Americans may have moved on from panic-buying (most) groceries, but even as some cities and their restaurants begin to slowly reopen, we’re cooking and eating at home more than ever. Whether you’re trying to save money, or just limit your trips to the store, strategically buying food in bulk can be a good way to manage meal planning for the foreseeable future. Here’s how to do it the smart way:
Don’t Buy What You Won’t Use
Stocking the pantry once a month is a luxury not all households can afford, and others simply don’t have the space to store a month’s worth of groceries. Cathy Erway, a food writer and the author of The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove and The Food of Taiwan, reminds us that it’s important to prioritize your bulk buying based on how you really cook.
"Be realistic," agrees Rhoda Boone, food director of video for Epicurious and Bon Appétit. "Check the expiration date. If the item has one, think about if you'll really use the amount you're buying in that time. You're not really saving money if you're going to throw spoiled food away." Here are a few foods you should be wary of buying in bulk unless you really plan to use them frequently:
If you don’t bake, you shouldn’t waste money and shelf space on a 25-pound bag of flour just because it’s on sale and all your friends are posting their homemade loaves online. Flour attracts moisture, so it can go rancid quickly. While refined flour like all-purpose can keep for up to a year, whole grain and nut flours only have a couple of months before they can start to turn—unless you keep them in your freezer.
On the other hand, if you have a sourdough starter to feed or are baking cakes a couple of times a week to keep your kids occupied, you’ll likely go through flour before it goes bad. In that case, buying flour in 25-pound bags will save money—and the ingredient will go to good use. Still, store it in a cool, dark spot or even better, the refrigerator or freezer. In order to make storage easier, decant half the bulk bag into a ceramic container and store it in the pantry, and stash the other half of the flour in the freezer so it’ll keep longer.
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Even now, when you’re cooking a lot, you should mostly skip huge containers of spices. “Large quantities of dried spices might seem way more economical, but if you're not planning to use it like a commercial food processing plant, then it'll get stale and lose its oomph after a few months,” Erway says. Still, if you add a hearty amount of a particular spice like turmeric or cayenne to most of your dishes, and you’ll go through a bulk stash in three months, buy it in bulk and store it in a dark, cool spot as well.
Nuts contain a lot of oil, which unfortunately can go rancid quickly, resulting in stale nuts and seeds. Even when stored properly—in airtight containers in a cool, dark spot—they'll only keep for a couple of months. To extend that shelf life, keep those containers in the fridge or freezer, where they'll keep for up to 6 months or a year, respectively.
This shouldn’t be a surprise: you know that the oil inside your nuts, seeds, and grains goes bad fast, and pure oil is no different. No matter the oil—olive, sesame, canola, peanut—its shelf life is limited. While it's tempting to pick up one of those big jugs that are sold at the grocery store, when we tasted nearly every widely available olive oil on the market to determine the best, we found that olive oil could go rancid extremely easily—and the difference is easy to taste.