Eat Well, Spend Less: Buying in bulk, long-term food storage, and our personal methods

This post is part 1 of a 3-part series titled "Eat Well, Spend Less". I'm honored to be a part of this series along with other great bloggers representing various parts of the U.S. (and Canada!). I'll be sharing links to their insights tomorrow! (Stay tuned!)

If this is your first time here, welcome! I'm Tammy, I'm a Seattle transplant, and we love good food!

Do you ever cringe when the cashier finishes scanning your groceries and says your total? I know I do! I don't shop with a calculator in hand, but I do shop with a list and usually buy healthy foods that we need and will use. Still, if there's a way to save money on groceries without sacrificing quality or nutrition, I'm all ears! :)

Aside from going on a diet (which I should be doing anyway...), I'm going to share how we save at the grocery store. The topics covered in this first article:

Planning is the key to eating well on a budget

Costco, and why I love it!

How to buy in bulk (no matter how big your pantry is)

Long-term food storage: What and how?

How do I lose weight on a budget, anyway?

Planning is the key to eating well on a budget

Honestly, I believe that planning is the single most important thing I do in the kitchen!

Start the week with a list -- your menu plan. Go to the store with a list -- your "shopping plan". Planning will save you frustration and even time -- even when you're cooking from scratch!

Instead of wandering in the kitchen wondering what to start for dinner, you will be making it. Instead of waiting until the last minute and either opening cans of something or going out to eat, you will have started dinner in the crock pot or have planned a freezer meal.

We very rarely go out to eat, but we did one evening last week and while I enjoyed the break from cooking dinner, I quickly realized that cooking dinner at home is one of the most important things I can do to help our family save money!!

Going out to eat seems to offer the choice of cheap food that I feel guilty feeding to my family, or expensive food that we can eat without guilt. We went with the more expensive option, and it brought into sharp focus the importance of, ummm, eating dinner at home! ;)

Costco, and why I love it!

My grocery shopping posts are a bit repetitive. We live 4 miles from Costco and I've made it my 1-stop shopping trip. (See my post "Is Costco Frugal?" for a discussion about this addiction practice!) I love the quality I find at Costco, the many healthy and organic products they carry, and the fact that their prices are competitive. I stick to buying big bags of whole foods (for the most part, anyway). :)

A few things to remember when shopping at Costco or other warehouse-type stores (Sam's, BJ's, etc.):

Stick to your list! Getting sidetracked at Costco is expensive... nearly everything is $10 or more!

Ask: Can I use this much? If not, consider buying a smaller portion at another store. (Especially if the item is perishable!) If you do go with the bulk purchase, make sure you find creative ways to use the item, freeze some for later (many, many things freeze well!), and don't let it just sit in your pantry. :)

Ask: Is this really a good price? Not everything at Costco is a good price. In general, I find Costco's food to be very competitively priced, though. Find those cheaper items and find ways to use them! :) Also for Costco: wait for your staples to appear in the monthly coupon booklets, if possible. Patience pays off!

How to buy in bulk (no matter how big your pantry is)

Fewer trips to the store always seems to equal less money spent, period. In our apartment, I faced the challenge of a small fridge (with a small freezer attached) and had to make weekly trips to the store for milk, lettuce, and other perishables. Even then, I could still buy many things in bulk!

If it is something you use regularly, consider buying in bulk. Most things are cheaper in bulk! Some of my main bulk purchases:

Flour (25# or 50# bags)
Beans (25# bags... or even 5# containers)
Rice (10# bags)
Sugar, salt
Cheese (5# bags)
Nuts (2-3# bags)
Honey (1/2 gallon)
...and many other things at Costco!

Short on pantry space? We've stored some foods (in plastic buckets) in our garage or enclosed porch. In our apartment, we stacked buckets in our bedroom closet!


Buying in bulk doesn't have to mean buying a lot of something, though. "Bulk food stores" often allow you to purchase a very small amount of something at a great price, all because you're buying it in a plain bag rather than fancy packaging!

