Buying foods in bulk is a great thing you can do for the environment (and your pocketbook!). Among the many eco benefits: you’ll reduce the amount of packaging and the raw materials and resources needed to manufacture it; you’ll cut down on packaging trash sent to the landfill; and you can potentially reduce the number of car trips you take to the supermarket. And as for your wallet, organic bulk foods cost as much as 89 percent less than their packaged counterparts, according to the Bulk Is Green Council.
But none of these benefits matter if you’re flummoxed by the very idea of buying, storing, and using bulk foods. After all, those bins and self-labeling instructions can be intimidating, and getting the giant-sized containers at the warehouse club might seem a bit daunting for, say, a household of two. If you’re a newbie to bulk shopping, use these tips to get yourself more comfortable with bulk shopping.
1. Invest in reusable storage containers. For bulk-bin items, buy a set of glass or BPA-free plastic containers to store your purchases. Square canisters are more space-efficient than round ones since they can be put flush next to each other, and stackable containers are also advantageous. I like erasable food storage labels for writing the contents and the date. I also bought a set of scoops so that I could keep one in each container for easy removal with little contamination .
2. Buy only what you need. For foods that can deteriorate, be sure to buy just the quantities that you’ll be able to use within, say, a few months, so that it’ll be at its optimal quality. Foods with a high protein content, like whole wheat flour, quinoa, and nuts, can go rancid after awhile. According to the Whole Grains Council, whole grain flours and meals have a shelf life of 1 to 3 months when kept in a cool, dry environment, while intact grains, such as brown rice, will last a bit long, up to 6 months. You can freeze these items to double their longevity.
3. Familiarize yourself with your store’s bulk system. Retailers with bulk bins have different ways of ringing up purchases. Some allow you to bring your own containers to refill (especially for liquids, such as oil or dish soap); they will subtract the weight of the container so that you’re only paying for its contents. Some require the shopper to write a tag or label for their bags of bulk items that includes a coded number, while others might have a self-service scale that prints out a label with weight and contents. If there is no explanatory signage, stand back and observe some of the regular shoppers, or ask a salesperson to show you the drill.
4. Be cautious with “deals.” If you’re bulk shopping at a warehouse club, don’t get carried away by the good deals on big packages. Don’t buy something that you don’t usually eat, just because it’s a great price, and don’t buy more than you’ll be able to eat before it goes bad. If there’s a deal that you simply cannot pass up, consider splitting with a friend. Also, keep in mind that some of the bulk items at warehouse clubs are simply regular-sized packages bundled together with even more packaging, which defeats the environmental purpose in buying in bulk. Instead, seek out foods that are in one large container. Just make sure it’s something that you have room for in your pantry!
5. Portion big quantities. A warehouse club is a good place to buy bulk meat and seafood, as long as you know what to do with it once you get that 4-pound package of salmon home! Costco, for instance, has a strong sustainability mission in place and carries a good selection of organic and grass-fed meat, and it chooses its seafood with sustainability guidelines developed with the World Wildlife Federation. When you get your meat home, divide it up right away into the quantities that you’re most likely to need (use a scale for accuracy), package it in either plastic wrap or, to be really green, reusable silicone freezer bags, label it with the contents, date, and quantity, and put it right in the freezer. For dry goods, if you find those giant boxes or bags unmanageable, you can pour a smaller amount into canisters that will fit in your pantry, and store that large package in a cool, dry area until you need to replenish your canister.