Photo: Shutterstock / Goncharov_Artem
Buying ingredients in bulk seems like a great way to stock up and save money. This is true a lot of the time—it’s why Costco is so beloved—but for some items buying in large quantities isn’t always a steal. After all, what use is leaving the store with 96 ounces of peanut butter if your family can’t eat it all before the expiration date. So we took some of the guesswork out of shopping and found out with the help of Annette and Steve Economides, America’s Money Smart Family, which bulk buys really are cheaper (and worth buying in large quantities) and which you might want to think twice about.
What You Should Buy in Bulk
You can find the best prices on rolled oats in the bulk-bin aisles, Annette says. Bring in your own jar or bag to fill. In my local supermarket in NYC, the price difference between bulk oats and prepackaged oats in a canister is nearly 80 cents per pound.
Pro Tip: To limit food waste, consider how long it usually takes you to finish something and compare against its shelf life.
Generally, I’d avoid buying a huge block of cheddar at Costco that I couldn’t fathom finishing. That is, until I learned that cheese freezes well. The Economides buys a five-pound bag of cheese from restaurant-supply chain Smart & Final (with many locations in the West), avoiding membership fees at a warehouse store. When she gets home, she opens up the bag and separates the cheese into zippered plastic bags to store in the freezer, then defrosts a pack when she needs it. Cheese lasts up to two months in the freezer.
Not only is rice cheaper in bigger quantity bags and from bulk bins, but many varieties of hulled rice (white, Arborio, jasmine, basmati), as well as wild rice, have an indefinite shelf life—meaning they’ll last a long time. Store the rice properly in a cool, dry place to prolong shelf life. Use a plastic or airtight container to keep moisture out.
Dry beans can last up to two years if stored in a cool, dark and dry area. Load up on packages of black beans and lentils the next time they hit rock-bottom prices.
And if you have an Instant Pot at home, these dried beans will cook up in no time! It’s one of the many reasons we love this appliance.
“The biggest thing about buying in bulk is you need to have freezer space. It’s the number one kitchen tool that will save you money, because you can take advantage of seasonal sales,” according to Annette and Steve. When items hit their lowest prices, she loads up. Turkey prices plunge every year right before Thanksgiving, so her family gets three or four to roast throughout the winter.
What You Should Buy in Smaller Quantities
Brown rice and other whole grains
Because they’re higher in oils than processed grains, brown rice and other whole grains will go bad quicker. Brown rice has a short shelf life of six months on the shelf and up to a year when stored in the refrigerator. Unless you can finish a 12-pound bag within that time frame, stick to smaller quantities to avoid waste. To use up the brown rice you have, try our orange beef lettuce wraps.
You may be tempted to pick up a three-liter jug of extra-virgin olive oil because you use it on absolutely everything and want to avoid picking up a new bottle every month. But trust the experts—it’s a bad idea. Oil goes rancid so very easily. An open container of olive oil lasts two to three years (though purists will say six months). It’s one year for an open bottle of vegetable oil and about six months for sesame oil.
Consider your “burn rate,” or how long it takes you to finish a food, before buying a huge amount of it, Annette and Steve caution. The optimal shelf life for processed nut butters is typically one year after its manufacturing date, and that’s when still sealed. It’s even shorter for natural nut butters.
It’s likely you’ll find better deals on regular-size cereal boxes. “I don’t buy in bulk because the average boxes will go on sale, and if you match them with a coupon it’s a better price,” Annette says. Search for digital and paperless coupons online before you go.
One final note: Make sure you have adequate storage space before bulk buying. You’d be surprised how much space six months’ worth of toilet paper takes up.
Happy deal hunting!