This one seems the most obvious, right? Yet for the tighter budgets, bulk and quantity purchases have to be planned for carefully.
Quantity and bulk buying...we eased into this in the past few years. I felt as rich as a queen when I had that additional margin, no matter how small, in the food budget! I'd love to hear your own tips (and am enjoying the ones already shared in comments!) about your own bulk and quantity buying. Here are a few things we think along these lines at this point:
1. It's always best from a garden first. Our own garden, preferably! It's not always guaranteed, however. Crop failures are just a part of the vagaries of each new year, so the garden that dealt out copious zucchini and tomato bumper crops might not happen the following year. Or, like us, changes in circumstances might mean the LACK of a garden some years. Having preserved the surplus from past times of plenty always is a big help. Those seeds get a much better return for the money as far as quantity than a buck at the store does, usually, and you know what has gone into your food...and what hasn't. That said, it IS possible to have the $42 tomato plant if not keeping garden inputs to low-or-no-cost, except for sweat and elbow grease.
2. Farmer's markets, especially at the end of the day or when they're overrun with a particular crop...can be a real deal, and you get to know your local small farmers! Unfortunately, we have rarely had the chance around these parts to do exactly that. Our farmers market is on Saturdays, which is the day we don't buy or sell (Jewish sabbath) and we miss out on that particular opportunity in our particular town. But there are also produce stands we DO frequent. A couple notes on that...not all produce advertised as "field grown" or "local" always is. We've noticed that some folks here claiming "local" are really re-selling imported or trucked-in goods from other states, or pretty far reaches of our own state. And those field-grown tomatoes? Hmmm. I know sunripened when I taste it, and usually when I see it. But anyway, there ARE times you can get phenomenal surplus and in-season fruits and veggies in quantity at these stands and markets, and many ARE what they say they are :) You'll need to ask if they're sprayed...etc. Unless they say they're not, assume they are.
3. Ugly But Good Produce. I've heard it said local grocers will sometimes sell a person produce that is slightly bruised, etc...their produce that doesnt look "pretty" or has been pulled not for spoilage but for aesthetics. My own supermarkets adamantly do NOT do this. But it's still worth a try, for those who haven't asked your own grocer out there. Most buyers who have never gardened don't realize "pretty" doesn't always mean that much when it comes to edibility.
4. What You Don't Need Health-wise. When buying in quantity or bulk, we've had to learn what NOT to buy, especially if we've tailored a diet to exclude certain foods for health reasons. We are trying to stay away from white flour and some other dietary specifics, so for us it makes no sense to buy a 20# bag of all-purpose flour unless we're having a big baking extravaganza for gift-giving. For a person who is trying to feed a family gluten-free, buying wheat in bulk would make no sense.
5. Storage Considerations: Will we use it before it spoils, and can we prepare it further to prevent spoilage? Dried pinto beans will keep a longggg time. A lot of people further prepare their dried beans by canning them for easier use, to cut down on preparation time at mealtime. A 20# bag of potatoes will have a different storage need and time capacity. Different foods will require different types of further home-processing to keep them for the longer term...canning, freezing, dehydrating, pickling, cold storage, cellaring, etc. What works for our household, because of our needs and how we're set up isn't the same thing that will work for everyone else...we can push the envelope on some things, but we'll never have the same needs and capacity as, for instance, someone in a cold weather setting and much different climate. There are a lot of great resources out there to learn about stretching storage options, different types of containers and ways of storing, and so on.
6. Do we like it enough to eat it up? If you hate eating Great Northern Beans, have tried them in different ways and simply KNOW you'll never want to have them on the menu regularly, there is no deal so great to justify spending the money and taking up the storage space...unless you're out of food and other choices. When it comes to real hunger, honestly, you'll be happy to have them. But in any less dire scenario, have on hand bulk items you know you'll use or can and will easily barter for items you'll truly use. We learned that the hard way, too.
And along these same lines...
7. Will we really use it in time? Ooops! We purchase nearly a freezer-full of turkeys on sale...two years ago. I'm not sure how much turkey we THOUGHT we'd eat, but it didn't end up being nearly as much as was in the freezer. We are not yet set up to can with a pressure canner (that day will come, but hasn't yet...it's on the wish list), so a lot of perfectly good turkey went overly long in the freezer and became....dog food. That in itself isn't a waste, but was not our first intention. Will you be able to use/further process/optimally store your bulk purchases before they go bad? Just another consideration.
