Published on October 20th, 2015 | by Guest Contributor

How to Shop In the Bulk Foods Section

If you are interested in creating a healthier, greener kitchen and cleaning up your diet, there is no better place to start than the bulk foods section. But the bulk food aisle can be intimidating for those unfamiliar with it– that’s a lot of flour and beans and grains to take in at one time!

But learning how to shop in the bulk foods section can help save you money, reduce the need for single-use plastics, and allow you an unprecedented amount of kitchen fun. Bulk foods shopping is a great green option, and it can be really fun too!

Why shop in bulk?

As Beth Bader explains on Eat Drink Better, “for every food dollar, the farmer or grower generally makes only about nineteen cents. The majority of our food dollars, 81 cents, goes to processing, packaging, advertising and transport [according to] the USDA Economic Research Service.” But buying in bulk helps keep some of that extra money in YOUR pocket while still giving  you access to great foods.

bulk bins

The bulk food section of your local natural foods store probably contains a variety of beans, grains, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, flours, sugars and dried foods. And as with every bulk item purchase, you can choose just as much food as you need. This means you can explore a wide variety of spices for very little investment, explore a bunch of different grains, and try out new whole grain recipes quickly and inexpensively.

Bulk aisles usually offer a wide variety of beans, legumes, nuts, flours, grains, herbs and spices, nut butters, oils, pastas, dried fruits and even snack foods. Without the added costs of advertising and packaging, these staples can be purchased at a much more affordable cost — important as we all see our grocery bills increase lately. And at our favorite store here in Honolulu, you can get fresh ground peanut and almond butter, maple syrup, honey, tamari and cooking oils. You can even bring your own jars back to the store for refilling.

Here are our favorite tips for how to shop in the bulk foods section:

bulk spices

Epic bulk spices section at French Broad Co-Op in Asheville, NC

1. Be adventurous- but give yourself time to browse. Go into the bulk section knowing that there are going to be a lot of choices, and give yourself ample time to browse the bins and find your new favorite foods.

2. Keep it Small. When trying a new food, purchase just a small portion, then return for more if you like it. Bulk-bins are an excellent way to expand your food repertoire.

3. Keep it Organized! Use bulk buying as a reason to better organize your pantry. Buy labels and organize your cupboards to accommodate the types of food you need.

4. Special Order it! If you need larger quantities (like a 25-pound bag of millet), ask the store employees if you can get a discount. Our local store gives us 10% off special orders of this sort. For grains, it might be just too much to use, but for seeds, herbs, spices and teas, the amounts are often more reasonable (usually a pound). It’s always worth asking.

5. Use reusable bags made from cotton or other materials. These work best for some items (beans) and less well for others (shredded coconut). Almost all bulk bin aisles will have a supply of plastics baggies to use, but it’s always better to bring your own. See our review of Bag It Again bags or find cotton bags online.

6. If you want a workout, use reusable jars at the store. This is not my favorite method, because it makes grocery shopping a bit heavier, but it’s a great way to eliminate the need for any packaging. Use glass jars to store your food, and when it’s empty, simply take it to the store and refill. As with other containers, be sure to get the tare weight so you don’t get overcharged.

7. Always use your reusable shopping bags to take home all your bulk goodies! Here are 5 strategies to help you shop without plastic bags.

Bulk spices image from Vibrant Wellness Journal; bulk bins image from Anna via Flickr CC.

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