Eat Well, Spend Less: Unusual (Frugal) Storage Methods

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The Eat Well, Spend Less series has become a monthly feature, back by popular demand.

eatwellspendless_150No one will ever accuse me of being an organizing blogger, that’s for sure. One peek at my cupboards or pantry or basement will assure you of that. However, I get all my food to fit and at least I know where everything is. If I die, no one will know what to eat…but then again, they wouldn’t anyway without me to make a list and check it twice. Winking smile

This week’s topic, tackled by nine noteworthy ladies, is long-term and bulk food storage. And yes, I was tickled to find that it meshed so perfectly with my already-planned series this month on preparedness.

The main focus isn’t exactly on storing emergency foods, but on spending less on bulk purchases so your family can truly eat well…and then making sure you don’t waste your bulk foods because they were improperly stored or unorganized and got so old you had to pitch them.

While others are meticulously organizing their cupboards and pantries or posting beautiful pictures of their Type A storage systems, I’m taking the alternative route and showing you some ways I use what I have and watch for strange and unusual storage solutions.

For example:

red gold tins

When we got these ridiculously large (probably 5-gallon or more) tins at a blog retreat last spring, most people had no clue what to do with them. I immediately saw them overflowing with amber waves of grain and begged a few extras off my colleagues. They now hold my bulk whole grain stores, which I mostly try to leave in the original bags as well for extra protection from the elements and because I wasn’t positive what these containers were made of.

Reuse What You Have

Here are some ways I use old containers for new purposes:

  • oatmeal canisters (the big ones): used for storing homemade crackers or croutons and sprouted grains, but mostly for separating my 25-pound bags of oatmeal into usable portions. I have a dozen canisters stacked in my basement, all full, and at about one quarter the cost of buying them individually at Save-a-Lot. Pour out of the massive 25-pound bag into as many canisters as you have, all at one time. Then you only have to sweep up your inevitable mess one time.
  • glass jars (from everything from spaghetti sauce to olives): I store dehydrated peppers and tomatoes, homemade granola, nuts and seeds, home-dried fruit, and more in glass jars, “free” (repurposed) as much as possible. I also freeze food in glass jars regularly – click HERE to learn what I do on the rare occasion that I get a broken one!
  • paper sacks: no good for long-term storage, you’re probably thinking. The sacks serve as my organizational dividers on the floor underneath wall shelving in my laundry room (aka “extra pantry”). One bag holds the remainder of the 60 pounds of almonds I bought in the fall when they were $2.99/lb., another holds bags of dried beans, still another boxes of pasta. They provide categories and containment.
  • spice jars: if you buy spices in bulk, chances are you need an easy way to access them while cooking. I save almost every size and shape of spice jar I empty, just to be sure I’m ready if I need a small container. See my attractively organized stash of random containers?IMG_8382
  • regular grocery bags: in the freezer, I end up with lots of zipper bags of various things. In order to keep them all from falling on my feet when I open the door, I’ll group by category: smoothie ingredients, baby food, “stuff to add to sauces so husband doesn’t know” (the chopped liver, beef heart, pureed sweet potato…). Each category has its own plastic bag. It’s not pretty, but at least it’s still not heavy enough to break my toe when they fall out anyway, and it keeps me sane because there are ultimately fewer things to look through when I need something.
  • popcorn tins: I don’t get the Boy Scout tins of popcorn for Christmas anymore (people know better), but people I know do. I always ask if I can have them when they’re empty when family members open great containers at Christmastime. These hold some of my smaller (5-pound) grain purchases.
  • buckets: I haven’t figured out what I’m putting in the large plastic bucket my frozen cherries came in this year, but food-grade buckets are a really popular option for storing bulk foods. You can often get them at bakeries for free – check out the conversation in the comments here for more information, or this article from a serious prepper on long-term storage in buckets.

But Where to Put it All?

I’m fortunate that even though our house is small, we have a rather large portion of unfinished basement that is perfect for storage. I’m able to tuck quite a bit away in my basement. If you don’t have this option, here are some creative ways to think about where to stash bulk purchases, both for reasons of emergency preparedness and simple bulk frugality:

  • Under beds – for low, flat things like canned goods, large bags of bulk grains, etc.
  • Bottom or top shelf of a linen closet, at the back
  • Laundry room – wherever there’s space.
  • Corner of a bathroom or rear of bathroom cabinets (who can reach back there, anyway) for bottles/jugs of water for toilet flushing
  • On top of your cupboards – if you have that space between cupboard and ceiling, don’t bother with decorations that will get dusty anyway. Try pretty glass jars full of beans and grains instead – functional, and still attractive.
  • That corner behind the couch/chair – if you have an angled piece of furniture, stick large tubs (or tins like mine) in that space.
  • The garage or rafters, but ONLY if that food or water is really, really secured from animals and moisture and not susceptible to temperature changes. Also shouldn’t be something you need to use very often.

