Reducing Food Waste: Buying in Bulk

We’ve discussed that reducing the amount of food you buy will reduce food waste. Using that basic rule as a guideline, it’s important to be extremely cautious about buying in bulk. A recent University of Arizona study, slated to be released in full at the end of the month, showed that bulk food was tied to food waste (as was, interestingly enough, planning too much ahead). However, there are times when it can actually reduce food waste, if used judiciously.

Warehouse Clubs

In order to be a successful bulk buyer, you need to make sure that you understand the distinction between buying in bulk from a supermarket or co-op, and buying in bulk from a warehouse club (e.g., Costco or Sam’s Club). If you rely on such clubs, it might help to know that most experts agree that buying in bulk from a warehouse club is much dicier in terms of getting a bargain, simply because things aren’t always less expensive. For example, a recent Kiplinger article on the worst things to buy in bulk found that canned vegetables, breakfast cereal, eggs, and soda are much less expensive at the supermarket. So in addition to buying more than you are likely to need, you’re also spending more money unnecessarily.

A key concern with buying in bulk from warehouse clubs is that most of the things sold there are perishable, even if they have extended shelf lives. If you buy too much to consume within that time frame, or you don’t like what you bought, that food will be wasted. Be conscious of expiration dates on bulk food. EatbyDate has a lot of information on shelf life (which we’ll touch on more next week).

The final rule of thumb for warehouse clubs is to AVOID impulse buys and unfamiliar products as much as possible. Although my bulk container of 150 Atomic Fireballs was a success, many of my other ones were not. For example, I never want to see another granola bar, EVER.

Atomic Fireballs
Delicious bulk Atomic Fireballs were the exception that proved the rule, and even those took several years to finish. (Photo credit: Ferrara USA)

Bin Buying

Buying in bulk from a bin, on the other hand, is much more likely to actually save you money and reduce waste. Typical items include rice, grains, flours, pasta, soup mixes, beans, cereals, trail mixes, nut butters, sweeteners, dried fruits, nuts, and seeds. If you use these things regularly, it might make sense to purchase them in bulk. Make sure you have a general idea about how much you consume, though, and that you have adequate storage for your purchases.

Some bulk foods are practically guaranteed to cut down on food waste. For example, most experts recommend taking advantage of bulk food bins to buy spices you need for a specific recipe. If you aren’t going to use smoked paprika regularly, why not buy a tablespoon or so rather than a whole container? This is endorsed by Beth from Budget Bytes, and she is both spice-positive and budget-conscious.

General Tips

  • Bring a calculator, or a calculator app, to the store/club with you. You should make a note of how much you are paying per unit, which, interestingly enough, I don’t think Costco provides on its shelf signs. (I haven’t been able to verify this, so let me know if I’m wrong.)
  • More broadly, start familiarizing yourself in general with the cost per unit of the things you buy most frequently so you know if you’re actually saving money. Knowing that you aren’t saving money will help to prevent overbuying.
  • Consider going to a warehouse club with a friend. If you really want something, maybe your friend will split an item you might otherwise not finish.

Next week, we’ll talk about food storage — where to keep the foods that you buy so that they stay fresh and palatable.

By Moretta

Moretta will take that applause. Her Twitter is

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