The Wonderful World of Bulk Bins!


In the last year, I have discovered the wonderful world of bulk bins!  Bulk bins can be found in some grocery stores (Fred Meyer, WinCo, Safeway), health food stores (Whole Foods), and food cooperatives* (People’s Co-op in Portland).  They contain food staples such as beans, rice, flour, nuts, dried fruit, and spices.  There are typically plastic or paper bags nearby that you simply put however much you want of a particular food into, label it with the provided number or food name, and take it to the register!

Why do I love them so much?  Let me count the ways!

  1. Image-15Saves Money:  Buying in bulk saves some serious dough.  The most drastic price difference is seen in spices.  Typically, you’ll pay $3-5 for a bottle of cinnamon, but I can refill my spice bottle for less than $1!  When you see the prices on bulk bins they can seem pretty steep (especially for spices), but notice that this pricing is per pound.  I’d venture to guess you aren’t buying a whole pound of oregano, so don’t worry about that seemingly large price tag.  Also, items like pasta, spices, and flour are light in weight so that per pound price won’t add up quickly.  I recently purchased 1.12 pound of lentils for $1.67, 1.27 pounds of black beans for $1.77, and 1.42 pounds of pinto beans for $3.25.  If you buy canned beans, you get 15 ounces (about 1.9 cups) for somewhere between $1-3.  However, one cup of dried black beans yields 2.25 cups of cooked beans.  Trust me, it adds up over time!  And yes, you can save on organic foods this way too.
  2. Portion Control:  So, you’re trying a new recipe and it calls for 1/2 cup of bulgur.  If you’ve never heard of bulgur you may be wondering, what the heck is it and will I even like it?  At the grocery store, you can purchase 28 ounces of Bob’s Red Mill bulgur for $7 and hope you enjoy this new grain or buy the grain, use 1/2 cup, and never use it again!  However, if you find your needed ingredient in a bulk bin, you can purchase just the amount that you need.
  3. Saves Packaging:  I have saved a bunch of jars from things like pickles and jams, and now use them to hold foods from bulk bins.  I also use large storage jars I have purchased from places like Bed Bath and Beyond or  Most of the time, there is a scale near the bulk bins where you can weigh the empty jar, write the tare weight, and then fill it with your food item.  The tare weight allows the person ringing you up to only charge you for the weight of the food and not the jar.  Don’t forget to weigh the empty jar with the lid on!  Reusing glass or plastic jars saves you from throwing away plastic packaging or recycling boxes and cans from packaged foods.  Not only does reusing jars reduce waste in our landfills, but you can also make your pantry super cute!  A little chalkboard paint or printable labels, and you’ve got well-organized and lovely food storage.  Check out BooBearyBinks or here for ideas.  My jars are not quite as cute yet.  I’m thinking this will be a great project when I am done with school!
  4. Nothing but almonds in my almond butter!!

    Nothing but almonds in my almond butter!!

    New Foods:  I have been introduced to so many new foods because of bulk bins!  Hazelnut butter and goji berries are my recent favorite finds and tries from bulk bins.  Sometimes, I literally stand in front of the bulk bins and Google things I’ve never heard of on my cell phone!  It’s fun to see a grain I’ve never heard of, purchase a cup or so, and give it a try!

  5. Clean Foods:  Foods in bulk bins are often just the food.  For example, dry beans in a bulk bin are only beans, while beans in a can may contain other nonessential (and possibly unhealthy) ingredients.  The nutritional information and ingredients will be on a label on the bin, so read carefully.

What I always buy from bulk bins:

  1. All types of beans (black, kidney, garbanzo, cannellini, pinto etc).  Image-16
  2. Lentils
    (Yes, buying beans and lentils in bulk means they are dry and require some time to cook (1-2 hours).  If you plan ahead, it really isn’t a big deal.  I typically cook a cup of beans at the beginning of the week and stick them in the fridge so they are ready to be thrown into meals.  See Vegetarians in Paradise for charts and cooking guides for beans and grains.)
  3. Rice
  4. Dried fruit (cranberries, raisins, etc)
  5. All types of nuts (almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, etc)
  6. Almond butter or hazelnut butter
  7. Honey
  8. Agave
  9. Olive Oil
  10. SpicesImage-17
  11. Oats
  12. Quinoa and quinoa flakes
  13. Chocolate or carob chips
  14. Goji berries
  15. Chia seeds
  16. Pasta
  17. Whole grains
  18. Popcorn
  19. Shampoo and conditioner (refill old shampoo/condition bottles)

If you have a store near you that has bulk bins, give them a spin.  You’ll never want to go back to packaged foods 🙂

*Food Cooperatives are also amazing!  Cooperatives (or co-ops) are worker or customer owned businesses that provide high quality, usually local, items at a great value to their members.  They not only provide food that supports safe, sustainable growing and manufacturing practices, co-ops can also be an amazing community resource.  I am a member-owner at People’s Co-op in Portland, OR and they have an amazing array of free or sliding fee scale classes every month, including yoga, canning and jarring, cooking classes, movement and meditation, as well as provide opportunities to learn and discuss ways to improve our local and national food system.  Being a member-owner means I have made an investment in the store and I am eligible to receive a small percentage of the amount of money I spend at People’s each year when the store as a profit and participate in elections through the Board of Directors.  They also have a Hands-on-Owner program in which you can work in the store for a discount on purchases.  Furthermore, food co-ops provide an opportunity for you to invest money back into your community and small businesses, rather than into large corporate supermarket chains that do not have the same interest in caring for your community and nearby farmers.

Because patrons are also owners in a food co-op, they have the opportunity to decide what types of foods the store offers.  For example, at People’s, members voted to not sell products that contain meat (except dog food), and the Board of Directors has approved product guidelines that prohibit products that contain artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives.  This makes shopping there easy, because I have confidence that the products I am buying are going to be “clean” without me spending a ton of time reading every single label.  The investment is not large ($180) and can be made in $30 per year payments.  This has made it affordable for me while I survive on a student budget!

Search for a food co-op near you here!!  ❤

All of the photos in this post were taken at People’s Co-op.