Bulk food 101
April 9, 2020 10:09 PM   Subscribe

All of this staying at home and trying to avoid shopping has me really wanting to figure out how to buy food in bulk. I also have this idea that it should save us money. Can you tell me how to do this?

My intent is to (a) shop less frequently, (b) save money, (c) eat food that is healthier and less processed via bulk buying grains and other basic ingredients and pairing that with a local farm subscription box with veggies and eggs.

Here are my questions --
(1) Where can I buy bulk foods? I'm mostly looking for organic, which has made things more challenging. (Sorry to be a cliche like that.)
(2) Did prices just go up or are bulk foods not actually cheaper?
(3) What's the deal with delivery?
(4) Should I seriously consider forming a buyer's club?
(5) What are the blogs, forums, and cookbooks I should be reading to figure this out?

Thanks so much.

Footnote: to get this out of the way, my intent isn't to hoard a huge stash. Now that we shop less frequently and entirely online, I have more awareness of how much we eat of various ingredients and would like to simplify it and save money. For certain things, we are trying to increase our consumption and would be more likely to do that if we had a nice 10 pounds bag of beans. But I'm not doing this to fill up my garage with food. And I'm wondering if by doing this I can help relieve the oversupply in the restaurant and industrial food service sector and reduce my burden on the retail grocery sector. Thanks again.
posted by Spokane to Food & Drink (15 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Everybody and their dog is buying staples in bulk right now. The conditions you are finding now probably aren't quite like the conditions you would have had three months ago. I mean, just look at the out of stock wasteland on the Rancho Gordo website, a purveyor of fancy heirloom beans.

I buy lentils from Palouse Brand and they're not organic but they're not big agribusiness either and theoretically are trying to do sustainable farming practices. What's more, it looks like they even have things in stock that you could order. I'm used to their normal pricing and from what I can tell it hasn't been jacked up. They also sell Garbanzo beans and wheat berries.

CostCo is a pretty decent place to get bulk food for a household and they often have organic products available. However, CostCo's going to be one of the places that's the most picked clean because it's a popular place that provides exactly for that demographic of homes that like to bulk buy foods, so everybody's going there and buying all the things in bulk.

In my area there's something called Smart Foodservice that mostly serves small and midlevel restaurants and businesses but anybody can walk in and buy things, there might be similar stores in your area you could try to find.
posted by foxfirefey at 10:55 PM on April 9, 2020 [3 favorites]

tl;dr For the scale you seem to have in mind (10lbs of beans), just go to Costco.

1. Gonna skip this one because I don't look for organic foods.

2. Probably a combination of a lot of people having similar thoughts right now, and maybe you not buying in enough bulk to start seeing the savings due lower units price.

3. Most places will ship via regular package services like ups. Some places will only deliver to commercial addresses. If you are offered lift gate service, take it. Otherwise, someone's going to drive an 18 wheeler to your house and ask where you keep your loading dock.

4. You would be doing your vulnerable neighbors a favor to form a buying club. But there are many distributors willing to handle small enough orders that you don't need to do that.

5. I think you're overthinking this. Buy foods you already eat and know how to handle. Store and cook them at you ordinarily would. Except aliquot things before you freeze them.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 11:08 PM on April 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

I live in what sounds like a polar-opposite food culture, Hong Kong - one of the world's great restaurant cities and thus one in which people eat out or order food delivery multiple times a day, have tiny, ovenless, one-hob kitchens (mine is 2 square meters, about 22 square feet) and overwhelmingly don't have spare space for anything approaching the volume you're expecting. But good kitchen management has some universal truths, and so I'd recommend keeping a few of these things to keep in mind as you make this lifestyle change.

- Index what you already enjoy eating and are happy to cook each day. Do you plan weekly menus on a spreadsheet or on paper? If you don't do this, you may notice, for example, that you haven't accounted for the weekly pizza order, snacks, drinks or condiments like fats and sauces.

- Plan your purchases for portions that fit what you actually consume, not some idealised goal of consumption. If you have three-egg omelettes for breakfast, for example, you need to factor in the fact that you can't then budget two eggs per person per day, even if some random online guide to doing this says you should.

- Diversify what you buy as much as possible to keep yourself sane and not make your weekly menu planning seem like a grim cycle of the same five dishes. Don't get 10 packs of the same pasta shape or brand if the last ten times you had pasta, the dishes didn't all feature, say, penne rigate. (If you love penne, of course, go for it!) Bulk buying is fine for the absolute staples, like all-purpose flour - but only if you do, in fact, make your own pasta and bread from that flour.

- Use the most local sources you can find to reduce the number of people who need to make a journey to get produce to you; alternatively, arrange for pick-ups at farms or warehouses on the same day to make just the one trip out. This may mean adjusting to local seasons and going without things you are used to. Assume delivery will be disrupted at least sometimes.

