11 Tips for Buying Food at Warehouse Clubs

Buying in bulk at your local warehouse club (whether that’s Costco, BJs, Sam’s Club or another chain) can single-handedly slash your grocery budget by leaps and bounds. It pays to look into how to take advantage of warehouse shopping, as well as how to optimize the purchases you make there.

Having shopped at warehouse clubs for the last 17 years (including all the major chains), I have a unique perspective from which to offer a few tips. Today’s list of tips will focus specifically on buying food, which recently made up about 75% of my monthly warehouse spending. Let’s take a look:

  1. While I love “good wine,” a recent study (can’t remember where I saw it, unfortunately) pointed out that many people couldn’t tell the difference between a $10 and a $100 bottle, and I honestly can’t either. The warehouse carries inexpensive bottles, but nothing beats a $2.99 red or white at Trader Joe’s. Verdict: I don’t buy wine at the warehouse (and I don’t typically drink beer).
  2. The bakery selection is usually extensive, including “mid-level” and artisan breads, pastries and cakes. The prices usually beat anything you can find at the supermarket, but when you buy a case of twelve muffins, you’ll either need a large family or a looser belt to consume it all.
  3. One strategy that works well for fruits, meat, and even some vegetables is to use a portion of the package the same day or week (if it will make it that long) for your dishes, and to freeze the rest. This allows you to buy 12 chicken breasts and not wonder how you’ll eat them all tonight.
  4. The meat department is one of my favorites since the pricing is excellent, and for what it’s worth, many warehouses claim to buy better meat than the typical grocery store. The portions are usually large, but you can mitigate this if you have a large family, freeze the remainder, or if you’re hosting a party.
  5. The selection in the produce, dairy and other cold sections varies from store to store, but is usually limited as far as odd items. However, you’re bound to find at least one kind of whatever you’re looking for as long as it’s a popular food, whether that’s greek yogurt, green beans, or tomatoes.
  6. The same goes for dry goods, like pastas or breakfast cereal, though the selection will be similarly limited and there are many instances where I could not find what I needed for a recipe at the warehouse store.
  7. People often joke about the free samples you can pick up on Saturday afternoons, but this is no joke–I’ve discovered a whole handful of new products by tasting them that I’d never look at or know about otherwise. If you can brave the crowds, visit the store on Saturday and do some sampler-hopping.
  8. Most portion sizes will be bigger than typical. For example, when I buy chicken breasts or pork chops, what would typically be one serving from the grocery store, I can easily cut in half and get two from the warehouse cuts. Go by weight when buying meat and cook/serve accordingly.
  9. Don’t opt for the premium membership, especially if you stick to fresh goods. Most of the “sales” at the warehouses that have this model are for processed foods or non-grocery items. If you buy large volumes of food and the specific store offers a cash-back membership, evaluate it on a case-by-case basis; it might be worth the investment.
  10. Shop during off-hours. Many complaints about warehouses have to do with the crowds and long lines. If you consistently shop on Saturday afternoons, that’s all you’ll ever get, so try to visit the store when no one else is likely to. An hour or so before a weekday closing is usually a good time with short waits.
  11. Many warehouse stores offer a trial membership during a certain time of year, or a “non-member shopping weekend.” Most will also let you browse the store at anytime if you don’t intend to buy anything. Take advantage of these offers to see what kinds of products are sold at the store. If there’s more than one warehouse store in your area, visit them all before making a decision. The grocery selection between the various chains varies significantly.

The per-unit cost on most items in a warehouse, and in particular the meats and produce, is significantly better than any price at any local supermarket. The key in making the purchases effective is how you use them and store them, guarding against the “eat more because it’s there” effect and food spoilage.

Finally, don’t be scared to check out the warehouse even if you’re single or have a small family. Without a doubt, a club membership can still be effective, regardless of your household size.

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Effective Ways to Stop Wasting Food

At the intersection of money and food lies a land of opportunity. It’s a place where small changes and attention to detail can have a big impact on your health, your wallet, and the sense that you’re doing things right.