Some of my favorite "small" bulk purchases:

Cocoa powder
Shredded coconut
Cornstarch
Seeds (sunflower, flax, sesame, etc.)
...and many baking supplies!

I store these smaller bulk items in glass jars in my kitchen cupboards.

We've been weekly shoppers for years. Leaving our apartment fridge for a house-sized fridge and recently acquiring a small chest freezer has made it possible for us to now shop every 2-3 weeks, with an occasional "banana run" in between. ;)

Some of the things I now buy in bulk and freeze, allowing us to shop less frequently:

Milk (freeze in the jug)
Butter
Cheeses
Flour tortillas
Corn tortillas
Bread
Frozen fruits and veggies
Turkey bacon
Meats (whole chickens, etc.)

Long-term food storage: What and how?

Long-term food storage is simply having a supply of certain foods that can be stored for many years.

Did you realize that most grocery stores get many truckloads of food shipped in each day? Most stores don't have huge stock rooms... their "stock" is all on the shelves!

Food is one of those, you know, essential things... and it's startling to learn that the average American has only a week's worth of food in their home. (Why store extra food?)

Having food stored long-term can be as simple as a few buckets of grains or beans. We started with a few plastic buckets, mylar bags, and oxygen absorbers. (You can read all about how we packed the buckets here!) Here is more information about shelf life of stored foods.

But, to capitalize on the frugal advantage of buying in bulk and storing food long-term, I think it's best to learn how to USE the foods we plan to store, and use those foods now! Sure, keep some food packed away for emergency preparedness... but why not have a rotating short-term storage of those foods, as well? :)

My favorite food storage staples:

Wheat and oats (cook for cereals; grind for breads)
Pinto beans (one of our favorites and so easy!)
Sugar and salt

Of course you can branch out from there! I recommend learning how to use an ingredient and then storing it. I like to store dry foods that have a long shelf life and aren't at risk from a power outage.

(I also recommend having a good water filter. Our Berkey water filter will filter water from rivers, streams, or even rain water.)

Healthy snacks

How do I lose weight on a budget, anyway?

Losing weight isn't just about eating less food... it's about trading in those cheap tortilla chips, frozen pizzas, and fill-me-up casseroles (the ones everyone brags about skimping on the meat to save money!) for healthier, low-calorie but filling options. ("Food Budgeting: Spending my calories wisely)

Here are some of the foods we've used to lose weight without substantially increasing our food budget:

Rolled oats (make into oatmeal for breakfast)
Bananas, apples, or whatever fruit is on sale
Frozen veggies or on-sale veggies (steam or eat raw)
Romaine lettuce (make salads ahead w/lettuce, carrots, etc.)
Dry beans (can cook ahead and freeze; use in these recipes)
Brown rice (can cook ahead and freeze)
Ingredients to make soups (veggie or bean-based, freezer-friendly!)
Lean protein -- chicken is what we get

We do still buy some expensive things like nuts, for example, but measure/weigh our servings which makes them last a LOT longer! I have more weight loss inspiration here. :)

Phew, that was a lot of topics all in one! But there you have it -- an overview of our personal approach to eating good food, buying in bulk, and storing food -- while staying out of debt.

By the way, my target grocery budget is currently $420 monthly for our family of 2 adults and children ages 7, 5, 3, and 1. I've been blogging my grocery trips this year with item prices, and you can find those posts here! :) I also shared some ramblings (and confessions) about our grocery budget here. :)

I'll be back tomorrow with links to the other great posts from the Eat Well, Spend Less series! :) In the mean time, I'd love to hear from you in the comments... hint, hint ;)

Comments

Tammy,

I love this post. Such great ideas. I am always telling people to buy in bulk and save with food storage. I will be linking up to these posts once they are finished. Thank you.

