If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you know that I have a special place in my heart for bulk foods. There is good reason for that, and today I’d like to explore it a bit more for the next post in our Eating on a Healthy Budget Series.
Sometimes, the term “bulk foods” can be misguiding. So let me be clear what I’m talking about…
I am referring to food sold in bulk bins, NOT buying bulky amounts of food from your club warehouse store.
Buying your food in bulk can be an often-overlooked way to save on basic and specialty ingredients. I would think the bulk section would be of particular interest if you are following a gluten-free diet (they offer a range of flours & gluten-free grains), raw foods diet (nuts & seeds), vegetarian/vegan diet (TVP, beans, grains), or are just working to cook more from scratch using whole ingredients.
Where to find Bulk Foods
You can find bulk food at many grocery stores. You might have wandered right past this section before not knowing the gems that lay undiscovered there! Here are a few places that sell bulk foods…
Whole Foods Market. They offer a fabulous selection of whole grains, dried fruits, and of particular note, spices. They have spices you don’t tend to find in bulk elsewhere. Last time I bought bulk there, I picked up a small portion of garam masala. They also offer many organic choices in bulk.
Fred Meyer. Both Fred Meyer and QFC (Kroger stores) have a small area for bulk spices like the one pictured above. I almost NEVER buy spices in the little bottles anymore. Once you discover the cost savings of buying them as you need them in bulk, you will have a hard time going back! Fred Meyer also has a decent section of bulk in their Nutritional department. Watch for sales on bulk nuts, in particular. This can be a great way to save if you buy a lot of almonds & cashews (for my raw foodies out there!). Last week I paid $0.40 for a bag’s worth of pearl barley – just enough for my soup recipe.
Food Co-Ops & Smaller Stores. Don’t write off local stores! The above picture came from my visit to the Tacoma Food Co-op awhile back. If you look closely on the photo, you’ll see that many of those bins are filled with quality brands, such as Bob’s Red Mill and Lundberg. I find this is the case for many stores.
My Favorite Store to Shop Bulk
Now that I’ve told you a number of stores you can buy bulk food at, I’m going to tell you my very favorite store to do so…..
WinCo! WinCo just has the best selection and prices for bulk food. And no – they are not paying me to tell you this. It’s just the truth! Whenever I visit a WinCo, it’s the section I like to hang out in the longest. They offer hundreds of different foods in their bulk section.
Best Bets for Bulk Foods
Having shopped the bulk foods section of WinCo for a few years now, I’d like to offer up a few suggestions and ideas for the best savings opportunities in bulk.
Oats. In the absence of sales and coupons, I just head to WinCo and fill up a nice big ol’ bag of oats at about $0.60/lb and refill up one of my Quaker tubs. Even better, check out the price on the steel cut oats when you’re there. It’s been awhile since I checked, but for a long time it was holding out at around $0.54/lb – less than the cost of the old-fashioned or “quick cook” varieties. Where else in town can you find steel cut oats for $0.54/lb? Nowhere, that’s where.
Flours and whole grains. If you are learning to incorporate more whole grains into your diet – you really need to check out bulk food! I am always amazed by the low prices I find on grains and flours there! This is also an exceptional option for my gluten-free friends. They offer a wide selection of flours including soy, tapioca, and brown rice.
Spices. Note that the above picture is an older one. If you buy spices now at WinCo, expect to see more of a counter with jars you can easily pull from and fill. WinCo also sells plastic jars for cheap that you can reuse, or you can just make use of older, unused jars you already have at home.
Here’s an example of how buying spices in bulk can save you big money:
Here is how much I paid for all those spices:
Bay leaves = $0.04!
Basil = $0.09!
Rosemary = $0.13!
Whole Cloves = $0.54!
Cinnamon Sticks = $0.17!
Total = $0.97!
Yes, that’d be less than $1. The beauty of this is you can buy what you need, when you need it (so it’s fresher). It’s also my go-to stop during the holidays when I need to stock up on whole cloves and cinnamon sticks.
Just what you need for your Recipe. Sometimes buying in bulk foods means you can now afford to make a fancier meal for less. Take pine nuts for example. Expensive, right? Well buy just what you need to complete your arugula pesto pizza and save a bundle. I also buy the 10 required dried apricots for my apricot cous-cous in bulk.
Dried Beans. I know that some people would prefer not to use canned beans – perhaps for the BPA concerns and/or higher sodium content. If that describes you, you might want to consider buying in bulk. As beans can take extra time to prep, you might consider prepping them in batches and then freezing. I found a great tutorial on how to do that over at Savvy Eats.
Buying in Bulk: Final Tips
I wanted to share some final tips before sending you off with a bunch of plastic bags and twist ties.
- Ask for added savings. At WinCo, you can ask to buy the giant bags they use to fill the bins and save an extra 10% on the per-pound cost. (Edited to add: your store may vary on the savings. Most WinCo’s this may be 5%.)
- Always compare unit prices. Some things may still be a better deal with sales and coupons. Not all things are a better savings just because they are in bulk.
- Keep your eyes open. WinCo is continually adding new items to their bulk foods section. I’ve noticed they’ve added a variety of sea salts, TVP, and xantham gum over the last year or so.
- Online bulk foods search. You can visit WinCo’s website for a complete list of the items they sell in bulk. Note that selection may vary by store. Also note that per WinCo’s policy, they are unable to give you prices over the phone. (However, we report on WinCo deals twice monthly here at the blog.)
A final word. I sometimes get concerns from folks about the germ factor. The truth is that most of the bulk bins drop from the top, reducing the chance for sanitation concerns. Second, it seems to me that whenever I’m shopping in the bulk section, there are store employees back there busily keeping an eye on stuff and refilling/cleaning bins. Sampling is strictly prohibited at WinCo, and if you see it happen – just notify someone. They’ll likely open a new bag/box of whatever you want for you.
You can read more FAQs at my Adventures in Bulk Wrap-up Post and get more ideas for bulk at my Adventures in Bulk Foods series.
What are some of your favorite things to buy in bulk?
Thanks to the folks at WinCo for providing the images from their store above for the purposes of today’s post.