The sacks and sealed buckets which contain the food have an active second life around the homestead, and are rarely discarded.
To get the best pricing for bulk foods, we join with a number of neighbors to form a ‘food co-op’, and by combining our orders we are able to get a wholesale rate from a supplier. We also get bulk food from local stores by watching for case-lot sales or making arrangements with the store manager for some food items. There are other options, such as buying direct from farms or individual producers, which are available from time to time.
The savings in buying food in bulk are obvious, but the liabilities may not be as apparent. We have lost whole sacks of food to spoilage or pilferage, caused by improper storage, which defeated our goals of saving money and having a readily available supply of food.
Having made every mistake in the book, and hopefully learning from most of them, we now enjoy success in storing food reliably. You can too, whether you live in town or the country. Here are a few tips from our experience which may help you lower the cost of food while providing a measure of food security for your family.
Know what foods to store
The best foods for storage are unprocessed natural foods like dry legumes, wheat kernels, and dried fruit. Grains and legumes in their whole seed form, stored in a dry, cool place, will usually keep for years. Oily nuts and seeds keep well, but need to be monitored for freshness, especially walnuts.
Here is a basic list of the food staples we buy:
(Kidney and pinto beans, split peas.)
We buy these items in 25 lb. sacks. Smaller legumes like split peas and lentils are a good and inexpensive protein source. They cook quickly, and make a good base for vegetable soups. When using beans which are bought in bulk, take extra care to search for small rocks and clods of soil. Always wash them in a colander or sieve, turning them over with your hand. Beans are reliable storage foods, but can get tougher as they get older, requiring a longer cooking time. If I could only buy one food for storage, however, it would be legumes.
(Brown rice, rolled (or flaked) oats, whole wheat kernels or flour, cornmeal.)
Whole grains are seeds and are a good source of minerals, vitamins, and protein. Wheat kernels can last a very long time, but of course you’ll need a grinder to render them into flour. (As a general rule, whole grains are usually about half the price of ground grains.) Rice has a shorter shelf life than some other grains, so we try to use up stored rice within six months. Oats store well, and we put oats into almost everything we bake, including meatloaf. Medium grind cornmeal should be sifted to extract the larger tough flakes.
(Dried fruit like raisins, prunes, and for a special treat, apricots, cherries or cranberries.)
Dried fruits store well, and we usually buy raisins and prunes because these are less expensive than apricots, cherries and others. Great in oatmeal and winter baking, not to mention quick snacks.
We decided to splurge one year and bought a 30 lb tub of dried cherries, expecting to enjoy these sweet treats all through the winter. However, when you buy sweet treats in bulk you eat more of them because it seems the supply is endless. In fact, the cherries were gone within weeks. This is why we only buy prunes and raisins in bulk.
Olive oil keeps well, but should be stored in cool place. Olive oil is a natural oil and it is not genetically modified (GMO).
(Black strap molasses and white sugar.)
This low processed molasses has iron and nutrients. It can be stirred and pressed into white sugar to make a tasty and inexpensive brown sugar. We’ve never had spoilage or contamination problems with blackstrap – it can last many years if well-sealed and stored properly.
(Instant powdered milk.)
This is an important staple in our home pantry. The non-instant form does not dissolve in water as easily, so we buy the instant form. You just add boiling water to chocolate powder and a few tablespoons of this milk for speedy hot chocolate. Add to tea or coffee, and directly into the dry ingredients when making pancakes. A real convenience food!
(Peanut butter, soy sauce, vanilla, apple cider vinegar.)
We prefer the homogenized peanut butter over the “natural” kind, as the natural kind has oil which separates and pools on the top. It’s a lot of work to stir it back in when you are dealing with 2-3 gallon containers (approx. 30 lbs.) of peanut butter. Inevitably, there are several inches of hard, dry peanut butter at the bottom of the bucket.
Seeds and nuts
(Peanuts, walnuts, almonds, pumpkin and sunflower seeds.)
These are energy packed, and very nutritious. Seeds and nuts will keep longest in the fridge or freezer, sealed tightly in freezer bags or containers. When buying bulk amounts, however, be sure to sample the nuts for freshness.
Know what foods are harder to store
Wheat germ, flax seed meal, and whole wheat flour have oils that, when exposed to air and heat, gradually become rancid. If you bake bread often, you will use up a 25 lb. bag in a few months, but if not, you should consider buying smaller amounts from your grocer. At room temperature whole wheat flour will only keep a few months, in the fridge 6-8 months, and in the freezer one to two years. Do not store near strong smelling things, as the flour will absorb the odors.
Find the best storage conditions in your house
Pantry conditions should be dry, cool, and dark with an ideal temperature range of 50-70 degrees F. Higher temperatures speed up deterioration, as can frequent fluctuations. In the kitchen try to store foods in the coolest cabinets away from heat producing pipes and appliances. Consider less used spaces like spare room closets and under beds, if you are short on space. Be sure to label and date these containers.
What is the most usable day to day storage container?
The ideal container should be air and moisture tight, easy to open and reseal, and easy to lift and handle. Because our bulk foods arrive in paper sacks, boxes, and large buckets or tubs, we found it important to put smaller amounts into handy containers for easier daily use. Decanting dry products to plastic bags doesn’t work as bugs and mice can chew through the thin plastic. These can go in the freezer, if space is available. We prefer to decant foods into pint or quart canning jars, but any reusable food container will work. Plastic can retain odors, so sniff first.
Decanting food into smaller containers also minimizes the air space which gets larger as the food is used. This helps extend the shelf life of the food. Also, we have found that the easier food is to access, the more we use it, thereby reducing waste.
The bulk food, after some is decanted, is best stored in food storage containers with a hermetic (airtight) seal. These must be food grade, not recycled plastic. On the bottom of the container you should find a triangle of arrows with a number “2” in the middle. You can buy containers with lids that are threaded or have gaskets. Not airtight but handy are tall Rubbermaid totes in which bags are set upright. Just remember to close the bags and the tote lids tightly.
Where to find free storage containers
Restaurants and fast food outlets often have used food grade (HDPE = high density polyethelene) containers for free or cheap. Our favorite container for dry foods like sugar or rice is the tall plastic jug which Greek olives come in. It has indented hand grips and a screw top lid that creates a tight seal. These can often be found at delicatessens and are usually free for the asking.
Storing bulk amounts of food is a common practice on homesteads and in remote areas, but with today’s economic reality, everyone can benefit from the savings, food security and peace of mind that comes with a fully stocked larder. Hopefully, this information will help you economically set food aside for the long term and protect your investment.