Katie
http://gluten-freefoodstorage.blogspot.com/

Thanks, Katie! :) My part in the series is just 3 posts, but later today (and each week for the next 2 weeks) I'll be linking up to the other bloggers' posts... so much great info! :)

Great post! I'm always on a super tight budget, and I'm trying to figure out some bulk items we can purchase and keep around that are low carb! Now there's a challenge.... ;)

Well, you may not have a lot of long-term food storage options that are low-carb but there is a lot you could still buy in bulk! :)

Nuts are low-carb, nutritious, and sometimes available at great bulk prices. It's probably best to refrigerate them if they're not in a sealed package and it's going to take you a long time to eat them; they can go rancid.

This post reinforces, for me, that if you're prepared you can really work within a budget. Following through with my plans when I'm too tired to cook will be where we can really make our budget work for us.

Yes... I really think that even if our food budget isn't the lowest it could possibly be (I mean, we do enjoy good food and splurging at times!) if I'm making every meal we eat at home, we are getting the most affordable healthy option possible... overall. :)

I just blogged today how I break down my grocery budget to ensure we are eating more whole foods, and mention Costco throughout. They have the best produce and prices on many things! I love this series and am so thankful you ladies are doing it!

Michelle @ FTSN

http://www.fromthesamenest.com/2011/04/breaking-down-my-grocery-budget-by-food.html

I'm excited about this series, too! :)

Michelle, your post is great! I hadn't considered breaking up the food budget into categories like that... hmmm. :)

First time commenter--but I just wanted to tell you how much I love your blog! I am really trying to make healthier choices for my family of 2 adults and 2 children on a budget of $400 a month. I am glad you posted this--it is encouraging. I wish I had a Costco though!
You have also convinced me to purchase Kefir grains. They should be here sometime this week and I can't wait to start making some for my daughter how has some digestive issues.
Thanks so much for all you do here!
Jenny

Jenny, thanks so much for taking the time to comment! :) Your note brightened my evening, for sure. :) I hope you enjoy the kefir! :)

Tammy, I am a first time reader, but will be spending lots and lots of time on your blog from here on out! I am going through every link in this post (and then some links from those posts too!) You have such a wealth of info. Thank you for sharing with us!

Welcome! :)

I keep meaning to check out Costco, it sounds like they have some great prices and food. Also, i didn't know you could cook brown rice ahead of time and freeze it! Hm....

Christy, if you know someone who has a Costco membership, you could go with them and check it out! :) I think the items they carry may vary somewhat depending on where you live... but I have only been to WA Costcos...

I've liked our frozen cooked brown rice... I freeze it in containers, like I would freeze cooked beans. I don't normally freeze rice (i.e. PLAN to freeze it) but I will be freezing some for Joshua to have on hand when I'm in Ohio in May... :)

Hi Tammy - I have loved every recipe that I've tried from you. Thanks so much for sharing your great recipes and ideas with us. I also have a lot of small kids (4 kids, 6yo down to 1.5) and homeschool so I especially appreciate the time and effort that it must take you. When you post something I know that it's going to be doable, frugal and healthy. Tried and true from a real, working kitchen.
Anyway, this new series is great. It inspired me to write a post sharing my costco/Aldi's price comparisons and shopping list. I thought that it is right up your alley so here's the link:
http://catholiclovelife.blogspot.com/2011/04/costo-vs-aldis-in-which-i-am-nerdy-and.html
Thanks again - looking forward to the rest of the series!

