(or, what to do with that 50 lb bag of flour)
Buying food in bulk isn’t just about saving money. Stocking up on food, especially during times of uncertainty, is one way to make cooking much simpler and grocery shopping one less thing to worry about.
The one challenge about purchasing staples in true bulk quantities is storage. Proper storage helps you ensure you’re not throwing away money on bulk discounts and that you’re getting the full shelf life out of your products.
Here’s how to get it right.
What Bulk Foods Can You Buy and Keep in Storage?
When people hear “bulk groceries” they usually imagine pantries packed with tuna cans and loose goods. In reality, there are many types of foods you can buy in bulk to enjoy both the economical benefits and the convenience of not having to run to the grocery store twice a week.
You can buy pretty much any type of food in bulk, including:
Meat, poultry and fish
Dairy and eggs
Pantry Items such as flour, rice, lentils, pasta or cereals
Oils, soup stocks, wine and other liquids
What You’ll Need
To make food last as long as possible, you’ll need proper packaging materials. A good rule of thumb is to always use food-grade, airtight, moisture-proof containers for storing food. You’ll need a combination of the following items:
Air-tight containers, such as Cambro Containers, Tupperware, or reusable plastic deli containers with lids.
Zip lock-style plastic bags (heavy duty for freezer storage), or vacuum bags sealed with a food saver.
Jars with lids – Mason Jars, glass or plastic.
These can usually be found cheaply for pickup at larger retailers, or even on the Cheetah App. You can even recycle clean empty jars from pickles or pasta sauce, which are perfect for dried beans, grains and other bulk items.
Breaking it All Down – Tips for Decanting
Understanding exactly how many servings come in bulk packages can help you quickly break down or “decant” your large items into portions that are easy to store and prepare.
When decanting, a good tip is to package your items in quantities you will use all at once, or in quantities you are already familiar with, like a standard 14 oz can or 1/2 pound portion of meat.
Get a food scale for quick and easy measuring. You can buy a decent one online for less than $20. Then weigh out your food items to match container sizes you already know or have on hand
A common container size in professional kitchens is the “#10” can. One #10 can is equivalent to 7-8 regular 14-16 oz cans, or 109 ounces. Once opened, you should not store remaining product in the can, so be prepared to store any leftovers if you can’t use all 109 ounces at once.
When decanting dry goods, make sure you put them in completely dry, air-tight containers, and avoid any contact with moisture during the process.
Practice Food Safety
If you’re going to cook food using bulk ingredients, you want to be sure they maintain their freshness and nutritional value for months to come. Some of the most common reasons for food spoilage are bugs, rodents and moisture.
To keep bugs and rodents out, avoid storing foods in paper bags or damaged plastic buckets. If they can smell the food, rodents will gnaw through bags and even plastic containers, making the way for ants and other pests. Instead, move items out of paper bags or boxes and into glass or plastic storage containers.
To prevent moisture from spoiling food, keep items like dried beans, grains, sugar, and flours dry by storing them in airtight containers.
If you do suspect food spoilage, here are some signs to look out for:
For canned foods: a milky or slimy appearance to the texture, a bulging can or corrosion along the seal
For fats and liquids: rancid or stale smell and a milky or slimy texture
For dry goods: change in color, texture, signs of mold or off odor
Get Creative with Storage Space
If you get creative with organization, even a small house can have space for storing a few months worth of food.
Consider converting a broom or coat closet into a walk-in pantry. Install shelving or purchase on-the-door organizers that have bins for smaller items. Use that dead space between the refrigerator and the wall to add a sliding pantry. This is a great solution for canned goods, bulk spices and oils.
If you have the space, it’s best to choose a windowless space that is farthest away from any heat source. Food will store and last much longer when kept cool and in the dark.
The difference between unlabeled packages might seem obvious to you now, but three months down the line you won’t be able to tell the difference between those jars of couscous and cornmeal. Labeling is a great way to stick to the FIFO method – First In First Out.
This way you can easily prep food in bulk, then store for 3-7 days. Adding the expiration date to every item you label also means you’ll never worry about spoilage again.
Find the deli container that’s right for you (either 8, 12, 16, or 32 oz combos with lids here) and clearly write down the item and the expiry date. Fancy label makers can be fun to use, but kitchen tape and a good sharpie will do just as well.
Find a System (and stick to it!)
Keep a running inventory of everything in your pantry. Spreadsheets and food diaries are both good ways to stay organized and make smart decisions about what to buy in bulk based on what you actually eat. Apps like Cheetah help you with auto-replenishing by creating shopping lists and avoiding spoilage or duplicate purchases.