8. Is is really a better deal? Paying attention to the per pound or per ounce cost (which can be found on the shelf stickers, usually, for customer convenience at most stores) is important. Purchasing 18 eggs isn't a better deal if you can buy 2 containers of a dozen eggs at the same price for both of the same type egg. At a store where I shop, individual limes were selling for 16 cents apiece. Mentally, it's quick to tally the fact that ten of those would be $1.60. A bag of 8 limes cost $4.00....same type limes. We go through a lot of limes, and I could get 10 for the lesser price...it's a deal. But since I use them fresh and limes go bad within about a week's time, I buy what we need for a specific timeframe...a week. If I had my act together better, I could buy a slew of them, juice them, and freeze the juice in portions. But I'm out of freezer space at the moment, so that would be a waste of good limes. When sweet potatoes, which usually sell here for 99cents/lb went down to 25cents/lb during the holidays, I knew I could store them in cool closet space for longer storage, so I stocked up...and we still have plenty handy. Check the REAL price...the cost per pound or ounce, and do some simple math before deciding if that huge bag is really a better deal than several of the smaller bags of something.
9. Some discount stores selling big quantities will allow even further discounts for larger purchases. This is the case with Sam's Club, the only big discount store in our area. A case of chicken costs less than buying the same number of the two-hen packages would...same product, but by the case has a different price. It only makes sense if you can truly utilize and store that much chicken...but is a better deal if you can. This is the case for freezer purchases at butchers sometimes, too. Know what you're getting. If it's terrible chicken or beef, you're stuck with a lot of it, but if not, freezer specials can beat out other types of buying sometimes.
10. Doublecheck ingredients. We buy foods with no preservatives. I keep dried black beans on hand always, but like to have some backups of canned black beans handy (till I get my pressure canner!). HOWEVER, not all cans of black beans are created equal...I have to scrutinize the label. Only ONE brand (thankfully, the cheapest) lists the ingredients of beans, salt, and water. All the others have loads of preservatives. We have to be very careful to read ingredient lists. We do this anyway, as Jews, and it's been a real education seeing how much lard is in baked goods and other little surprises we find as we read the ingredients lists. Read labels (and try for real foods that require no labels)...the longer the laundry list of ingredients, the less it is really real food.
11. Shoot for the stars, settle for the best you can get. Ultimately, we want to eat foods that are completely non-genetically-modified, not chemically treated, are organically raised (that doesnt mean it has to have the "official" label, totally local, and most of all...from our own garden or pasture. In every new push, we try to take another step in that direction. But we're not there yet, and we recognize our limitations. Go for the purest, cleanest, simplest, most useful, most healthful. less "filler" and more "substantial," totally unprocessed and non chemical you can get for what your abilities are (I speak to myself here). I no longer accept guilt trips, inflicted on myself BY myself after seeing how far I still am from the mark. EVERY good step is progress. I remind myself that there will be NO new steps if we do not wisely use our pennies, and get out of the rest of our debt. The truth of that will not go away if I overspend or overreach my abilities. Doing my best FOR the best....is the best I can do right now. I can be a discriminating shopper on my way to even better choices down the road...I use wisely what I am given within the realm I can operate. So trips to the store...are no longer guilt trips.
12. Co-ops: got one? I don't, and I need one! If you can share the cost with others through a bulk-buying co-op, and it makes sense in your own budget, do! My friends elsewhere love the ones they're a part of...see what's in your neck of the woods!
13. Cowshares/goatshares/buying on the hoof....when looking for quantities of creamy delicious real milk, especially for your "pets," find a local farmer with healthy animals, clean site, and fall in love with food right where it comes from, even if you don't have your own animals yet. Purchasing a cowshare/goatshare guarantees you a good supply of the best milk, if this fits your budget. Also, co-raising a beef steer or other deals of "meat-on-the-hoof" and sharing the slaughter expenses (etc etc get creative) are options closer to the pasture for those who want larger quantities of beef, lamb, and goat meat. And if you're up to learning how to slaughter poultry, you might find a local farmer with some roosters that don't need to make it to maturity.
OK, so much for this ramble...I'm sure I've missed something somewhere...and I'm loving the feedback in comments! So...for quantity and bulk buying, whatcha got? What works, what's a disaster? I love learning from your expertise!