is set aside from a single farm’s production and should brew a tastier cup. (The 14th Street coffee grinder is a bit of a trickster. Edmond saves the day.)


Merletti had recently purchased a locally grown delicata squash. “When I’m really hungry, I buy things I don’t know what to do with and Google it later,” she says of the impulse buy. She grabs baby kale, pomegranate, and goat cheese to try out a new squash salad recipe.


Considering the whole dietitian thing, Merletti’s purchase of Trader Joe’s Cinnamon Squares cereal might come as a surprise. She eats it for fuel before morning workouts, pairing it with half a cup of milk for an easy eight grams of protein. If she’s running low on carbs around 3 PM, she’ll have a bowl then as well.

At halftime of our Trader Joe’s trek, Merletti’s cart also has potatoes (sweet for gnocchi, red to go as a side with chicken hot dogs) and light string cheese. While she eats cheese once a day, she goes for light options when she can, explaining that she was diagnosed with high cholesterol when she was eight years old (called familial hypercholesterolemia, which is inherited).


Another surprise: Reduced Guilt Macaroni and Cheese, which Merletti calls a “good hack” for most people. “This has six grams of fat, 15 grams of protein, and 40 grams of carbohydrates. With most of my clients, I have them eating around the same percentage of calories from fat as calories from protein. Since protein has four calories per gram, a carb has four calories per gram, and fat has nine calories per gram, if you want to have the same percentage of your calories coming from protein as calories from fat, you have to eat basically twice the grams of protein in a day as you do fat for it to match,” says Merletti (you were warned about a math lesson). “So, it’s helpful when meals like this are already set up that way. If I have a vegetarian client that wants to eat frozen food, this is pretty great. Not quite enough calories for most people, but if you eat it with something else, like their [Trader Joe’s] soy chorizo—let’s say you’ve worked out and sweated a lot so you can afford all that sodium—it’s not bad.”

“Carolina sauce for a Carolina girl. First ingredient is cane sugar. And I’m gonna buy it. ’Cause it’s real good.” This Carolina Gold Barbeque Sauce will get dumped in a Crock Pot with chicken breasts and thighs, which Merletti will shred and use to top that frozen mac and cheese. “Is this the healthiest thing? No. But it’s far healthier than Federalist Pig.” Merletti uses the handy “recipe” option in MyFitnessPal to determine nutrition facts per serving, which can be used for pretty much any recipe, either added manually or imported directly from the web.


For recipes that call for wine, Merletti recommends buying a can of wine instead of a bottle. If you’re trying to cut back on drinking, you won’t be tempted to have a glass or two from the bottle as you cook, and also don’t risk the leftover wine going bad if you don’t intend on polishing it off. Merletti follows this recipe for seared scallops in a butter-wine-tarragon sauce, but opts for half the butter and double the wine, and adds lemon juice.

All told, Merletti spent around $100 on five different meals that will make three servings each for a total of 15 meals that she’ll share with her boyfriend. That’s some seriously good bargain eating.

And when I point out that cheese accounts for nearly a quarter of items on the receipt (ricotta, shaved Parmesan, goat, and string), Merletti clarifies: “There’s usually a lot less cheese.”

Kim Olsen

Kim Olsen ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in Alexandria.