Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Ask the Internet: Cheap Storage for Bulk Foods?

Today's question comes from reader JL.

Q: I've started buying some staple items like dried fruits, grains, and nuts in bulk to save money. However, storage has become a bit of a problem! I have probably a dozen plastic store bags flopping around in my pantry right now. They rip easily, are hard to measure from, and slide all over the place. Plus it's hard to tell what is in each bag.

How does everyone else store their bulk items? Did you buy a set of canisters (which seems expensive) or just mix and match containers (which means they won't stack nicely)? What material do you use and why? Does anyone have a system or type of container they love? And what about taking the items home from the store? Plastic bags seem so wasteful. There must be an alternative, right?


A: JL, I do two things:
  1. Use plastic Tupperware or Chinese food soup containers, which hold those odds and ends that seem to end up all over the place. They're cheap, stackable, and you can throw them out when they start to get kind of funky.
  2. For our wedding, we received two sets of OXO storage containers (pictured upper right). They're a bit expensive at the outset, but they have been FANTASTIC at keeping our various sundries in check. Plus, they look pretty. Highly suggested.
Readers, how about you?

Want to ask the interweb a question? Post one in the comment section, or write to Cheaphealthygood@gmail.com. Then, tune in next Tuesday for an answer/several answers from the good people of the World Wide Net.

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32 comments:

Laura said...

I have this same problem, compounded by the fact that we have a reoccurring meal moth infestation. Any suggestions for things they can't get in? (They can bore through ziplock bags, we found out.)

Anonymous said...

Mason jars! The wide-mouthed pint and quart jars, especially. For bigger batches of stuff, I use freezer bags.

Kate said...

I found a set of big glass canisters at goodwill for cheap that I use for for flour, and otherwise use pint or quart canning jars I've picked up through various sources.

bethany said...

I do exactly those two things that Kris mentioned.

I also bought a few reusable grocery bags from the grocery stores I frequent. It seems most places have them for $1 or so at the checkout, and they fit a ton of stuff and are easier to carry than plastic bags. Win-win-win. The challenge is to remember to bring them to the store with you!

CJ said...

Mason jars work well, seal tight and can be kept in the refrigerator/freezer to slow oxidation preventing natural oils from turning rancid.

p.s. I have a couple of those vacu, seal OXO containers too. They are excellent, but as mentioned, pricey. Mason jars are multi-purpose, readily available and inexpensive.

Laura said...

I use canning jars of different sizes, always wide mouth. A strip of masking tape lets me write the contents on the jar so I don't forget, but is easily replaceable.

Plus, they're easily washed and reused. I keep extra around for when I make a pot of soup and want to store leftovers in the fridge. Takes up less room than big bowls.

Anonymous said...

Spaghetti sauce jars work great. Wash them well, peel off the label and you've got free storage!

Sara said...

Thrift store! I've found several glass canning jars at my local thrift for 1 or 2$. Just as long as you avoid the ones that people have stored potpourri in, it's hard to get that fragrance out.

Katy V said...

Check out the Container Store. I got several different sized plastic containers with lids for about $2 each. I love them and they make my pantry look neat and tidy.

Northside Food said...

I use a combination of things, because I am cheap and I don't care if things match. I have a couple big glass cookie jars with wide mouths that I am currently using for rice, flour and pasta. It makes it easy to scoop out what I need. I've also used them to store dried beans. For other items, like smaller amounts of pasta, dried beans and brown sugar, I use recycled glass applesauce jars. I soak them in water to remove the labels, and then fill with whatever I like. I've also used plastic milk jugs to store rice and beans in. It's easy to pour out that way.

Last year, my grocery store had an amazing deal for rice. You could get a three pound bag for a dollar, limit of four bags per purchase. So I bought rice every time I drove past that store that week and made my husband do the same. We ended up with about sixty pounds of rice. To keep the bugs from getting into it, I pulled all the ice filled milk jugs out of the chest freezer (I do that to save energy. A full freezer is more efficient.) and replaced them with the bags of rice. It'll keep pretty much indefinitely in there. You can also store pasta and flour like this, but I don't have so much on hand that I worry about it.

