7 Life-Changing Tips from a Bulk Shopping Expert
Ready to conquer Costco? We thought so.
I was an early adopter of bulk shopping. When Costco came to my neighborhood, I immediately changed how I shopped, and when the local restaurant supply house started letting the general public purchase, no one was more excited than I. Buying in bulk is a shockingly great way to save money and to reduce the frequency of shopping trips for staples, and I was fortunate to have the storage space to make it possible. For many, the idea of bulk shopping is a bit overwhelming, or perhaps you do it and think you aren’t getting the most out of it.
Here are 7 expert ways to really make it worth your while.
1. Pick a shopping cycle and stick to it.
Let’s start with controlling your bulk shopping rhythm. I’ve found that once a month works the best for refilling the items I go through a lot of, like paper towels, sparkling water, butter, and sugar. On my monthly trip, I fill in what else has gotten low during that particular month. If you’re looking to buy frozen items to freeze cuts of meat, say (and I’ve got a great guide for that!), remember that most items when frozen are only at peak for one to three months. Finally, knowing that you’re coming back in a month should keep you from overloading your cart (that’s hoarding).
2. Always start with non-edibles.
Paper towels, toilet paper, zip top bags, foil pans, laundry and cleaning supplies… all of these are terrific items to load in from your local big box store. Getting these items that you go through quickly in larger formats at lower prices will always be a good investment. Further, these often heavy and oversized items can really slow you down during shopping trips to the regular grocery store.
3. Go big on beverages.
Beverages of all kinds are always going to be a steal at a bulk shopping store. Whether you have a half-case a day sparkling water habit, a spouse who is addicted to Diet Coke, kids who drink milk and orange juice by the gallon, or enjoy beer or wine with dinner, bulk is the way to go. And again, this means you don't have to lug heavy beverages along during regular shopping trips.
4. Determine (and buy) your highest-use items.
This might sound obvious, but many of us don’t likely know offhand what we go through the fastest in our kitchens (and it may have changed dramatically since the pandemic). Me, I bake at least a few days a week, so buying things like eggs, sugar, flour, butter, and cream in large formats is a godsend for my budget. If you have kids, you might go through as much as a gallon a day of milk, or 10 pounds of ground beef a month. If you are vegetarian or vegan, the large volume vegetables and cases of canned beans might be right up your alley. But not everything in bulk is for everyone. If you only make rice once in a blue moon? You don’t need a 20-pound bag of it. If you are trying a new recipe that calls for a spice you have never used before? Don’t buy the eight-ounce bottle right out of the gate. Figure out the things you have always used a lot of, and stock up.
5. Don’t skimp on proper storage.
When buying in bulk you are keeping yourself well provisioned, which means everything you buy needs to be kept at optimum condition. Make sure you've got a good supply of freezer-weight zip top bags, heavy duty plastic wrap and foil, and a variety of sizes of airtight containers and storage tubs. If you have the wherewithal and space, a vacuum sealer is a good investment, as is a chest freezer or extra fridge.
6. Plan enough time to repackage perishables as soon as you get home.
When planning your bulk shopping trip, budget in enough time to both shop and deal with your purchases on the other end. This doesn’t mean just putting things away; it might also mean repacking and preparing for the freezer. For example, meats may need to be frozen in smaller portion sizes. Vegetables may need to be cleaned and broken down to store properly. Bulk pantry staples can usually be kept best in their original packaging until you need them, and then can be broken down further for convenient storage. In other words, keep the 10-pound bag of flour unopened till the next time you bake, then repackage in 1- to 2-pound bags to help keep it fresh and more convenient to store.
7. Label everything with dates, keep a list of what you have, and use oldest to newest.
Bulk shopping often means you are removing things from their original packages to make them more manageable for storage, but that also means that expiration and best-by dates are lost when you discard the original package. Use a Sharpie to label everything with the date of purchase and the expiry date, and if needed, keep a list of what you have. Whenever possible, use the oldest items in your storage first, to ensure that you are getting to everything while it is still at its best quality.
Now go save some money!