How to Live the Bulk Bin Life


bulk binsI recently discovered the the bulk bin section at a grocery store and was instantly curious. I looked over my shoulder anxiously to see if anyone noticed I was clueless. Even though I was amazed with the options, I was just way too intimidated to try to figure it out on my own. So I just slinked away to my routine grocery aisles.  

I ended up posting a cry for help, looking for any friend who would be willing to hold my hand through the learning process of how to shop in the bulk bin section. Thankfully, our very own Rochester Mom founder, Becky, eagerly jumped at the chance.

Before meeting Becky at People’s Food Co-op, I was so anxious. I’m used to bringing my own reusable bags to stores, but lugging in my own jars and containers made me feel extremely self-conscious. Logistically, how was I supposed to maneuver all of this? Will people stare? Will the staff think I’m smuggling product… into the store? (I know, it’s not logical). What if I don’t bring enough containers? What am I even doing?

Becky greeted me with a warm smile when I walked in the doors of People’s Food Co-op. I had smuggled my jars, containers, and bags into the co-op and guess what happened? Nothing! Ha! We grabbed our carts and headed to the back of the store. She started by explaining the layout, the process, the scale, and everything I could ever think to ask when it came to buying bulk bin products. So really, this is all of Becky’s wisdom shared with you from my newbie eyes.

The Layout

Along the back wall from left to right: a variety of rice, beans, nuts, granola, and grains. Along the bottom row you can find a variety of flours, flour alternatives, and other goodies.

Bulk Bin s at the People's Food Co-op in Rochester, MN
Back wall bulk bin section at People’s Food Co-op

Refrigerated section along the back wall: maple syrup, dates, nuts, hemp seeds, ground flax, and more.

Refrigerated Bulk Bin Products at People's Food Co-op in Rochester, MN.
Refrigeration bulk bin section at People’s Food Co-op.

Bulk Center Island: nut butters, oils, honey, shampoo, lotion, coffee, and spices.

Bulk bin center island at People's Food Co-op in Rochester, MN
Bulk bin center island at People’s Food Co-op.

The Process

1. Pick your container.

    • I used an old oats container, peeled off the wrapper and will continue to reuse it. I also brought a variety of sizes of mason jars.

      Various containers
      Various containers

The bulk center island has a variety of containers available for purchase or plastic bags to use, so you don’t have to worry if you forgot your containers or if you ran out.

Containers for sale a the center island in the bulk bin section at the People's Food Co-op in Rochester, MN
Containers for sale at the center island at People’s Food Co-op.

2. Grab a sticker or label.

3. Weigh your empty container on the scale.

    • The scale should be already zeroed out. Gently place your empty container on the scale.
Scale station in the bulk bin section at People's Food Co-op in Rochester, MN.
Scale station at People’s Food Co-op.

4. Write down the weight of the empty container on your sticker or label. 

    • This is referred to as tare weight. It is the weight that will be subtracted from the total weight so that the store can charge you the appropriate price. 

5. Next, decide what you want to put in the container.

Write down the PLU number from the bulk bin label.

PLU found on the bulk bin products at People's Food Co-op in Rochester, MN
PLU can be found on the bulk bin label.


6. Fill your container using the scoops or pulls provided.

    • The great thing about shopping from the bulk bins is you can buy as much or as little as you want. 

7. Done!

Random Tips 

  • Spices — There are so many options. It’s amazing! Becky showed me the paper funnels that the co-op provides so you can easily pour from the spice jug into your jar. 
  • Sink — There is a sink, soap, and towels provided. I used this to wash my hands and  clean a brand new container I had purchased earlier that day, before filling it with rice. So convenient!
  • Labels — my Instagram friend, Rashell Sugiyama @rashell16, recommended including the product name and the date along with the tare weight and PLU. “There is nothing worse than bringing 8 different things home and smell-guessing which is which… and then you can also track how quickly you go through it” explains Rashell. 
  • Containers
    • For sale: I brought so many containers, but really didn’t have anything ideal for peanut butter. On the center island of the bulk section they have different sizes of containers you can just grab for pretty cheap. It reminded me of buying a coffee or slushy from the gas station. Just grab your container and matching lid. Super simple. 
    • A set for shopping and a set for home: I recommend having containers designated for lugging to the store to fill and having another set that stays in your pantry. That way if your container is not completely empty you can just leave it and top it off later. 

The Aftereffects

I will admit I was a little giddy afterwards. I wanted to buy everything in bulk and I had to reign myself in. “Erica, you have a bag of lentils at home already. Just wait!” I now have an addiction to saving every random sized container from miscellaneous sauce jars to sour cream containers. In just one week I was able to save more containers than I really will ever need. 

I returned to People’s Food Co-op the following week and already felt so comfortable. I was no longer self-conscious and felt like an old pro. Next, I want to look into buying some soap and syrup!

I would love to hear your tips for shopping from the bulk bins!