If you're trying to run your household on a budget, those weekly grocery bills probably have you cringing. Food prices are on the rise, and they're only expected to go up over the holiday season. Whether you're trying to save some cash on Christmas dinner or just want to get your grocery budget under control, buying food in bulk can make a big difference.
When we talk about buying bulk groceries, we don't only mean heading to Costco and picking up a flat of canned tuna. Sure, you can save money this way, but the term "bulk" groceries also refers to those bins of loose goods that you can find at many grocery and natural food stores. Think dried beans, rice, soup mixes, and spices -- it's often much cheaper to buy them from the bulk bin. When you buy packaged foods, you're paying for more than just the food itself. Bulk food costs less to package, and less packaging means it weighs less, so it's cheaper to ship, as well.
The trick with buying in bulk is sorting out storage. No one wants a pantry full of those flimsy plastic bags, and you want to be sure that your bulk items don't spoil. What are the best ways to store bulk food? We've got some budget-friendly tips for you here!
Reuse, Reuse, Reuse
If you're buying from the bulk bin, you'll want to get your food out of those thin, plastic bags as soon as you can. They're prone to breaking and not really meant for long-term storage. If you're trying to save money by buying in bulk, though, you don't want to spend a bunch of cash on storage solutions either. Don't worry! With a little bit of planning you'll find a wealth of bulk food storage options already in your kitchen.
Of course, you can raid your stash of food storage containers, if you need to, but your pantry is probably already packed with storage solutions. Next time you finish off a jar of pickles or pasta sauce, don't toss it in the recycle bin. Put it in the dishwasher instead and save it to store bulk items like dried beans, grains, and soup mixes. Your wallet will thank you. If you don't have enough storage containers already, opt for reusable glass containers like Mason jars or glass food storage systems. The up-front investment is pricier, but glass lasts longer than plastic, so you'll save money in the long run.
You can also store food in reused plastic containers, like yogurt or margarine tubs. These won't last as long as glass, but the price is right! Just avoid storing acidic food in these types of containers, because the acid can cause the plastic to leach into the food. You also don't want to heat anything in these containers for the same reason.
Of course, carefully storing your bulk food doesn't mean much if it spoils in the back of the pantry. Up next, we have some tips on how to organize your bulk items to reduce waste from spoilage.
Watch Your Expiration Dates
Whether the expiration date is already printed on the package or you sort it out with an online tool like StillTasty, keep that date in mind. You don't want to expend all of that energy bargain hunting only to have your bulk items go bad in a lonely corner of the pantry, fridge, or freezer!
Organize your bulk items so goods that expire sooner are closer to the front of the freezer or pantry for easier access. When it's time to get cooking, you'll be more likely to use what you can easily see, which will help you reduce the amount of food that goes to waste.
Keeping an eye on those expiration dates isn't the only way to prevent your bulk food from spoiling. Making sure that you store things properly can go a long way in making those purchases last.
Find the Right Spot
The best place to store your bulk foods depends a lot on what you're purchasing. For dry goods from the bulk bins, you'll want to keep them in a cool, dry place, like the pantry.
For some bulk food, the ideal method for storage will depend on how long you plan to store them. Items like bread products and cakes will keep for a few days in a bread box, a week or so in the fridge, or for a couple of months in the freezer. The trick to freezing bread products is to wrap them well in foil or a freezer bag, so that they won't get freezer burn -- covered in ice and tasting funky.
Of course, if you buy frozen foods in bulk, the best place to store them is in the freezer. If you open a large bag of frozen veggies and don't use them all, you'll want to put the rest into a freezer bag to prevent freezer burn.
Commercially canned goods, whether they're in glass jars or metal cans, are a bit lower maintenance as far as storage. You don't need to worry too much about them getting too warm, though temperatures of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 degrees Celsius) can harm your canned goods and cause them to spoil.
Think you can't purchase fruits, veggies, and herbs in bulk? Think again! On the next page, we'll talk about how you can process produce at home for longer-term storage.
Process Bulk Produce for Longer-term Storage
Unlike packaged bulk food, bulk produce has a much shorter shelf life. You can generally tell when produce is starting to turn, but one week is a good rule of thumb when it comes to most produce. Heartier root vegetables, like potatoes and onions, will keep for a few weeks if you store them somewhere cold and dry, like your refrigerator's produce drawer.
If you do find produce in bulk that has a shorter shelf life, you can still make it last by preserving it yourself! You can extend the life of bulk veggies in the freezer. You'll just want to blanch them in boiling water, seal in an air tight freezer bag once they cool, and freeze.
Chopped fruit will also keep well in the freezer. If you're freezing more delicate fruit, like berries, and you don't want them to come out in a frozen berry clump, you can freeze them first on a cookie sheet lined with wax paper for a few hours, then transfer them to a freezer bag or other air tight container once they're frozen.
For bulk herbs, you can chop them up, wrap them in a paper towel, and freeze them in a Tupperware container or dry them yourself.
More ambitious homemakers can also pickle or can bulk produce to make it last far longer than it would fresh. Just make sure you carefully follow trustworthy canning recipes. It's important to make sure you're using the right containers and method and maintaining the right balance of acids to keep your home-canned foods from spoiling.
Up next, we'll talk about how to protect your bulk food from pantry pests.
Keep Pantry Pests Away
Pests aren't much of a concern for canned foods or food you're going to store in the fridge or the freezer, but dry bulk items can be susceptible to those little unwanted diners. If you've ever pulled a bag of flour out of the pantry and found it full of weevils, you know that it's important to properly store your dry goods.
