Buying Food in Bulk: The New Way Cooks Are Coping in Quarantine
Buying Food in Bulk: The New Way Cooks Are Coping in Quarantine
Elysia Mann never thought she’d see the day when her regular trips to the grocery store became a wistful memory.
“It is one of my favorite things to do,” she said. “I miss wandering around the aisles.”
But every store she visited in Portland, Ore., was out of flour and other staples, so last month she ended up at a retail website, Nuts.com. Carried away by the site’s bounty of options and its $79 minimum order for free shipping, she bought 20 pounds of beans, rice, flour and seeds — far more than she has any idea what to do with.
“It is just completely absurd,” said Ms. Mann, 28, who lives alone. She has been eating lupini beans every day, and thinks she could subsist on just those for another month. “I have enough dry goods to last me through another quarantine.”
Among those who are privileged enough to afford buying in volume, the pandemic has suddenly spawned a new population of bulk shoppers.
They’re stocking up on foods they never thought they’d need in large amounts. They’re experiencing the simultaneous bouts of stress and satisfaction that come with buying and storing so much food, and trying not to waste any. They’re changing how they cook, diligently planning meals to use up all those ingredients — like, say, 50 pounds of potatoes.
Matt Bochneak bought the bag of potatoes from a restaurant supply store in Portland because it cost only $20, and he wanted some peace of mind as store shelves emptied. But he feels overwhelmed by the sheer volume.
“There’s no way I could eat 50 pounds of potatoes,” Mr. Bochneak, 42, said. He grilled a few of them, and had plans to make gnocchi — but the potatoes turned out to be the wrong type.
Buying in quantity has been popular since the advent of big-box retailers like Costco and Walmart, but the coronavirus lockdown seems to have accelerated the practice. In an April survey by Kroger, 39 percent of its customers said they were buying more ingredients like instant ramen and dry pasta in bulk than they did before the crisis. Sales of canned soups alone rose 63 percent in March and April over the same period last year, a company spokeswoman said.
But many shoppers say they are simply responding to the demands of the moment: more mouths to feed and more meals at home, despite the need to make fewer shopping excursions or delivery orders.
As a trip to the store has come to entail wearing a mask, dodging fellow shoppers and worrying about the risks to store workers, many people are cutting back on visits. Plenty have stopped going altogether, but grocery delivery apps have minimum orders, and some websites sell only large quantities.
When Dana Amore went looking for flour last month in the Honolulu area, she could find it only at a restaurant supply store where the smallest option was a 50-pound bag. She had to use an industrial cart to get the bag to her car, and when she got it home, the only container large enough to hold all that flour was a dog-food storage bin.
Later, Ms. Amore went online to offer some to others on Hickam Air Force Base, where she lives with her husband, a pilot.
“With this situation, you can either laugh or cry about it,” she said. “I am choosing to find humor in what the hell a two-person family is going to do with a 50-pound bag of flour.”
Stephanie Ormaeche, 23, can’t believe she has become the kind of person who fills two carts to the brim when shopping for just herself and her husband. But as she limits her shopping trips, she feels she has to stock up when she does go.
Buying in bulk is cost-effective, she said, and it forces her to cook more and spend less on restaurant food. Still, storage is a big challenge, as she lives in an apartment in Ridgewood, N.J., with a tiny pantry.
“My refrigerator is bursting at the seams,” Ms. Ormaeche said. “If I open it, three things fall out.”
All that Martin Nuñez needed when he went to the Indian grocery store in Bothell, Wash., was the digestive biscuits he enjoys with his daily chai. But he felt guilty about leaving the house for just one item. So he bought 19 packs of biscuits of different varieties, including a 28-ounce sleeve of the popular Parle-G brand.
“It is definitely not essential,” said Mr. Nuñez, 29. But the biscuits provide some kind of comfort. “I really just gave in to my cravings.”
Certain basics have become common bulk purchases — coffee, butter, beans, canned goods. But some people have found a special pleasure in stockpiling foods that others might not think of as staples.
