How to Shop From the Bulk Bins Like a Boss

Learn how to shop from the bulk bins at the grocery store with confidence. In this guide we cover tare weights, PLUs and the many benefits of buying food from the bulk bins!


How to Shop the Bulk Bins

I’ll never forget my first trip to a food co-op. I was in college (Madison, WI) and had just moved in to a new apartment with some friends. There was a small food co-op at the end of the block. I knew Madison had some hippy roots but growing up there, I had never been part of that culture. But how could I not shop at this store right down the block from my apartment?

I ventured inside and was amazed to see all the bins and barrels holding food – nuts, grains, flour, granola and sesame sticks (something I quickly became addicted to!) At first I stuck to the pre-bagged foods because I was not brave enough to try my hand at scooping and weighing. It was a new way of buying food and definitely a bit intimidating! 

Eventually I learned how to shop from the bulk bins like a pro – even bringing in my own containers to fill instead of using the bags the store provided. I even became a volunteer at the co-op, helping to fill bins, wrap cheese and other duties – in exchange for a store discount! This was how I was able to eat healthy on a budget, even in college!

How to Shop the Bulk Bins at the Grocery Store

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Why You Should Shop the Bulk Bins

If you’re wondering what’s the big deal about buying food from the bulk bins at the grocery store – let me clue you in on a few of the benefits:

  • Reduced packaging – Food packaging is an incredible waste. When you shop the bulk bins, you eliminate the need for packaging, especially if you bring your own containers from home.
  • Less expensive – Prices for bulk food are often less because you are not paying for packaging and marketing expenses. On a recent shopping trip, prepackaged jasmine rice was almost double the cost of rice from the bulk bins, and a bottle of Italian seasoning was almost 4x the price of  the bulk spices!
  • Buy what you need– When you buy in bulk you can get as little or as much as you need for a recipe or to stock your healthy pantry. Spices and nutritional yeast (to sprinkle on popcorn!) are examples of items I buy in small quantities from the bulk bins so they won’t go bad before I use them up.
  • More organic options – You may find a much broader selection of organic foods in the bulk bins than you will on the shelves. I buy organic oats, brown basmati rice, nuts, dried fruit….and lots of other good stuff.

RELATED: How to Reduce Plastic Use in Your Home & Life


Glass jars filled with spices in bulk

How to Shop the Bulk Bins at the Grocery

Ever since that first experience in college, I’ve been an avid bulk bin shopper. Nowadays you’ll find bulk bins at Whole Foods and other natural food stores, as well as many regular grocery stores. Even though their popularity has grown, buying food from the bulk bins can be intimidating if you don’t know how to use them. So to help you master the art of bulk buying, I put together some tips so you can shop the bulk bins like a BOSS!!

Here’s what you need to know about buying from the bulk bins:

Supplies:

Bring these supplies from home if you have them – or use the bags provided by the store.

  • Mesh produce bags – for pasta, grains, beans, nuts
  • Cloth bags for flour or other fine grains
  • Mason jars or repurposed pasta sauce jars for nut butters or any other foods
  • Flip-top bottles or sealable jars for oil, vinegar, vanilla etc…
  • Spice jars for spices (garage sales are a great place to fine old spice jars!)
  • Cardboard oats container to refill with more oats
  • A pen or pencil (most stores provide them but it’s nice to have your own)
  • A notebook or your phone to make notes if you need to
Buying from bulk bins - using scale for tare weight

Step 1 – Get the Tare Weight:

If you have your own jar or container you will need to weigh it empty before you fill it. Write the tare weight down somewhere – either on the jar or in a notebook. The cashier will subtract the original weight of the container so you that you are only paying for the weight of the food you buy!

Step 2 – Fill Container:

Fill up your bag or container by either pulling down the lever on the bin or using a scoop. If you need a specific quantity, use the scale to weigh what you have.

Buying from bulk bins - PLU for coconut chips
These coconut chips are seriously delicious!

