As a food writer and recipe developer, I’m also by default a professional food shopper. I have all kinds of user-generated algorithms in my mind about where I like to buy certain things, how much I want to spend on them, how much of them I want to keep on hand, and so on. Even though I need to shop continuously for my job, and, like many people, I have a family who needs to be fed, I still get a little adrenaline rush when I food-shop. And thank goodness, because it’s a pretty big part of my life.
I’m also a little bit of a hoarder. When I see only four rolls of paper towels in the closet, I start to feel a little frisson of panic. But buying things in bulk has its pros and its cons. The pros include being stocked up for a long time, and usually saving some cash when you compare prices by weight, volume, or unit against smaller packages. The cons are buying too much of something, which can be problematic in terms of storage space (especially for those of us city-dwellers), and also spoilage (it feels so wasteful to throw away half of a 64-ounce container of sour cream just because it was a little cheaper per ounce than the smaller tub).
Few places challenge our abilities to bulk-shop smartly like Costco. The choices range from necessary to enticingly impulse-purchase-y, and the size of the packages is usually large to ginormous. But there are some items I have no qualms about piling high in my cart on repeat. Your list of Costco stocker-uppers will surely vary from mine, but these are the items that I most often load up on.
There are a variety of brands sold at Costco, and a variety of sizes, from big 50-ounce cans to packs of smaller 32-ounce cartons or multipacks of 14.5-ounce cans. The options often include chicken, beef, vegetable, organic, and less-sodium. I use gallons of broth every week—in soups, stews, sauces, and casseroles. You name it. If it’s savory and hot, there might well be broth in it. I like to keep an assortment of sizes of cartons and cans on hand for various recipe needs.
Want to make a rich, semi-homemade chicken stock? While you're there, buy a rotisserie chicken (one of Costco’s most famous products for quality and price—$4.99!), have it for dinner and use the carcass and some of that store-bought broth to make delicious, mahogany-colored stock. Add ramen (without the seasoning packet) and any leftover shredded meat from the rotisserie chicken to make the world’s easiest chicken noodle soup.
There are often several versions available—whole, crushed, diced, paste, and sauce. I buy these in two sizes: the mega cans (6.6 pounds) and the eight-packs of everyday 28-ounce cans. The big cans are for huge batches of pasta sauces, like bolognese or marinara (which I love to freeze), and for when I’m throwing the occasional lasagna party. The smaller sizes are for day-to-day cooking, for recipes like my One-Skillet Cheesy Beef and Macaroni or Fragrant Chicken Tomato Soup. Costco can carry a variety of brands. Last time I got eight 28-ounce cans of Tuttorosso crushed tomatoes for $6.39 (about 80 cents each). Or if you want to splurge on the San Marzano tomatoes, those can be bought for $8.99 for a three pack of 28-ounce cans.
If you cook with real Parmesan regularly, then you know that this cheese is a) expensive and b) worth it. But the wedge Parmesan carried by Costco is a mere $10.59 per pound (some versions even less). Plus, it lasts for months when properly stored, and you can grate it freshly as needed. Perfect over salads, pastas, or this simple, four-ingredient creamed kale .
Costco makes it easy to buy their chicken breasts in bulk because they come in connected, perforated six-packs, each containing about 1.5 pounds of chicken breasts (9 or so pounds total). This allows you to open and use as many sections as you want and leave the rest perfectly sealed. These sealed packages can also go right into the freezer, and are easy to pull out and defrost in the fridge as you need them. They're $2.79 per pound, and also available in organic form for $4.99 per pound. Organic boneless, skinless thighs are $3.99 per pound, packaged in the same way (for some reason the boneless thighs are only available in an organic version).
This is a weird one, I know, but I love hearts of palm dearly—and they can be very pricey! Since they come canned or jarred, they last for years. But because I add them to as many salads as I can and eat them by the handful as a snack, I can never have too many jars in stock. (Hearts of palm were also my pregnancy craving—I ate them every day while I was gestating Charlie.)
Okay, well, for those of you without allergies to tree nuts, I guess this would translate to ALL nuts. I'm only able to eat peanuts, though, and my family eats a lot of them. Luckily Costco has quite a number of ways for us to sate my peanut fix in a more economical way: The most important buy is the 48-pack of 1-ounce Planters salted peanut packs. I know you can do even better price-wise when you buy larger containers, but I appreciate the individual packages because they help me keep track of how many peanuts I'm inhaling. They're also terrific protein-filled snacks to keep in my bag when I'm on the go.
I also love the 2 1/2–pound canister of Kirkland Super Extra Large Peanuts, which are impossible to resist at just $6.69—but you need some serious self-discipline with these in the house, or a lot of peanut loving friends. Or just whip up a batch of cookies.
If you're a baker (or you're a reluctant one because your kids go to a bake-sale heavy school), then you'll immediately realize what a great price you’re getting for their big 16-ounce bottle of vanilla extract. $34.99 is a total steal, it lasts for years, and the quality is great—pure vanilla, not artificially flavored (which is not worth using even if it’s free, by the way). Elsewhere, a 1-ounce bottle of a leading national vanilla brand might be closer to $6 or $7, which would translate to almost over $100 if you were to buy the same amount of vanilla, or 16 of those little bottles. Startling, huh? Now you won’t need to hesitate before baking up a batch of oatmeal or chocolate chunk cookies.
I have what can only be termed a deep, meaningful relationship with my oversized role of Kirkland Signature Reynolds Foodservice Foil. 12x1000 feet of aluminum foil may not be what everyone needs in their house, but if you regularly line baking sheets and wrap brownies for freezing (before sliding them into zipper-sealed bags of course), then you can seriously save a large amount of money by purchasing this mega-roll. I buy about one of these a year for $27.99, and that carries me right on through.
While I know that you can’t stock up on prosciutto the way you can on paper towels or aluminum foil, a sealed package will last for four whole months, so you can certainly buy for the future. And it just so happens that my kids' favorite sandwich is prosciutto and mozzarella on a baguette. On my last visit to Costco, a 1-pound sleeve of Citterio prosciutto was priced at $9.99. Suddenly indulgences like prosciutto-wrapped shrimp and this easy party appetizer seem much more accessible.
What do YOU like to buy in bulk at Costco? Let us know in the comments below.
This post is an unsponsored grocery-store love letter.