- Think about the time and systems needed to store, label and categorise what you buy to make you want to use it. Think about the containers you want - no one will want to haul a fifty-pound sack of flour up from the basement to measure out two cups. Restaurant supply places have basic deli containers like these that might help. Plan this before your food starts arriving. If you're reusing jars to hold all this stuff, sterilise them first. Think about low-lech labels - a marker and masking tape will work fine.

- Implement measures to limit moisture, light and pests wherever you choose to store your food. This probably means some sort of shelf/cabinet situation. You reference a garage, but are you talking about a climate-controlled space, or just some shelves next to your car? Make it easy to use the things you buy. Organise the pathway from your kitchen to your storage space to make you enjoy going out there.

- Connect with restaurant suppliers, local farms and wholesalers to get better value and a less-processed final product but confirm what's on offer first - you don't want to be the person who orders 36 cases of eggs, not 36 eggs. If you can safely connect with neighbours or friends to get a large or unwieldy unit of food, like a side of beef or something, and then process it yourselves, do so.

- Budget time for the intellectual and physical labour to make this transition. You will need to spend time, for example, decanting things into containers, sourcing ingredients, calling vendors, reading recipes, ringing neighbours, or fixing up your garage to hold your supplies.

- Share around expensive equipment (that you clean/sterilise between users) like stand mixers or vacuum sealers if you want to avoid buying it yourself. Choose recipes that don't require these things, or which use the benefit of time or chemical processes to transform them into a new form. No-knead bread takes longer to create than bread in a breadmaker, but is just as good and doesn't require a device other than an oven.

- You don't need to be perfect here. Let's say before the crisis you were cooking 60% of your own meals and eating out/getting food delivered 40% of the time. Changing this mix to 75%/25% or 85%/15% is still going to protect folks and teach you a lot about managing a bulk-based kitchen.

Good luck!
posted by mdonley at 11:35 PM on April 9, 2020 [15 favorites]

Many food co-ops or independent natural food stores (ones with large bulk food sections especially) will take special orders from customers who want to buy in bulk and give a discount. If I wanted to purchase a 25lb bag of organic beans, I'd just call up the food co-op and they'd order one for me along with their next order with the vendor/distributer. I've worked at multiple such stores as well and this is a regular practice for customers.

We did find that if you're looking on Amazon for currently-popular staples in large quantities there is definitely some price inflation happening right now.
posted by soren_lorensen at 12:30 AM on April 10, 2020 [8 favorites]

International markets are great places to pick up large bags of rice and beans at low cost per unit. You can live on mostly those, and regarding the space issue I’ve known people who stack the bags and use them as end tables and furniture.
posted by SaltySalticid at 4:41 AM on April 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

Another vote for Costco.

I live alone and get my groceries almost exclusively from Costco, so I have been bulk-buying for a loooong time. I don't specifically look for organic, but they have a good selection; it's usually a little pricier than the plebian stuff. I was at my local Costco the other day, regular strawberries were $5 for a 4 lb clamshell and organic were $6 for 3 lbs. Nothing at my local was picked clean, although that might vary based on where you live and timing of when you go. Online ordering is available but you'll have to wait a few days for a slot.

mdonley is absolutely right about the things to think about as you make this change. One way to get around the grimness of trying to finish 10 lbs of beans before they all sprout is to think about modular cooking, also known as the salt fat acid heat approach.

So instead of looking at a specific recipe and buying for that recipe, you think: [carb] + [veg] + [protein -- maybe one day this is beans, one day it's tofu, one day it's chicken] + [savory]. I hate those "how to use 10 lbs of beans" listicles, but find this a nice mental balance between routine and variety -- dinner's not an added stress, but rather it's a Mad Libs moment in a Mad Libs day.
posted by basalganglia at 4:43 AM on April 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

A nearby organic bulk food store is offering curb-side service so if you find one near you it could save on shipping too.

Beans and rice keep a long time if stored cool and dry. We use 5-gallon buckets for those, pasta and sugar so we can always have a spare and limit shopping especially when it involves trips to specialty stores in other towns. We got free buckets from relatives working in food related businesses where they are often discarded. If they have pressure fit tops you should have a bucket opener.
posted by Botanizer at 5:15 AM on April 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

International markets are great places to pick up large bags of rice and beans at low cost per unit.

This (plus Costco) is my suggestion as well. Not sure where you are geographically but my town has a population of 20k and there's an Indian grocery store that I frequent and love. They have plenty of bulk organic products including rice, lentils, beans and it's extremely cost-effective.

In terms of your last question, yeah maybe overthinking this a bit, but some of the following resources might help:
  • The BudgetBytes recipe site gets frequent callouts here for good reason. There's a lot of tasty recipes and that page I linked to has articles on how to plan meals, pantry staples, etc.
  • I like the Food52 site for their recipes, but they also have excellent articles and resources, for example a list of "indie" grocery stores where you can order online.
  • The SeriousEats website is another fave and they had a good article on how they stocked their kitchens.

posted by jeremias at 5:33 AM on April 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

Our approach to this is a little unique, but maybe it'll give you some ideas. This will probably be more helpful after we can all start moving around again.

