Sunday, March 20, 2011

Stocking Up at the Bulk Food Store

Following up on my tips for menu planning and shopping farmer’s markets, one reader thought it would be interesting to discuss making the most out of a visit to a bulk food store. This was timely since I had recently made a stock-up trip to one to replenish my pantry for the next few months. Also, this year I read that there have been some rather extreme weather conditions that have threatened certain crops world wide. If you’ve been thinking of ways to save money while keeping healthy meals on the table, this is a good time to start thinking about buying bulk.

Generally, bulk food stores sell both basic ingredients (flour, sugar, dry milk) and common food items (pudding mix, chocolate chips, drink mixes) packaged in plain clear plastic containers at a discounted price. The price is usually determined by weight and size. In the area where I shop, most of the bulk food stores have an inventory made up of about half bulk food items, and half bent-n-dent overstock items. But I’m only going to discuss bulk food buying strategies here.

I find these stores to be a nice alternative to warehouse buyer’s club stores. Bulk food stores are a manageable size with greater variety in items and sizes. Personally, I don’t need a pallet of pasta sauce or one gallon containers of commercially processed salsa. Maybe if I was running a restaurant...but I’m not. One of the perks here is that you can find the right size of something for your family. There is less waste as you can shop for as little or as much of what you need. Items like baking cocoa, flour, oats, wheat germ, and noodles are far less expensive than the retail price. Whether you need a small amount of something for less than a dollar, or 25 cups of it for a few dollars, this where you can find it. The packaging is almost always recyclable, and the variety of items available never fails to amaze me.

My recent box of goodies included cocoa powder, alphabet soup noodles, several types of flour, and even some local honey.

Bulk food stores also have very good deals on canning supplies. Forget the boxes of Sure Jel on the store shelves, here you can walk away with the equivalent of ten boxes emptied into a bag for just a little over what you might pay for two boxes. Most stores also stock other commercial thickeners which are difficult to find elsewhere, and very inexpensive. My store also sells long rolls of bulk canning lids, special canning acids, and other related items, all much cheaper than in regular retail stores.

So, here are my ideas for getting started at a bulk food store:

Assess your family’s needs. What does your family use repeatedly that you find yourself buying no matter what? Cereals? Snacks? Rice and Pasta? Beans? Baking ingredients? Start making a list of the essentials.

Look at some of your favorite recipes and weeknight meals. Is there any way to save on the ingredients? Instead of buying a box of rice every week, could you buy a larger bag at half the price to last for a month?

What can you make from scratch? These stores are designed for women who feed large families using basic ingredients. If you ever wanted to experiment with bread making, granola, or homemade cereal, now is the time. These stores are also a bread makers dream...there is a wide variety of flours available (some I’ve never even heard of!) and an excellent selection of less common bread making ingredients such as lecithin and gluten.

Plan your trip. Most bulk food stores are located in areas with dense Mennonite/Amish populations. However, some supermarkets have caught on to the popularity and are also creating and stocking bulk food aisles in their stores. Some of the best selections of dried fruit and nuts sold in bulk seem to be stocked in grocery stores. Health food stores are also recognizing the value of stocking wholesome raw ingredients, so it’s likely that no matter where you live, a bulk buying opportunity is not too far.

And remember, no Sunday sales at many stores.

Do you use a bulk food store? Any ideas to share?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Seasonal Sightings

Last year I mentioned how when Shrove Tuesday comes around I always forget to see about picking up some fasnachts (puffy donuts without filling and sprinkled with sugar). Some churches sell them as fundraisers and the fasnachts are available in most markets on this day every year. This year, I was running some errands it suddenly dawned on me that it was “donut day”! So I pulled into the market and was there late enough in the day to get some for half price.

The Mister did not grow up with fasnachts as a tradition, but a fast emptying box attested to their airy sweet goodness.

Another sign of the season are lambs everywhere. Aren’t they adorable? The ones pictured here did not appreciate my gawking and quickly ran off to find mama!

Don’t forget that the fundraising giveaway to benefit the Dueck family’s adoption ends this Monday on March 14. But you still have time to enter! One lucky person will win this quilted wall hanging/table topper. There is a $5 donation per entry ($10 equals two entries, etc.) through the Reese’s Rainbow link here, but PLEASE remember to leave a comment so we know to check with RR to make sure you are entered into the drawing.

International Readers outside the US may donate to win, but must be willing to fund their own postage.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Possibilities of Spring

Spring is in the air, as fresh and clean as a drop of dew landing on a crocus in full bloom. Blue skies two days in a row forecast change on the horizon. Nieces and nephews clamor for their wooden swing sets, built by strong capable hands, that seem just a little smaller after a season of growth. Yes, I love the promise of spring, a promise which is about hope.

My optimistic ideas about completing winter sewing projects are still very much alive, even as I fill seed trays with starter soil and rake up dead leaves that threaten to smother my spring bulbs. Oh, the possibilities.

Here is a glimpse into my vegetable garden plans this year:

Clemson spineless Okra (Growing okra is new for me...but last year I added okra to my canned vegetable soup and loved it!)
Big Beef Tomatoes (An extra-beefy early producer for slicing)
Amish Paste Tomatoes (my old stand by for canning)
Blue Lakes Bush Green Beans (we liked Burpee’s “Tenderpod” last season, but my seed source talked this one up pretty high)
Hot Peppers- Garden Salsa. A new variety for us, a hot red pepper just right for salsa.
Lettuce- Buttercrunch and Salad Bowl
Sweet corn- Incredible, new for me, and supposedly one of the best selling super-sweet varieties. This is for eating fresh, not canning of course!

As soon as the ground is worked I can’t wait to put in some spinach. And who knows what else I’ll decide at the last minute. There’s always room for more.

I’m also adding more raspberries, and replacing the strawberry patch that bit the dust last summer when I was recovering and unable to tend to it properly. But since the strawberries took up a lot of room, and the weeding is always more than I bargain for, I’m going to experiment with container planting and see if that has any benefits.

What aren’t we doing this year? Peas are still up in the air, and we’ve only got a little time left to decide. Last year we had trouble getting the trellis and irrigation going in time to have a decent planting. We haven’t done pole limas in a couple years, although I have the seeds for them. Generally, I’m lousy at picking them and can’t tell by feeling the pod whether they are the right size or not. I always pick them too big, and the Mister is far too busy to pick them when the harvest is ripe. Carrots are a possibility only if I can get pelleted seed. The problem with carrots is always the same: As you are thinning them out, the carrot flies smell it for miles around and head right to your house so they can eat your carrots. I’d like to avoid thinning as much as possible.

Of course, I haven’t even planned my herb garden yet, but you can be sure there will be one. The True Lavender germinating in my mini-greenhouse right now attests to it. Oh, the possibilities!

What new possibilities do you see in your garden this year?


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