Wholesale stores like Costco may reign as the cost-saving kings of retail, but they’re not always practical for urban dwellers like me. Bigger isn’t better, especially if you’re living in a small space or a single-person household. (And according to Statistic Canada’s 2016 census report, there are now more people living alone in Canada than there are couples with children.)
So what’s a gal gotta do to stock up her (minimal) pantry space? Enter bulk food stores, where ingredients are offered in large quantities, but the shopping experience is akin to a choose-your-own-size adventure.
A study by The Canadian Centre for Food Integrity reveals the two main causes of household food loss and waste are: “food reaching its best before date before using” and “buying too much food.” Bulk stores allow us to buy only what we need and reduce packaging waste.
Bulk food stores’ growing popularity in urban neighbourhoods is reflected in their product offerings: in addition to generic goods, I spotted trendy ingredients like collagen powder and vegan protein powder at my local Bulk Barn, not to mention plenty of organic products.
Here are five of the best items to buy in smaller quantities:
Spices and spice blends
Jarred spices tend to be expensive, and even the more cost-efficient 100-gram packages at retailers can be too much for one household. Once opened, the aroma starts to deteriorate and spices can lose flavour in less than six months. Buying in smaller quantities (and in some cases, the exact amount you need for a recipe) means you cut down on both storage and food waste in the long run.
Nuts and seeds
They may be more affordable in large Costco packages, but the high fat content in nuts and seeds causes them to go rancid fairly quickly. Buy in smaller quantities to reduce spoilage (and also to avoid mindlessly over-eating, which may lead to these unfortunate circumstances).
Often sold in 1-litre cartons, fresh buttermilk is an ingredient I seldom use up, resulting in buttermilk “culturing” in the back of my fridge (and eventually down the drain.) Then I discovered the genius ingredient that is buttermilk powder. To make your own buttermilk, simply stir the powder into water (quantity will vary by brand) and you can use it as a substitute for fresh buttermilk in recipes, like these fluffy buttermilk pancakes or flaky buttermilk biscuits. (If you happen to have fresh buttermilk wasting away in the fridge, you can also freeze it in an ice cube tray or a resealable container.)
Sprinkles and edible decorations
Your mileage may vary depending on the store you visit, but my local store switches out their sprinkle inventory on a monthly basis. Bulk stores can give you access to adorable seasonal sprinkles (gingerbread men! Maple leaves! Easter eggs!), and I’ve often purchased only 2 tbsp of sprinkles to decorate a batch of cupcakes.
Bulk stores are a great one-stop shop for buying a variety of dried fruits for all your upcoming holiday baking projects, like ultimate fruitcake. In addition, you’ll often find unique fruits in your bulk store that isn’t available in your standard retail stores, like dried blueberries, currants and strawberries.
BONUS: Dying to add a new spice blend to your cooking repertoire? Or test drive a new collagen powder trend? Because there’s usually no minimum purchase weight, bulk food stores offer the perfect try-before-you-buy option.
Originally published in 2018; updated in 2021.