First, my opinion is that the best way to save money is to trade it for time. Less processed usually means less money, but in practice that means you're going to need to put in some work to break things down to portions or products that you will want to use. This is especially true for meat, so finding someone to sell you, say, a quarter of a pig and then butchering it yourself will yield some savings.

Which leads in to my second point - make relationships. Until he moved, we knew a guy who raised pigs and chickens and sold them to us at a very reasonable price (again, IF we were willing to come help with the processing). He introduced me to another person who raises lamb, and now I get local lamb at cheaper than supermarket prices. My local butcher knows me by name and will sell me primal cuts at cheap prices. There's a local bakery/supply shop that buys restaurant quantities of grains and resells them in family sizes for cheaper than the supermarket. Small shops who are willing to work with you might be a good bet.

For other grains and beans, we have a local CSA. Most of their offerings are a little unusual (you're not going to find white all purpose flour, for example), but everything is delicious and high quality. They distribute only once a year, so every February we get 50-60 pounds of various legumes, whole grains, wheat berries, and other similar items.

The one other thing you'll need to consider for bulk buying is storage. Be prepared to spend some money up front for good quality storage containers for dry goods, and consider a standalone freezer if you're doing a lot of bulk food prep or you want to buy meat or fish in bulk. Sealable containers are going to be really important to prevent the spread of pantry moths - we brought something in to the house years ago that was infested, and it's been a nightmare to get under control. Pantry moths will eat through plastic bags, they can get under loose fitting lids, and they will ruin your day.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:35 AM on April 10, 2020 [6 favorites]

I have a household of 5 and we eat a lot of beans and whole grains, and do a good chunk of our own baking. I used to order some things in large bulk quantities through a friend with a bakery and a friend who owned a catering company, but there was some waste - certain flours went rancid, despite what I thought was good storage we got weevils in the barley (you can rinse/eat them without harm but EW), etc. I agree fully with the comments about really think your storage through.

My approach has shifted some from “true bulk” to bulking up. I look for sales on the products I want in larger quantities. There’s a business centre Costco near me that’s good for nuts and seeds and baking things. I do shop at the local international store (not so much organic there) and they carry a lot of Canadian brands in staples like lentils and flour, so I wait for sales - just before the pandemic I got two 4lb bags of chickpeas for $2.99 total. Rice is great there too, cornmeal, etc.

We have basement storage plus a dedicated cupboard, and I have a kind of glass container shelving unit where I have the “right on hand” beans and grains.

Direct-from farm meat + a deep freeze was a lot easier, organic, and came in (minus freezer and electricity) at 60% of cost. However the packaging, while great for warding off freezer burn, gives me shame.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:34 AM on April 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

One note on buying whole animals (or fractions of whole animals) - the most desirable cuts of meat are not the bulk of the animal. I bought a quarter of a pig once, and got something like two hams, two lbs of bacon, some pork chops and sausage, and eight pounds of scrapple. This wasn't a problem, I like scrapple, but can cause an adjustment in meal planning.
posted by sepviva at 9:13 AM on April 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

We get our bulk food from Azure Standard at the best prices in town for what I use them for (I checked).
posted by aniola at 9:30 AM on April 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

We buy most of our bulk from Costco and they do have a decent selection of organic choices. The one thing I haven't seen mentioned is that we buy our grains directly from a mill about 100 miles away. Since it's bulk, we don't have to drive there often and a number of us in city will grab orders for each other if we are headed out there.
posted by advicepig at 10:00 AM on April 10, 2020

If you have Winco where you are, they sell large bags of beans, oatmeal, and red wheat or at least did before covid. Many things are sold out right now with the virus anxiety. Winco also sells 5 gallon buckets and gamma lids for them, which are rings that snap on the bucket and a lid that screws into that, they are much easier to use than prying a lid off a regular 5 gallon bucket but they do cost, and certainly cost more than free if you're getting given buckets.
If you're looking into a freezer I wish you much luck, all I see is sold out signs for those unless you're talking very large commercial ones over a thousand dollars.
When I was a child we bought a 50 pound bag of flour and a 50 pound bag of sugar for the winter, my parents just set the bags in large (clean obvs) garbage cans and we scooped out of there.
If you buy grains or beans from any place and you are at all suspicious of the places' bug control, I mean at all, be sure to freeze your grains/beans and their packaging before you store them. Getting rid of bug infestations is expensive, time-consuming, wasteful and a serious pain in the butt. Also you don't want to open a bucket of flour you were counting on two months from now and find it a writhing mass of meal worms or whatever. Eww indeed.
posted by Rufous-headed Towhee heehee at 12:16 PM on April 10, 2020

I work at a medium to large restaurant and bowling alley in a summer resort community and while we remain open for curbside takeout, we've added beer, wine, soft drinks in cans, juice, condiments, and other goofy shit to our curbside menu just to try to increase cashflow and stay open. Perhaps local establishments in your area are doing something similar. Here in Mass it is all temporarily legal. Thanks Guv Baker!
posted by vrakatar at 8:48 PM on April 10, 2020

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