Buying food in bulk is one of the best ways to save money on groceries… and yet, at the same time, it’s one of the worst ways! While you can typically get a significant discount on items bought in bulk, it becomes a problem when you cannot consume the food before it goes rancid.
There are three basic criteria for determining which foods you should buy in bulk, and which foods you should continue to purchase at regular intervals:
- Foods bought in bulk should be foods you eat and enjoy often.
- Foods bought in bulk need to stay fresh for lengthy periods of time without losing their quality or nutritional value.
- You should have adequate space for bulk storage (either in the pantry/basement, or freezer).
For most people, that means the following items are ideal when purchased in bulk:
- GRAINS –Wheat, spelt, wild rice, barley, oats and certain other grains will keep up to a year or more if they are properly stored. If popcorn is a favorite snack, then you’re in luck, because it lasts a good two years! Likewise, white rice lasts almost indefinitely. Certain grains like millet, brown rice, rye, and buckwheat will begin to go rancid after a few months. Their life can be extended to a certain extent by storing in the freezer, but your best bet is to purchase these grains in quantities you will use within a few months or less. For more detailed information, see this guide to grain storage.
- BEANS – Dried beans will last almost indefinitely, so if this is something you eat a lot, then stock up! Canned beans will last about a year.
- SUGAR – Most varieties of cane sugar, including sucanat and other unrefined types, can be stored indefinitely as well. If you find that you use more sugar than you should when you have so much on hand, you can still buy in bulk: just separate the bulk container into portions that you want to consume in a particular time period. For example, fill a container with the amount of sugar you intend to use in a month and store that in your kitchen cupboard. When it’s empty, don’t refill it until the end of the month. Palm and coconut sugars can also be stored indefinitely.
- SEA SALT – Salt also stores indefinitely, so it’s another good item to buy in large amounts. But don’t go overboard – unless you do a lot of preserving with salt, you’ll probably only use it in small amounts at a time, so you won’t need ten pounds on hand! A 2-lb or 5-lb bag will set you up for quite a while (in my family of four, a 2-lb bag lasts 4-5 months at least).
- SPICES – Whole spices, like cinnamon sticks, cloves, nutmeg and black pepper, will last up to 5 years when properly stored without losing any flavor or nutritional value. Ground spices will keep for 2 or 3 years, as will some dried herbs. Keep in mind, though, that “bulk” for spices is a relatively small quantity (as compared to grains, for example): a large container from a warehouse store will probably last a couple years even if it only weighs a few ounces.
- MEAT – While it clearly doesn’t keep indefinitely, quality meat (i.e., grass-fed, antibiotic- and hormone-free, organic, etc.) is considerably cheaper when purchased in large quantities. IF you have the freezer space, and/or can split a half or quarter cow with friends, then it’s definitely worth the savings! Purchasing this type of meat in bulk brings the price down to levels comparable with grocery-store mass-produced meat. Keep in mind that fresh meat should not be stored in the freezer for longer than one year.
- DRIED FRUITS and VEGETABLES – If you use a lot of dried fruits and veggies for snacks and cooking, then it’s worth it to buy them in bulk. We go through raisins and dried cranberries pretty rapidly around here, so I like to buy them in larger amounts.
Some foods simply are not worth buying in bulk for one reason or another. I recommend keeping a steady but limited inventory of the following items:
- LEAVENING AGENTS – Baking soda, baking powder and yeast all lose their leavening power after about 6 months of proper storage once the packaging has been opened. Unless you bake large amounts (like for a very large family or as a business) on a regular basis, it’s best to buy these in quantities you’ll use within a few months. For example, it takes me about 2 months to go through a regular sized can of baking powder, so I just stick to that size. One caveat: if you use baking soda for cleaning and deodorizing around the house, then by all means, purchase in bulk! When you open the package, transfer the portion you’ll use for baking to a jar or other well-sealed container and keep it in your cupboard.
- FRESH FRUITS & VEGGIES – I guess this one’s kind of a no-brainer, huh? Don’t buy more than you can reasonably consume before it goes bad (and this varies widely with each type of fruit and vegetable). The one exception is if you do a lot of preservation (canning, dehydrating, freezing) at home, especially during the growing months.
- FLOURS – Grains go rancid rather quickly when ground because of the oils they contain. If you have a grain mill, the best thing to do is buy whole grains in bulk and grind your flour as you need it. If you don’t have a grain mill, then purchase small packages of flour, and consider storing them in the refrigerator or freezer if you don’t use them up within a month or so.
- OILS – Oils also go rancid very quickly; in fact, some experts suggest that the oils you buy in the store are already rancid! So buy them in small amounts from reputable sources. One exception is coconut oil, which is a saturated fat and can last much longer (up to 18 months or more). Other saturated fats, like shortening and animal fats (lard, bacon grease) will also last much longer.
- NUTS & SEEDS – Shelled nuts and seeds are especially prone to rancidity, so buy them in quantities that you will use within a few months.
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Anne Simpson is just a simple girl who longs for an uncomplicated life. Wife to one amazing man, mother to two rambunctious boys, one of eleven children, daughter of the King, happily defined and shaped by these. By God’s grace and for His glory, she lives, loves, serves and writes. She is the author of Your Grocery Budget Toolbox and blogger at Authentic Simplicity, where she strives to find the balance between authentic and simple. Keep in touch with her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.