Grocery shopping as an eco-conscious person can be immensely frustrating for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that food packaging, especially in supermarkets and large grocery stores can be ridiculously excessive. Wrapping each individual piece of fruit? Single serving snack containers? Obviously we understand such packaging for products like pudding, but for certain snack foods such as pretzels or kale chips, it seems entirely superfluous and unnecessary. In addition to all that packaging, there's concern for BPA or other toxins in cans and plastic.
Buying in bulk allows you to select certain foods and products that your family loves and purchase them in large amounts -- which equates to a lot less packaging, waste, and oftentimes less money spent on groceries. Here are 6 simple and cost-effective tips for buying in bulk.
1. Collect reusable glass containers for storing food
It’s worth the investment to purchase some sturdy, glass containers for storing your bulk food items since you probably don’t want to store your food in plastic bags for months. You can also use empty canning jars for an affordable option, or simply save and wash the glass jars you buy that contain food products such as applesauce. Storing food in glass containers also keeps it fresher for a longer period of time.
If you bring in your own bulk bags or containers, most stores will weigh the containers themselves and then deduct that weight from the final weight of the food product you’re purchasing. There are also many products available now designed for temporarily storing or carrying bulk items. If you happen to forget your containers or choose not to bring them to the store, just use the plastic bag at the store and then fill your reusable containers when you get home. We recycle any plastic bags that come into our house or repurpose them to hold perishables from the farmer’s market.
2. Pick and Choose Your Bulk Goods
Take stock of what your family often buys and eats. Some foods like pasta or grains can be kept for long periods of time (even years), so buying in bulk is cost-effective. Also, keep in mind the changing tastes of your kids. As any parent can attest, especially when it comes to toddlers, today’s favorite food may be on tomorrow’s “no way” list, so try to buy foods that multiple family members will eat on a regular basis. Also make sure you are not sacrificing quality for price. Some brands may be cheaper because they have fewer quality ingredients in them. Take a moment to read the labels and ingredients.
3. Don’t Go Overboard
Buying in bulk is definitely cost effective (You’ll be amazed if you compare organic brown rice by the pound in the bulk section with its prepackaged counterpart!), but choose the amounts carefully. Some products like flours or nuts spoil within months, so be careful not to buy more than you can consume in that time period of time. Wasting food is never good for your wallet or the planet! If you are trying out a new-to-your-family grain or prepared bulk item such as granola, try a smaller amount at first before buying three pounds of it.
4. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask About the Quality
Most grocery stores that have bulk bins follow regular protocols for cleaning them and organizing them. For big stores, like Whole Foods, turnover is pretty quick, and employees are constantly refreshing the bulk bins. If you are concerned, especially with more exotic, less common products, don’t be afraid to ask how often the bins are cleaned. You certainly don’t want to get home with some rancid dried fruit for example. If you have allergies or food sensitivities, it’s also a good idea to ask if the products inside the bins are ever switched, causing cross-contamination.
5. Make Room for Storage
When we see a good deal on nuts, we go, well, nuts for them since they are often pretty expensive. We keep our nuts stored in the fridge so that they will last longer. Some people even keep nuts and flours in the freezer to extend their freshness. Oils can be kept longer in darker glass containers than clear ones since exposure to light affects their quality. Another option is to turn some bulk items into jams, preserves, or pickles. When fruit like blueberries or strawberries come into season, we ask our favorite farmer’s market vendors if we can buy flats of them (the farmer’s market equivalent to buying in bulk). We then set aside some time to freeze these delicious and healthy treats or make them into longer-lasting foods such as fruit jam or fruit-infused vinegars.
6. Put Your Bulk Ingredients into Action!
Buying in bulk will help you keep lots of delicious food on hand in your house, which in addition to saving you money, will also save you the time and the gasoline it would require to drive to the store. Now that you’ve got your goodies home, put them into action.
Most of our meals revolve around pairing seasonal veggies with a vegetarian protein (like tofu, tempeh, or beans) and then serving it with whole grains in the form of brown rice, whole wheat or gluten-free pasta, or quinoa. Buying in bulk is great for us because we go through quite a bit of whole grains. I like to make one or two whole grain salads a week that can be served warm or refrigerated. Try a quinoa salad with shredded carrots, olives, nuts, capers, and raisins and topped with a vinaigrette. Or experiment with an orzo salad with roasted veggies. Or you can simply start by incorporating bulk foods into your regular food routine.