For better or worse, warehouse clubs like Costco, BJ's and Sam's Club have changed the way we Americans consume. Some of these changes seem unequivocally beneficial– like saving families a fortune on bulk purchases of expensive staples like diapers or toilet paper. But when it comes to how warehouse-club shopping influences our food consumption, it's not clear how good the change has been.
The merits of warehouse-club food shopping depend entirely on what food we end up buying. The inherent problem with bulk shopping is that it tends to favor foods with a long shelf life; after all, how many families can get through a highly-perishable, five-pound fillet of fresh salmon before it spoils? As a result, merchandise at club warehouses tends to skew heavily towards highly-processed, empty calorie, shelf-stable snacks and super-salty frozen convenience foods.
But it is possible to reap the benefits of warehouse-club pricing while maintaining a healthy diet. The trick is to follow these seven commandments:
1. Thou Shalt Not Shop Without a List: Warehouse-club merchandisers lure us in to impulse purchases with their rotating, limited-quantity stocks of seasonal and special edition items. (When was the last time you left a club store having bought only that which you came in for?)
Arriving armed with a written list can't guarantee that you won't succumb to the allure of that red-white-and-blue July 4th cupcake tower that greets you at the door, but it does increase the odds that you'll walk through the store with blinders as you purposefully seek out your specific items. Remember: You're not actually saving money if you wind up spending on something you weren't planning to buy anyway!
2. Stock Thy Pantry With Minimally-Processed Staples: I've written previously about a subcategory of nutrient-dense "processed foods" that make my cut for perfectly appropriate dietary staples. These foods are often the building blocks to home-cooked meals, and having them on hand can help minimize the need to order take out … again. With their long shelf lives, nutritious foods like canned tomatoes, plain canned beans, rolled oats, brown rice, frozen spinach and dried herbs are perfect for buying in bulk – on the cheap.
3. Blanch and Freeze Thy Vegetables: My patients often complain that buying vegetables is a waste of money because they go bad too quickly. Apart from the obvious (and best) solution – eating larger portions of vegetables more frequently – there's always the option of freezing some of one's bargain-priced veggies for future use.
To ensure preservation of nutrients and texture on defrosting, you'll want to blanch your fresh veggies before freezing them. Blanching means placing vegetables in a pot of already-boiling water for a very brief period of time – just long enough to deactivate the enzymes that promote further maturation (and therefore loss of texture, color and nutrition) – but not long enough to actually cook the vegetable.
Once removed from the boiling water, vegetables are placed in a prepared ice bath to prevent further cooking, then drained and stored in freezer bags for future use. The Colorado State University Extension offers a useful table with specific recommended blanching times by vegetable.
4. Seek Out "The Clean Fifteen": Club stores aren't generally known for offering wide selections of organically-grown, fresh produce. If you're concerned about the pesticide load on your produce, however, you can still take advantage of club-store pricing to buy conventionally-grown vegetables that are the least contaminated with pesticides – the so-called "Clean Fifteen." Onions, asparagus, avocados, mushrooms, kiwi and sweet potatoes are counted among this group, most of which are staple offerings in warehouse clubs.
[See: Is Organic Food Better?]
5. More of a Bad Thing is Not a Good Thing: Have you heard the one about the dissatisfied restaurant customer who complains: "Waiter! This food is terrible! And the portions are so small!" What is it about "more" that makes it so attractive, regardless of what it is? Such is the trap of mega-sized packs of junky snack bars, fruit snacks, cookies, chips and soda available for purchase at warehouse-club stores. Having one package of them around the house is tempting enough; having a bottomless multi-case pack will be your diet's undoing.
In some cases, less is more. If these foods are part of your diet, you'd be better off paying more for smaller packages at a conventional supermarket – it's a great economic incentive to treat these foods as special occasion foods rather than everyday staples.
6. Thou Shalt Add Your Own Value: "Added value" products – like pre-flavored oatmeals, pre-combined trail mixes, pre-portioned 100-calorie snack packs – command a huge price premium, even at club stores. They're also treacherous territory for health-conscious consumers who wind up at the mercy of heavy-handed recipe formulators when it comes to added sugar and fat.
Since warehouse clubs offer great prices on bulk packages of healthy commodity products like raisins, roasted nuts, dried fruit, seeds, spices and cereal grains like oats and corn kernels – not to mention resealable zipper storage bags for portioning – why not stock up on these instead?
The shelves of your typical club store offers everything you need to customize your own lower-sugar versions of granola, "instant" oatmeal and trail mix – or lower-fat versions of popcorn. You'll also save a bundle on a per-serving basis.
7. Thou Shalt Skip the Candy Aisle. Drunk on savings in the hypnotic setting of a club store, it can momentarily seem like a brilliant idea to pick up a 144-unit box of York Peppermint Patties. Having been there and done that, I assure you: It is not. No good can come of a stroll down the candy aisle at a club store, particularly if you have children in tow. Just keep on walking.
Hungry for more? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions, concerns, and feedback.
Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN, is a NYC-based registered dietitian whose clinical practice specializes in digestive disorders, Celiac Disease, and food intolerances. Her personal blog, www.tamaraduker.com, focuses on healthy eating and gluten-free living.