Budget Kitchen Fundamentals: Buy it in Bulk

As promised, here is the first installment of our series of basic tips on how to make your meals cheaper without sacrificing the quality of food you’re eating. Like many of the skills (well, maybe more like practices – not too much real skill involved here) we employ, this post focuses on spending your time instead of your money to put together good, healthy meals. The idea here is to share ideas, and not just our ideas, so if anybody out there has some input or a response to these suggestions, let fly.

The idea, as you can glean from the title, is buying foods in bulk whenever possible. I’m not talking about a five gallon bucket of mayo from Sam’s Club…though I guess that’s a pretty economical purchace if your household has substantial mayonaisse “needs”. Anyway, what I’m talking about is buying unpackaged staples, such as salt, sugar, grains, tea, honey, nuts, beans, etc. by weight.

Why is this cheaper? Without doing any substantial research on the question, my sense is that buying in bulk means that you are paying only for the food itself and some markup for transport, etc., but probably not for packaging, advertising, or branding. For example, at our coop you can get a pound of rolled oats for $1.09. At Walgreens (online at least) an 18-ounce canistar goes for $2.50, which comes to about $2.22/lb.

If you’re a tea drinker, the savings can be even more dramatic. We got a bag of spearamint leaves (which is all you need for mint herbal tea) for $.28. The bag is .03 pounds, which is about the size of half a baseball – easily enough to make at least 20 cups of tea. I looked online at prices for Celestial Seasonings Magic Mint Tea and found prices of $1.50 to $3.49 for boxes of 20 teabags. So, that’s 7 to 17 cents a cup, as opposed to 1.4 cents a cup for the bulk. Taking into account an initial investment of two bucks for a cheap-o tea strainer, you’ll saving money in no time.

Aside from the economic benefits of shopping in bulk for staples, there is also the environmental impact inherrent in buying unpackaged food. All you have to do is take some reuseable bags to the store* and you do away with all the cardboard/paper/plasic trash that comes with needlessly packaged food.

The biggest challenge for buying bulk is probably trying to find a place that sells bulk food. Bulk sales are more and more common in your more helth-food-type grocery stores. Maybe they even sell bulk in Whole Foods, but since stores like that aren’t the most economic places to shop, your savings might not be all that substantial (of course, if you’re shopping at Whole Foods all the time anyway, buying bulk there is probably a good alternative). If you simply can’t find a store that sells bulk, you could probably implement a Bulk Food Lite ™ regimen – buy large sizes of basic dry goods like rice, dried beans, flour, and so on. You’ll probably pay less by weight and have less packaging. This will be a small step toward frugality and sustainability, but it’s really not as good as real bulk groceries.

*For the most part, I have no desire to endorse particular brands or products on this site, and I have an inherrent distrust for anything with an “As Seen on TV!” label. However. I have to say that Debbie Meyer’s Green Bags are a truly worthwhile investment. They’re totally reusable and I swear they do keep produce fresh longer. When you’re on a budget, losing three bucks in spoiled broccoli can be a real bummer. Needless to say they’re good for bulk dry goods too.

5 Comments on “Budget Kitchen Fundamentals: Buy it in Bulk”

  1. Alison says:

    Sigh, I wish. I have a severe nut allergy, and every store I know of uses the scoops and bins for nuts and then other things. As a result, have bad (and scary!) reactions to things purchased in bulk so stick to buying pre-packaged everything. One idea for bulk stores everywhere would be to have designated nut bins/scoops and keep the other ones nut free! Maybe worth exploring at your coop? 🙂 Great blog!

  2. P says:

    Now that is something I didn’t think of. Cross-contamination of foodstuffs is definitely an issue with bulk bins. The only solution I could think of would be to see if one of your bulk-friendly stores would be willing to let you take your stuff straight from whatever large container they receive it in, rather than from the individual bins where they store it for the customers.

    I know that our coop has signs on at least some of the bulk bins warning of the possible presence of nut residue (I wish I was mature enough not to snicker while I type that), but I’m not sure how much bin trading goes on in general.

    Glad you like the blog!

  3. I just bought a bunch of stuff at Sahadi’s, on Atlantic Ave., which is half bulk food items. .80/lb for Oats! In addition to the spices, coffee, nuts, seeds & flour are the treat bins. Non-pareils and swedish fish are just a few of what they have! I truly love it there.

  4. P says:

    Absolutely. I’m a sucker for the bulk wasabi cri-cri (wasabi-coated peanuts), not to mention those little pickled eggplants. .80/lb for oats? Really? That’s cheaper than the co-op. Maybe the extra .29/lb goes toward getting it organic? I dunno.

    Anyway, when you stop by Sahadi’s, make sure to stop by at the Damascus Bakery next door. They’ve got the best fresh baked pita in Brooklyn, and cheap to boot.

  5. Kathie says:

    In the western suburbs of Philadelphia there is the Head Nut at Wynnewood and Haverford Roads in Ardmore. They have a lot of bulk items. I buy most of my spices there and they are a lot cheaper. Additionally, I suspect that the bulk items are fresher because there is a lot of turnover because this place is very busy. Those with nut allergies should probably avoid it though.

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