the wonder that is the bulk foods aisle
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The Wonder That is the Bulk Foods Aisle

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I have a confession.

I used to only buy foods from plastic jars, cans, and bags. Was that unhealthy? Yes, definitely. But I thought I was getting a great deal on these packaged foods. After all, the fresh versions probably cost way more anyway, right? And I didn’t have the energy to find a way to store them or cook them.

Fast forward to now, and it’s a different story.

Mr. Picky Pincher and I almost exclusively eat fresh foods. We’re on a mission to decrease our grocery bill, and that’s led to some surprising finds.

We realized vegetarian dishes are much more affordable and healthy than meat-based dishes. We learned that shopping on Saturday mornings is the best time to avoid the rush and get discounts on produce and meat. We replicated most of the packaged goods we buy with homemade, cheap versions for better flavor. The learning never stops, and it’s actually been a lot of fun!

Our latest discovery? The bulk foods aisle at the grocery store is stupid-cheap.

The Bulk Foods Aisle, You Say?

The bulk foods aisle is the section of a grocery store with bins full of nuts, seeds, spices, granola mixes, etc. Instead of picking up a package of peanuts, for example, you grab a scoop, fill a small plastic bag with peanuts, and weigh it. You pay by weight on the bulk foods aisle, so you only need to buy what you’ll eat.

While I’ve read other bloggers rave about the bulk foods aisle, I was skeptical. I’ve never been great at math, and after looking at the price per pound in the bulk section, I was convinced nuts, seeds, and dried fruits were cheaper on the packaged foods aisle. Of course, that wasn’t based on real math; it was based on my lazy eyeballed estimate. And besides, the packaged foods came in nifty canisters and cylinders that made it a breeze to store them in the pantry. Who needs more fuss at the grocery store, anway?

It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I became a full convert to the bulk foods aisle.

Mr. Picky Pincher needed to pick up caraway seed for a sauerkraut recipe. Since we were passing by the bulk foods aisle, we snagged a little bag of caraway there. We proceeded to the packaged spices aisle to look for Chinese five spice, which HEB didn’t have in bulk. As we perused the little jars of herbs, the packaged McCormick caraway seed caught Mr. Picky Pincher’s eye.

Check this out:

the difference between mccormick and bulk caraway seeds

Now, this requires a little bit of math so you can see how truly ridiculous this is.

In the bulk aisle we got .04 pounds of caraway seed for 24 cents. Since McCormick sells their products by the ounce, let’s convert that .04 pounds to about .6 ounces.

So we paid 24 cents for .6 ounces of caraway seed. This packaged caraway seed from the spice company is going for $4.34 for just.9 ounces.

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As a baseline, I compared the cost for .1 ounce of each product. The bulk caraway went for just 4 cents per .1 ounce; the McCormick cost 48 cents per .1 ounce.

That means the packaged spice was 12 times more expensive than the bulk spice.

Now that is just ridiculous.

But most people will pay that markup, because they need caraway seed and don’t know that there are cheaper ways to buy it (I was one of them!).

Lesson learned: the bulk foods aisle is worth the extra hassle of measuring and storing these foods. Do the math if you aren’t sure.

Unfortunately, many grocery stores don’t have bulk food aisles.

While you can get by shopping for nuts, dried fruits, and spices at Wal-Mart, that’s not a money-saving deal. If your grocery store doesn’t have a bulk foods aisle, there are a few things you can do. You could consider switching grocery stores altogether, depending on how often you buy items from bulk foods. Or, you could even make a few special trips here and there for bulk foods from stores that carry them. The savings you’ll see will make up for the extra gas expenses.

The Bottom Line

I’m a new convert to bulk aisle shopping.

While I knew that bulk foods were probably cheaper, I needed to see it in real life to understand the ridiculous markups on packaged goods. What can I say—I’m a stubborn lady! While we’ll always need packaged goods of some kind, I’ve learned that the more you shy away from foods that come in plastic, the more you save. It’s important to be a conscious consumer. Simple math can save you big bucks on your grocery bill that can be put towards debt.

We want to know: Do you shop the bulk foods aisle?

7 comments on “The Wonder That is the Bulk Foods Aisle

  1. I shop in the bulk food section sometimes, but sometimes I realize that I am buying some spices at market price, except just in bulk. O _o I notice this the most at my local health food store in town and at Winco when buying almonds or macadamia nuts. So, it’s not always the best deal, I find. It depends entirely on where you shop, imo. D:

    But Costco is a great place to buy bulk foods at and score deals! 8D I saw Macadamia nuts there for around $14.99 – $16.99 for a medium sized bucket of them. Don’t know if that was considered market price, but for the price I pay for them at Winco for a pound, I would say that is about right. Plus, I love Costco. 8D

    So happy you are finding yummy bulk food items to help your budget! <3

  2. I don’t have bulk bins in my local supermarkets. However, I do buy toasted sesame seeds in bulk from the bakery department instead of the spice aisle. Much cheaper, and I transfer them into a plastic shake top container that used to hold sprinkles.

    1. Aww, that’s a tough break! I used to shop at Walmart for groceries, so I know your pain. But way to go for finding a good replacement for sesame seeds!

  3. You have become my go-to blogger for all things food. My biggest frugality weakness is not being able to make many things. I envy your ability to whip things up and I’d probably shop in bulk foods more often if I could make anything from scratch.

    My favorite part of the bulk foods section is sinking my hand into a nice big barrel of pinto beans or seeds of some kind, like in the movie Amelie. Yes, people like me go around molesting your bulk foods so make sure you wash them. I really need to start taking more food pointers from you.

    1. Why, thank you! 🙂 We also had that problem too, since we both hated the foods the other person liked lol. I didn’t used to cook from scratch, either. But I wanted to just because it saves money! So we tried one new dish a week to build up our repertoire of scratch recipes. There were a looooot of failures, but it’s gotten us here. 🙂

  4. In my area we have Amish stores and so-called “country markets” or farm markets (not to be confused with farmer’s markets.) These stores deal exclusively in bulk foods and spices, the difference from the bulk food aisle at the regular grocery store being that they buy in bulk and then pre-package the food in plastic bags (flour, sugar, pasta, all types of grains, nuts, gelatin, cocoa, candy, yeast, spices, nuts, etc) Since the grocery stores here offer limited bulk foods, a visit to these stores is worth the effort.The price per pound on everything is way cheaper. I sorta thought these stores existed everywhere, but maybe I’m wrong. Anyway, they’re worth seeking out.

    1. Woah, I’ve never heard of that before! I think that depends on where you live; not many Amish here in Texas. 😉 Our close second would be michoacanas or latin food stores, which tend to have things cheaper per ounce. Local Asian grocery stores are also great for getting better deals on some foods too.

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