If you have a blank wall or half of one in any of the out-of-the-way rooms, simple shelves and brackets are very inexpensive and easy to install. Think “up.” Just be sure that if you’re going to store glass jars or heavy items that everything is reinforced well enough. No one wants to wake up in the night to the crashing down of  your summer produce, breaking all over the floor.

If you just don’t think you have the space to store bulk purchases, I encourage you to take a walk through your house and imagine needing to stash a quart jar or gallon bag of something somewhere. How many nooks and crannies can you discover?

Keep a List

If you do end up stuffing random food items in every room, do yourself a favor and keep a master list somewhere so you don’t forget where the black beans are and end up either (a) buying 5 bags of them because you always think you’re out or (b) having no black beans to eat for dinner because you just can’t find them.

What creative (and cheap!) ideas do you have for storage containers or finding space in your house?

Eat Well, Spend Less Ladies Share


How to Store Pantry Food for Maximum Shelf Life by Aimee of Simple Bites
Yes, this is one of those with the beautiful pictures of perfectly organized cabinets. You will be inspired…or overwhelmed! But bugs and moisture won’t get this girl’s bulk foods, that’s for sure.

The Power of an Organized Pantry by Mandi of Food…Your Way
A super organizer gives 7 tips to working with what you have. I could learn a lot from this post (as I search for the raisins I just KNOW I bought!).

Life Without a Deep Freezer by Carrie of Denver Bargains
Excellent tips for making the most of your freezer space and keeping your brain on while making purchases; good for you no matter how many freezers you have!

How to Store Bulk Purchases (Costco) by Tammy’s Recipes
Tammy lived in a 2-bedroom apartment with all her kids at one point, so if you need the “small space” recommendations, she’s your gal!

How NOT to organize your Pantry (and confessions) by Alyssa at Kingdom First Mom (I do nos. 1, 2, 7 and 9).

Extreme Cupboard Makeover (plus 5 steps to achieving your own) by Katie of Good Life Eats and another Cupboard Makeover from Jessica of Life as Mom.

On Limiting the Food You Store by Shaina of Food for my Family, who deals with lack of space in a small-ish kitchen.

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29 Bites of Conversation So Far

  1. Jill says

    Well this year I did not make a new years resolution but I made a goal of feeding my family healthier food and reducing the amount of plastic that we use. Just last month I changed out most of the plastic we use in our cupboards to glass. I can and always have canning jars on hand and then my mother in law gave me about 9 1/2 gal canning jars so out went the plastic and in came the glass. They look nicer and I can see what we have better. Its great.

  2. says

    I <3 my glass jars! I have quite a few 1/2 Gal canning jars and I got plastic lids that work a little nicer than the metal ones they come with. I store most of my grains, trail mixes, beans, ect in those in my pantry.

  3. sandra says

    My mother re-uses 5L plastic mineral water jugs to store dry beans.
    In the summer she freezes fresh sardines in 1,5L plastic 7up bottles with the top cut off. she fills them off with ocean water and puts them upright in her freezer. When frozen they can be stored lying down.
    We also make large amounts of pesto with fresh basil in the summer and then freeze in the 200ml plastic containers that butter/cream cheese come in.

  4. says

    We buy only fair-trade coffee, but I watch the recycling bins at my office and church for the big plastic canisters from Folgers and Maxwell House. They are great for storing bulk pasta and rice! I’ve decided not to worry about plastic for dry foods, as long as it’s relatively new #1 or #5 plastic.

    (My church actually serves Bishop’s Blend coffee, but we rent meeting space to some AA groups that go through lots of the “bad” coffee!)

    Thanks for the tips! I finally tried your frozen onion tip, after a recent sale on Vidalias, and I’m loving the convenience of pre-cut onions!

  5. Trish says

    It is my understanding that if your grains are going to become buggy, it’ll most likely occur from eggs laid in the original (bag) packaging. So to be safe, if you’re going to leave it in them, you should put in a large plastic food safe bag and freeze for a minimum of 3 days before you allow to return to room temp and then place in your tins.

  6. says

    I love your ideas! A year supply of very basic foods (wheat, oats, rice, dry beans, powdered milk, etc.) for a family of 4 can fit in a regular-sized closet. I store a lot of these same basic foods in 5 gallon buckets. I love gamma seal lids!
    I also love storing foods like nuts, raisins, chocolate, and brown rice in canning jars. I have a FoodSaver with an attachment that will suck the air out of the jar. This allows the food to last 2-3 times as long as it would otherwise. Sometimes even longer!

  7. says

    I’m thankful to have a big basement and a pantry set up in my laundry room. I love the idea of going to the bakery for their big containers. I’m going to go around to the bakery down the street and see if she will let me have her containers.

    Can’t wait to read the other bloggers posts.

  8. says

    I LOVE this post, Katie! I love you showing your “perfectly organized” container collection. Maybe because I have a similar set of “perfectly organized” bags in my pantry.

