BULK FOOD BLITZ
Buying from bulk bins is an easy way to save at the supermarket. These days bulk bins contain an ever wider array of goods, from classic granolas, dry beans, and grains to exotic dried fruits, cooking oils, and even sundries such as body lotion and shampoo. Follow these tips to maximize bulk-bin savings.
DO THE MATH
The whole point of bulk-bin shopping, which eliminates packaging costs, is to get a better deal. Look at unit prices and compare them with products on the shelf. While it's rare, sometimes bulk bin items are more expensive.
SHOP AT A BUSY STORE
Busy stores have the most turnover, which means bulk-bin items are more likely to be fresh. This is especially important with less-popular items that may not move as quickly.
CHECK FOR FRESHNESS
Most bulk bins have a strict no-sampling policy, so shoppers must rely on smell and sight to check for signs of spoilage. If you get a whiff of something funky, or see discoloration, it's best to move on.
EXCHANGE SPOILED GOODS
Sometimes shoppers get home only to discover that a 10-pound bag of nuts is rancid. Don't be afraid to bring the goods back to the store with the dated receipt and ask for store credit or an exchange.
WRITE CODES ON CONTAINERS
Bag contents can look similar to a rushed checkout clerk, so be sure to look for item codes and write them down to avoid paying more at the register.
BRING A PEN OR PENCIL
Don't count on the store to provide writing tools to record item codes and other useful information. Those little pencils are easily lost. Bring your own to streamline the experience.
LEAVE THE KIDS AT HOME
Children can get overly excited in bulk sections -- especially those with candy bins. Aside from likely putting their hands in places they don't belong, they're likely to beg for unnecessary items and increase the overall cost.
TRY NEW THINGS
They say variety is the spice of life, and bulk bins are full of new smells, textures, and flavors to try. Tasting new things could reveal less-expensive alternatives to your staples.
TEST BEFORE BUYING IN BULK
It's never a good idea to stock up on something if you don't know you like it. Upon finding a new product, buy a small amount to sample at home before buying a lot that might go unused.
SCOPE OUT STORAGE SPACE FIRST
Before stocking up, map out storage options. How many items will have to be refrigerated or frozen? Are there enough buckets and jars for dry goods? Is there enough space in the pantry?
STORE IN REASONABLE PORTIONS
Instead of lugging a giant bag out of storage whenever you need just a cup or two of flour or beans, divide bulk items into portions about the size of a normal package. Store these individually wrapped portions together in a large container for neat and easy organization and increased freshness.
USE SPICE JARS
Likewise, it's not very convenient to measure a teaspoon of spice out of a large bulk bag, and spices lose their pungency if not they're used. Keep some low-cost, high-quality spices near with a set of spice jars ($23 at Bed, Bath & Beyond).
USE SCOOPS AT HOME
Bulk bins are set up with convenient scoops. Recreate this setup at home to encourage use of the products you buy in large quantities. A set of four scoops is $9 on Amazon.
USE ZIPPER BAGS FOR LIQUIDS AND FREEZING
Zip-top bags are handy for portioning out bulk items to store in the fridge or freezer. They can be rinsed, dried, and reused.
USE PLASTIC BAGS FOR DRY STORAGE
Unless a zip-top is absolutely necessary, use simple plastic bags sealed with a twist-tie or rubber band to portion out dry bulk items into smaller, more manageable amounts. They cost less than $3 for 100 at Walmart.
USE GLASS JARS FOR SAFETY
Nothing protects food from the elements -- including leaching chemicals -- better than glass jars with airtight, waterproof seals. Buy them with lids as a one-time investment for less than $1 each at Target, or wash out and reuse jars already in the home.
BUY A VACUUM SEALER
Decent vacuum sealers for home use start at less than $80 on Amazon and bag refills cost about 30 cents each. The machine could pay for itself within months.
Knowing what's inside containers will reduce the time it takes to find what's needed and the risk of buying double. Handy labels are $5 at Bed, Bath & Beyond for a pack of 32, although a marker and some masking tape also work well. Be sure to include the date.
Keep foods organized in long- and short-term storage containers, storing like with like. For example, different varieties of individually packaged beans can go in one larger bean container, spices in another, and grains in another. This will help you find what you're looking for and avoid buying something you already have.
Keeping things fresh and exciting is key to working through a large stash of bulk items. Rotate base grains, dried goods, and spices to avoid getting sick of the same flavors and textures.
SNAPSHOT INFO ON THE BIN
Take a quick picture of useful information posted on the bin, such as the exact product name and nutritional details, so you can refer back later when making labels. Look for recipes and rebates, too.
USE THE FREEZER
A freezer allows bulk buying of items that would otherwise spoil quickly, such as nuts, seeds, and legumes that contain a lot of fat. Portion them out into small amounts to eat right away and keep the surplus frozen.
USE THE BASEMENT
A basement is a natural cellar, with a cool temperature and not a ton of natural light -- ideal for food storage. Dedicate a small area of the basement to bulk food and load it with stackable, labeled containers.
