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Everything You Need to Know About Shopping the Bulk Bins at Whole Foods

Sara Tane

While it might seem confusing and intimidating, the bulk aisle is actually a great place to save money and shop for healthy, wholesome foods. From nuts and seeds to flours and grains, you have plenty of variety to choose from, whether you're looking to vary your diet or buy your favorites in both large and small quantities. When done correctly, shopping the bulk aisle is great for both your health and your wallet.

The bulk foods section of Whole Foods or your neighborhood health food grocery store can be very daunting. Huge bins and dispensers filled with what looks like different varieties of bird seeds tower over you, with large shovels dangling alongside. What is this scary aisle, and what do you do here?

It’s easy to back out and head to the more familiar aisles, where you can buy many of these same items that are instead packaged in a more visually-appealing and user-friendly way. However, we think that when done properly, the bulk aisle is the perfect place for healthy, cost-efficient grocery shopping. While there are some bins to steer clear of, here’s your need-to-know basics for navigating the bulk aisle.

  1. You have the option to buy as much or as little as you want. Maybe a recipe calls for 1 1/4 cups of uncooked spelt, so rather than using half the box and letting the rest hide in the back of your pantry for the next six months, you can buy exactly how much you need and rest assured that your shelves will remain clutter-free (and the grains won't go bad). Want to try dal but not sure if you’ll like it? Try a little scoop, and if it’s not for you, you’re wasting an entire box.
  2. You can save money. On top of the fact that you’re saving money because you’re buying the amount that you actually need, bulk items are sold at a lower unit price than other boxed and bagged goods. When you take fancy marketing and labels out of the equation, the prices drop like magic.
  3. Speaking of packaging, buying bulk is much less wasteful. You can even bring in your own storage bags or mason jars, and weight of your storage container will be deducted at the register.
    Photo: Iain Bagwell
  4. Nuts, flours, grains, and rice are great additions to a well-rounded, healthy diet. Whether you’re wanting to stick to your favorites like almonds and brown rice, or looking to branch out and try something new, the bulk bins are chock full of hearty whole grains, protein-packed legumes and a variety of raw, unsalted nuts.
  5. Beware of the trail mixes and granola. Just because they’re sold in bulk next to all of these wholesome foods doesn’t mean that they’re a healthy option. Same goes for those yogurt-covered pretzels; unfortunately nobody needs those in bulk (although it might be easy to convince yourself that you actually do). Most of the granola options are loaded with unnecessary sugars and flavorings, so it’s best to avoid those and make your own.
  6. The products are fresh. Bins are checked and restocked regularly, so the foods you are buying have not been sitting on a shelf for an extended amount of time.

When it comes to cost-efficient, healthy shopping, there is no doubt that the bulk aisle is your friend. Just be careful: if you’ve got a heavy hand when it comes to scooping and you’re now doubling the amount of cashews that you’re snacking on because you have a bottomless bag of them, then sadly, you are probably going to spend more money than you previously were. They keep a scale out there for a reason, so use it.