Last night I opened up about how much I actually spend on groceries. I feel a little weird about posting that for the whole world to see, honestly. We Minnesotans aren’t exactly comfortable talking about money. But we can’t sit around assuming that groceries aren’t a huge part of our monthly and yearly budget. They are, and that’s why so many people cut corners on grocery costs. But how do you cut corners without sacrificing health? Without sacrificing environmental stewardship?
That’s right, this post is going to be a loving ode to Ye Olde Bulk Section. (The picture above is of Seward Co-op’s bulk section, where I get most of my groceries.) Here are just some reasons you should acquaint yourself with the bulk section:
1. Buy only as much as you need and save money.
2. You won’t pay for all the packaging with normal grocery items — and you won’t have to throw all that packaging away.
3. If you happen to live in or near at least a college-size city, there’s a good chance that it will have a natural foods co-op. If so, you’re in luck: co-ops have awesome bulk sections, with lots of unusual and specialty grains.
Shopping this way is not without its challenges. The first: come to the grocery store prepared.
Sometimes it takes me at least a solid 30 minutes to write out my grocery list and find a container for each bulk item I need. But it’s quick work putting everything away. We do returnable glass bottles for milk, as well. I also bring a funnel along to make it easier to get the grains into my jars. Here’s the bulk stuff from a typical trip:
(And my ever-present cup of coffee…) When I first started using the bulk section, I just used the plastic bags that they make available. But then those plastic bags started piling up at home, and they weren’t really a size I could use for anything else. Also, if I bought (for example) flour, I would have to transfer it to a different container at home anyway. Why not save the step and just bring the container? I have a whole basket of containers set aside for grocery shopping. Some are glass, some are plastic, and they are all different shapes and sizes. The ones with the orange lids are actually from Seward Co-op; I have a collection of 9 or 10 that I keep re-using for liquid items.
If you live in south Minneapolis, the Seward Co-op is really a shining star of bulk section shopping. Really, the co-op inspired me to shop this way. They have things you’d expect, like grains, nuts, flours, and cereals, but then they also have cooking oils, maple syrup, honey, grind-your-own peanut and almond butter, and even various liquid soaps. Good stuff. Much of it is local, and all of it is substantially cheaper than what you’ll find pre-packaged on the shelves.
Of course, you have to be a list-maker in order to shop this way. So if you don’t currently make a grocery list, that would be a good place to start. My mind is so befuddled since I had kids, that if I don’t have a list I just stand there and stare off into space.
Confused yet? Here’s a 5-step plan to buying healthier foods at the grocery store, and saving money and helping the environment at the same time:
1. Take stock of your pantry and fridge and note what you need. Make your list, planning at least a couple meals and stocking basics so you can come up with stuff on the fly. (Bittman has a really great list in How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.)
2. Note which things you can get in the bulk section of your local grocery store (for the love of God, choose a grocery store that has a decent bulk section), and find a suitable container in your house for each bulk item. Doesn’t have to be anything fancy — you could even raid your recycling bins (I have).
3. Pack everything up in re-usable grocery bags and head off to the store. Many stores will give you a $.10-$.50 discount for each bag. Hey, it adds up! Also, go at a time of day when you don’t have to rush.
4. In the bulk section, weigh each container and note the container weight on one of those sticky notes they provide. Fill them up, and you’re good to go.
Here’s my pantry; I’m not one bit ashamed to show you:
Hey, I’ve got two boxes of cereal and some graham crackers up there! (Shame on me!) That little “irish oatmeal” tin is one of my favorite bulk refills. I think I originally paid over $5 for that little tin of steel-cut oats. Now I just refill it in the bulk section and it usually costs a little under $2. (And the oats are local, rather than shipped here from Ireland. Not that I have anything against Irish oats.)
Finally, I want to note that since I have started shopping this way I have noticed a substantial decrease in the amount of garbage and recycling items we create in this house. REDUCE? Check. Much easier than recycling, in my opinion.