Size Matters: Part Two, Shopping

Buy from the bulk section in quantities needed rather than quantities packaged

By Chris Watson

How do you shop?  Do you shop for two or for twenty? Is a lower price per unit always a bargain?  Does your drive to shop in bulk drive what you eat and therefore what you want to eat…even the way you want to eat and enjoy your meals?

Most of us shop wrong.  By wrong we mean we are motivated to purchase for the wrong reasons.  It is not our fault.  We spend years in families purchasing out of the two things we that drove us:  need and price.  Whether we are before or after our active child raising time, these two basics were the engine pulling the purchasing train.

When we live solo or in pairs there is a third way to shop, one that is rarely marketed to and is counterintuitive to what we have been taught:  shopping by size.

Small is Expensive:  The First Fallacy

We all know that smaller is more expensive.  A gallon of milk is cheaper than a quart.  So buy the gallon or, in a pinch, buy the half gallon.  Much better than that overpriced  quart size.  Right?

Buying what you need for recipes can save a great deal of money and waste
Buying what you need for recipes can save a great deal of money and waste

The answer is, perhaps.  Many people don’t drink milk, they only cook with it.  Likewise, many who do drink milk don’t drink what recipes call “rich milk” or whole milk.  Many soup recipes (chowders for instance), scalloped and cheese based casseroles (basic mac and cheese), even basic breakfast items like grits, oatmeal, and sausage gravy (for that matter white sauces and gravies of all types) require a richer milk.  Sure you can make them with skim but why bother?  The health benefits of using skim milk in a recipe will almost never outweigh the final quality of the dish calling for rich or whole milk.

But a gallon is still cheaper…by volume.  In this neck of the woods a gallon of milk is, on average, about $2.50; a quart is $.099.  If we were to scale that up buying milk by the quart puts milk at $4 per gallon.  So a gallon is cheaper….not.  If all we need is two cups of milk for our cooking, the quart is the cheaper alternative by far. It is $0.99 and we use it up, not being forced to drink or even throw away what we don’t use.

I Will Find Other Uses:  The Second Fallacy

This is amazingly common in our thinking and it comes from growing up or managing a larger family.  Five pounds of potatoes was nothing. Mash potatoes one night, scallop potatoes the next and presto, five pounds were gone in a larger family.  Since potatoes last it didn’t matter if we separated those meals by a week.  

Let’s do the math.  A five pound bag of potatoes is around $2.  Given the usual size (a “medium” at 6 oz, or the size of a computer mouse) this means that a five pound bag of potatoes has thirteen servings. Baking potatoes, which are large (often between 10 and 12 ounces) are regularly loose at two for a dollar.  Yes, two baking potatoes (roughly 3 servings) is a dollar and five pounds is two dollars but the chances of being able to use up 13 servings in a small household is practically nil.

The solution is, of course, buy what you need, not what appears to be a “bargain”. Also, none of us like throwing away food.  When we buy the bigger bag of anything because it is “cheaper” and throw half away, we tend to stop buying the food and end up eating out.  Eating out is never cheaper.

Buying at the Counter Takes Too Much Time:  The Third Fallacy

Waiting in line at the butcher, deli counter or bakery seems time consuming. What is time consuming is trying to figure out what to do with the extra hamburger, chicken breast, bacon, sausage, rolls, bread, cheese or anything else that comes prepackaged in an amount that is convenient for the store but not for us.  

Deli and service counters are and endless source of purchasing options for the smaller household
Deli and service counters are an endless source of purchasing options for the smaller household

Service counters are the small household’s best friend. Why buy 8 oz of brick cheddar cheese when you only need 4 oz (which shredded is 1 cup by the way).  For the record, the cheese at the deli counter is better anyway and they will be more than happy to give you a “chunk” rather than slices. The same is true for ham or turkey if you are doing a casserole.   If you only need ⅓ of a pound of bacon for a recipe then get it at the meat counter.  You can ask for two slices if that is what you want and they won’t complain at all.

And don’t hesitate about bread products either.  If a bakery section has rolls packaged by the dozen chances are they will be willing to package up 3 or 4.  Same with cupcakes and cookies.  See if they will package up a smaller size.  

The list of reasons to get cozy with service counters are almost endless.  The most important thing to do is get over the fear of using and asking. Most service people are happy to help.  Above all, ASK their advice.  They may have better ideas for what you are trying to achieve.

Some Simple Guidelines

Here is a few suggestions that will guide our smaller household shopping trips:

  • Buy what you need only, not what you might use up
  • Buy less, shop more.  Don’t think that this is a time waste.  Remember we are shopping less  so we are spending less time with each trip.  Plus we are buying what we need which leads to less waste overall.
  • Ask for help.  Ask from the service counters, the bakers, the stockers, the deli people, and the butcher.  They will all have ideas about what the store stocks to meet your needs rather than you trying to fit your household size into the larger model of the past
  • Buy smaller.  Yes, you will, probably, use up the entire big jar of mayo but why bother?  Just buy the smaller one.  It keeps your refrigerator cleaner and there is never a chance of it going out of date.
  • Buy from the bulk sections.  Bulk sections are coming back and they are perfect for our households.  From nuts and granola to flour and corn meal, buying in small quantities in the bulk section is a perfect solution.  The only caveat is storage, so purchase some good, reusable storage containers and reserve them for your bulk purchases.

Above all don’t stop stocking your pantry because you can’t buy the big cans any more.  It is always better to cook and eat at home.  It is healthier and less expensive.  Plus, cooking and eating at our living space is paramount to being grounded.  We shouldn’t just sleep in our houses.  That is for motels and hostels.  By cooking, snacking, eating, relaxing and yes even sleeping…that is how houses stay homes.