Thank you! Can't wait to check out your post! :) Sounds like our children are super close age-wise! :)

Btw, I really liked Aldi when we lived in Ohio and would not have driven the hour+ to go to Costco there. But now I think I would miss Costco if I had Aldi instead! ;)

I wouldn't honestly put Costco and Aldi in the same ball park. For me, the big difference is quality of ingredients. To tell you the truth, last year we lived where I had Costco, Aldo, and Sam's Club readily available. And Costco and Sam's Club barely even compare anymore. If Sam's Club carries an item--say, a 5-pound bag of frozen corn (just as an example) for a certain price, Costco will have the same 5 pound bag, at a very comparable price, but that corn will be organic. That's just an example. I found many things that I like to buy at Costco that Sam's doesn't even come close to--and neither does Aldi. Peanut butter that only has peanuts in it, for example. The upshot was that I would drive 25 miles to go to Costco and Trader Joe's even though Sam's and Aldi were less than a mile from home.
Btw: When describing Trader Joe's to people who weren't familiar, I've always said that they are like Aldi for health food. Last summer I found out how right I am--the same company actually owns both!

If they are available in your area, another great place to buy in bulk is Azure Standard http://www.azurestandard.com . You order in advance online and pick up once a month. They are great to work with, selection is fantastic, and the quality of their herbs and spices is amazing.

I very much agree about the quality! :) From what I have seen, Aldi's is cheaper than Costco on some things. (I'll get to price check a little more when I'm in Ohio next month!) But the quality is usually much higher at Costco, and at least where we live, a lot of the food is also organic.

I think I liked Aldi's because it was (almost!) a 1-stop shopping trip for me, too... like Costco is now. :) I have never seemed to get the hang of using coupons to buy the things we need...

We have Trader Joe's, but I haven't been there very much because a lot of the things there are the "extras" -- chips, crackers, cheeses, yogurt, specialty health foods that we can do without. I get my produce at Costco, so I'm all set in that department... I LOVE Trader Joe's, but stay away to save $$. :)

My brother (in eastern WA) orders from Azure! Some day I will look up how to order in my area. :)

I love how you put a bunch of topics all together- like a condensed version of multiple posts. Makes it easy to click through to things I am interested in.
Also, I think I am going to try some home made pizza this week....your step by step recipe is great! Do you ever use whole wheat flour and if so, what is the ratio you use?

Thanks!
Leah

Hi Leah!

I have used whole wheat flour for my pizza crust... I have tried 100% whole wheat, and also 50% whole wheat/50% white flour. We prefer the flavor of a white flour pizza crust (especially Joshua), but 50% works and is good (I like it!). If you use 100% all whole wheat flour in my recipe, you may need to increase the water a little. It will still turn out great -- the flavor (not texture) just isn't our favorite for pizza. :)

Is your $420 budget food only? I include food, toiletries, cleaning supplies (nearly nothing now that I use vinegar, baking soda and Dr. Bonner's Sals Suds for almost everything), and vitamins in our "grocery" budget, so I'm wondering if I'm really out of line with my $500 budget, or if I'm just including more than others.

My $420 is supposed to cover cleaning supplies (like dish soap, etc.), toilet paper, vitamins, all food/ingredients, toothpaste, etc... I would include diapers except that I am using cloth 100% of the time right now (and usually do).
I decided not to include the propane tank refill for the grill -- I call that a "utility" expense. ;)
But honestly -- I am not always able to stick to $420! (See more in my grocery shopping posts...) :)

That's what I hoped and feared you would say. My husband said I was out of line from day one of our marriage (8 years ago), but no matter how much I trim, bulk purchase and make from scratch, I just can't get it down. We only have 1 toddler so far, so hopefully I can at least keep it even as we add more kids! I barely use any toiletries myself (Bare Minerals makeup and Dr Bonners), only have a couple basic ingredients in my cleaning supplies, as mentioned, I never buy alcohol anymore, we don't drink coffee or tea, and we cloth diaper, so I don't know where it all goes! I guess I should admit that any overages in the budget have to be offset by the grocery budget so everytime we go out to eat, it eats out of our grocery line, but even that is rare (if I keep my husband interested in the food available at home). Living in Dallas is more expensive than it would be in a smaller town, I'm sure, but it also means I have so many more options readily accessible to shop well. Well, I'll keep trying!

