Shopping Tips for Bulk Foods
Whether I'm shopping for my family's dinner, or for recipes I'll use in a pop-up restaurant charity dinner, by buying the ingredients in bulk, I can save as much as 75 percent of what it would have cost to get the same amounts in pre-packaged products.
Filling a shopping cart with items from the bulk food section of the grocery store is a key way to both cut food costs and reduce waste, since you can buy small amounts of foods that you don't need much of or don't use very often.
Measuring out 1-1/2 cups of ground ginger I'll need for a fund-raising dinner. In the regular spice aisle, buying this much ginger would cost $15.03. In the bulk section, it cost just 98 cents.
Size matters when it comes to bulk food sections. Larger bulk food sections have the largest varieties of nuts, trail mixes, rice, and sweeteners.
Spices from the bulk foods section are usually a fraction of the cost of the bottled versions found in the spice aisle. And there's often quick turnover of widely used herbs and spices like oregano and curry powder, so what you buy in bulk may be fresher.
In the pasta aisle of the grocery store, you may only find a half-dozen different shapes of noodles. But in the bulk foods section, you can find unusual varieties like kid-friendly wagon wheel pasta, cork-screw fusilli, and whole wheat shells. It's also a place to buy small amounts of pasta varieties like acini de pepe, which is great added to soups.
Common varieties of pasta like rotini sell for less in the bulk food section than they do in boxes. At WinCo Foods recently, rotini sold in bulk for 85 cents a pound but was selling in a one-pound box for $1.38. Buying the pasta in bulk saves 53 cents per pound.
The bulk food section is also a place to find inspiration. Many grocery stores have free recipes that can help home cooks get out of a cooking rut, or learn how to use a new ingredient.
Shopping the Salad Bar
Here’s one of my favorite “shopping” tips:
Often when a recipe is calling for a small amount of a fresh ingredient, like a 1/4 cup of diced onions or celery, some sliced mushrooms, a couple of tablespoons of chickpeas, etc., and that’s all you’re going to need of that ingredient for the week…you can save some trouble, money, and wasted food, by buying just the exact amount you need from the salad bar!
(If your favorite store doesn’t have one, your local hospital cafeteria probably will. Don’t cringe, it’s likely to be cleaner and more sanitary than that salad bar at your favorite restaurant, lol.)
The higher “cost per pound” is mitigated by the small amounts you’re actually buying for your recipes and the fact that you’re not paying for any waste or trim.
Plus, someone else has prepped it for you!
Tip two: most salad bars stay stocked with the same ingredients all the time. Sneak a quick picture of yours, with your phone or tablet, and save it as a reference when planning your shopping.
Always remember - food you don’t eat costs more! This is a trap that many of us fall in to, including me, and it’s the main reason I stopped buying produce at my local "Big Box" store unless I knew that I would be using it all at one time.
Let’s say I buy 4lbs of grapes at the box store for $6.00 ($1.50/lb), and they’re $1.99 per pound at the produce store. In theory, I just saved two bucks, right?
Woo-Hoo, good job me!
However, if I get through the first 2lbs, and then the grapes get pushed to the back of the fridge, or I leave for the weekend and forget about them, or I just eat them slower than I thought I would, and the next thing I know, my beautiful bargain grapes have grown soft and fuzzy.
I paid $1.50 a pound for the whole container, but I paid $3.00 a pound for the grapes that I actually ate. This means I paid 33% more for the bulk container than I would have by just buying a pound or two at the produce store!
Have a Plan, Work the Plan!
The most important element of saving money with bulk foods is to have a plan!
Plan your meals and snacks, before you shop (or let us do it for you), and stick to that plan! Food waste is at epidemic proportions in America, driving up the cost of our groceries, wasting our resources, and filling our landfills. Be part of the solution.
And finally, make a list…and stick to it! The bulk food section is a cornucopia of new ingredients, and the imaginative home chef can quickly fill their basket (and empty their wallet) in the excitement of trying new things. Guilty as charged! The most proactive step you can take to keep your inner “Iron Chef” on a leash, is knowing what you’re going to buy before you walk through the doors, and buy ONLY what’s on your list.
Am I saying don’t experiment with new foods? Of course I’m not!
I’m a sucker for a new shape of pasta, a variety of beans I’ve never tried, or some exotic style of rice, and I encourage you to be as well. BUT (and I always have a big butt…) make them part of your plan!
When I find something that’s looks interesting, and that I want to try, I jot a note down on my list to add it to my NEXT shopping trip.
- I’ll have a chance to research the item, and learn more about it, and if the price a good value.
- I’ll have a chance to make sure I have ROOM for it at home.
- I can find a recipe or two using it and make it part of my PLAN.
- I stay on budget.
By the way, go online and find a (free) printable grocery shopping list in PDF, or use mine (here). Print a few copies and stick them to the fridge so you can make a quick note when you find you’re running low, or are out of one of you staples.
So, use bulk foods to shop wisely and save money, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the bulk food section is always the golden ticket to frugality.
The savvy home chef knows how to use their tools, and when to (or not to.)
Bulk shopping can be a great way to save money on our food budgets, or they can be a cupboard (and landfill) stuffing money pit.
It’s up to us.