You guys, I was so excited when I discovered I'd be writing about this topic! Full disclosure: I love bulk food bins and I shop them each month. A major bonus of working at Bob's Red Mill is I'm a mile away from the Bob's Red Mill Whole Grain Store, which has tons of bulk bins. Bulk bins can be a fantastic resource to find all kinds of delicious food that is cheaper and has less packaging than pre-bagged or boxed items. Plus you can buy the exact quantities you need! Shopping bulk foods can also be a smart way to try a new ingredient.
So what I mean to say is, I'm not just the President of the Bulk Bins Enthusiast Society, I'm also a client. And I have a lot of tips on why, how and when to shop the bulk bins, and (also very important) when not to shop them.
Introduction to Bulk Bins and Where to Find Them
First, one important caveat: shopping the bulk bins is different than buying in bulk: I'm not talking about purchasing extra-large boxes at a warehouse store. In fact, much of the time, shopping the bulk food bins means buying less than the standard packaged amount! You'll usually see two different types of bins, often grouped together to save space: the lidded bins with scoops (usually items that are bulky/sticky or that people buy a lot of, like dried fruit, flour or sugar), and the wall-mounted dispensers that pour when you lower a handle (usually smaller, solid items like beans, coffee or nuts). Some bulk sections also offer items like herbs or tea in large glass or plastic jars. Stores that offer liquid bulk items (they exist!) typically use pour spouts.
As far as where to find bulk items, most general grocery stores have at least a small bulk section, while other larger chains like WinCo and Whole Foods are known for their large, comprehensive selections. Another fantastic source for bulk shopping is natural food stores and co-ops, which often have hard-to-find liquid bulk items like vinegar or even salsa, and allow you to bring your own containers (more on that, below).
If you live in the Portland, OR area, the Bob's Red Mill Whole Grain Store carries more than 75% of BRM's products in our bulk bins at 30-50% off the packaged price, including our Nutritional Boosters, several pancake mixes and more. These bins are filled and maintained daily, and in addition to our own products, we carry a wide variety of nuts, dried fruit, snacks, coffee, tea, spices and other goods from the most reputable local suppliers, for a grand total of more than 400 items!
What You Can Find in the Bulk Bins
Depending on where you go, you can find virtually anything in the bulk bins: baking supplies, beans, rice, grains, cereal, pasta of every shape, coffee, candy, nuts, granola, oats, mixes for things like cheese sauce, gravy, cornbread--even cat food and dog treats! I've found specialty items like coconut flour, bittersweet baking chocolate and cavatappi (my son's favorite pasta shape). But I've also found super-common items I never realized I could buy in bulk, like salt and baking soda. In places like natural food stores and co-ops, you can find personal grooming items like shampoo, conditioner and soap, as well as household cleaners like laundry soap, dishwasher detergent and boric acid. Stores that offer liquid bulk goods (the holy grail for Zero Waste shoppers) stock a rainbow of vinegars, oils, soy and teriyaki sauces, maple syrup, peanut butter and other nut butters, salsa and more.
Why Shop the Bulk Bins?
One reason many people shop the bulk bins is to save money. In most cases, you're not paying for a brand name or packaging, so items can be cheaper by the pound than similar items on store shelves--but not always! If this is your main concern, it pays to do your research and double check.
Another reason I appreciate the bulk bins is I can reduce my personal food waste. For example, I have a lovely friend who follows the Paleo diet, and I make her a birthday cake every year. This usually calls for coconut or almond flour, but because I don't bake Paleo items often, I may need only a cup, rather than an entire bag that will live in my freezer for the next 20 years. According to the EPA, the U.S. sent about 29.4 million tons of food waste to landfills in 2014. We can each make a small difference! By shopping the bulk bins, you can get exactly the amount you need of every item you buy. Although. Somehow I tend to come home with twice as many chocolate-covered coffee beans than are good for me. It's a mystery!
A third reason to shop the bulk bins is to reduce food packaging. You can reduce the amount of packaging in your garbage and recycling cans, and with smart organization, you may even find you have more room in your cupboards.
Concerns About Bulk Bins
Of course, bulk bins are not a perfect solution to all grocery shopping needs, and many people have concerns. Some worry about the freshness of the items. One solution is to shop high-traffic grocery stores that are likely to turn over their supply on a regular basis. Others worry about contamination--items getting mixed, people putting their hands in the bins, etc. This is partially solved by the pourable dispensers (no scoops, no hands), but not all are like that. Fortunately this isn't a huge health concern with items like dried beans and pasta, which undergo a thorough cooking process in boiling water before they're eaten. Make sure to use your eyes (and nose) while shopping, and bring any concerns or questions to the store manager.