The easiest way to keep pests out of your bulk foods is to avoid storing them in paper. Weevils, ants, and other pantry pests can easily munch through a paper bag to get at the goods inside. Instead, transfer items like cornmeal and flour out of paper bags or boxes and into a glass or plastic storage container for long term storage. Just make sure to label your container with what it is and when it expires. You don't want to think you're adding sugar to a cookie recipe, only to discover that the unlabeled jar you grabbed was full of salt!
Depending on where you live, what you're buying, and where you're planning to stash your food, you may need to consider humidity when you're storing bulk foods. On the next page, we've got some tips for keeping moisture from destroying your dry goods.
Fight Humidity with Proper Storage
Another issue with bulk dry goods is humidity. Moisture can make food spoil more quickly, so it's important to keep things like dried beans, grains, sugar, and flours dry to maximize their shelf life.
The best way to fight humidity is to store your dry goods in air tight containers. That means a plastic or glass container with a tight-fitting lid . Plastic bags will work, but they're more prone to leaks and holes, so a proper container is best. Plus, if you're budgeting, you don't want to spend money over and over on plastic bags when you can reuse your glass and plastic storage containers for years, right?
When you do open your storage containers to scoop out some of those dry goods, make sure you're using a dry spoon or measuring cup. If you don't have a dry utensil handy, pour instead of scooping.
Humidity can do a number on dry goods, but luckily canned food is generally safe from humidity's effects. If you're planning to store food you've canned yourself long-term, though, there are a few safety precautions that you should take. Check them out on the next page!
Store Home-Canned Foods Safely
It would be a terrible shame to spend so much time and energy canning veggies, jams, and pickles only to have them spoil in the pantry, and proper storage can ensure that the food you're eating is safe. With proper storage, most home-canned food can last up to a year in the pantry.
To keep your lovingly home-canned foods from spoiling, it's important to keep them out of direct sunlight, and store them in a cool, dry place. That doesn't mean you have to keep your pressure canned food in the refrigerator, but it does mean finding spot in the pantry to maximize their shelf life.
You'll also want to remove the rings from your Mason jars when you store them. Most canning jars have three parts: the jar itself, a small lid, and a ring to secure the lid to the jar. You need the ring while you're processing your canned foods, but once the canning is done, remove the ring. That way, if the food spoils, your lid will pop up. Save those canning rings somewhere handy, because you can use them to secure the lid if you don't use all of the jar's contents the first time. Once you've opened anything canned, you'll want to store it in the fridge and use it up within a week of opening.
Safety is the biggest issue when you're storing any food items. On top of fighting spoilage, you want to make sure that your bulk food doesn't become contaminated. More on that on the next page.
Keep Food and Non-Food Separate
This might sound like a no-brainer, but one important rule for storing your bulk food items is to keep them away from non-food items. You don't want to keep the sugar next to the rat poison and dishwashing detergent or boxes of cereal in the same cabinet as your window cleaner. Storing food near potentially dangerous materials like this increases the risk of cross-contamination.
You'll also want to keep any bulk food in the refrigerator away from raw meat, fish, and poultry to prevent cross-contamination from these foods, which are prone to carrying bacteria.
On the flip side, it's a good idea to keep your bulk foods away from easily damaged paper products. Store paper towels, napkins, and paper dishware on a higher shelf, if you do have to store them in the same cabinet as your bulk foods. One busted jar of tomato sauce can ruin months' worth of paper goods and negate a lot of the cash you saved by opting for bulk food in the first place.
Toxic chemicals and bacteria can contaminate your food, but you also want to make sure you store bulk items away from heat and water sources, because these can shorten their shelf life.
Avoid Heat and Water Sources
So, your pantry runneth over, and you've decided the store some of your bulk food bounty down in the basement or on a shelf in another room of the house. This is no problem at all, as long as you do a quick survey before selecting your storage space.
Before piling your bulk food onto a shelf, make sure it's not close to a heat source. Heat sources like radiators and even large appliances are no good for bulk foods. Hot water lines can also damage bulk items. Even canned goods can spoil if they're exposed to too much heat.
The other thing to consider is whether you're storing your bulk food close to water lines, especially sewer lines. Chances are, everything will be fine, but you don't want to risk a burst pipe or a leak ruining your stash of bulk food. Even if your food is in sealed plastic or glass containers, if a pipe leaks onto your bulk food, you don't want to chance exposing yourself to that bacteria. It's best to toss it.
Apartment-dwellers and folks who don't have a full-on pantry might feel like they don't have the storage space for bulk food, but this isn't necessarily true! With a little storage know-how, you can find ways to stash your bulk food safely even in a smaller space, on the next page.
Small Spaces Can Store Bulk Food, Too!
If you have a small kitchen, it might feel like bulk foods are out of the question, but this isn't so! True, you may need to skip the flat of tomato sauce at Sam's Club, but you can still get in on the bulk food action at your grocery store's bulk bins.
The key is creative storage. Your pantry may be too small (or even non-existent), but bulk items like grains and beans are pretty, so why not show them off? As long as you keep them out of direct sunlight, it's totally fine to keep your dry goods in pretty Mason jars on a shelf in your kitchen or even the living room rather than in the pantry.
You can also get creative with where you store those bulk goods. Maybe your kitchen is totally full, but is there a hall closet that has some extra space? Once you make sure that your alternative space is away from heat and water sources, you can designate a shelf or two for storing food. Just remember: you don't want to store food and chemicals in the same closet. You'll also want to make sure when you're meal planning that you remember to check that secret stash of food that you squirreled away, so it won't spoil on the shelf.
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- Dorfman, Brad. "Food Price Rise to Hit Holiday Spending: Survey." Reuters. Nov. 1, 2011. (Nov. 8, 2011) http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/11/01/us-usa-consumer-survey-idUSTRE7A05DU20111101
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