Well, remember, I spent $490 last month, so... please don't think I am a lot below $500 all the time! Also, you can see the stuff we buy... not much "junk" food at all... it's annoying because sometimes we want chips or something but don't have any :P :)
Would your husband be willing to go over the budget with you? Maybe you could save receipts for a month and then review them and see what (in hindsight) you could have done differently. Or maybe there are things you are spending more for that he would rather you got the cheaper "version" of or skipped altogether... or maybe he is buying "extras" that make it hard for you to stay under budget... I don't know! :)
It's really hard for me to know your whole situation, but if your husband and toddler like beans -- we've been doing pinto beans and rice (meatless meal; pintos cooked in the crock pot) once a week and that's high volume for very cheap. :) The kids and I eat the leftover beans for lunches... Even doing something like that once a week for dinner could really help! :) (Also -- Joshua is not a huge bean fan but he loves my cooked pinto beans so I encourage you to try it at least once, if you haven't already!) :)

Great tips, especially about losing weight on a budget. About bulk-buying, my friends and I have found a way of doing it without dealing with the problems of storage space or stale supplies - we practice splitting. Using an online tool called SplitStuff (http://splitstuff.com), we organize group purchases so we can buy quality products and even organic produce at wholesale prices or with volume discounts. Splitting makes it possible for us to save money on groceries and food supplies without sacrificing quality or nutrition. And since we use an online tool, splitting is fast and easy.

So glad to hear you like Costco! I always have (for the things that are cheaper), but feel like I need to justify our shopping there with, "I only get a few things..." I think you've inspired me to look into more items there!

Well, I am addicted to Costco. ;) I have been spoiled by the quality of things there (and if something is not what I expect -- I can return it no questions asked... for up to a year! obviously I wouldn't wait that long to return a food item, but other stuff, yeah!).

I must say that I've been inspired by all the post regarding beans in our weekly diets...not only for budget purposes but also for the health benefits. Dear husband hasn't been very enthused about beans but I'm "educating" him! The other day I cooked an entire package of white navy beans in the crock pot over night. Then I put approximately 2 cups, drained, in small baggies and several of those in one large zip lock for the freezer. Tonight I pulled one of the bags out and used it in the following manner: saute some minced garlic in olive oil, add the beans along with a little salt and pepper. Mash with fork as they are heating. Add a little water (1 tbsp) and a little lemon juice and then spread on that fresh bread you've already made earlier in the day. A healthy, delicious and filling addition to a simple meal of soup for very little money....good for the budget.

That sounds like a great "spread" for bread rather than butter! :) More protein and fiber, less fat! :)

Joshua is getting a little beaned-out, too. I've served a bunch of bean soups as side dishes, etc... :) I think every dinner for the past month has included beans in some way! :) He reminded me yesterday, "You know, beans really *aren't* my favorite. I don't mind them, but I don't want them every single day. Just because I like your pinto beans doesn't mean I want beans in EVERYTHING!!" :)

Hi Tammy - I found your blog through this great Eat Well Spend Less series and really enjoyed your article. One question I have is about buying meat, either in bulk or at the grocery store. From my experience, practically all meat (especially at Costco) comes in frozen, then they thaw it out when they put it out for sale. The problem is that we can't eat that much meat before it goes bad, so we would need to freeze it. But I'm wary of re-freezing meat that has already been frozen once. We usually end up buying just what we will need for the week at the grocery store, but then we're at the mercy of weekly sales at the grocery store, or we end up paying more. Thoughts? Thank you!
Elizabeth

Hi Elizabeth!

I was not aware that Costco's fresh meat selections had been previously frozen. It's been a bit since I bought fresh chicken there, so I haven't looked at the labels recently. I was pretty sure all their fresh beef was never frozen. But, I haven't asked at the meat counter!

If you do use, say, ground beef that has been frozen, you can cook it and then re-freeze it, and it is not a problem. I have done it many times! :) I would not freeze-thaw-freeze, but freeze-thaw-COOK-freeze is okay! :)

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