Another common concern is item quality. Many items are generic, and they may not be the same as their boxed and bagged counterparts. I've been burned by sub-par chocolate chips in the past! When in doubt, buy a tiny amount (although it's tempting, do not eat samples from the bins, that's a major breach of bulk bin etiquette!) and try before you invest in a large quantity.
When Not to Shop the Bulk Bins
And then there are times when you should avoid the bulk bins altogether: for example, if you have food allergies or celiac disease. Cross contamination is a real danger here, as people may switch scoops or use the same one for multiple items--for example, using the all purpose flour scoop in the gluten free flour bin. Again, the enclosed pourable bulk dispensers are a safer bet, but when in doubt, err on the side of protecting your health.
Another time to skip the bulk bins is if you have a particular brand-name or must-have ingredient that is essential to your ultimate enjoyment. As I wrote earlier, some bulk chocolate chips I purchased years ago disappointed me--so much so I couldn't use them to make the chocolate chip cookies I bought them for! This is also true when it comes to cereal: for many, only "real" Lucky Charms will do. As you shop, you'll discover your own particular "deal breaker" items.
How to Shop the Bulk Bins
Now it's time to get down to business! The mechanics of shopping the bulk bins is simple: get out your containers (plastic bags are usually provided, and sometimes round clear plastic lidded containers), fill them with the items you need, and then write the bin number on a twist tie or blank sticker (also usually provided) and close everything up. At checkout, your clerk will weigh your items and use the bin numbers to ring you up.
Of course, you can go for extra credit (and make your experience even more successful) by following my hard-earned tips below:
- Shop With a Plan: Larger bulk bin sections can be a little overwhelming--have a list of the items you need, as well as approximate amounts.
- Beware of the Pourable Bulk Dispensers: These are great in terms of food safety, but they pour fast! You can end up with twice the amount you intended in the blink of an eye, which can get expensive with items like nuts, not to mention potentially wasteful.
- Label Your Items: After years of painful experience, I've learned to write the name of what I'm buying on the twist tie, in addition to the bin number. Don't be like me, don't have half a dozen bags of anonymous brownish spices in your pantry!
There's a growing Zero Waste movement in which people strive to not only reduce but eliminate their landfill waste and recycling by refusing or reusing items and packaging. Bringing your own reusable containers to the bulk bins is a simple way to take part in this crusade. I have a set of cloth bags I bring to the grocery store--you can find mesh ones for sale in many produce sections (not good for items like flour), or you can buy or make lightweight woven cloth bags. Some places even let you bring your own plastic or glass containers for solid or liquid items. Here are a few tips:
- Talk to your store (or visit the website) to double check their policy on bringing in your own containers. I've never had my cloth bags refused, but many stores do not allow other types of reusable containers.
- Note the tare, or weight, of your containers beforehand and let your checker know. You want to pay for your items, not the additional weight of your glass jars! Some places either weigh your containers for you at customer service, or provide scales for you to do it yourself. This is more common at health food stores and co-ops.
- Make sure your containers are clean! Nobody wants to see flour in a mildewed bag, and you don't want to contaminate your own items.
- Be prepared to feel a little self conscious. I was surprised by how uncomfortable and embarrassed I felt when I started to use cloth bags. But honestly, most grocery store clerks have seen everything, and as long as I don't make their job harder, they do not care. I do occasionally get questions from other shoppers who want to know where they can get their own bags!
Storing Bulk Items
Once you buy your bulk items, your battle is halfway won! But--and this is where I sometimes fall down on the job--you need to store your bulk goods properly to really declare victory. Keeping them in their bags isn't ideal, as plastic bags are thin and can rip (plus they're hard to stack). If you use cloth bags, you'll want to wash and store them for your next shopping trip. So set aside hard-sided plastic or glass containers that are large enough for your items and transfer them right away. I find using a wide-mouthed canning funnel can make this a quick and mess-free process.
Again, I must exhort you to label your items, even if you think you'll remember later. Baking soda and baking powder look a lot alike, as do many flours and ground spices. Write down the date, while you're at it!
Finally, be aware of each item's temperature needs. Dry pasta and beans are fine in your pantry. Store perishable foods like whole grains, cornmeal and coconut flour in the refrigerator or freezer to keep them from going rancid (or attracting insects).
Are you ready to test the waters of bulk bin shopping, or are you a seasoned pro? Do you have any "scores" to brag about or additional tips? Post them below!