April said...

Freeze your bulk items for a day or so before you store them to kill anything that might be in there, then put your things in tight lidded glass jars. Those little bastards can get through plastic. I've lost many a bulk good to them.

Martha said...

I have to laugh, as my favorite and most numerous storage jar is the gallon Mayo jar that Best Foods comes in! they are plastic, seal well and are semi transparent enough to see whats in them. But you have to eat Mayo!

Sassy Molassy said...

You could use large zip-lock bags, label with Sharpie, and "file" in a rectangular basket or bin.

Michael said...

We use European style canning jars (the ones with the wire bail and replaceable seal) quite a bit. They used to be inexpensive but we bought them a long time ago and when I went to buy more recently I discovered they are no longer trendy so the price has gone way up. I also like the sort-of-rectangular Rubbermaid canisters, they're available in a couple of sizes and they stack nicely.

Chookie said...

I use a mix of things - large sized mason jars, some glass spring-clip jars I bought at Ikea, old coffee-cans that I covered with paper to make them look better, tupperware.

I am not too bothered about it all matching, none of it is on display as it is all stored in the pantry. I am more concerned about being airtight and big enough to hold the contents.

Adrienne said...

I have several of these: http://www.containerstore.com/shop/kitchen/foodStorage/jarsTerrines?productId=10011037&green=1006047132 which are not too expensive and are impermeable to bugs as far as I can tell. They sit out on my counter since I don't actually have a pantry.

Anna N said...

Some friends of mine have the coolest cheap system for spices: they use cylindrical jam jars (Bionaturae brand, I think). They stack them on their side on a shelf in the cabinet, like a pile of logs. When you remove one jar, the others all stay in place because they're all wedged in. The lids face out and have the spice names written on them.

I'd just pick a kind of jar that you buy and like the size & shape of, and keep buying that product and slowly accumulating more jars. I like Classico tomato sauce jars and Green Mtn Gringo salsa jars for dried beans and grains, but I also use whatever jars I have around.

Karis said...

I'm slowly purchasing Oxo containers as I can afford them. They're my first choice because they're well-made, great seal, and they fit well in my cupboards. In the meantime, I'm using ziplock bags for the grains I don't yet have Oxo containers for.

Ali said...

Another vote for mason jars! For the things that require a larger container, something like this: http://www.ikea.com/ca/en/catalog/products/40065867. Another bonus is that these types of jars keep out pesky things like moths. And, as Laura said, the smaller jars make great storage for things like leftovers and the jam-sized jars are a leakproof way to bring leftover soup for lunch.

We also bought a can of chalkboard paint and applied it with a stencil so that there's a rectangle-shaped are on each jar where can write what it is. More importantly, we also write the proper water-to-grain ratio and cooking time on there since I seem to be incapable of remembering the different ratios for brown rice, white rice, quinoa, millet, couscous, oats...

Karen L said...

For smaller quantities, I like mason jars or reusing pasta sauce jars and the like, so long as both the jar and the lid are threaded.

For larger quantities, I like tins. We have a bunch of really great ones that came with cream wafer cookies from China, brand name Garden*. Here's a picture: http://i01.i.aliimg.com/photo/v1/297316635/Garden_Wafer_Biscuits_Gift_Packs_Strawberry_flavor.jpg They are roughly cubes, so they pack better than round tins, and they hold about 4 L, I think. They're also double-lidded. There's a circular lid that presses really tightly into a hole and then a square lid that covers the whole thing. I just label with masking tape.

*The cookies are nothing special but the tins are awesome. If you live near a Chinatown, stock up. Mental note: ask MIL where she buys these; I want more.

Karen L said...

Oh, are no links allowed? Lemme try again. Add your own "ht" to the beginning of this url:

tp://i01.i.aliimg.com/photo/v1/297316635/Garden_Wafer_Biscuits_Gift_Packs_Strawberry_flavor.jpg

I have a bunch of these cookie tins. The cookies that come with them are nothing special but the tins hold about 4L, have tight-fitting lids, and stack well because they're square.

cardamomandcastiron said...

