Demystifying the Bulk Bin Section

Things I don’t like: Trying something new when I don’t know how it works.

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For years, I avoided the bulk bin section at the grocery store because I didn’t know the process and I didn’t want to embarrass myself by standing there looking dumbfounded trying to unlock some secret code or something. It wasn’t until I passed through the aisle, headed towards the cold cases, one fateful morning that the price of rolled oats caught my eye.  $1.29/ lb. for the organic kind! I had been paying $2.55/ lb. by purchasing it in containers. We eat a lot of oatmeal, so that’s a pretty big savings. As I began to look at other prices, I was amazed. Everything was so much cheaper than I anticipated.

It was quiet at the store and I had the aisle to myself, so I decided I would finally suck it up and figure out how the system works. Turns out, it’s really not a complicated system. You scoop what you want into a bag, write down the corresponding number on a little tie and attach it to your bag. That’s it. (I haven’t worked up the courage to try yet, but some stores will even allow you to just fill your containers rather than use their bags. Be sure to ask first though, because they’ll need to get the weight of the containers when empty in order to charge you properly.)

So, now that I’m an expert and all ( 😉 ), I present you with 5 tips for utilizing bulk bins.

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1.) Reuse containers.
When you purchase items from the bulk bin section, you will put in those thin plastic produce bags. Those bags can be a pain and aren’t meant for long term storage, so you’ll need to transfer them to something else when you get home. There is absolutely no need to go out and purchase containers though — just start saving containers from what you already buy.

In the above picture, you can see some of the containers I reuse. The container labeled “Rolled Oats” was an empty nut container. Same with the “Green Lentils.” There’s old pickle jars, jelly jars, honey jars, pasta sauce jars and oatmeal containers pictured. If your containers are glass, just remove the labels and tape your own label on. For the oatmeal containers, I simply wrapped a piece of cardstock around it and taped it on. This post by the Zero Waste Chef is excellent for learning how to cleanly remove labels and stink from old jars.

Be sure to pay attention to size/shape compared to how often you’ll use each item. For instance, I actually have 3 of those rolled oats containers. I go through oats like crazy, so I buy a ton. It wouldn’t make sense for me to use one of the jars for oats instead. Also, typically with oats I’m scooping with a measuring cup, so I need something with a wide mouth. Corn starch I don’t use near as often and only a little at a time, so a smaller jar makes sense.

2.) Only buy as much as you need for the week, unless it’s on sale.
Besides being cheaper than their prepackaged counterparts, the bulk bin section also helps your budget in that you only need to purchase as much as you need.

For instance, if I’m making a chicken salad and want to throw some dried cranberries in it, I can purchase just 1 cup of dried cranberries instead of an entire package. Even though I would eventually use the rest of the dried fruit, it would likely not get used in the same week, so purchasing just the quantity I need frees up my money for other things.

Occasionally, there will be some really good sales in the bulk bin section and that is when you want to stock up on something you know you’ll use. When the mixed nuts go on sale for a $2.00 less per pound, we get extras. When oats are on sale for 50 cents a pound, you better believe I’m stocking up. Just be smart and buy only what your budget allows. Sales are on a pretty constant rotation, so it will be on sale again down the road.

3.) Don’t pass up the spice section.
It was a couple months into my bulk buying habits until I even realized they also had spices. Buying spices in bulk like this is so much cheaper! You can save the little containers from when you purchase them or reuse other small glass jars and fill those.

This is definitely the way to go when you want to make a spice blend of your own. It can get expensive buying 5 or 6 different spices to make your own chili seasoning. If you purchase the amounts from the bulk bin, it can save you loads. It’s also great for when you only need a small amount of something for a recipe.

For example, I needed 1 teaspoon of cream of tartar for a recipe. This is something I literally never use, so there is no reason for me to have a jar on hand. I ended up paying around 20 cents for a small amount of cream of tartar, rather than a couple dollars for a jar that would get pushed to the back of the cabinet for months on end.

Filling the small bags they provide for spices can be messy, so just be careful and take your time. I still lie in bed at night thinking about the time I was literally covered in onion powder and this lady walked by me shaking her head…

4.) Familiarize yourself with prices and compare.
I do most of my shopping at 2 grocery stores and occasionally a third. All 3 stores have bulk bin sections, but I only ever use 2 of them. (More on that in the next tip.) The prices can vary greatly for the exact same items, so it’s important to compare to ensure you’re getting the best deal.

For example, I was addicted to dried apricots for quite a while and was purchasing them at store A for $13.99/lb. A few months later, I started shopping at store B and discovered they had the exact same item in their bulk bin for only $5.99/lb. That is an enormous difference! I did more comparisons and discovered that store B had better prices overall, while store A had more of an organic selection. I have since switched most of my shopping to store B, with the occasional pit stop to store A for specific items.

Keep a small notebook in your purse or a make a listing on the memo pad on your phone. You don’t need to price compare everything, just 4 or 5 of your most purchased items.

5.) Pay attention to turnover.
Now about store C. Store C is my convenient store because it’s literally across the street from where I live. The prices on most items are much higher than store B, so I only go there when I’m in a pinch or for things I can’t find at store B.

Store C has a bulk bin section, but I’ve literally never seen a single person use it. That makes me leery to use it myself, since I have no idea how long anything has been sitting. Store B is known for having an excellent bulk bin section and I’m confident that they have a good turnover on their items, so I choose to buy there.

And 1 caveat: If you have a severe allergy to something such as gluten or nuts, avoid the bulk bins and buy prepackaged. You never know if the store employees dedicate the bins to 1 item solely, or if they get rotated around. You also don’t know if someone was scooping multiple things with the same scoop. There’s a good chance for cross contamination, so if you’re super sensitive it’s best to just avoid it altogether. 

I hope this post helps clear up any confusion or hesitation when it comes to bulk bin shopping. If you’re looking to save money and/or reduce waste, bulk bin shopping is the way to go.

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