Buying Food and Groceries in Bulk
“Bulk”. It’s a small word, but it can have a big impact on your household’s shopping budget when used wisely. Buying groceries in bulk is a strategy based on the theory that the more product you purchase at one time, the more affordable the per serving, or per unit, cost should be. This applies to quantities of both, big purchases (such as buying in volume at a warehouse store) and small purchases (buying a fraction of a unit from the bulk bins at a grocery store). We’ll look at each of these in detail – but first, let’s agree on the most important rule of “value”:
Price is irrelevant if you’re not going to use the product.
Sure it might seem like the deal of a lifetime to buy six pounds of dried lentils for a few bucks, but if those beans are just going to sit in the back of your pantry for years, then those dollars could’ve been better spent on items you’ll actually use and enjoy. So as we set out to stretch our shopping dollars as far as possible, whenever possible, try to only buy items you’ll actually use within the next couple of months.
The Best Way to Buy Groceries and Food in Bulk at the Warehouse Store
There’s a reason why warehouse stores are so popular – walking into one feels like an event. The aisles are usually piled to the ceiling with deals, and you never know what savings opportunities are waiting around every corner. The prices often seem too good to be true for the volume, and there’s a comfort knowing you can take a lot of staples off your weekly shopping list by stocking up with a monthly run instead.
What is the best way to shop at Costco or Sam’s Club to save money?
Everything you’ll consider buying at a warehouse store falls into two basic categories:
- Items on your shopping list – This includes pantry staples and crowd pleasers in your family’s diet.
- Surprise deals – You may not have gone the store planning a Taco Tuesday, but when you see the deals on chicken, salsas, and tortillas – it’s easy to meal plan on the spot.
Tips to Buying Non-Perishables in Bulk
Non-perishable staples are among the most popular items in the warehouse store. To get the best deal compare the cost per unit between a warehouse price and grocery store price, then factor in the convenience of buying a lot at once. Let’s look at the granddaddy of volume purchases – toilet paper. 36 rolls for $31.99 seems like a great deal – but is it? Well, it helps to compare this deal with prices you’re used to seeing at your local grocery store. Typically, groceries sell in smaller lots – in this case 4 to 12 rolls versus 36 or even 100. Then, you need to consider the apples-to-apples comparison of sheet count and ply (single or double). One huge tip is to know what you’re spending at the grocery store on items to see if it makes sense to buy in volume.
Ultra soft 2ply Toilet Paper Comparison:
(actual prices listed August 26, 2022)
231 2ply sheets per roll
$.0038 cost per sheet
- In this example it’s actually cheaper to buy fewer rolls at the grocery store, but only about $1 cheaper per 1000 sheets.
- Beyond the price, there’s the convenience of not having to buy toilet paper every time you’re at the grocery store – that may be worth paying a little bit extra to buy in volume.
- Finally there’s the consideration of item quality. While you might save even more than the above comparison on bargain toilet paper, if you’re miserable using it, you might want to look for the best possible deal on a brand you’ll actually enjoy.
Tips to Buy Perishables in Bulk
If you’re buying meats, fruits, vegetables, or a party-sized tray of prepared foods, make a plan to both serve and preserve the day you buy it. When considering larger items, ask yourself, “do we have room for this in the fridge?” If so, you can plan on serving it that evening or the next evening for dinner – before dividing up leftovers into serving-sized portions to freeze. If you don’t have space in the fridge, plan on dividing up the food as soon as you get home.
- Sandwich and freezer bags are flexible and maximize freezer storage space.
- Smaller plastic storage containers can also help, especially with foods that contain gravy or other liquids.
- Be sure to label each item – what food is within and when you packaged it – because once frozen, many foods begin to resemble each other. Make note if the food is raw (like chicken) or precooked – this can help family members grab and go as needed.
