What To Buy and Skip When Buying in Bulk

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cokada / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Though the pandemic is easing up in the U.S. since the successful rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, financial suffering continues. Last October, the World Food Bank estimated that another 88 million to 115 million people were pushed into extreme poverty because of the pandemic. Not helping matters is the national rise in the cost of foods. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the monthly cost of groceries swelled 1.2% between April 2020 and April 2021. This past May, the average price increased 0.7% year over year.

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In light of the surging costs of food, Americans are cashing in on coupons and promos at supermarkets to get by. They may also be inclined to buy more in bulk (hello, Costco!), but while you can never have enough of certain items — like toilet paper and diapers — there’s a fair amount of food items that shouldn’t be purchased en masse. Here’s a look at the do’s and don’ts of buying in bulk at the supermarket or your favorite big-box retailer.

Last updated: July 7, 2021

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Buy: Dried Fruit and Coconut Oil

“I love to buy dried fruit in bulk, especially goji berries and dried mulberries, which are high in antioxidants and essential fatty acids (omega-3s),” said Katherine Brown, founder of Spyic and a budget shopper. “They are cheap when bought in bulk. But I buy coconut oil in large tubs, and it lasts me a couple of months; however if you’re not cooking with it or using it for your hair, then you might be better off buying individual jars.”

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Skip: Spices (Unless Whole) 

    The major reason [to skip buying spices in bulk] is not what one might actually think,” said Megan Ayala, a food blogger and fitness and health expert at Patricia and Carolyn. “Spices do not go bad, but they do go stale. The more refined a spice is, the quicker it will lose its flavor. So if you buy large quantities of spice, chances are the ones you use later are going to be absolutely flavorless.”

    Note though that you can still buy spices in bulk — just go for whole spices versus ground spices, which last longer (up to four years) than ground spices

    Meaghan Thomas, owner of Pinch Spice Kitchen, highlights the following spices to buy whole in bulk: 

    • Whole allspice
    • Whole cloves
    • Whole nutmeg
    • Whole bird’s eye chili

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    Buy: Berries To Freeze

    “There are different types of berries like blueberries, strawberries and raspberries which can be bought in bulk,” said Hannah Shine, health manager at HourGlass Waist. “Berries can be frozen in the refrigerator for a longer period of time. This is because when berries are not in season, their prices increase. So in [season], buy berries in bulk and freeze them.”

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    Skip: Baking Soda and Baking Powder 

    “Baking soda and baking powder do not go bad in the traditional sense that they will become unsafe to eat; however, over time, they will undergo a chemical reaction and start to lose their potency,” said Diane Vukovic, lead writer at Primal Survivor. “If you try to use them in baked goods, the food won’t rise and you’ll end up with a hard lump. Baking soda also gets a really gross metallic taste as it ages. Only buy as much baking soda and baking powder as you can realistically use up within six months.”

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    Buy: Vinegar

    “Vinegar doesn’t go bad and it takes a very long time before it even loses any of its quality,” Vukovic said. “Even if the vinegar quality does deteriorate, there are many other things you can use it for [like] making your own natural cleaning products.” 

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    Skip: Whole Grains

    “Whole grains contain a lot of natural oils, [which] start to go bad fairly quickly,” Vukovic said. “On top of that, whole grains are often contaminated with insect eggs. You can’t see the insect eggs but, if you leave the grains out long enough, the eggs will hatch and suddenly you’ll have a weevil or Indian meal moth infestation in your home. To prevent this, use up any grains you buy within four weeks. If you must buy large amounts of whole grains, then store them in your freezer.”

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    Buy: Already Frozen Vegetables

    “Fresh vegetables usually go bad even when they are stored properly,” Shine said. “Buying frozen vegetables like carrots, bell peppers, broccoli, peas and storing them in the freezer is a good idea as it can last for months without spoiling.”

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    Skip: Leafy Greens (Even If Freezing)

    Not all vegetables like the freezer, including leafy greens. 

    “It is suggested that green leafy vegetables like lettuce, spinach and iceberg should not be bought in bulk as they get spoiled easily,” Shine said. “The few rotten leaves on the bottom causes the entire vegetable to go bad; therefore, if you do not wish to eat them on a daily basis, buy fewer quantities.”

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    Buy: Canned Goods

    “Despite what those ‘best by’ dates say, canned foods last indefinitely,” Vukovic said. “Cans are also virtually indestructible and can survive earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural disasters. The Red Cross recommends having at least two weeks’ worth of emergency food at home and canned goods are a great option for this.”

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    Skip: Bleach

    “Bleach starts to degrade very quickly which is why it is usually only given a shelf life of 12 months after its manufacturing date,” Vukovic said. “If stored correctly, it might last up to two years. The problem is that you have no way of knowing whether the bleach is still good and how potent it is, which makes it nearly impossible to properly disinfect with.”

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