Bulk Binning 101

***Update: don’t forget to label your jars. If you’re tired enough, and it’s late enough, and all your jars are unlabeled because you think you’re that good…well, you might just end up putting farina (cream of wheat) in your bread instead of whole wheat flour. Oops.***

You can shop at the bulk bins even if you don’t have a trace of an inner hippie. Trust me on this one. I don’t have a cell in my body that likes the idea of free love. But lentils, sans plastic packaging? I’ll take that. Kevin and I took the plunge into bulk binning maybe a year ago. We used to use plastic bags for our bulk foods, but the cat decided that attacking plastic bags and eating and/or rolling around in their contents was fun. So we headed to Ikea, got a bunch of old-fashioned glass storage jars, and jumped off the packaged food bandwagon.

Kind of. We still get some things that come in boxes (you can take the Life cereal out of Kevin’s cold, dead hands) and shop at Trader Joe’s from time to time, but our jars of bulk food items are slowly taking over the bottom shelf of the kitchen cart.

Buying from the bulk bins has a number of advantages for you and the planet, including less packaging waste, less spoiled food because you can buy small amounts, and lower grocery bills. It’s also fun to try new foods and recipes without committing to using up, say, a full pound of buckwheat groats or amaranth. And buying from the bulk bins tends to mean that you’re making more of your food from scratch.  It’s probably better for you than whatever you were eating before.

Here’s what I usually buy in bulk:

  • flour (all types)
  • sea salt
  • rice (all types)
  • quinoa
  • lentils
  • beans (for when I actually plan my meals in advance)
  • olive oil
  • raw almonds (sometimes)
  • nutritional yeast
  • polenta
  • farina (cream of wheat)
  • dried fruit (apricots, cranberries)
  • popcorn
  • vegetable stock
  • couscous
  • oatmeal

I didn’t switch over immediately, and there are still things that I haven’t bought in bulk that I could. Peanut butter, maple syrup, sugar, tea, and spices, among others. As I bake more of my own bread, I have a feeling I’ll be making more trips to Whole Foods for grains and seeds. (Confession: I don’t really like Whole Foods. It’s just a little too smug for my taste.) 

Getting it all home

We usually bring our empty jars to refill, eliminating the need for bags and tags. Schlepping twenty empty glass jars to the store would be a major pain. However, we don’t typically run out of more than a few things at a time. I was nervous about how bringing empty jars would work, but it’s actually very easy. Take your empty containers to the customer service desk. They’ll weigh each, write the weight on masking tape, and stick it on your jar. At checkout, the clerk weighs your filled jar and subtracts the weight of the empty jar.

Or you could bring your own reused bags (plastic or cloth) or lightweight plastic containers. It’s not the end of the world if you forget and have to take a plastic bag. Chances are, it’s still better than the fully packaged version. 

Do you buy most of your dry goods from the bulk bins? If not, what’s stopping you?

27 responses to this post.

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sandra Lee, Jennifer Mo. Jennifer Mo said: If you don't shop from the bulk bins, why not? New blog entry http://bit.ly/fsiw8D […]

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  2. This is on my list for our SOLE shopping & eating plans this year… it’s been something I’ve wanted to do, esp. if I can find good Gluten Free stuff, but I guess it’s not as convenient, plus I’ve always felt a little scared… what if I do the wrong thing? Great post, I feel braver about it now!

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    • I’m often intimidated by trying new things. Instead of just taking my empty containers to Whole Foods and asking what to do, I messaged them on Twitter, got an answer, and then braved the store. I think I take the cake for timidity!

      Trying to remember if I’ve seen gluten free flours in bulk. I think there might be some (rice flour? almond meal?), but I can’t say for certain. If you have a good recipe that uses finely ground almonds, please let me know. I make almond milk and never know what to do with the leftover ground almonds.

      Reply

  3. Posted by karen on 02/24/2011 at 17:40

    I remember seeing bulk bins at a supermarket in upstate NY, years and years ago, and I thought, “WOW, if this was in NYC, they’d get robbed blind!! People would just reach into the bins, stand there and eat all day!”

    We still don’t have bins at stores near me. I have to drive 30 minutes up North to a Natural Food store to get a little bit of a selection. My local Whole Foods doesn’t have them.😦

    You are lucky!

