3 Health Foods You Should Buy in Bulk, and 3 You Shouldn't

Health Insurance

Having a healthier lifestyle and saving money don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, both can be accomplished simultaneously. Case in point: buying in bulk.

Stores such as Costco and Sam’s Club can help you increase savings when you buy food in larger quantities. For families with more mouths to feed, buying in bulk can be a great way to save money and follow a healthy diet.

Here are three health foods smarter to buy in bulk, plus three that aren’t:

Always: Beans

With roughly equal parts fiber and protein, almost all bean varieties are packed with essential nutrients. They last for two to three years when dried and a year in cans, so this is a great bulk-buy item. Both types are less than 60 to 75 cents per pound at warehouse stores but can also be found in bulk bins at regular grocery stores for $1 to $1.50 per pound.

If you’re looking to reduce meat in your diet, beans are a good substitute in recipes. You can replace ground beef with beans in most recipes pound for pound. It’s also a money-saver: Ground beef can cost as much as $4 to $6 per pound, depending on quality.

Never: Spices

You could be forgiven for not thinking of spices as a health food, but they are part of a healthy lifestyle. Turmeric, for example, is being studied for its anti-cancer properties due to an antioxidant it contains called curcumin.

In addition to containing various antioxidants, spices can help make your healthy dishes go from bland to flavorful. In fact, for kids and adults alike who believe healthy food is bland, flavoring vegetable dishes with spices may help change their minds.

The giant containers of spices sold in bulk food stores go for anywhere from $5 to $50 but are really only economical for restaurants. Spices won’t go bad, but they lose their flavor after about six months to two years. Because you use a relatively small amount of spice in each dish, bulk spices are likely to go bland before you can use them all.

Always: Popcorn kernels

For those looking for a light and salty snack, popcorn is a great option. It expands a bit in the stomach to keep you fuller between meals, and because it’s made from corn, it counts as a whole grain. Unpopped kernels also last indefinitely when stored with a tight lid in a cool, dry spot — which means microwave popcorn expires, but kernels in a jar don’t. So they’re unlikely to go bad in your pantry unless you lose the taste for popcorn all together.

Buying in bulk at warehouse stores, popcorn kernels cost $1.60 per pound and provide about 145 servings in an 8-pound jug of kernels (9 cents per serving). Smaller containers at grocery stores are about $2 per pound.

Microwave popcorn is always more expensive by comparison, even in bulk, though it is cheaper that way. For $12 at Costco, you’ll get 44 store-brand microwaveable bags, or 110 servings (11 cents per serving). At grocery stores, you’ll pay the most for microwavable convenience: about $2.50 for 3 bags and 7.5 servings, or 28 cents per serving.

Never: Olive oil

Anything with high fat or oil content doesn’t have a long shelf life because organic oils start to go bad after about six months. Rancid oils have  been linked to heart disease and other health problems, so that’s a no-no. If you can use your large containers of cooking oils in less time than that, go ahead and buy, with one exception: olive oil.

Olive oil is considered especially nutritious because of the large amounts of good fat it contains, as well as the high level of antioxidants it contains for an oil. To get the most nutrition from your olive oil, it’s best to buy in smaller amounts. The antioxidants in olive oil break down rapidly, resulting in about a 40% reduction after six months, according to a 2005 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Science.

Never: Condiments

Like spices, condiments can really make a healthy meal pop. This category includes salad dressings and sauces, which usually should be used sparingly. Most condiments have a shelf life of six months to a year, so you’re likely to wind up with expired products in your fridge, which equates to money down the drain.

Always: Rice

Aside from brown rice, most rice varieties will last indefinitely in storage. Healthful brown rice is rich in oils that can spoil, but it still lasts about six months in the pantry. That’s not very long for some items on our list, but even brown rice has a huge variety of uses and is easier to use up in short order. Plus brown and wild rice varieties are good sources of fiber, protein, vitamin B6 and magnesium, which are all great reasons to eat more of it.

You can buy meal-sized quantities of instant rice for $2-$4 per box in grocery stores, which gets you about 6 ounces plus seasoning. Or you can buy rice in bulk at grocery or warehouse stores for less than $1 per pound — the national average price is 67 cents according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Lacie Glover is a staff writer covering health and personal finance for NerdWallet. Follow her on Twitter @LacieJaeGlo and on Google+.

Image via iStock.