When it comes to controlling the grocery budget, buying in bulk can often make a big difference in overall expenses. But for small households and singles, it’s not always seen as a viable option. Phoenix recently commented (abridged):
Food stores are catering more towards the buying in bulk phenomena. While this can obviously be advantageous to most families, its not always practical for smaller households.
Living in a small apartment with limited pantry and freezer space, I find it difficult (both economically and practically) to purchase smaller amounts of food that I can use efficiently, and have noticed that I have been wasting a surprising amount of ‘uncooked’ food items.
For example, I have practically had to cut bread out of my diet completely. I do not have the room in my freezer to store it and it tends to get stale or moldy long before I even come close to finishing the only size loaves I can find at my local grocery store. The same goes for certain produce like lettuce and melons which are more suited for ‘family size’.
There are a few items I have found in manageable quantities but it is clear that I am paying a lot more and taking up a lot more room for the packaging alone. So, if anyone has any suggestion as to how to better balance the meal cost and waste for a single person living in a small space, I’m sure there are many of us who would like to hear it.
Thanks for the awesome question–I have a few suggestions, one of which will hopefully work in your situation. First, I will say that for most of my life, I have been part of a one or two-eater household, so I can appreciate the dilemmas you face. We know that buying in bulk can be one of the best ways to cut the grocery bill, but when we try to actually put it in practice, things don’t always go so well.
Food goes to waste, cooked or uncooked, you end up going out to eat, and the whole vicious cycle continues because you’re chasing after a good deal on food. So in no particular order, here are things I would suggest:
When refrigeration just isn’t enough, freezing is the best option for preserving food for as long as 6 months to a few years! The problem with most small apartments is that, by the time we stock our freezer with freezer packs, ice cubes, ice cream, and a few other necessities, there’s not too much room left.
That’s why I strongly recommend buying a stand-alone freezer, no matter how small your apartment. The newest models I’ve seen sacrifice footprint for height–the 2-1/2′ by 2′ model sells for about $150, with the 3’x2′ going for $200 (at our local Sam’s Club). Both units are roughly 4 feet in height and look like they could easily hold a nice stockpile of meat, breads, fruits, vegetables, and all the processed food you can stand to eat, while fitting somewhere in the corner of your living space.
I have faith that this would turn out to be a good investment. Anything that you don’t think you’d be able to eat in 4 days or less gets frozen, and eaten at pretty much your own convenience. Things won’t necessarily have the same texture coming out of the freezer, but the taste and nutritional quality is almost the same, so the only challenge becomes finding dishes that can make good use of frozen foods.
The biggest benefit, of course, is that you’d now be able to truly buy in bulk, particularly for meat, frozen fruits, and vegetables.
If you’re used to eating something different for every meal of the week, cooking at home could turn out to be problematic. Leftovers will accumulate in the fridge, and after a few days, you’re much less likely to trust them, leading to complete waste. You also won’t be able to go through your raw ingredients fast enough before they go bad.
One solution is to seriously trim your grocery shopping experience. Buy two or three fruits, two or three vegetables, instead of a wide swath of everything in the store. Vary your fresh ingredients from shopping trip to trip instead of creating variety within the same shopping cycle. That ensures that you don’t get bored with your food (critical for avoiding eating out), but keeps your consumption and cooking habits focused. Eating one piece of anything within 2-3 days should not be a huge issue.
The variety rule could also apply to complete dishes, not only their ingredients. I’ve been known to cook a large batch of something on a Monday and have the same thing for dinner 3 nights in a row. It saves time and money. (Planning your meals to accomplish this and cross-use ingredients from the week could also be helpful).
Another idea that I’ve seen successfully implemented is bulk-buying timeshare of sorts. The idea is simple–a few friends or family members share a single membership to the warehouse club, take trips together to buy things they will all eat, and finally split the bill and the groceries (and toiletries, and house supplies) they buy equally. This works especially well if your friend’s food budgets and tastes are similar to yours.
This kind of sharing assures that you get the benefits of bulk pricing without much of the bulk–you hopefully get only as much as you can comfortably handle on your own without generating waste. It’s an outstanding setup for non-grocery items, because these tend to be used more slowly in one and two-family homes, and they require a lot of space to store (think 30 rolls of paper towels, or 75 rolls of toilet paper).
As a final word of advice, I would say that what singles and small households are trying to do by buying in bulk has been successfully done before. The only difference is that something in the way they’re doing it is not working well–the key is to lay down all assumptions and find that critical flaw. It’s worth the effort.
Do you have any tips you’d like to share? Post your thoughts in the comments below.