If you go in our pantry you'll see a variety of items - everything from oat groats and wheat berries to tortilla chips and caramel-apple suckers. There's home-canned fruit, dried beans, SPAM (quit rolling your eyes!), baking supplies, quinoa, brown rice, tuna, tinned tomatoes and lots of dry spices. I get different things from different sources. In this post I want to talk about buying in bulk.
We belong to a food buying group that does orders for various items throughout the year. This is probably my most 'out there' source for savings, but it's also a major money saver for my family.
In the spring we have our 'big order' for items like grain, emergency supplies and dehydrated foods suitable for long-term storage. Summer gives us opportunities to purchase fruits and berries for eating, freezing, jams and jellies. In the fall we can order nuts, seeds, some grains and dried fruits, and each year it seems that new offerings are added.
At first we just ordered one or two items, but each time we order we try something new. Now I have a pretty long list of things that we order. Most of the items we order through the buying group are healthier choices too, although it is possible to order a 5-pound bag of chocolate chips! (I 'behaved' and bought the 5 pound bag of cocoa!)
That said, you don't have to order through a buying group. I've also made bulk purchases at health food stores and ethnic markets. If you can find a locally-owned health food store, ask about buying your favorite item by the bag. Often they will just charge you wholesale plus a small percentage, and compared to the bulk bin in the store price, it is often a much better price. Check those ethnic stores too, for excellent prices on the staple foods for the cultures that are represented.
Before you run out and buy 400 pounds of bulk foods, here are some things to consider:
1. Do we like it? This is the most important question. If you have never eaten brown rice, please buy a little at the store first and see if you like it enough to eat it often. A good deal on something you won't eat is not a good deal. My rule of thumb is that if we like it, if it's relatively easy to prepare, if it stores well and if it has some versatility (if I can come up with at least 3 ways to make/serve it), then it's a good candidate for bulk purchase. Store what you eat, and eat what you store.
2. Where will we put it? When I bring home our spring bulk order, there are boxes, bags and cans all over the living room. That is 'kinda cool' for about one day. Then, I want my living room back! We store our dry goods in the basement. I know people who store things under beds, in the backs of closets, behind the couch, even behind books on the bookshelf! Be creative and think outside the closet (hee hee) when you think about where to keep things, but remember, cool and dry...cool and dry.
3. What will we keep it in? You have to protect your investment from the critters, and really, even from oxygen. Bulk purchases that are not stored properly will not keep as long, and they may attract weevils, bugs, mice or other unwanted pests. I was able to get some gallon glass jars from a gentleman on freecycle www.freecycle.org so they didn't cost me anything. I have gathered food-grade buckets from bakeries for free as well. They come with icing or batter in them, so you have the job of bringing them home and cleaning them very well, but then you have a safe, stack-able container that is mouse and bug proof. (Make sure the rubbery 'gasket' is still intact in the lid for a proper seal.)
Check with local bakeries, delicatessens, restaurants and other places that buy foods in large quantity. Chances are that you'll find someone that is happy to save you some good containers that you can use for food storage.
If you plan to keep things very long term (more than one year) you will want to research items like oxygen absorbers and mylar bags. These are used to seal foodstuffs in an oxygen and light free environment so that it can be stored in case of emergency. There is lots of information about their use on the internet.
4. How much should we buy? Do you eat oats every morning or once a month? Does you family eat rice regularly, or is it a rare choice? Start with the things you already eat often, and then expand from there. If you are a small family (like us), sometimes the minimum bulk order is too big. Look for a family that would be interested in splitting a bulk item with you. You can both benefit from the savings that way without the worry of waste.
5. Is it really a good deal? I can buy sugar in bulk - in a great big 50 pound bag. However, if I watch the sales, I can stock up on sugar at Easter or Christmas for a much better price than the bulk price. Don't assume that the big bag is always the best deal. This is one of those places where a little math can save you buckets of money.
So, that's one strategy. If it is something you eat often, buy it in bulk for a lower cost per serving. Make sense? Leave a comment with your thoughts and questions!