Step 3 – Write down the PLU:

The PLU (price lookup number) will be somewhere on the bin. Write it down either on a twist tie, a sticker or in your notebook. Nutritional information and instructions are often available on the bin so write them down if you need them!

Step 4 – Checkout:

Bring all your bags, containers, tare weights and PLUs to the checkout. They will weigh everything and you’ll be on your way!

Glass jars with food in cabinet - How to Shop the Bulk Bins at the Grocery Store

Storing Bulk Foods at Home

If I were designing a dream kitchen, I would create a set of built-in bulk bins for food – just like they have in the grocery store – only smaller. They would be nice looking, super clean and top-load/bottom-out. That way I wouldn’t have to worry about using up the older food before putting more in. Bulk bins are such a brilliant invention! But since I’ve already done a kitchen remodel, and bulk bins weren’t part of it – LOL, I have to make due with lots of jars and bags in my cupboard instead.

Organize your bulk foods in airtight storage jars – with or without labels depending on your style. No need to be fancy (the jars above are from IKEA so not expensive, but they look nice!) Repurposed glass jars from food or canning jars work just as well – just use what you have and slowly add to your collection.

I hope this guide will help give you the confidence to start shopping the bulk bins at the grocery store. Once you start, I just know you’re gonna love it!

Do you shop the bulk bins? What are your favorite foods to buy in bulk?

green & healthy wishes Micaela signature

17 Comments

  1. Awesome post with great tips! I too would love to redesign my kitchen with bulk bins, and other features that would help me live a life that is more green. Thanks for sharing.

  2. how inspiring! i’ve been working on more bulk as well and really appreciate your tips. i found many inexpensive glass jars at ikea, but reusing existing ones would be greener, eh? we have an amazing local market that has an outrageous bulk section. i’d love to get a guided tour of it – it is so extensive. do you have good bulk markets near you?

  3. Thanks for the inspiration. I started getting more organized with the bulk items last spring, but need to keep going. We don’t have quite the huge array of bulk options around here, but enough. Bulk spices are THE. BEST. DEAL. EVER! Can’t believe how in expensive and I love that you can buy exactly how much you need.

  4. Kristina (The Greening of Westford) says:

    Forgot to mention…. If you find canning jars at yard sales and the rubber gasket is old, dry or missing, don’t worry! Many kitchen stores and even hardware stores (in the canning section) sell replacements.

  5. Mindful Momma: where do yoy shop for groceries?

  6. Hi Serena,

    I shop at a number of places but my local food co-op is the best place for buying in bulk!

  7. Hi Kristina – good point about the canning jar lids! Canning jars are a great find at garage sales!

  8. Very accurate, I find the food in those bins to be tastier, they have a particular character. They also do not leave that chemical-like aftertaste when you are done eating as do processed foods. I had also noticed from back in the day when I used to live with my mum that the food from the bulk bins leads to more creativity in the kitchen! Trying to eat healthy but sick of the same old recipes? Peruse the bulk container to experiment with new food is what I say. Work your way through the grains and legumes as inspiration to delight your palate! Each meal will taste different when you experiment with some of the stuff that you find in these bulk bins

  9. Bershella DeKowperlandth says:

    Great inspiration to get away from using plastic! Any suggestions for bakers— wrapping dough for breads or other pastries to rest in fridge or cool place before other work?

    1. We use lightweight kitchen towels (or flour sack towels) to wrap bread dough!

  10. Would love options on how to buy bulk foods while needing to be gluten free for health reasons? Is there an online source to buy things without the risk of cross contamination? The stores that do sell bulk items do not have a gluten free designated area. The flour from nearby bins is everywhere on the other bins. So want to buy bulk to reduce waste. Some online sources have told me they repackage a lot of their items in same facility into smaller paper packages (5,10lb packages instead of the big 25 or 50 lb bag it comes in) so cross contamination is high as well.

    1. Good question – this is an area I have not researched. My best suggestion would be to contact your favorite gluten free brand to see if you can purchase from them in large quantities.

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