Greening Your Kitchen: Buy In Bulk! ~ The Garden of Eating - a sinfully good blog about food

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Greening Your Kitchen: Buy In Bulk!

Picture a huge mountain of garbage stretching higher than the eye can see, a veritable Mt. Everest of trash. If you look closer, you'll see that roughly 1/3 of the mountain is made up of discarded packaging. According to the EPA, packaging accounted for 1/3 of the truly astounding 251,340 tons of municipal waste we Americans generated in 2006. Therefore, it practically goes without saying (but I'm going to say it anyway) that cutting down on our consumption of packaging is one of the keys to making our kitchens and our homes moreBulk apricots environmentally-friendly. And one of the best ways to cut down on packaging is to buy in bulk!

There are several other added bonuses to buying in bulk:
  • it's often cheaper because you're skipping all that packaging;
  • it's often healthier than the alternatives because the products you're buying tend to be less processed than packaged products; and
  • last but not least, it feels really good to bypass all that unnecessary paper and plastic --buying in bulk can be very gratifying.
We've come a long way since the early days of food co-ops - nowadays, bulk food is fairly common and offers much more variety than you might expect. If you live near the right store, the list of items you can buy in bulk is loooong. It includes pastas, beans, flour, spices, sugar, salt, dried fruits, oats, cornmeal, couscous, rices, cereals, granola, raisins, chocolate chips, nuts, mixes (veggie burger, cornbread, etc.) as well as personal care products like hand soap, lotion, shampoo and conditioner, and laundry detergent.
Bulk bins
I LOVE browsing through the bulk foods section of my local grocery store (the Berkeley Bowl) which is downright palatial. But perhaps even more impressive than their selection of bulk goods is the uncanny ability of their staff who man the bulk weighing counter to discern organic white flour from regular white flour or differentiate between organic sea salt and regular sea salt WITHOUT any labels or information. You just put the stuff you want to buy in an unmarked plastic bag, close it with a twist tie, and bring it up to the counter where one of these weighing wizards throws it on the scale and magically types in the correct code and slaps a label on it. They are never wrong -- I simpy do not know how they do it! I am so awed by their abilities that I've even asked a few of them what their secret is. Unfortunately, they always just shrug nonchalantly and dodge the question so it remains a complete mystery...
Bulk orzo, weighed by the wizards at the Berkeley Bowl bulk goods counter
Hopefully by now my enthusiasm for buying in bulk has begun to rub off on you. If so, here are a few things you may want to consider before you run out to the store.

1. Freshness. Bulk food can go bad while it's sitting in the bins waiting to be bought so make sure you buy from a store whose bins see a lot of traffic and therefore will be replenished with new stock regularly. If you're buying something like nuts, smell them or taste them before you buy to make sure they're not rancid.
Bulk organic penne stored in airtight glass jar
2. Storage. Make sure you have the proper containers at home before you head off on your first bulk buying mission. Although you can reuse old yogurt containers, etc., you'll want to make sure that you have air tight containers for any kind of grain - otherwise you run the risk of getting grain weevils (those annoying little moths) and spreading them to all your other bulk goods. Glass jars are pretty, durable, and relatively inexpensive. You can find them at many grocery stores, as well as at home stores like Ikea, Crate and Barrel, etc.

You'll also need to make sure you have enough space to store all your bulk goodies. In general, you want to put them in a cool, dry area that does not get direct sun. We keep most of our jars of bulk goods in this cupboard in our kitchen because it is dry and has doors we close to keep it dark.
Our Bulk Foods Cupboard
3. Labeling. Some foods will keep for a long time but others have a limited shelf life so labeling is a good idea to ensure that you know how old something is. If you're unsure about how long a particular item will keep for, offers this handy shelf life guide you can consult. I usually just use a sharpie on masking tape - it's not glamorous but it works and you can just tape it to the bottom of the container where no one will see it but you.


Barbara said...

these seem like a great idea for labeling. though masking tape and sharpies can be very chic ;-)

Eve Fox said...

Those are awesome, Barbara! Thanks for letting us know about them.