    *I bought a tiny bag of bay leaves from that upstate supermarket because I didn’t need a huge bottle and I thought that was a great concept. And yes, I thought it was a little hokey to have bins in supermarkets. It reminded me of “A Little House on the Prairie”. Little did I know, then, that I’d be wanting one near me now.*

    Reply

    • A Whole Foods without bulk bins?? Whoa. Have you tried leaving them comments in their suggestion box or bugging them on Twitter? If there were enough interest, I think they would listen.

      I kinda get that Little House on the Prairie feel, too. But I like it!

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  4. Posted by Small Footprints on 02/24/2011 at 18:00

    I love this post. I try to buy everything possible in bulk. I have a question … when you load your glass jars full of bulk products, especially things like flour, do you then store the product in that same jar on a shelf? I worry about “critters” in things like flour, cornmeal, gluten, etc. … not critters which would get into a container at home (presumably the glass jar has a good lid) but which may have already entered the product at the store or during shipping. So I keep those kinds of products in the freezer. If you keep dry goods in jars on a shelf in the pantry, do you have any critter problems?

    Thanks so much! 🙂

    Reply

    • That never even occurred to me before. I haven’t had any problems with critters (other than Brie breaking into my nutritional yeast). I know Kevin has had weevil issues before with his boxed pastina, but everything from the bulk bins has been fine. Which is good, because I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t all fit in the freezer!

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  5. I too, am a bulk bin convert. I have yet to bring in my glass jars though, that will be the next step! I find that what we munch on is changing, simply by our bulk bin habits (more trail mix and raisons and unsalted peanuts for the kids instead of individually packaged granola bars and boxed cookies). Also – my cupboards look all different inside now. Cleaner. Less clutter. No packaging. Just food.

    I keep my bulk bin overflow in a drawer, but I live in a place where critters all die out in the winter so it is not really a problem. I keep my organic local flour in the freezer, since apparently organic flour only keeps one month (no preservatives, just grains!).

    Reply

    • I didn’t know that about organic flour. Only a month? That seems so short. Better than amazing, indestructible food from McDonald’s, I suppose. I haven’t had any problems with the whole wheat flour I get at Whole Foods, but maybe it’s more processed than your local flour.

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  6. I’d love to buy from bulk bins, but unfortunately where I live it’s almost impossible…there are a couple of places that sell washing up liquid and other detergents from bulk bins, but they are on the opposite part of town (40 minute drive), and you have to pay for parking…
    I hate packaging and try to buy things that at least have recycled/recyclable package. The worst paradox? Organic vegetables are packaged in plastic!!!
    My husband complained about that at the local supermarket, and they kept telling him it was to protect the veggies…

    Reply

    • Bulk bins are a good option for people who have access, but I agree that they’re not worth it for you. I don’t remember seeing any bulk bins when I lived in the UK. Maybe it’s more of an American thing?

      Good for your husband for speaking up about the packaging! Maybe if enough people say something, the supermarkets will realize that they don’t really need to ‘protect’ the vegetables. Japan is probably the worst about picture perfect packaging (and picture perfect fruit). Each pear comes encased in its own styrofoam webbing. A bruise doesn’t render produce inedible, people!

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  7. We’ve been shifting to the bulk approach as well but have been stymied by the empty container adding to the weight issue (espcially with awesome glass mason jars). But after reading this post, I’m shaking my head with a “well of course; that’s what you should do…”

    In our neck of the woods — aside from the nearest Whole Foods 20 miles away — it is the smaller mom & pop grocers that tend to offer their customers the bulk options. Just another reason to keep it local.

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    • Isn’t it weird how even the smallest barriers can keep us from doing things? If I hadn’t gotten an answer from Whole Foods on Twitter, I would probably have put off using my glass jars for several more months until I worked up the courage to ask a real person (or, more likely, get Kevin to ask for me). Try it out and let me know how it goes!

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      • Just found you while looking for bulk binned foods (besides Whole Foods) in the Chicago area. Interesting that your WF told you OK on bringing your own jars/bags, as I just inquired at our WF and was told no – the employee then showed me the posted sign which says it’s an FDA mandate not to allow used containers. He said a small mom-and-pop place would probably allow it. I’m going to keep looking. I can also bring back the WF bags and reuse, as to the cashier it will look like (and weigh like) one of their new ones. Thanks for your post! I’ll be back again.

