The pandemic has changed a lot about how people shop, eat, and live. When trips to the grocery store suddenly took on an unknown level of danger, we all found ourselves trying to limit our shopping excursions as much as possible.
I lockdowned a bit more conservatively than most. I have a few pre-existing health conditions that made me especially at high-risk during the pandemic, and I didn’t leave home for well over a year. I was limited to grocery delivery, and when I got it, I was vigilant about sanitizing.
It would make sense that something like a pandemic might have taught me the art of bulk shopping, but the truth is, I’ve been carefully budgeting my food expenses for a very long time. Yes, I’ve certainly honed my bargain-getting skills recently, but I’ve long known that the best way for me to save money is to buy in bulk.
It seems counterintuitive to say that when we want to save money, we should buy more. Many experts actually recommend avoiding waste by buying only what you will need in a given moment and nothing more. There’s a certain logic to that, but you’ll also tend to spend more per serving (or per ounce, or per pound), and when you’re always buying in your moment of need, it’s rare that you get to take advantage of sales.
I live alone in a tiny studio apartment. I don’t have a partner or children (unless you count my furbabies!), and so it may sound silly that I choose to invest in a family pack of chicken breasts or a case of canned tomatoes versus a single can. I do it, though, because you end up spending so much less in the process! The key is that you can’t think of things in terms of your total outlay per purchase, rather, you have to consider your final price per meal.
For example, you might spend $11 on that case of 10 cans of diced tomatoes at Costco, but if you price that out per-can at your local market, you’re probably looking at $2 per can, for a total of $20 by the time you buy the same number that’s in a case. In other words, you can’t compare your $40 bill at your local grocery store to your $300 bill at Costco — the two are not created equal. What you always need to look at is your price per serving. And yes, it may take a little mental work on your part to get over the sticker shock of the initial outlay of said $300 Costco bill (and you might have to save up for those big monthly moments) but in the long run, it’s so much more affordable to pay one of those large bills every 3-4 months than whittling your budget down with smaller nothing-is-on-sale $50 grocery bills every week.
So, what are the food staples that last the longest when you buy ahead? I chatted with a few experts to find out exactly which products to buy — and how you can save some serious cash in the process.
We all want fresh bread for our morning toast or lunchtime grilled cheese. But we also know the reality: Fresh bread doesn’t last. But storing the bread in the freezer can make that bread last for months. “It is best to store bread in the freezer instead of your counter. You can keep your bread mold-free for months as opposed to days,” says Lisa Moskovitz, RD, CEO of NY Nutrition Group and author of The Core 3 Healthy Eating Plan. When you’re ready to use, just take a few slices out and leave it on the counter to defrost, or throw it in the toaster. For example, during the pandemic, I ordered a dozen bagels, froze the batch, and defrosted them as I was ready for them. That dozen bagels lasted me months!
Cereal has long been established as something that is shelf-stable and lasts a good amount of time. But just how good a value and how long it lasts will depend on your storage method. “Air-tight containers are super important to prevent your snack foods and cereals from getting stale. It also helps to store in a dark panty at room temperature,” says Moskovitz.
Everything from a family pack of chicken thighs to a double-pack of ground beef can help you save substantially on your per-pound rate. For example: “Buy a 10-pack of chicken breasts, portion these out individually or into packs of two in freezer zip lock bags, then label, date, and freeze. These should store for up to one year,” says Sara Heilman, Culinary Development Manager/Chef at EveryPlate. Pull out and thaw in the fridge 24 hours before use. These family packs of proteins are often as much as half the price per pound as what you’ll find for smaller portion packages.
Parmesan (and other hard cheeses)
We love our grated cheeses, but how long do they really last? The good news is that parmesan cheese (and any hard cheese similar to Parmesan) freezes very well. “Portion the cheese into smaller sections (or if buying shredded or grated, portion into smaller zip lock bags), then wrap with plastic wrap or vacuum seal, label and date, and store in the freezer for up to 6 months,” says Heilman.
