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Bin Savvy: The Best Bulk-Aisle Buys

I love trail mix. My local grocery store carries something called Zen party mix that has candied and spicy peanuts, sesame sticks, and almonds—I could eat a pound of it in one sitting (and have come fairly close to doing just that). My boyfriend also snacks on it just about every night. Plus, the stuff’s totally cheap—I buy it from the bulk bins for around two bucks a pound. The other day, as I was happily scooping some out, a lightbulb went off in my mind: How many of my other regular purchases could I get in this aisle for cheaper? 

Turns out, my beloved bulk aisle actually offers a wide variety of package-free foods beyond my favorite nut mix: spices, nut butters, pastas, dried fruits, beans, flours, grains, and tons of snacks and candy. For every dollar that food costs in its packaged form, growers usually make only around nineteen cents, while the other eighty-one cents go toward processing, advertising, packaging, and transportation, according to the USDA Economic Research Service. 

Looking for a way to significantly reduce my spending, pile up less waste, and let my money go more directly to those growing my food, I spent a few weeks shopping only from the self-serve bins. I was able to save money, buy only what I needed, and learn some tricks in the process. 

Tips to Scoop By
Bin shopping can save you money if you remember a few key pieces of advice. 

Get the quantity right. Even when the bulk-bin price is higher than the packaged price, I still ended up saving money when buying smaller quantities of spices and nuts. When I cooked a recipe that called for a Middle Eastern spice I’d never used, I was able to pick up just one tablespoon of it from the bins—instead of having to spend nearly $10 on the whole jar. 

Be adventurous. Scoop a little portion of a new food to try without a huge commitment. Would I ever have tried candied ginger if I’d had to buy an entire package? 

Get more. Need a larger amount than the bags can hold? Ask someone on staff if they can help you set up a special order, says the National Cooperative Grocer Association, a business cooperative representing 109 food co-ops nationwide. 

Bring a notepad. Take a gander down the bulk aisle, scribble down the prices of what you’re considering buying, and then compare them with the packaged versions’ prices. Depending on the amount you’re buying, bins may or may not be the best choice. Once you’ve done your homework the first time, you’ll have the prices on hand, making it quicker next time around. 

The Best Bulk Buys
Based on my shopping, I discovered that many of my usual purchases are more price-smart from the bins. 

Dried beans: Bean prices vary, depending on the bean type. I found that pinto beans were cheaper in the can, but black were cheaper in bulk, by around fifty cents.

Flour: Flour does go bad, so the bulk aisle allowed me to buy about half the amount of a regular-size package for the same price per pound, saving me 50 percent of the cost (and some of my precious cabinet space). 

Spices: Sweet and savory spices are my favorite discovery from the bulk-buying experiment. Not only did I find my old standbys for cheaper, I was able to try new things that I never would have purchased had I been forced to invest in a whole jar. Cardamom, for example, runs nearly eight bucks a bottle, but I bought a tablespoon for less than a dollar. Now I just refill my old spice bottles. 

Nuts: As someone who loves to snack on nuts and toss them into cookies and breads, I’ve often been set back by a steeply priced bag of pecans. Instead of having to buy the $12 bag, I scooped out a cup for an easy five bucks. 

Rice: I also opted for the bulk aisle here, getting brown rice for $1.39, instead of the $2.97 packaged pound-in-a-bag. I found dry pasta and lentil prices to be similar. Those plastic bags must be mighty expensive to manufacture. 

Granola: This was another of my sweetest finds. I swooped up around a pound of pumpkin granola for less than $5; the same amount in a prepackaged version would have been $8 to $10. 

Oats: I grabbed a pound of steel-cut oatmeal for $1.25 a pound—significant savings compared with the packaged brand that runs for a little over $2. 

Dried fruit: These pricey sweets are usually cheaper in bulk. A one-pound bag of dried pineapples, for example, is $6.95 at my local store. I grabbed a few from the bin, at $4.35 per pound, and ended up spending about $3 less. 

Candy and chocolate: I love scooping a few treats because, well, I can munch on some out of the bag while I shop. (Bad etiquette, I know.) Also, I can get just a handful of something fun, like Jordan almonds, without bringing a whole bag home to eat and regret. 

Make It Last
The bags from the store aren’t a good option for keeping food fresh. Once we get goodies home, we’ve got to transfer them into storage-ready containers. I picked up a few and now refill them each week with oatmeal, rice, and cereal—and organized my cabinets in the process. 

While getting the most out of the bins does take a little research and prep, it’s worth the savings for me. When it comes to staples like flour, sugar, oats, dried fruit, and nuts, I’ll be scooping those out of the containers from now on. Because I’ll not only be saving money, I’ll also be reducing packaging and the amount of food I waste. And that deserves a double pat on the back … or maybe an extra scoop of Zen party mix.

Updated March 18, 2011