        Reply

        • Hi Ginnie,

          That’s an interesting response from your WF — mine had no problem with it. I actually asked WF on Twitter about bringing containers, and their headquarters (Texas) said that they were happy to provide tare weights whenever I brought in my own jars, so I wonder if the restriction is more local than federal. I think it’s great you’re trying so hard to avoid the bags. Good luck in your quest!

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  8. I regularly consume at least half of the items on your list and, shamefully, rarely buy them from bulk bins. What’s stopping me? I’d like to say the great distance between my neighbourhood and the nearest bulk bins, but I think that’s just an excuse. Time to add this to my to-do list…

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    • It would be an interesting experiment to collect all the packaging you generated from regular goods and compare it with that from bulk bin items. Assuming you reuse bags, you should only end up with a handful of tags — even less if you bring glass jars and just write the bin number on the masking tape with the tare weight.

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  9. Good for you! I tried the whole weighing my glass/plastic jar, but they didn’t label whether they weighed it in grams or oz (ack!) and so at the register the cashier was confused after all, and I wasn’t sure what to do. I guess I could take the lead more next time, and ask them to write down the gram or oz label too (the scientist in me would want that). Ahhh… the joys of personal communication, and how inhibitory awkward encounters can be.

    I’ve got some nutritional yeast, flour, and TVP in plastic bags. Perhaps I’ll try the glass/plastic jars again, thanks to your post.

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    • Oh yeah. Awkward encounters are such strong deterrents! I haven’t had that issue. Since the food is weighed in ounces, I’d be surprised if they wrote the tare in grams, especially since the last time I heard the US still wasn’t keen on the metric system. It’d be worth trying again, especially if you already have the empty jars.

      What do you do with TVP? I don’t have a good recipe and have always been put off by its cardboardy appearance.

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  10. Jennifer,

    This is a good introduction for anyone entertaining buying from the bulk bins. I too prefer buying items from bulk bins over items with all that wasted packaging. I rarely buy any packaged foods. I have a stash of plastic bags that I reuse and bring to the store, but generally store bulk items in glass containers.

    Thanks for inspiring us to keep up this earth friendlier practice.

    Reply

    • Thank you, Sandra! I really appreciate your retweets and comments, even though our respective blogs have very different focuses. I guess environmentalism and consciousness are more related than they initially appear.

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  11. Good point-need to label those jars! I will definitely end up with rice in my trail mix if I don’t label🙂

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  12. We buy a lot from bulk bins. Baking supplies, oats, beans, lentils, etc. We also like the bins because we can get small amounts of the more expensive dried fruits as snacks for our little one. I also get bulk nuts to make nut butters. Periodically we buy 5lb bags of organic dry goods from a company called Jaffe Brothers for items that are priced lower than at Whole Foods. And yes, I learned the labeling lesson hard way too! I had a mysterious jar of “stuff” for about a year before figuring out that it was some kind of fine ground corn meal.

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    • Haha, yes — I wonder if we all start off thinking our memories (and common sense — farina does NOT behave, scoop, or even look especially like flour) are better than they are before pulling out the sharpie. I always thought labels were optional. Now I realize that pretty labels are optional.

      Thanks for visiting! I’m so looking forward to trying the raw vegan cheesecake and will stand there religiously scraping cashew bits down until it works.🙂 I appreciate the tip.

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  13. I just wish we had these bulk bin food buying options where I live. i used to love being able to buy food like this at Whole Foods when I lived in Seattle.😦

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    • Hmm…I wonder if it would do any good to ask the store manager at a friendly natural foods store for bulk options? Especially if you got together some other friends, and they all started asking whenever they went in? I’m not sure why bulk bins are more acceptable in the US than they are abroad (I certainly did not see any when I lived in the UK), but I would think that enough demand would create them!

      Reply

  14. […] pressing issue. I’ve already switched to reusable bags, water bottles, food storage, and bulk bins, but my life will never be plastic free — and I’m OK with that. Wherever you are in […]

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