The Bulk Aisle: What’s it really good for?

The Bulk Aisle: What’s it really good for?

I’ve set out to discover the answers to all of your Bulk Aisle questions. I’ve personally been a bulk aisle shopper for years and love the Bulk Aisle for many reasons.

So, what exactly is the Bulk Aisle?

Shopping in the bulk aisle vs. buying in bulk, are two different things. You’ve seen the bulk bins filled with everything from flour and grains to legumes, sugars, spices, syrups, snacks, oils, nuts, cereals, granola, and dried fruits. I tend to think of it as all the ingredients needed, except fresh produce, to make, bake or cook just about anything. In some bulk departments you might even find body and household products, such as soaps, shampoos, and other cleaning products. The bulk bins are filled and you scoop, pour, or measure out JUST WHAT YOU NEED, no more, no less. Now, ‘buying in bulk’ is buying more than you need RIGHT NOW in order to reduce the cost per unit. For example, you might buy a case of coffee from a super-store, and it will save you money per pound, but it will likely go bad, or at least stale, before you can use it all. In the end, unless you can share this good deal with a friend, you may lose money because the food is wasted. The bulk aisle allows you to shop for just the amount you need, to minimize storage and not have food going bad on your shelves.

Why is shopping the bulk bins important? What are the benefits (and drawbacks) of shopping the bulk bins?

Bulk bins have many benefits, as well as disadvantages, depending on your personal shopping tastes and style. Here are the key points to consider as to why the bulk bins could be important to you.

  • Food Quality - Bulk bins generally offer better quality food, that is fresher, local, organic, less processed, and more socially responsible. Quality is something that you can taste. To be sure, buy just a little instead of a bunch and test it at home.
  • Cost Savings - without the cost of packaging, branding, and marketing, bulk bins can provide a higher quality product at a lower price per pound. There are prepackaged foods that are less expensive occasionally, but the food quality is probably just not going to match up. If you appreciate good taste, the bulk aisle will become a resource.
  • Less Food Waste - Don’t buy more of something just to get a better deal. Buying only what you need is a key tenet with bulk bin shopping. Food waste in the US accounts for 80 billion lbs per year or over 200 lbs per person per year. That is roughly 30% of the US food supply. Wasted food isn't just a social or humanitarian concern—it's also an environmental one. When we waste food, we also waste all the energy and water it takes to grow, harvest, transport, and package it. I'm able to try new things without feeling like I have to commit to using a larger amount, or wasting it.
  • Less Packaging - Less plastic, and less packaging in general, is good for the environment. You will need to bring your food home, so bringing clean reusable containers is required for your purchases. This step alone is what made me first try bulk bins. It does require a little more planning and doesn’t allow impulse shopping (unless you bring extra containers with you consistently :-). 
  • Safety - Cooking with organic ingredients at home provides you more control over what you eat. One concern with bulk bin shopping is contamination—items getting mixed and people putting their hands in the bins, etc. Pourable dispensers (no scoops, no hands) help to alleviate some concern, but not all bulk bins are pourable. This can be challenging with food allergies like nuts or wheat and other health issues. Fortunately, many items like dried beans and pasta, which undergo a thorough cooking process before they're eaten, lessen the concerns.

When should I consider the bulk bins? Are there reasons for not shopping the bulk aisle?

Sure, bulk aisle shopping takes longer than grabbing something off the shelf, but with a little planning, you may find the time is nominal and the gains are HUGE. There are plenty of benefits, but you will have to plan more and take more time at home and in the store. With purpose, you will learn to be efficient and practical. Maybe you will even save time in the long run.

Where: Are all bulk aisles created equal?

Most general grocery stores have at least a small bulk aisle or section, while other larger chains are known for their large, comprehensive selections. Natural food stores and food co-ops are practically designed around the bulk food aisle. Many have full organic & local selections, and offer a greater scope of foods and spices, hard-to-find liquid bulk items like vinegar and oils, and allow you to bring your own containers. There are also new zero-waste stores popping up all over. Busy bulk bins contribute to providing fresh food—often fresher than prepackaged items.

How do I do it? Are there instructions, tips?

It is pretty simple, but there are things to learn.

  1. Make a list and prepare your containers. With your list at home, go through it identifying the items and amounts you plan to shop the bulk aisle for. If your store allows you to bring your own containers, wash and sanitize your containers, then bring them with you to the bulk aisle. Some containers are better suited for liquids, like glass canning jars with lids.
  2. Tare your jars. Tare weight is the weight of a container before being filled. You will want to account for this prior to check-out, so you are not charged for the weight of your container in addition to the product! With a home kitchen scale or at the customer service desk at your grocery store, write the weight, in pounds, of the jar/container on paper tape, or with a chalk pen directly on the glass.
  3. Fill jars and label. Fill your container with the amount you need and write the PLU (price look-up) code on the tape or label. I’ve also found that including the full product name and date eliminates confusion with the other cooks at my house.
  4. Check out. The person at the register will weigh your items, subtract the container weight on the scale, and charge you based on the PLU code. They know how to do this automatically. Now revel in appreciation for your time and energy to save money, save food from being wasted, and minimize your plastic waste. You should be tickled with yourself.
  5. Storage at home. Do your best to keep foods in airtight containers, canning jars work well for this. This is easy to overlook but will help to keep things fresh. Be aware of each item's temperature needs, researching is easy with google. Dry pasta, rice, and beans are fine in your pantry. Store perishable foods like nuts, flours, whole grains in the refrigerator or freezer to keep them from going rancid.

Now, all you need is encouragement! I have found shopping the bulk aisle to be personally fulfilling. I get a chance to try new things without a lot of commitment, enjoy higher quality food, save money, and reduce my impact on the environment.

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