Bigger is better: Buying in Bulk

Until fairly recently, I did all my grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s.  At first I would just go there for a few specialty items.  Then I slowly realized that my nearest Safeway sojourns were netting me fewer and fewer items and most of my time was spend wandering the aisles, marveling at Trader Joe’s products.  I swiftly converted and did all my shopping there; grabbing my basics first and always throwing a few new curiosities into the cart.  I discovered frozen garlic naan that tasted homemade, unsweetened, dried mango that tasted like candy and marinated cannellini beans.  For years, I was content to wander, a tad self righteously, through TJ’s, picking out high quality items at affordable prices.

We don't need to add anything to this.

It was then that I began to notice how much waste our little family of two was throwing away.  At first I ignored it, I mean we were eating healthy! whole! foods!  But I had a sneaking suspicion that even though my frozen black bean and corn enchiladas were delicious they would probably be healthier and better for the environment if I made them myself.  So a few months ago, I made a commitment to cut down on packaged foods by 50 percent, including the whole foods I regularly purchased in packaging.  Because I really didn’t need the extra guilt that came with the shrink wrapped bok choy, bagged apples and microwavable butternut squash when I was trying to do the right thing..

Now your eyes may be glossing over right about now because this is sounding way too hippie for you to even consider implementing.  I’m not relying on the environmental concerns alone to sway you, because that wouldn’t work for me either.  Here at WPP we are always concerned about the environment and healthy eating, but the bottom line is it needs to be budget friendly  So I will add that it’s possible to cut your food budget in half by reducing your packaged foods.

Eliminating packaged produce was actually a welcome relief considering Trader Joe’s is a wonderful store but really has average vegetables and disappointing fruits.  We switched to a CSA called Farm Fresh to You and although my fantasies of farm visits have yet to materialize, we are very happy with the service.  We receive the medium regular basket every other week and that seems to fit our needs well and the produce is exponentially better than TJ’s even with the odd bruised or damaged item.  The best part is there is no wait list, you can opt out of those items you don’t care for and they deliver to your house.  It’s a little more expensive than other services but considering the WPP household is car-lessfree it is really convenient.

We cannot live on fruits and veggies alone so we also venture out every few weeks to the utopian wonderland known as Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco.   Let’s just say it’s a really good thing that I am on borrowed Zipcar time there because  I could easily spend a whole day in what I’ve dubbed “Adult Disneyland”.   And as it’s a workers’ co-op, it’s owned by the employees so you are supporting a business that is fair and equitable.  Not sure about you, but that just makes everything taste better to me.

A usual trip will find me starting out in the spice aisle and refilling my reusable spice jars, coffee tins and tea cans.  If you love to cook or bake you will be astounded at the variety of flours, (gluten-free and regular) sugars, cereals and pasta in the bulk area.  If you aren’t in San Francisco and you want to try shopping in bulk, make sure the place you are visiting has high turnover and seems to do brisk business.  No one wants the forgotten, weeks-old granola thats been sitting in the bin forever.

Some items you should always buy in bulk are spices, beans, grains and cereals.  Spices are significantly cheaper in bulk and you can try a variety of exotic blends that will make your food taste better.  Now is the time to get a little bit of smoked paprika and hickory salt which will only set you back a few dollars and really improve the flavor of your food.  When buying in bulk, you just get the amount you need, saving you from the unfortunate discovery of the dill seed you needed for a recipe three years later for a recipe, that now has gone rancid.

If you love to bake or are following a gluten free diet, then shopping in bulk is a good fit for you.  You have access to high gluten flour for bagel making, chickpea flour to try that new recipe for socca or a gluten-free version of yogurt cake with almond flour, without committing to an entire bag that could go bad.  I purchase my cereal and granola in bulk and transfer directly to my oxo containers at the store.  Don’t miss out on the dried pasta aisle for some whole wheat pasta, rigatoni for a meat based sauce, and throw in some orecchietta just because it is  so cute.

If you love food and are trying to improve the way your dishes taste, switch to dried beas immediately  Not only do they taste SO much better, they are cheaper, healthier, and take up less space.  The selection you have when buying dried beans in seemingly endless and you can cook up your own heritage varieties like the Rancho Gordo.  Not only do they taste better, they are so easy to make.  All it takes is an overnight soak and some extended cooking for dried beans to come into their own.  I always soak at least a double batch and put half my cooked beans in the freezer.  That way I can whip up a quick chili or hummus whenever the mood strike,  Beans are a budget shopper’s dream and I implore you to give up on those cans with their mushy product and extra sodium immediately.  I promise you will never go back.