For Isobella Jade, 37, comfort is a freezer full of Lean Cuisine fettuccine Alfredo. Recently divorced, she has to feed two young children while working as a writer from her home in Houston. The frozen Alfredo is quick to reheat and popular with everyone.
“I used to think buying in bulk is what you do to get fat,” Ms. Jade said. “Now I think of it more as a mental health thing.”
A stockpile of one or two foods can impose an annoying monotony during self-isolation, when every day may feel the same.
Kim Kaiser, 27, who is living in Wheatland, Iowa, while she works on a congressional campaign, recently cooked a pound of black beans in her Instant Pot, and has been eating them at every meal — with eggs and toast for breakfast, in a salsa for lunch. She had so many beans that she offered to drop off batches outside her co-workers’ homes, a gesture that was “met with silence,” she said.
“My co-workers know that if I am willing to drive an hour to get rid of something that I am probably sick of it,” she added with a laugh. “They wanted no part.”
Others, though, see big purchases as an invitation to be creative.
When Vincent Ader, 27, a business analyst in Chicago, buys fresh herbs, he gets several bunches of each as a controlled way to experiment with flavors. Since so many of his meals are based on the same pantry ingredients, he said, making herb-based salsas, pickles and sauces allows him to add variation without too much extra work.
Angelica Garza has also been looking for ways to vary her cooking routine. Like many others, she is buying pasta in bulk, but she seeks out less common shapes like calamarata, which resemble squid rings, or lumaconi, formed like snail shells. Each shape has a distinct texture, and a story behind it.
“It makes me feel like I am eating something different than just pasta,” said Ms. Garza, 26, a former line cook at Willmott’s Ghost, in Seattle.
Hanifa Farooq’s first attempt at bulk buying for her family in Glendale, Calif., was a flop. The produce market where she shopped had a five-pound minimum order, and she and her parents couldn’t eat the fruits and vegetables quickly enough. Some rotted, and others they gave away to friends.
She has had more success with milk powder. Her family’s large supply is mainly used for chai when the milk runs out, but Ms. Farooq, 36, and her mother, Zubeda, have found other applications: They made gulab jamun, an Indian dessert of fried, syrup-soaked balls of milk solids, and noticed that adding milk powder to naan and roti dough makes the breads fluffier.
Some bulk shoppers worry about the potential for waste.
With many of her favorite food stores in Ottawa shuttered, Alice Howard has start buying ingredients from Pressed, a sandwich shop that recently reopened as a no-touch grocery store. Her olive oil comes in an industrial-size bottle, and her coffee in one-kilogram bags. She is happy to have access to high-quality ingredients, but she lives in a one-bedroom apartment.
“I am cooking for at most two people,” she said. “It has made me stressed about food waste.”
To handle her own anxiety over using up food before it goes bad, Manasi Saraswate turned to meticulously organized spreadsheets.
She and her husband tried and failed multiple times to secure a delivery slot at grocery stores near their home in Sunnyvale, Calif. So they have to go out and buy several weeks’ worth of groceries in one swoop.
Ms. Saraswate, 27, a product designer, maintains a spreadsheet inventory of ingredients and meal plans broken down by type: breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks.
Josie Berg Hammond, 30, who lives in Chicago, keeps a checklist of groceries and meals organized by date on her phone. She said the activity “gives me some sort of control” and “a little bit of security” when other parts of life feel uncertain.
Marta Hurgin found that sense of security in an unexpected place: her freezer. She never used the appliance before the pandemic. Now, it’s filled with collard greens, the only frozen vegetables that were left when she stopped last month at her grocery store in Portsmouth, N.H.
Ms. Hurgin, 33, used to buy fresh produce to use the same day, but in quarantine thought that frozen vegetables would last longer. Collards have become a central part of her meals, even though she had never cooked with them before.
Ms. Hurgin has made collard green soups, stews, frittatas and omelets. Buying in bulk has given her confidence to become more flexible and resourceful in order to keep ingredients from going to waste, she said. She still has plenty of collards in the freezer, and she is already thinking about new dishes.
“I haven’t tried a collard green smoothie,” she wondered aloud. “That might be something.”