Supermarket sales are tempting opportunities to stock up on groceries, and warehouse clubs such as Costco sell bulk items for low per-unit prices. Smart shoppers can set themselves up for plenty of cheap meals and "pantry shopping" when money or time is short. But no matter how appealing the prices, you waste money when you buy more food than your family will eat before it spoils, and some items have shorter shelf lives than you might think. Here are 10 foods that you can confidently buy in bulk.
GRAINS AND LEGUMES
Cheap pantry staples such as dried beans, pasta, and grains are good foods to stock up on because they keep for years. White rice, for example, can last up to 30 years with no loss of flavor or quality, according to Brigham Young University research. Repackage these items in sealed containers, to keep out moisture and bugs, and keep them in a cool, dry place.
Take note of the "use by" date and buy as many canned goods as you think you might consume before the deadline, which may be a few years out. Low-acid foods, such as tuna and soup, last much longer than acidic foods such as tomatoes and pickles (the acid eventually begins to corrode the container). The USDA warns against exposing cans to extreme temperatures and recommends discarding any dented or bulging cans.
Flour and sugar last several years if stored in airtight containers (if air can get in, so can bugs) and away from light, heat, and moisture. The exception is whole-wheat flour (the wheat germ can go rancid after a while), but even it keeps for a year or two when refrigerated. Don't stock up on baking powder or baking soda (unless you bake daily or use the latter for other purposes, such as freshening the fridge or brushing teeth). After about six months the leavening power starts to wane.
Pure vanilla is expensive, but grab a bottle when it goes on sale -- the alcohol content preserves it indefinitely. Bulk dark chocolate lasts about two years, as long as it's stored away from light and heat. It may turn gray but will be perfectly fine once it's melted.
Oils often cost a pretty penny, so stock up when they're on special. Opt for several smaller bottles rather than oversize bottles or cans. Although unopened oil keeps for two to three years, once the top is popped, it can go rancid more quickly. Keeping olive oil in the fridge can extend the life of an open bottle for at least a year. The oil might become cloudy and thick, but the taste won't be affected. With nut oils (sesame, walnut, grape seed), expect six to eight months before they start to go bad -- even in the fridge. Heat and light are the enemies, so if you must keep oil by the stove, put it into small containers that will be emptied quickly.
Nuts contain oil and, like oils, can turn rancid and taste funny. The life expectancy of nuts stored in the pantry is just a few weeks, but they last up to a year in the freezer. Processed nut butters, such as peanut butter, last longer in the pantry than nuts -- up to a year for an unopened jar and a few months after opening. Natural nut butters without preservatives have a shorter shelf life and should be stored in the fridge after opening, for up to six months.
HERBS AND SPICES
It's sometimes worthwhile to buy those giant containers of herbs and spices when you find a good deal. Dried, whole leaf herbs such as thyme, oregano, and rosemary retain their flavor for up to three years, but anything ground or powdered has a much shorter shelf life. Keep dried herbs far from light, heat, and dampness but never in the fridge, where they might absorb odors. Salt lasts indefinitely, and whole peppercorns hold their potency for a few years. Keep both away from moisture. Other whole spices, such as cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon sticks, maintain flavor for a long time but rarely go on sale.
Mustard, ketchup, horseradish, sriracha, and other condiments frequently go on sale and stay potent for at least six months after being opened. Although salad dressings and mayonnaise should be used up a little more quickly once the seal is broken, unopened bottles keep for quite a while, so buy several if storage space isn't an issue.
While most dairy products have a short shelf life, there are some you should feel free to buy in bulk and freeze. Hard, semi-hard, and aged cheeses such as cheddar, Monterey Jack, and Parmesan can be frozen successfully for up to four months if you wrap them well. It's best to grate or cook with cheese that's been frozen, rather than eat it on crackers or a sandwich. Butter freezes well and keeps for up to a year. Eggs can be frozen for up to six months, if they are scrambled lightly with a bit of salt and put into freezer containers.
FROZEN FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
When a sale hits, fill your shopping basket with frozen fruits and vegetables. Frozen veggies will keep for up to a year if the package is unopened and the freezer is kept at the proper temperature (typically, 0 degrees Fahrenheit). Most fresh fruit can also be frozen. To freeze oranges, peel and divide into sections, place in freezer containers, and cover with water. Buy fresh berries when cheap and in season, then freeze on a baking sheet and place in freezer bags. The frozen fruit should keep for at least six months.
MEAT AND FISH
If your freezer is large enough, meat and fish are ideal foods to stock up on when prices drop. Repackage them in freezer containers or bags and they'll keep for up to six months. (Note that cut-up chicken has a shorter freezer life than whole chicken.) The Department of Agriculture suggests using the freezer as short-term storage if the temperature is set higher than the recommended 0 degrees Fahrenheit; three months max.