Because winter is coming, and big box stores are your new best friend

By Stacey Ballis
Updated September 24, 2020
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The coronavirus pandemic has forced many changes in our lives, and one of them has been how we eat and shop. Think about it: People who use to shop at multiple stores now embrace one-stop planning; people who used to shop daily are limiting to once a week. Former bread purchasers have gone all-in on homemade baking, and people who are used to not keeping much in the house besides condiments and beverages are suddenly finding their fridges and freezers and pantries loaded to the gills.

Along with all that change has come the increased relevance of bulk shopping. Formerly reserved for those with larger families or living groups, or used mostly for paper goods and entertaining, suddenly the big box and restaurant supply houses are looking like a place for more regular shopping. But if you are not used to buying in bulk, it can seem a bit overwhelming.

As we face down fall and winter, and the very real possibility that the combination of weather and the ongoing health crisis may very well disrupt some of our supply chains, now is definitely the time to fully embrace bulk shopping even if you have never done it before! Here are 7 tips and tricks for making it work for you.

Credit: zoranm/Getty Images

zoranm/Getty Images

1. Begin with an assessment

First and foremost, if you are about to do your first bulk shop, do an assessment of what you have, what you need, and where you can store items. If you want to load in frozen foods, be sure you have cleared out enough space in your freezer to accommodate them. For pantry foods, don’t be afraid to think creatively about storage. Do you have a guest room and no guests for the foreseeable future? Welcome to overflow pantry storage! Have a storage space in a basement or attic? Buy some coolers or tubs with a good seal to keep out critters and keep food safe.

2. Make a list (and stick to it!)

While you will always be open to finding some unexpected treasures, it can be really helpful to make a shopping list before you go of the items you know you use all the time. Staples like rice, pasta, canned goods, beans, sauces, condiments, and cooking oils can really save you a lot of money when purchased in bulk. No matter how tempting a deal may be, do not ever buy something in bulk that you don’t consume or use regularly. It is bad enough to have that one-pound bag of dried beans you bought in March still taking up space in your pantry, but at least it wasn’t a 10-pound bag! Be honest with yourself. If you eat Kraft Mac and Cheese at least once a week? Load in that 18 box pack at Costco with no shame. Do you turn to boneless skinless chicken breasts for no-brainer protein? You can get 6.5 pounds of pre-frozen, individually wrapped breasts to keep you going.

3. Go light on fresh items

Produce, dairy products, and other “fresh” items take up a lot of room in your fridge, and if you are a smaller household, it is very easy to over-buy. Think freezable items like butter, or things that last a longer time, like cured meats and aged cheeses. Fresh fruits and vegetables that have longer shelf lives like apples, onions, potatoes, whole cabbages, and hard squashes are a better investment than delicate items like berries or lettuces. If you do a lot of baking, load in flour, sugar, eggs, and yeast.

4. Go hard on canned and jarred goods and beverages

Canned tuna, canned beans, soups, stocks, pasta sauces, and the like are always a good investment, since they last forever and can be good fast meals on their own or the basis for a recipe. Ditto dry goods like pasta, rice, or dried beans. And if you have a drink you consume regularly, whether it is a sparkling water, iced tea, or something stronger, big box stores are a good place to stock up affordably.

5. Turn your freezer into your butcher case

You might never have considered buying a 12-pack of pork chops before, but now might be the time. Repackage as soon as you get home into smaller portion-size freezer bags of one or two chops per bag and freeze for easy meals for weeks. Other good meats to buy in bulk are ground meats, braising meats like short ribs or chuck or pork shoulder, and large-format meats that can be broken down like beef tenderloin.

6. Learn how to store bulk items right

When you get your items home, immediately repackage anything that you want in smaller portion sizes like meats, and freeze items that need freezing. Canned and jarred goods can be stored pretty much anywhere. Dry goods need to stay dry, so be sure they are in a good space and if needed, store in airtight containers or tubs. Be sure that anything you remove from the original package is clearly labeled with the expiration or best-by date. Adopt the restaurant adage of FIFO: First in, first out, and be sure to use the oldest items in your fridge/freezer/pantry first.

7. Don’t hoard!

The key to bulk shopping is to think about a month’s worth of supplies, not a lifetime. Even during the worst, early days of the pandemic, we were never more than a week away from having access to basic food supplies. So while it is a very smart thing to load in your bulk shopping, don’t buy out the store. If you think about your regular grocery shopping supplying you for a week, a bulk shop can fill in a full month on some key items. Use restraint, and try to resist being the person who clears the shelves. We're all in this together.