I use leftover quart-sized yogurt containers and second-hand glass containers from thrift stores.

alternakiddy said...

For my rice (rice goes on sale often where I live), I bought a plastic storage box from Target (hold about 20 lbs of rice). For decidedly smaller amounts, I reuse Chinese food soup containers,glass coffee jars, basically use whatever containers you accrue with what you purchase. Wash 'em or soak 'em, and they're good to go!

Susan Godfrey said...

I personally use canning jars and gallon sized glass pickle jars. I got the pickle jars from a local hamburger restaurant that saved them for me. I have at least 50 of them! I use them for storage, making lacto-fermented sauerkraut and pickles, sun tea jars...just about everything. We're transitioning away from plastics and canning jars are inexpensive replacements and I couldn't pass up the price on those pickle jars (FREE!)

Willison85 said...

I use domino sugar containers. It is slightly more expensive than bagged sugar, but the containers are wonderful to hold flour, baking mix, pasta, liquids, everything really.

Autumn said...

For my big storage, I have several rubbermaid containers that I place the bags of flour, sugar, rice in that I keep in my basement, so I only have a smaller amount up in the kitchen where space is more valuable.

I was given a bunch of real tupperware containers as a wedding gift I use for flour, sugar, rice in the kitchen. Otherwise I tend to just use zip loc bags or rubbermaid containers (free when you buy certain brands of lunch meat with a good sale and coupon)

Sally said...

I use Mason jars or any jar with a screw-top lid that came with something else in it. Years ago I used to buy Classico sauces and those jars are great. Occasionally I'll buy some sauce or jam in a half-pint jar and I keep those.

I don't use mayonnaise in great amounts and the little (8-ounce) jars it comes in make great storage jars.

I have purchased a dozen pint and quart mason jars, but beyond those and canisters for flour and sugar, everything else is repurposed.

mitzi said...

For stopping the meal moths, freeze incoming grains or beans for a day or two, then store EVERYTHING in impermeable (glass, ceramic, metal, or thick plastic) containers. Even dried peppers can get infested. I like Mason jars, recycled applesauce or other glass grocery jars unsuitable for canning, old canisters (we found some metal ones in the attic when we bought our house- you can probably find unfashionable ones cheap at yard sales), cookie tins, and plastic cereal containers. Label with masking tape and a waterproof marker. I store whole grains and flours in the fridge in plastic freezer containers. I line the metal ones with a ziploc bag since I don't know what the metal is. I don't care if anything matches, as long as the moths are gone. And they are.

Shae said...

I HAVE YOUR ANSWER PEOPLE. I can't believe no one else has said this.

At The Family Dollar, they have rectangular glass jars with white lids in two sizes, short and tall. If you look closely there's an imprint on them that says Golden Harvest Canister which is totally not obvious or ugly.

They are a couple dollars each, and have been around for well over a decade at least, which is when I started collecting them, so they'll be around in the future.

I have dozens and I seriously wouldn't do this any other way. They are nice looking enough to store in full view and cheap enough to tuck into a cabinet.

The nice fitting lids are easier to manage than mason jars, and they don't get breaky and weird like plastic or disposable containers. They are rectangular so they pack into an area nicely without wasting space.

ann diet drops said...

Well, for me I use the empty glass jars of mayo, pickles and jams.Or I buy cheap plastic wares in the mall especially if it's sale so that I can save at least 20% to 50% off of the regular price.

The Girl Nerd said...

I'm chiming in to throw my support behind the OXO containers from the original post. I use these for rice, beans, pasta, nuts, etc. and (disclaimer: I work for The Container Store) I've even met customers who use them for bulk spices. They seal like a dream, and honestly, you can't go wrong with OXO.

No matter what you go with, though, make sure they stack, and are part of a set. That way, if your counter/pantry space changes, your containers can adapt.

Anna said...

Some day I'll have nice matchy-matchy canisters, but for now I use old peanut butter jars. I have a bunch of large Adams pb jars that hold my grains and beans. Plus they're glass, so I can see what's in them. Not easy to measure out of, but they work for a college kid. Sadly, no more incoming jars these days...I have discovered bulk peanut butter!