13 Foods You Should Buy From Supermarket Bulk Bins—and 2 to Skip

Bulk bins aren’t only about the best deals.

All Natural Bulk Food Dispensers in Supermarket with Scale in Front
Photo: Getty Images

If you're not shopping from the bulk bins at your supermarket, you're missing out. Not only can you find a wide selection of dry goods, but you may also score amazing deals on essentials. (There's a reason purchasing bulk cleaning supplies is a financially savvy move.) Plus, buying only the quantities you need helps eliminate food waste, and using reusable containers and bags helps make grocery shopping more zero waste-friendly.

"There are tons of great deals in bulk, primarily because the consumer isn't paying for packaging," says Trey McLean, a senior global category merchant for Whole Foods Market who oversees the store's bulk department. But before you grab a scoop and dig in, there are a few things you need to know.

First, prioritize safety; it's unsanitary to graze the product with your hand—and even worse to let unsupervised kids do it. While most experts say harmful microbes aren't likely to grow in bulk bins because they don't contain enough moisture to harbor bacterial growth, it's better to be safe than sorry.

Second, transfer items to appropriate vessels after you return home. "The best thing you can do is put your items in air-tight containers," McLean says. Store the containers in the cupboard (for sugar), the fridge (for chia and flax seeds), or the freezer (for oats).

Third, venture outside your comfort zone. "Bulk set size and ingredients will vary [from store to store], which can be a good thing because it means you'll find regional or local items in the bulk department, like honey, that are unique to your store," McLean says.

Finally, you shouldn't automatically assume the price is better because it's available in bulk. "Sometimes the prices are much better, other times they are much more expensive," says Brianne Bell, a registered dietitian based in Toronto. "Always shop around if you're concerned about price."

With those four pointers in mind, go forth and shop in bulk. Here's what to stock up on (and what to skip) from the bulk bins.

Bulk Items to Stock Up On

Oats, Rice, and Beans

When comparing cost per ounce or cost per pound, oats, rice, and beans are the top three best deals in the bulk department, McLean says.

Lentils

A great source of plant-based protein, lentils store well for long periods, says Eila Rain, a holistic health coach who frequents the bulk bins with clients.

Chia or Flax Seeds

These two ingredients are normally consumed in small quantities—a teaspoon here, a tablespoon there—and both go rancid over time, so part of the bag often ends up getting thrown out, says Mary Weidner, co-founder of the Strongr Fastr meal planning app. Instead, buy them in small amounts from the bulk bins and store them in a small jar you can keep on the counter to easily sprinkle over oatmeal or salads.

Popcorn Kernels

These are great to have on hand for movie night without having to buy a large container you may not be able to use up before the kernels go bad, Rain says.

Spices

Bulk bins are an excellent place to shop spices that are rarely used, McLean says. During the holidays, for example, you can stock up on seasonal spices such as nutmeg and cardamom and only buy what you need so full jars won't sit empty in the pantry for the rest of the year. Buying in bulk also allows you to experiment with spices without committing to an entire bottle—such as turmeric for a smoothie, sesame seeds for a stir-fry, or lemongrass for a marinade, Weidner suggests.

Whole Peppercorns

Buying these and grinding them into fresh pepper is infinitely tastier than pepper that's already ground, Rain says. Get a refillable grinder so you don't have to buy a new one every time you run out.

Sugar

White, brown, and powdered sugars are good buys in the bulk section. They technically never spoil, as long as they're stored in a dry place—but are best used within two years, according to the USDA.

Unflavored Protein Powder

Don't want to commit to a big tub of protein powder? Scoop from the bulk bins instead. "Unflavored protein powder is great for adding in small quantities to boost protein in a meal," Weidner says. "Add a spoonful to oatmeal, yogurt, smoothies, and even cookies."

Dried Fruit

A small scoop can be a healthier way to satisfy a sweet tooth, Rain says. Buy dried fruit for a snack on its own, or add it to trail mixes with other ingredients.

Loose-Leaf Tea

Buying this in bulk gives you the chance to smell the tea before buying, unlike packaged tea bags, Bell explains.

Bulk Items to Skip

Nuts

Nuts can be risky to buy in bulk unless you're shopping at a supermarket with a high turnover and plan to eat them quickly after purchasing. "They're packed with healthy oils that go rancid quickly at room temperature, meaning they can go bad sitting in the bulk bins," says Stephanie Stiavetti, a professional chef and founder of Fearless Fresh online cooking courses. If you do buy nuts in bulk, double-seal them in plastic bags and store them in the refrigerator or freezer.

Flours

Flour is also a problem to buy in bulk unless you're shopping at a store that empties its bins regularly. "The oils in grains are already fragile, and they become even more so when ground to a powder and exposed to light, oxygen, and fluctuating temperatures of a grocery store," Stiavetti explains. It's perfectly okay to ask the person running the bulk aisle when the flour bin was last filled. If it's been there unsealed for longer than two weeks, it's a "hard pass," according to Stiavetti.

A Word of Caution

If you have food allergies or celiac disease, steer clear of the bulk bins, as stores may not be able to guarantee the contents. "I'm sure stores do the best they can," Bell says, "but it's not worth the risk of cross-contamination."

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