You can refill everything from your peanut butter jar, soy sauce bottle and shampoo container.  That’s right, even your personal products can be refilled at the co-op for much less than those costly salon bottles.  While you are there, make sure to pick up some Strauss Whole Milk Yogurt and organic beer after hitting the exceptional cheese department that is truly a foodie’s dream.  It’s also a great place to get rennet if you are interested in making cheese or raw milk if you’ve never tried it.

Don’t be intimated if this is your first trip to the bulk bin or food co-op.  My first time, I was nervous they would spot me as an imposter as soon as I entered the line with my shameful disposable bags.  Just remember, you are making the first step and going much further than most people do.   Next time, just bring your own containers and weigh them ahead of time when it’s empty.  Record the weight on a sticker at the bottom and fill with you desired product.   This is called the tare weight and will be subtracted from your final purchase.

See that’s not so hard!  Just beware that these little changes will slowly begin to change you and before you know it, you’ll be proselytizing too.  Your food will taste better,  your impact on the planet will decrease and you’ll be saving money on your monthly food bill.  I’m not asking you to create your own dairy products or bake your own bread, but I bet that’s not too far off.  Embrace your inner hippie!



Filed under Family, Finance, Finance, Food, Lifestyle, San Francisco, Uncategorized

8 responses to “Bigger is better: Buying in Bulk

  1. Thanks for all the tips!!

  2. I started cutting down packaging in January as a NY Resolution and started buying in bulk in February. I’m so jealous that you can shop at Rainbow. I am stuck with Sprouts down here, and although I’m not complaining, I do wish I could get my hands on some more bulk items. I’ve thought about whole foods but their prices are mostly ridiculous. We used to have FF2U but found that we weren’t using all of the food that came in it and I felt like we were wasting too much. You can also try LUSH for bath products. Their packaging is compostable/recyclable and the solid shampoos are to die for. I use the flip & tumble produce bags for most of my bulk purchases. They’re extremely reasonable at $11 for 5/6 of them. I love that I spend 50% less on my groceries now. Have you checked out Bea’s blog @ Zero Waste Home? I have some recipes on my blog too for some crackers and such.

    • Hi Jess! I hear you about Whole Foods, I never felt like I could afford to shop organically and sustainably when that was my only option. Instead, I would hit the farmer’s markets and pick out some fresh produce and order a few bulk items online. We have the same problem with FFTY, especially when we get a bunch of mustard greens and kale for the 6th delivery in a row. Usually I will cook the greens, add it to some beans and throw it in the freezer to defrost later and add some broth for a quick lunch. Sometimes I have to just opt out of a few selections because I run out of creative solutions. Bea’s blog is now in my reader and I LOVE those flip & tumble blogs. Love Lush products too, that store smells heavenly even when you just walk by.

  3. Meg

    I just found your blog through A Practical Wedding and am totally smitten. So much so, in fact, that I just emailed my closest food co-op to ask if they were accepting new members! I’m all for enviro-friendliess, but budget-friendliess is the name of the game in these parts! We joined a CSA for this summer, so I think the co-op is the next logical step. Breaking the TJ’s habit will be hard… just cutting it down will be infinitely more doable.

    Great post. Also – your wedding looked like a blast!

    • Hi! Thank you so much for coming over and checking out our blog. I could not agree more about the emphasis on budget friendly practices, it feels like sometimes we are guilted into thinking we have to pay MORE to protect the environment. I plan on adding lots of entries about making life changes that are healthier, better for the environment and ultimately less expensive. Congrats on taking the first step in joining a CSA, definitely check back and let us know how it goes.

  4. KK

    Found you through A Practical Wedding and was happy to find other people embracing their inner hippie. We live across the Bay, so while rainbow is a trek, we do (thankfully) have berkeley bowl. We also gave up TJ’s after we asked ourselves one day why our peppers had to come on a styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic. Just wanted to put in a plug for our CSA – we have Eatwell Farm, which we love (they have eggs too!), and we get invited up to the farm for different events several times a year, in case you are ever in the market to switch.

    • Thanks for coming over here and checking out our blog! You are lucky to have Berkeley Bowl close by, that place is amazing! I did check out Eatwell and might switch if we get a car and can manage the pickup. There has been a rumor that FFTY is adding in egg service so fingers crossed.

  5. Pingback: Looks GOOD on Paper | White Picket Passport

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