USE THE GARAGE
The garage can be handy for storage, but keep items off the floor, even when in airtight containers, and look for a spot that doesn't get a lot of natural light. A few shelves in the corner can serve as an extra pantry.
OPT FOR NONPERISHABLE FOODS
Most bulk bin items are nonperishable, but not all. Watch out: Some dried fruits and candies attract fruit flies and can give off moisture with temperature fluctuations. Stick to foods such as oats, flour, and beans when buying in big quantities to avoid throwing out a portion of your purchase.
DON'T FORGET NUT BUTTERS
Ground-to-order nut butters -- packed with nutrition and cheaper (by unit price) than prepackaged, chemically stabilized versions -- are a popular addition to grocery store bulk sections and typically available to buy in smaller containers.
USE THE FRIDGE
A few bulk-bin items, such as chocolate, dried fruits, and certain flours, including whole wheat, are somewhere between perishable and nonperishable. Take advantage of the lower price per unit and refrigerate them to extend shelf life.
CONSIDER A SECOND FRIDGE OR FREEZER
Large families and others who go through a lot of bulk goods may want to invest in a second refrigerator or freezer. It doesn't need fancy features -- just the ability to keep a stable, cool temperature.
BRING YOUR OWN BAGS
A bulk haul demands a few sturdy shopping bags, and as more stores charge for plastic or paper, the costs add up. Bring a few good shopping totes and avoid extra charges.
BRING YOUR OWN CONTAINERS
Whether stocking up on dried grains, pasta, or even shampoo, avoid the potential cost of using store-provided containers, which can be considerable. Bring your own containers, rinsed for reuse.
ACCOUNT FOR CONTAINER WEIGHT
Be sure to calculate the tare weight, or the weight of the empty container, to subtract it from the total and pay only for the product. Writing the tare weight on a container in permanent marker is a good way to remember.
DOUBLE-BAG FLOUR AND SUGAR
To prevent spilling at the bins or on the way home from the store, use double bags for potentially messy items such as flour and sugar.
It's easy to get caught up in great deals and go a little overboard. Stick to reasonable quantities. As a general rule, don't buy more than your family is likely to consume in four to six months.
DON'T MINGLE FOODS IN THE STORE
A store clerk is liable to ring up a bag of more than one type of bulk food based on the higher-priced item -- a few cashews in a bag of peanuts could do it -- so keep foods apart.
STAGGER BULK BUYING
If you shop for most of your staples in bulk, there may not be room in the budget to buy everything at once. Although the price per unit is typically lower, the one-time cost of buying in bulk is higher than the price of a normal size package. Buy some things one month and others the next month to spread out the costs.
MAKE IT A GROUP PURCHASE
If a few people -- neighbors, friends, or family -- go in on bulk deals and split the goods and the costs, everybody wins.
LOOK FOR OILS AND VINEGARS
It's becoming more common to find cooking and finishing oils and vinegars in bulk sections. They can be better deals by unit price than packaged versions.
AVOID PREPARED FOODS
Prepared foods consistently cost more than raw materials, and this often applies to bulk foods, too. Instead of stocking up on trail mix, for example, buy the elements separately and mix them at home.
STAY AWAY FROM SWEETS
Sweets and candy tend to cost a little more than whole, natural foods, and they can be hard to stop eating once you start. Best to avoid them altogether rather than spend more on empty calories.
LOOK FOR LOOSE-LEAF TEAS
Tea is an affordable everyday indulgence. Make it even more so by buying in bulk, rather than buying a package of individual bags, and use a tea ball at home to make ready-to-drink brewed tea.
ASK ABOUT SPECIALTY ITEMS
Many stores will happily order a new product if requested. If a bulk grocer has run out or doesn't stock something you want in bulk, ask for it.
CONSIDER BATH AND CLEANING PRODUCTS, TOO
Non-food items such as dish soap, laundry detergent, shampoo, and body wash are often sold in bulk sections, too, at lower prices per unit and a better deal for consumers.
KEEP TRACK OF WHAT YOU CONSUME
Jotting down what's consumed daily or weekly can help clarify how much to buy and when. This can also help families find savings and adjust a budget.
BUY SMALL AMOUNTS OF SPICES
If a new recipe calls for a spice you don't typically keep in the cupboard, head for the bulk bins instead of buying a whole jar. That way the rest doesn't go to waste if you don't like the flavor.
KEEP RECORDS OF UNIT PRICES
Periodically check to see if prices on go-to buys have gone up or down. Keep a record of unit prices to make sure you are not gradually spending more on the same item.
ASK ABOUT SPECIAL PROMOTIONS
Many stores offer deals that may not be prominently advertised, including discounts on buying over a certain weight from the bulk section. Have a quick chat with a manager to get the inside scoop.
Bulk foods are usually good deals already, but shoppers can save even more by combining the savings with store coupons offered from time to time.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF BULK FOODS WEEK
One week every October is set aside as Bulk Foods Week. Some 1,600 stores nationwide were expected to take part last year, some with special discounts -- making the week a good time to schedule a trip to the bins.