Buying in Bulk Without Wasting Tons of Food

The idea of buying in bulk gives me all the warm and fuzzies. Really! When I was a kid, bulk buying meant a standing date with my dad, once a month, from late Saturday morning into the early afternoon. He’d push the giant cart through the aisles, and I would skip alongside him, anxious to learn what exactly we’d be sampling at the endcap. We made our lunch out of those samples, tasting each one quite thoughtfully before moving on to what seemed to be a lifetime supply of toilet paper and toothpaste. Oh, and animal crackers. I could always get dad to buy at least 25 pounds of animal crackers!

Today, as a mom myself, with a houseful of my own kids to feed and clothe and educate, I continue to love buying in bulk … for totally different reasons. Sample day is still a thrill, but more than anything, bulk buying helps me stretch my budget. The key is having a good plan, so nothing bought in bulk goes forgotten (and goes bad).

Here are my best tips for buying in bulk to stretch your budget, not wreck your budget.

Break Down the Costs

Before you start buying in bulk – before you even start researching warehouse club memberships – analyze your current purchasing habits. Pay particular attention to perishable foods like fruits, vegetables and bakery goods. Divide your weekly bill for these products into a daily cost, then determine how many pieces of produce or slices of bread your collective household actually consumes every day. With these numbers in mind, ask yourself if your family will even eat bulk amounts of perishables before they, well, perish.

Set up Storage Systems

So you’ve decided it makes sense to buy in bulk. Before you go shopping, figure out how you’re going to store everything once you get it home. Just about everything edible has an expiration date. And produce and proteins, which are typically the costliest items on your grocery list, have expiration dates that come quickly after purchase dates. Make sure you have a storage plan, because any food that goes bad before it’s eaten is a big fat waste of money, whether it was bought in bulk or not.

As soon as I get home from a bulk shopping trip, I put perishables right where they need to be to lengthen their lifespans. Asparagus bouquets are placed in tall cups of water, like flowers, and popped into the fridge. I leave the bananas, grapes and berries my family will eat over the next week on the counter, and freeze the rest. Bananas are sliced into coins, and grapes and berries are plucked from their stems to be frozen in portions perfect for smoothies. I freeze loaves of bread and divide packages of protein into family meal portions for easy dinner prep in the future. I also like to fold a slice of white bread into a couple pounds of brown sugar so it doesn’t clump between baking sessions.

Plan Your Meals

Make sure your meal plan includes recipes that will incorporate your bulk purchases. I’ve learned the hard way that my family gets sick of eating the same thing over and over again. That’s why I follow a three-recipe rule of thumb when buying in bulk. If I can’t get at least three recipes out of each ingredient, it doesn’t make the list in the first place.

Bananas are first offered up as the base for “ants on a log” (banana halves topped with peanut butter and raisins), then as banana bread, then as the star of a blended breakfast drink. Ground beef is first a burger, then a sloppy Joe, and finally the filling for tacos on Tuesdays. A massive hunk of cheese is sliced for after-school snacks and low-key happy hours at home, then shredded for toasty sandwiches, and later melted into a classic noodle casserole. Eggs are scrambled for brunch, boiled to top dinner salads, and baked into individual quiches to be frozen and later microwaved for breakfasts on the go.

Take It Slow

Even with a game plan, it’s all too easy to walk into a warehouse club and be wooed into buying a 10-gallon drum of EVERYTHING your family likes to eat. Create a bulk buying budget for yourself based on all the homework you’ve done and commit to spending a dollar amount based on your household consumption habits. I buy in bulk once a month, so my budget is based on what my family consumes in a month. You know what your family eats and when, and it might not be the same as mine. Create a budget that works for you.

And when you’re just getting started, ease into bulk buying. Start with a few items on your first trip, see how it plays out over time and adjust from there. Happy bulk shopping … and sampling!

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