Some people are surprised to hear we have a Costco membership when it’s just the two of us. I admit, paying to shop someplace is a hard sell for me, especially when we only go a few times a year. If you’ve never been to Costco before, only been a couple of times, or never really inspected the shelf prices, it’s easy to get carried away; not only can the selection and the store itself be kind of overwhelming, but the fact you’re paying for the privilege of shopping there makes it easy to assume everything you come across is going to be a great deal. Of course, this is not always the case, especially if you’re already making the effort to buy groceries in bulk and on sale. That said, the past few years have taught us a few things regarding what to buy (and what not to buy) in order to come out ahead.
Keep in mind the suggestions below are for a small or small-ish family; if you have 6 kids, own a restaurant, or eat potatoes for every meal, obviously this will not apply to you. Also, when in doubt, READ THE PRICE LABELS CAREFULLY. Make sure the correct price label is above the correct item, and if it doesn’t list a per-unit price, calculate it yourself. (If you suck at math and your phone doesn’t have a calculator, bring an actual calculator. I’ve not only done this myself but have seen other people doing it as well, so I feel safe saying it’s a socially sanctioned Costco Thing.)
So, what’s worth it?
At 30 cents a pound ($14.89 for 50 lbs.), Costco’s price is unbeatable. It’s admittedly a lot of flour, but we portion it out into plastic buckets with tight-fitting lids so it stays fresh.
At $4.99 for 10 lbs., they’re roughly the same price per pound as the ones at the grocery store, but they’re organic, and carrots last forever in the crisper so it’s good to have them on hand.
• Unsalted butter.
Sometimes you can find butter on sale at the grocery store for cheaper, but it’s not that much cheaper, and this way you always have a steady supply. Get unsalted (why not salted? I like to have control over how much salt I’m putting in; plus, salt acts as a preservative so companies can get away with using not-as-fresh butter) and freeze it.
Same reason as the butter—it’s sometimes cheaper at the grocery store, but not always, plus the Kirkland quality is better and it’s good to have on hand. Freeze it.
• Chicken thighs.
Not only is a bag of frozen Kirkland Signature thighs always $1.99/lb., but they’re extremely versatile and good to always have on hand.
The San Francisco Bay brand is cheapest at $6 a pound. Coffee can sometimes be found for cheaper at Grocery Outlet, but this is a good fallback for when you can’t find on-sale coffee at the grocery store. It’s a big bag, so keep it frozen and only take out what you need.
• Foil and plastic wrap.
It may be a little disturbing to pay $15 for a foodservice-sized roll of plastic wrap, but it will last you nearly until the end of time, and this is coming from someone who uses a lot of plastic wrap. Ditto for the foil.
Only $9.69 for a 25-pound bag. ’Nuff said.
• S&W organic tomato paste.
Tomato paste can be made into a quick tomato or pizza sauce quite easily, so it’s always great to have around. It’s a few cents cheaper than store brand, plus it’s organic.
• Kalamata olives.
This huge jar costs about as much as two small jars at the grocery store. Plus, they’re brined so they last forever in the fridge.
• Sun-dried tomatoes.
Again, definitely cheaper than the grocery store, and they keep forever in the fridge. (The oil will harden, but you can either leave the jar out at room temperature a few hours before you need the tomatoes, or wipe the hardened oil off with a paper towel.)
• Better Than Bouillon.
A staple in our household for the weeks when we can’t make our own. It keeps forever, and is always cheaper than the grocery store.
Again, always cheaper per ounce than the grocery store. Keep in mind that at Costco the canola oil is cheaper than the vegetable oil (they’re usually stored next to each other and have similar packaging). Also, if you’re only going to be cooking with olive oil, don’t get extra-virgin. You won’t be able to taste the difference, and 1 1/2 gallons of regular ol’ olive oil is only about $23. (Pour it into a smaller bottle with a funnel.)
• Balsamic vinegar.
A gigantic bottle of the real thing is only $12. If you, like us, make your own salad dressing, this is indispensable.
If you eat a lot of nuts, know these are usually on par with the sale price at the bulk bins, but fresher. Keep them refrigerated so they don’t turn rancid. If you don’t eat a lot of nuts, bags this big probably aren’t worth it.
• Garofalo pasta.
I admit this is a borderline item. It’s about $1.19 a package, which is not as cheap as the regular store, but the quality difference between real, premium Italian pasta and dried store brand is hard to ignore once you’ve discovered it. Given that the “premium” is only 20 cents, I save this pasta for simple meals when quality is especially noticeable.
S0, what’s not worth it?
It’s always cheaper in bulk at the grocery store (at Winco it’s 25 cents a pound; here it’s 73 cents a pound). You can’t tell me Quaker has some proprietary claim to oat flakes.
• Canned tomatoes.
At Costco it works out to 96 cents a can, vs. 59 cents for store brand at the supermarket. Plus, they only have stewed and large diced, and you know how I feel about diced.
• Convenience foods, snack foods, anything from the bakery, anything they’re giving away as samples.
• Spices, especially powdered ones.
Unless you work in a commercial kitchen, there’s NO WAY you’ll be able to use all of the container before it loses its punch. Whole spices that you grind yourself are a little safer bet, but it’s still best to buy smaller amounts fresh.
• Garlic and onions.
It seems like a great idea to buy these in bulk, but they’re not as fresh as you think. Unless you’re making garlic confit and French onion soup every night, the garlic will sprout and the onions will start to mold before you can use them all. I consider myself a pretty heavy onion and garlic user, and it happened to me.
Same problem as with the garlic and onions. It doesn’t look like that many potatoes, but they’re not like the ones that just came out of your garden that will last for months; these have already been sitting around for a while, so they need to be used sooner than you think.
• Fruit and vegetables (except for carrots).
Again, not as cheap as in-season fruit on sale at the grocery store, and odds are you won’t be able to use it up before it turns.
• Meat from the butcher section.
Most—if not all—of it is cheaper on sale at the regular supermarket.
At $3.99 for the biggest bag I’d ever seen, I thought this was a great deal two years ago. However, I bake bread twice a week, and I still haven’t even used half the package. It’s about to expire.