Food waste creeps up and quietly hits your budget by reducing the efficiency of your food dollars. It’s irrelevant whether those were spent on eating out or at the grocery store–they can be equally flushed down the drain by spoilage.

A good, life-cycle approach to food budgeting ensures that the hard work you put into sourcing your food extends to keeping it fresh in your home.

Biggest Impact

To be effective and easy to implement, a plan of action for getting rid of food waste has to focus on the ideas that will give you the most mileage for your effort. These are the 5 areas where I had the most impact in my own life:

1. Refrigerator storage. Keeping food in the refrigerator keeps it fresh, but we know that everything a shelf life, even in the cold. There are a few simple strategies for the fridge that can help:

  • Keep your fridge about 50-75% stocked, at maximum, so that you can easily see everything at a glance.
  • Place the freshest items in the back, and rotate everything in danger of spoiling to the front.
  • Wrap everything in see-through packaging. No aluminum foil allowed!

2. Meal planning. Planning dinners in goes a long way to making sure you don’t buy unnecessary ingredients. It’s also important if you plan to go out a lot during the week, when your fridge might go unopened for days at a time, with the food clock inside slowly ticking.

3. Buy smart. Choices you make at the grocery store can have a direct impact on how well your food holds up to storage. Here are some suggestions:

  • Some ingredients can store well in the cold for many weeks, like potatoes and onions. Buy them in bulk quantities to save money.
  • Buy perishable ingredients, especially proteins, fragile veggies and herbs a few times a week with your planned meal in mind.

4. Move leftovers. Once they’re in the fridge, leftovers seem to stick to the shelf and are avoided like the plague. Schedule frequent leftover nights to incorporate them into new dishes or set up a food sharing program with your friends and family to get the leftovers out of your house.

5. Freeze. In the world of food preservation, nothing works as well as a freezer, especially a stand-alone one. It is a useful and underused tool, and offers many benefits. Some of them include:

  • Preserving foods for months that would normally last for only a few days.
  • Stabilizing the nutritional value of purchased foods.
  • Enabling you to buy your favorite foods in bulk.
  • Providing a large storage cache of meals for those busy nights when you can’t make it to the store.
  • Allowing you to store pre-prepared or leftover foods for later use.

Following these five strategies should go a very long way to making sure that you throw out next to nothing on your next refrigerator clean-up.

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The Food Stamp (SNAP) Challenge

Yesterday as I was checking some of my favorite blogs, I came across Sandy’s piece on The Food Stamp Challenge. She shares some numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture about Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (many people still refer to them as food stamps).

Please check out her post or the original report from the USDA. Here are some numbers that caught my eye for here on Married Food regarding food budgets.

The average monthly benefit was $132.98 per person. That’s roughly $33.25 per week, $4.75 per day or $1.58 per meal for 3 meals per day, seven days each week.

Sandy asked readers to share their thoughts on making this budget work for them. I shared my comments which basically said that for a sustained amount of time I would have a hard time keeping to that budget. It could be done, but changes definitely would be made. I thought about it some more and wanted to expand on my comment here.

Keeping to a Tight Food Budget

For a limited period of time my family received food stamps and it was a challenge for my mom with 3 kids to feed, however with careful planning and a system she made it. While I only have a limited perspective of back then, I do remember clearly some steps that my mom took that made a big difference.

Cooking in the Kitchen

If anybody is on a tight budget and want to have wholesome meals that taste good, learning the basics of cooking is vital. Once you learn the basic mechanics of recipes, you can adjust them to your tastes. It will not only help you to save money (you can buy ingredients in bulk), but the variety of flavors will be welcomed by your palate.

  • Stir-fries
  • Paella
  • Pastas

In fact, Mark Bittaman, author of How to Cook Everything, has released some fantastic videos to get started:

The next biggest worry for people is the time involved for preparing meals. The good news that cooking doesn’t have to be time intensive. All the above dishes are not only easy to make, but they are relatively quick. Some of the dishes allow to take a break while the ingredients are cooking.

