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Grocery Shopping 201: Bulk and Specialty Stores

Flour

(This post is the 201 for experienced shoppers; if you’re looking for the 101 for total beginners, it’s here.)

It’s absolutely possible to eat Paleo with nothing but the food you get at a normal grocery store.  There’s no need to go hauling yourself all over town to four different stores every week. But what if you do want to make an excursion to some place other than a regular grocery?

Here’s a guide to the best things to buy at bulk stores, ethnic stores, and health food or specialty stores. They might not completely replace a standard grocery, but they can add some excitement to your routine and save you quite a bit of money.

Bulk Stores (e.g. Costco, Sam’s Club)

Why you would shop there: you have a big family and need large quantities of food, or you have a small family and a spare freezer and want to stock up so you can get bulk prices. These stores are particularly good for anything that’s shelf-stable or frozen – basically things you can stock up on.

The best deal is probably meat – meat is such a huge percent of the Paleo grocery budget that any money you save here will have a big impact on the overall bill. The bulk meat you find at these stores will not be the same quality that you would get from a farmer. If it’s financially possible for you, buying a portion of a cow from a farmer is a much better way to get truly grass-fed meat in bulk. But even with the bulk prices, not everyone can afford to get meat directly from a farmer, so if you’re going to get grocery-store quality meat anyway, you might as well get a discount on it.

What to Buy at Bulk Stores:

Should I Get a Chest Freezer?

To go with their bulk store purchases, a lot of frugal foodies embrace chest freezers – buy an extra freezer and stick it in the garage, and you can bring home 50 pounds of frozen chicken breast instead of just 10! On the plus side, it saves you gas money driving to and from the store and time shopping, and it lets even single people take advantage of bulk discounts. On the other hand, the freezers themselves are expensive, and the electricity isn’t free.

Here’s a very rough estimate of freezer costs for different sizes of freezer. If the freezer saves you more per month than it costs, you’re coming out ahead.

Size Number of people in your family* (including you) Cost of freezer (new) Electricity per year (approx.) Cost per month of the freezer (assuming it lasts 10 years)
<5 cubic feet 1 $150-200 $30-35 $3.75-$4.50
5 cubic feet 2-3 $150-200 $30-40 $3.75-$5
7 cubic feet 4 $175-250 $30-40 $4-$5.50
10 cubic feet 5-7 $275-400 $35-45 $4.75-$7
15 cubic feet 8-10 $450-500 $40-50 $7-$8.50

*This is based on a rough guesstimate of 1.5 cubic feet per person, which is a good ballpark. Adjust up or down if your family eats more or less than average.

Ethnic Stores

Why would you shop there: you’re feeling bored with the recipes you know and want to branch out; you like adventure; you go through a lot of spices and want to save some money on them.

What to buy:

Health Food or Specialty Stores

Why would you shop here: you’re looking for some of the less-common Paleo ingredients, you like looking at all the weird stuff they stock, you’re there anyway for supplements or something else.

What to buy:

Just one word of warning about these stores, though: don’t buy grocery staples here. They’re really expensive. Do most of your shopping somewhere more affordable, and then stop by a specialty store to look around at all the crazy maca powder/chia seed stuff and buy one or two extras.

Just as a last reminder: you don’t need to shop at any of these types of stores to eat Paleo. You can do it at any grocery store. But if you have time and energy to explore, sometimes it’s interesting, cheaper, or just more fun to branch out – it’s just like a bonus to try and see if you like it.