How about a show of hands from all those out there reading that think the bulk bins in grocery stores are for aging hippies and mad scientists? It’s okay if you raised your hand, since I can’t see you from here — and I wouldn’t be surprised anyways!
It seems to me that a lot of people are either intimidated by or just plain uninterested in the bulk bins of food at the grocery store. Even friends of mine that are into real, wholesome food don’t seem to utilize the bulk section nearly enough. Why? Well, I suppose it can be daunting to explore the vast vats of grains, seeds, spices, nuts, and beans laid out in the bulk bins, especially when they don’t contain any labels. Let’s face it — we have grown used to our food labels. They comfort us with the familiarity of a brand we recognize, with an informative product description, and with serving suggestions on how to prepare the food. In the bulk bins? All you get is the name of the raw food item and possibly the nutritional information of each serving. But instructions? Nope. Product descriptions? Nope. And familiar branding of a company you know and trust? Nope. So it’s understandable why many people just can’t get cozy with the bulk bins.
But hold on. There are a million other reasons why the bulk bins are great, why they are the number one place I hit up every time I go shopping . Let’s take a closer look:
Savings. Buying bulk is cheaper, plain and simple. You can either buy a box of packaged quinoa at about $4.00 for a 12-ounce box or you can buy quinoa in bulk for about $3.00 for 16 ounces. You can buy a 16-ounce can of beans for anywhere from $1-3, or you can buy dried beans in bulk and get about 4 times the beans for exactly the same price. And spices — so much cheaper! A small glass jar of cinnamon (which contains roughly ¼ cup total) can run $3-5 a pop, whereas that same amount of cinnamon in bulk will be about 30 to 50 cents. Cents! Buying my grains, beans, and spices from the bulk section really allows me to save on my grocery bill for more expensive items like quality meat and seafood or organic produce when in season. (Or perhaps a vintage sundress that I know will be crucial to my spring season wardrobe.) It all balances out.
Freshness. Foods in the bulk bins are by nature fresher than those that are packaged. Think about Twinkies (such a love/hate food there!). They can sit in their packages for years before they are ever opened for consumption. Now, packaged grains, beans, and spices aren’t going to be sitting on the shelves for nearly that long, but they certainly can sit on the shelves for a great period of time. First they are processed at a plant, then packaged, then shipped off to a warehouse, then to a grocery store, and then sit on the shelves before they get to you. Bulk foods do not usually have as long a time to get to the shelves because they are not waiting to be packaged and shipped. In addition, there is a higher turnover for foods in the bulk bins, so they are refilled daily with fresh product.
Diversity. There is so much to be found in the bulk bins! Right off the top of my head, I can picture at least the following grains in my neighborhood grocery bins: quinoa, steel cut oats, rolled oats, barley, buckwheat, cornmeal, millet, wild rice, long grain brown rice, short grain brown rice, sweet brown rice,… I could go on. The packaged grain aisle doesn’t have nearly the same variety of fresh, whole grains — they might just have several brands for the same type of grain, all side by side. It encourages me to try new foods when I see them all lined up next to each other in the bulk bins, looking as wholesome (and affordable!) as they do.
Risk-free. So you have this diverse array of whole grains, beans, nuts, spices galore to choose from — feeling overwhelmed? Don’t. The glory of the bulk bins is that because they are relatively so cheap, and sold in bulk, you can buy as much (or as little!) as you want. It makes for risk-free experimentation in the kitchen. Not sure if you are going to like the taste of millet? Rather than buy a full box of it, try a small baggie to take home and cook up for dinner. Bulk bins are perfect for the home cook with commitment issues.
Greener. Finally, the bulk bins are a greener choice for the environment. They have considerably less waste without all that packaging from plastic wrappers, cardboard boxes, and stickers and labels. You can bring your bulk foods home in plastic or paper bags (which you can save and reuse for the next time), or go a step further and bring jars for your goods. I once cooked for a client who organized her entire kitchen to have space solely for bulk jars — labeled for each grain, nut, or bean they permanently housed. Sure, it may have taken a few hours to set up the labeled jars, but once she had it in place, she knew exactly how much food was left of each item and when it was time to restock. And over the years, think of all the bags and packaging saved!
Considering it? Here’s another reason to go bulk. You can find not only beans, grains, nuts, and spices in bulk, but also a whole slew of other common grocery items. Flours, pastas, granolas, snack foods, even vegan gummies are all becoming more commonplace in grocery bulk aisles. So go for it! Save on money, save on packaging, and learn to try out more (fresh) foods in your home kitchen.
Well I’m convinced. My stomach’s telling me it’s just about time to write out the next shopping list…