Finding Affordable and Good Food

I’m happy to see that more and more grocers are offering affordable good food. Even the supermarket chains have affordable fresh food options.  I recently read that more farmers are accepting payments through Electronic Benefit Transfer system so that food stamp recipients can get local good straight from the source. They is still much to be done to make this option more available to farmers, but it’s a nice step in the right direction.

We discovered that using Community Support Agriculture programs like The Produce Box can be a frugal option.

Introducing More Vegetables Into Diet

For our family we had cut back on meat and focused on getting our proteins with beans and nuts. Even if you don’t plan on being a vegetarian, moving to a more plant based diet can have some wonderful health benefits. You also can stretch your dollar further by eating less meat as it tends to be the most expensive part of a meal.

Thoughts on Eating on a Limited Budget

With some helpful tips on how to slash grocery bills while still eating well, those on a limited food budget (for whatever reason) can benefit greatly. I’d really like hear your thoughts about eating on a fixed budget. What’s your food budget now? Could you adjust it to the average monthly benefit from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program? How would you do it?

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Frugal Food Fun – Playing in the Garden

garden

If you’re looking for a way to relieve your stress, get something productive done, and have a good time with the family, having garden is a wonderful project. I never envisioned myself feeling that way, but after doing small garden stuff over the years it’s becoming more and more enjoyable.

I started late this year, but last week I got some work done in our small family garden. I was inspired by the weather. The morning was perfect for my daughter and our cat to hang outside while I worked. Even though she isn’t big enough to offer a hand, it was nice to see her messing around the rosemary and mint. She got to try them and I wish I had taken some pictures of her reaction.

garden

Garden Kit and Other things

Along with our produce order for the week, we also added on a kid’s gardening kit. I know our little one is small, but I think it would be fun to kind of include her in growing some vegetables. My plan is to have her grow up and learn the basics about where food comes from and hopefully it’ll help her to be excited about what we eat.

I plan taking pictures and videos so she can see them when she gets older. It’s kind of nice fun and frugal thing we can do together.

I also got the pots ready for the peppers we’re growing this season and got the weeding done. Even though the home association takes care of the mowing I noticed that the bushes needed some trimming.

Thoughts on Family Gardens

I’m curious to get your feedback. What are you growing in your family garden this season? If you have kids, are they involved in the upkeep? What do they like to do the most (or the least)?

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Cutting Back on Buying Snacks (or At Least Swapping Them Out)

frozen fruit bars

As we’ve all heard, junk food is waste of calories and doesn’t have any real benefits for you. What we know is that the temptation is that taste so good! I’m not going to hide it- I love sweets and I had a habit of buying sweets as part of my grocery routine. Seriously. If I went to buy the basics, there would be a package of cookies in there, just like it was bread or sandwich meat.

However, I realize that I need to do better so cutting back a back just a bit and I’m also swapping some of my snacks for healthier options.

Summer Time = Better Snacks

There is something about the warm weather that just encourages lighter snacks, which can mean better choices than just junk food. Last year when I was pregnant and there was a heat wave going on during my last trimester (fun!), I really got into frozen fruit bars. My sweet tooth was satisfied and I wasn’t consuming a ton of empty calories. You can make your own frozen fruit bars or you can grab a box (or two at the store).

If you’re looking for a fruit pop recipe, here you are: frozen fruit  bars

Popsicle Ingredients

  • 1 cup pineapple
  • 1/2 cup coconut milk
  • 1/2 cup strawberry

Preparation

  • Blend the fruit together in blender
  • Pour mix into popsicle container and freeze

It’s that simple. You do need to get the popsicle containers for it, but if you love col treats during the spring and summer, these will save you plenty of money. Plus you can adjust the fruits as they come in season, saving you even more money.

Thoughts on Snack Options

I’d love to hear your tips and suggestions. What are some of your favorite warm weather snacks? How do you keep your snacking habit under control?

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