Tips for Buying Kitchen Staples in Bulk

Reader Contribution by Eric Reuter and Chert Hollow Farm
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Restaurant-grade containers are good choices for storing bulk foods. Photo by Joanna Reuter

Buying certain foods in bulk is a great way to save money, packaging, and shopping time, while opening up new opportunities to support good farmers. We raise much of our own food on our homestead farm, but still need to source kitchen staples like flour, sugar, salt, dried pasta, and nuts from the outside world.

Buying these items in bulk has allowed us to virtually eliminate normal shopping trips, reduce packaging waste, and ensure that more of our food dollars to go farmers instead of middlemen. While the bulk bins at many grocery stores are a good start, in this context we’re talking about direct-ordering large quantities of single items rather than choosing a few pounds from a store bin.

Here are some tips and considerations for buying and handling bulk foods in a homestead setting.

Understanding Your Kitchen Patterns

Buying in bulk is a good way to learn more about just how and what you eat. For example, the average American consumes about 130 pounds of sugar per year — do you have any idea what your number is?

When you buy small amounts of ingredients on a weekly basis, it’s really easy to lose track of the annual total, but when your sugar comes in 25-pound bags a couple times a year (as ours does), it’s a lot easier to keep track of.

Conversely, knowing what you eat and when can help you use bulk purchasing most effectively. We tend to keep more sugar on hand during late spring and summer for preserving fruits and fermenting drinks. Salt comes in handy in later summer and fall, for fermentation and meat preservation. If you do a lot of pickling, a timely case of vinegar can save you money and stress.

The shelf-life of various foods is an important factor interacting with your consumption patterns. We started buying brown rice in 25-pound bags, but found that it tended to go rancid before we could finish it, even though we eat a fair amount of rice. Bulk buying isn’t sustainable or sensible if it just leads to more food waste.

In general, the more processed (and less healthy) a food is, the longer it lasts — think white flour, white sugar, and standard pasta. Brown rice, whole-grain flour, and nuts can go rancid if stored improperly or for too long.

Handling and Storing Bulk Foods in the Kitchen

Proper storage will really enhance the longevity and quality of bulk foods. We primarily use restaurant-grade containers with tightly-sealing lids, which we purchase from a restaurant supply store. They’re more expensive than generic plastic-ware, but are far stronger and longer-lived.

For everyday use, we keep quart or half-gallon jars on the counter — refilling these from a home bulk bin is far easier than a trip to the store. Tight lids are important, as pests like grain moths can squeeze through small cracks and ruin a large batch of material.

Freezing bulk items temporarily can kill any eggs and larvae that might already be present. We also freeze items like nuts that might go rancid before a large batch is fully consumed, generally dividing up the bulk amount into smaller containers that can be retrieved one at a time to thaw.

Doing some of your own processing can save money and enhance the storage life of some bulks foods. For example, we use a KitchenAid mixer attachment to grind our own flour (wheat, oat, rye) and cornmeal. The whole corn and grains are far more shelf-stable than the milled final product — we can store 25 pounds of whole wheat berries far longer than we can store 25 pounds of whole wheat flour, and grinding it ourselves gives more control over the texture and quality of the product.

Sourcing Bulk Foods

In some areas, grocery or health-food stores will make bulk orders for you of any item they can get in commercial quantities, usually for a discount. We order many generic items like sugar, salt, raisins, and pasta this way.

However, another benefit of bulk buying is the ability to purchase directly from good farmers or co-ops, which directs your spending to growers you approve of and gives you more options than many stores. While we buy locally for appropriate products (such as fruits in-season), we’re also happy to buy from good farmers in other parts of the country or world if they produce a special product that’s worth supporting.

For example, we buy a wide variety of Filipino heirloom rice, happy to support the conservation of that country’s beautiful rice terraces. While we raise many fruits here in Missouri, citrus isn’t one of them, so we order boxes of high-quality fruits directly from an organic orchard in Texas. The rice and citrus available in our local stores is generally of lower quality, and has passed through many middlemen; direct bulk purchases send more money to the farmers.

Other direct-order foods for us include pecans and wheat berries. If you direct-order in bulk, be sure you have a good way to receive the large packages; no one wants a big bag of wheat berries left out in the rain!

Benefits of Bulk

Our bulk-purchasing system, combined with our home production and farm-sourcing of perishable foods, has allowed us to eliminate “normal” grocery shopping entirely. We figure that we save hours per week by not driving to a store and wandering aisles overstocked with false choices, much less the stress that comes with trying to maintain constant grocery lists. Our waste stream contains minimal food packaging; many of the large bulk bags work great as garbage bags rather than as garbage themselves. The quality of our diet and life is higher, and the greater independence from marketing and shopping fits well in our self-sufficient lifestyle.

Eric Reuter and his wife, Joanna, founded their homestead farm in 2006, within a narrow Ozark-style valley with diverse landscapes and ecosystems. Chert Hollow Farm seeks to integrate food and farming into the ecosystem, at various times managing vegetable & grain crops, perennial fruits, dairy/meat goats, poultry, timber resources, and natural habitats. Read all of Eric’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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