Butter is another item that’s much cheaper in bulk and can actually last a long time when frozen. “Bought in bulk, wrap the individual logs of butter with plastic wrap or vacuum seal, label and date, and store in the freezer for up to 6 months,” says Heilman. Then, just move to the fridge when you are ready for it. This is also fun for any compound butters (hello, basil butter, where have you been all my life??) you may create and want to save for a future date.
Eggs do come with an “expiration date” but many chefs and culinary experts maintain that eggs, if stored properly in the fridge, will last as long as a month after this date. “A good way to test the freshness of your eggs is to fill a bowl with 4 inches cold water and to gently place the egg into the bowl. If the egg sinks or stands up on one end, it is perfectly safe to consume. If the egg floats to the top of the water, discard the egg,” says Heilman. This is good to keep in mind if at a warehouse store, like Costco, that offers eggs in larger containers at a better price.
Olive oil is one pantry staple that can get pretty pricey, especially when snagging an emergency bottle at your local market, so buying this product in larger tins versus the smaller bottles can end up being an excellent value. “Just make sure you keep it in a cool, dark place in your kitchen or else the oil may turn rancid and significantly cut down the shelf life,” says Moskovitz.
Broths and Stocks
It seems almost every favorite recipe calls for some broth and stock, and while you can make your own, it’s great to have a few boxes handy for when that’s not possible. “I have found it very helpful to always have some kind of veggie or chicken broth/stock on hand in my kitchen,” says Heilman, who buys bulk containers. If a recipe only calls for 1 – 2 cups, you can freeze the rest. You can also look into the super concentrated stock substance called “Better than Bouillon” which keeps in your fridge for a year, and you just add water to make your own delicious broth. (Yes, they sell it at Costco!)
The same bulk protein-buying rules apply to fish as they do to other meat. But there’s another great option here. “As a Nutritional Psychiatrist I am always touting the benefits of omega 3 fatty acids in mental health. Fatty fish like Alaskan salmon are a great source but can be expensive. However canned salmon, mussels and oysters are great brain foods and are relatively inexpensive. Look for those packed in water or extra virgin olive oil (make sure it’s not mixed with cheaper pro-inflammatory oils),” says Dr. Uma Naidoo is a Harvard trained nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef, nutrition specialist, and author of “This is Your Brain on Food.” Those cans can last in your pantry for ages.
Dairy alternatives are also great pantry staples with tons of possibilities. “You can find Tetra Pak containers of many non-dairy milks such as almond, soy, and coconut which will last in a pantry for six months or more,” says Dr. Naidoo. This is great for times when you can’t get to the store, and need a milk-type product for coffee or cereal. There are also excellent non-dairy cheese options that are shelf-stable, including Daiya cheese sauce, and powdered nutritional yeast that can be turned into your favorite cheesy dip or creamy base.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds can be expensive, but they are an amazing source of healthy fats, including omega 3 fatty acids. “When I see them on sale, I buy in bulk and store one airtight container in the pantry, with the rest in an airtight container in the freezer,” says Kacie Barnes, MCN, RD, owner/creator of mamaknowsnutrition.com. Because the oils in nuts can go bad, it’s best to keep them in the freezer long-term for freshness.
Canned goods will last for years, so it’s worth it to buy in bulk even if you won’t use them immediately. “I look for low sodium beans and lentils, as well as canned tuna and salmon for high quality protein sources,” says Barnes. Another great canned good to have on hand is canned tomatoes. Whether crushed, diced, or pureed, these are perfect for sauces and can be a starter for everything from chili to a soup or stew.
More from HerMoney:
- How To Meal Prep With A Limited Budget + Limited Time
- Planning Meals on a Tight Budget? Here Are 5 Ways to Keep it Healthy and Cheap
- HerMoney Podcast: The Lazy Woman’s Guide to Cooking With Melissa Clark
Looking for more financial insights delivered right to your inbox? Subscribe to HerMoney today!