If you’re not shopping from the bulk bins at your supermarket, you’re missing out on some amazing deals. Not only can you find a wide selection of dry goods, but you may also score cheaper prices on essentials. (There’s a reason purchasing bulk cleaning supplies is a financially savvy move.) Plus, buying only the quantities you need helps eliminate food waste, and using reusable containers and bags helps make your grocery shopping more zero waste.
“There are tons of great deals in bulk, primarily because the consumer isn’t paying for packaging,” says Trey McLean, a senior global category merchant for Whole Foods Market who oversees the store’s bulk department.
But before you go grabbing a bag and a scoop and digging in to those bulk bins, there are a few things you need to know.
First, prioritize safety; it’s unsanitary to go carelessly digging in the bins and graze the product with your hand, and equally so to let unsupervised kids reach in with their fingers. While most experts say harmful microbes aren’t likely to grow in bulk bins because they don’t contain enough moisture to harbor bacterial growth, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Second, be sure you transfer your items to appropriate vessels after you return home. “The best thing you can do is put your items in air-tight containers,” McLean says. Store the containers in the cupboard, fridge, or freezer, depending on the item.
Third, venture outside your comfort zone. “Bulk set size and ingredients will vary [from store to store], which can be a good thing because it means you’ll find regional or local items in the bulk department, like honey, that are unique to your store,” McLean says.
Finally, keep in mind that you shouldn’t automatically assume the price is better because it’s available in bulk. “Sometimes the prices are much better, other times they are much more expensive,” says Brianne Bell, a registered dietitian based in Toronto. “Always shop around if you’re concerned about price.”
With those four pointers added to your grocery shopping knowledge, go forth and shop in bulk: Here’s what to stock up on (and what to skip) from the bulk bins.
Stock up on…
Oats, rice, and beans
If you’re looking at cost per ounce or cost per pound, oats, rice, and beans are the top three best deals in the bulk department, McLean says.
A great source of plant-based protein, lentils store well for long periods of time, says Eila Rain, a holistic health coach who frequents the bulk bins with her clients.
Chia or flax seeds
These two ingredients are normally consumed in small quantities—a teaspoon here, a tablespoon there—and both go rancid over time, so at least part of the bag often ends up getting thrown out, says Mary Weidner, co-founder of the Strongr Fastr meal-planning app. Buy these in small amounts from the bulk bins instead and store them in a small jar you can store on the counter to easily sprinkle over oatmeal or salads.
These are great to have on hand for movie night without having to buy a large container you may not be able to use up before the kernels go bad, Rain says.
Bulk bins are an excellent place to shop spices that you rarely use, McLean says. During the holidays, for example, you can stock up on seasonal spices such as nutmeg and cardamom and only buy what you need so full jars won’t sit empty in your pantry the rest of the year. Buying in bulk also allows you to experiment with spices without committing to an entire bottle, such as turmeric for a smoothie, sesame seeds for a stir-fry, or lemongrass for a marinade, Weidner says.
Buying these and grinding them into fresh pepper is infinitely tastier than pepper that’s already ground, Rain says. Get a refillable grinder so you don’t have to buy a new one every time you run out.
White, brown, and powdered sugars are good buys in the bulk section, and technically never spoil, as long as they’re stored in a dry place—but are best used within two years, according to the USDA.
Unflavored protein powder
Don’t want to commit to a big tub of protein powder? Scoop from the bulk bins instead. “Unflavored protein powder is great for adding in small quantities to boost protein in a meal,” Weidner says. “Add a spoonful to oatmeal, yogurt, smoothies, and even cookies.”
A small scoop can be a healthier way to satisfy a sweet tooth, Rain says. Buy dried fruit for a snack on its own, or add it to trail mixes with other ingredients.
Buying this in bulk gives you the chance to smell the tea before buying, unlike packaged tea bags, Bell says.
Nuts can be risky to buy in bulk, unless you’re shopping at a supermarket with high turnover and plan to eat them quickly after purchasing. “They’re packed with healthy oils that go rancid quickly at room temperature, meaning they can go bad sitting in the bulk bins,” says Stephanie Stiavetti, a professional chef and founder of Fearless Fresh online cooking courses. If you do buy nuts in bulk, double-seal them in plastic bags and store in the refrigerator or freezer.
Flours are also a problem to buy in bulk, unless you’re shopping at a store that empties their bins regularly. “The oils in grains are already fragile, and they become even more so when ground to a powder and exposed to light, oxygen, and fluctuating temperatures of a grocery store,” Stiavetti says. It’s perfectly okay to ask the person running the bulk aisle when the flour bin was last filled to learn how old the flour is. If it’s been there unsealed for longer than two weeks, it’s a “hard pass,” according to Stiavetti.
One word of caution:
If you have food allergies or celiac disease, you may want to steer clear of the bulk bins, as they may not be able to guarantee the contents. “I’m sure stores do the best they can,” Bell says, “but it’s not worth the risk of cross-contamination.”
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