The following is a weekly feature brought to us by Sumiko from Near to Nothing. I’ve asked her to share tips and tricks (and recipes!) that show us ways to replace the items we’d typically buy canned or frozen from scratch at home for less! You’ll find a new From Our Pantry post each Monday.
I love buying from the bulk bins at WinCo. A dear friend of mine told me a while ago that she just started buying from the bins. Until recently, she was scared of them. And I know she’s not alone. So I thought I’d give a brief definition and discussion of bulk, a very short history of dry goods, and some tips for buying in bulk.
Definition of bulk
According to Merriam-Webster.com, bulk simply means “not divided into parts or packaged in separate units; in large quantities.” The basic principle is that, the more of a good that one buys, the cheaper it is per unit. For example, if my daughter buys a half-pint carton of milk at school, it costs $0.50, or $8.00 per gallon. However, I can go to Costco and buy 2 gallons of milk for $3.79, or $1.90 per gallon. This principle is true for all types of foods. Remember to check the unit price.
Why buy in bulk
Following this principle, it is much cheaper per pound to buy a 50-pound bag of flour than a 5- or 10-pound bag of flour. But the average home cook does not need 50 pounds of flour at one time. Enter the bulk bins. A store can buy the large quantities at a cheaper price and then distribute it out to its customers. Buying in bulk is like buying that 50-pound bag and sharing the flour and the cost with others in your community.
Not only does buying in bulk get you a better price most of the time, but it prevents you from overbuying and wasting food and money. For example, if you need wheat germ to make granola bars, but do not normally use it for any other purpose, it would be prudent to buy just the right amount for the recipe from the bins. If you were to buy a whole jar, you would only use part and the rest would go to waste.
Now, I said that you get a better price most of the time. Occasionally some items are cheaper off the shelf, especially if you can combine a sale and a coupon. To show you how much you can save, I went to WinCo last week and compared bulk bin prices to off-the-shelf prices for items that I regularly buy:
Item: bin price/lb. vs. shelf price/lb.; savings/lb.
Raisins: $1.78 vs. $2.11; $0.33/lb. savings
Almonds, raw: $3.88 vs. $6.88; $3/lb. savings
Semi-sweet chocolate chips: $2.59 vs. $2.83; $0.24/lb. savings
Unbleached flour: $0.36 vs. $0.40; $0.04/lb. savings
Rolled oats: $0.65 vs. $0.92; $0.27/lb. savings
Long grain brown rice: $0.61 vs. $0.99; $0.38/lb. savings
Granulated garlic: $3.78 vs. $6.64; $2.86/lb. savings
Ground cinnamon: $2.22 vs. $11.18; $8.96/lb. savings
Cinnamon sticks: $3.29 vs. $84.91 (Yes! That’s correct!); $81.62/lb. savings
Pinto beans: $1.01 vs. $1.19; $0.18/lb. savings
Spaghetti: $0.99 vs. $0.89; $0.10/lb. loss
Grated parmesan cheese: $3.76 vs. $3.96; $0.20/lb. savings
We can see a few things from looking at these comparisons. First, the bins will save you the most money on herbs and spices. Second, not everything from the bins will save you money (see spaghetti). I find that pasta fluctuates more than most of the other items in the bin so I do check that one every time. Third, some of these savings may not seem like much. Saving $0.04/lb. on unbleached flour doesn’t sound worth taking the time to bag it yourself. But if you use as much flour as I do, that four cents per pound will add up to a lot of savings over an entire year.
Until the late 1800’s, this was the only way to buy dry goods. When pre-packaged oats were introduced by the Quaker Oat Company in 1885, people were afraid of them because they could not see the product. The company had to convince people by giving away free samples and placing bonus items in the boxes.
As people grew accustomed to pre-packaged food, more and more products were available that way and bulk bins disappeared. Consumers then grew wary of buying products from bulk bins because they felt packaged products were safer. But bulk bins have reappeared in the last few years as people have come to realize that these products are a safe, economical alternative to packaged foods. Even most high-end grocery stores now have bulk bins, usually in the natural foods section.
If you’re afraid of buying from bins because other people have had access to the products before you, remember that they too are trusting you to exercise care. I have been buying from the bulk bins ever since I discovered WinCo about seven years ago, and I have never had a problem with the products.
- Only buy items that you are confident have a quick turn-around. The more commonly used the product, the fresher it is in the bins. Pasta and beans are most likely replenished multiple times a day, nutritional yeast and gluten probably much less frequently.
- Make sure the size of the bin correlates with demand. Buying flour from a large bin is okay because it has a quick turn-over. Buying sun-dried tomatoes from a large bin is probably not a good idea because they sell more slowly.
- Buy only as much as you can store and use before it goes bad.
- Do not buy from bins if you have a food allergy to other items around them. If have a wheat allergy, do not buy sugar from the bin located next to the flour. Even if customers are being careful, there can still be some mixing of products.
- Double bag products such as flour and sugar to prevent spills in the shopping cart or grocery bags.
- As soon as you get home, transfer the products to air-tight containers. Label the containers if you think you may forget what is in them. Here are the various ways I store my bulk bin products:
- And lastly, don’t forget to write the bin number on the tag! It’ll take you twice as long to check-out if they have to look up all the numbers.