It’s tempting to buy fruits at the peak of their freshness, in the height of the season – just be prepared to enjoy them quickly or to freeze them appropriately. When making this decision, think about how you plan on enjoying the fruit down the line:
- As a dried fruit snack
- In individual serving sizes or in salads/Jello
- As pie filling or jelly and jam preserves
From the moment the fruit is picked, a chemical decomposition process is set into high gear. Most fruit will quickly transition from unripe to perfectly ripe to spoiled in a matter of days. You can stop or slow this process by properly rinsing, in some cases blanching (a brief dip into boiling water), and using sugar or preservatives to seal the fruit before you freeze. The University of Minnesota provides great fresh fruit freezing tips.
In many cases, you’re best off buying fresh fruit in smaller quantities for immediate consumption and frozen fruit by volume for long-term needs. Check the vast frozen foods section at your warehouse store to find the best deals on frozen fruit.
Much like fruit, fresh vegetables will need to be blanched (by steam or boiling water) before you freeze them. This will preserve freshness and color and sterilize the food before freezing. The National Center for Home Food Preservation offers a free guide to help you preserve veggies.
How To Save Money on Food in the Bulk Bin Aisle
Single use packaging is one of the largest contributors to our nation’s landfills and litter problem, unfortunately. By encouraging shoppers to bring their own reusable containers to the store, bulk bin sections are a great way to reduce both environmental waste and food waste. Many bulk products also taste better because they’re less reliant on preservatives to remain fresh. Best of all, you only buy what you need – which is especially attractive for recipes that only require a pinch of a rarely used spice.
Before you dive into the bulk bins – which is a metaphor, as sanitary practices are an essential component of the bulk bin ecosystem – keep these tips in mind for success:
- Unlike a book, you can judge a bulk bin by its cover – does the entire bulk section look clean, sanitary, and well-tended to?
- You want to buy from a store that moves high volume, not one where the product has been aging in place for weeks if not more. Do buy from bulk specialty stores – steer clear of clearance stores, or groceries that do little to no bulk business.
- Before you shop, ensure your containers are clean and sanitized – if you don’t, this will affect the quality of the food you bring home and may compromise other foods in the bulk section.
- Ask an attendant to pre-weigh your container, so you only pay for what you’re buying.
- No matter how tempting – don’t use your fingers to pull products or sneak a sample – if you want to try before you buy, simply ask an attendant for help.
Beyond sample requests, don’t be afraid to ask for help, attendants will happily answer your questions.
What are the best products to buy from Bulk Bins?
“The best items to buy in bulk include beans, lentils, grains like quinoa and rice. These are sturdy ingredients that don’t spoil or go rancid easily,” says registered dietician Michelle Babb, founder of Eat Play Be and author of many top-selling anti-inflammatory cookbooks, including the new Mastering Mindful Eating. “I also recommend buying herbs in bulk so that you can purchase smaller amounts to use in recipes or to try new flavors without having to invest in full containers.”
In an article for KUOW, Christina Scheuer talks about baking goods and spices, items you typically need very specific amounts, at very specific times, unless baking is a regular passtime. She also fins the added flavor benefit of bulk spices, saying, “My husband, our household spice expert, agrees. ‘Paprika from the bulk section has a deep rich flavor, and I use it in everything,’ he said. ‘Paprika from a jar tastes like chalk and really only is useful for sprinkling on deviled eggs.’”
What to Avoid in Bulk Bins
“Buying nuts and seeds from bulk bins is a little more risky, because you don’t know how long they have been stored in the bins and the unsaturated fats in nuts and seeds can oxidize and go rancid,” says Babb. “Just make sure the store rotates their bins regularly if you’re choosing to buy more perishable ingredients from their bulk bins.”
- Dried Fruit – If a store sells dried cranberries, apricots, mangoes, and trail mixes in volume, meaning they refill their bins daily at the least, you’ll be fine. These foods can spoil quickly and attract fruit flies.
- Be careful with bulk bins that have a scoop and pop-off lid – These are more open to contamination than sealed bins that dispense product without scoops.