    And though we weren’t whole foodies then, we once had a bed on stilts so we could store under it. Our apartment was the upstairs of a two car garage. :-)

  9. Alyssa says

    Great post…I inheirited several boxes of glass quart jars, so I’ve been working on filling those. Also found several food-grade containers that will hold about 50 lb. of rice, beans, etc. One thing to consider though, when storing food in the laundry room (and my pantry IS my laundry room, so I have plenty of experience here) is the humidity…with some food items, humidity/temp will shorten the shelf life of even food storage items (sealed #10 cans, etc.)…just my 2 cents… :)

  10. says

    I love your ideas. I’ve been stashing all our reusable containers (like the glass peanut butter jars) to store our handmade stuff. Thanks for sharing your ideas this will help us take what we are doing one step farther.

  11. says

    I buy raw local honey in glass jars, and also my fave brand of coconut oil comes in glass jars, so I save every one. I recently heard that you can beg for food-grade 5 gallon plastic buckets at bakeries.

    And, yes, I love finding large tins! They are perfect for beans and grains. And the less plastic I have to use, the happier I am.

    • says

      The above comment was intended for Alyssa, I guess I clicked on the wrong ‘reply’ link! :)

      In any case, Katie, I LOVE your approach to this, very similar to mine in so many ways.

      Since it’s just the two of us, we have yet to buy the 50lb bags, but I think we will try to do that once a month, each month buy a different grain, legume or bean.

      I started buying everything possible in bulk in about February about a lb or 2 at a time and filling empty wine bottles with them and putting the corks back on. I just started buying 2lb bags from an organic farmer now.

      It’s great because the wine bottles go in the cabinet that was meant for over the fridge I think, (we installed free cabinets ourselves wherever they would fit – love them, Merillat – Craig’s list)

      In any case, the wine bottles just fit when you cut the cork in half. The upright storage makes great use of the space all the way to the top of the cabinet. On average a wine bottle will hold about a pound of whatever you buy in bulk.

      I cut up boxes from cracker boxes, etc. and made labels out of them. Punched holes into them and tied some butcher string around them thru a hole punched hole and fun looking labels!

      FYI – We buy the wine at Trader Joes – Charles Shaw – or 2 buck Chuck – for $2.99 a bottle. We are now enjoying a glass of wine each night as opposed to on the weekends so we can empty those bottles and fill them up! And – this is good wine by the way if you’ve never had it, despite the cheap price, it compares to a $12 bottle of wine.

      My parents also bought some liquor to have for our wedding at the beginning of the year, and as they come to visit and use up the bottles, I am filling those up too.

      Making us sound like quite the alcoholic family, but one drink a day is actually good for you. More than that, not so good. :)

      • Katie says

        What a FUN way to preserve! 😉 Yep, 2 buck Chuck is pretty fun…awaiting August when I can celebrate the birth of no. 3 with a glass of red! 😉 Katie

        • says

          Here’s hoping I CAN’T celebrate with you with a glass of red (my 1st choice too – Cabernet) for the same reason you don’t partake at the moment. Especially as I’ll be 40 next year – prayers appreciated! :) So excited for you!!! And so excited to find you are in Michigan, seems I can’t find like minded bloggers locally, here, near Detroit. At the right time… :) Bless you!

  12. says

    I use a lot of the ideas you use too. I have boxes of mason jars that I got off Freecyle a few years ago when no one wanted them (now you can’t get them free anywhere). I have an attachment for my foodsaver that allows me to save dry goods longer in the jars. I also have the free buckets from the bakery and put foodsafe bags in them as an added layer of protection for my grains. My stuff is stored all over my house because there just aren’t any basements in California. :) I know a lot of folks here don’t store canned foods (I do because with my budget sometimes the bargains are just too good for me to pass up) but check out this youtube video on how this lady uses a can storage rack.

  13. Kristie says

    I saw where you mentioned buying almonds in bulk. Do you know of good places to buy almonds? I read that truly raw unpasteurized almonds will sprout better and are healthier. I would like to find them for a good price! Also, I love reading your blog- I am learning things and changing our food little by little!

    • Katie says

      I’ve actually only bought them from Meijer when they’re on sale. You’re right, it’s incredibly hard to find “true” raw almonds. Both my regular sources, Meijer and Country Life Natural Foods, steam pasteurize their almonds. However, a local friend said she still gets most of the Meijer almonds to sprout. ??? I didn’t have that luck the one time I tried and finally gave up.

      Another local blogger, gets truly raw, organic almonds right when they are picked in the fall and shares the bulk order with anyone interested. I was tempted this year, but I had JUST purchased 30 lbs at $2.99. 😉 Katie

  14. says

    I buy bulk spices almost exclusively and I found a great way to store them.

    Look about for a friend or acquaintance who has a child in the 9 – 18 month range and they most likely have baby food jars coming out of their ears. The baby food jars are the perfect size for keeping the spices you use daily in an easily accessible location.

  15. says

    I have loved your preparedness series! I just wanted you to know that it’s not recommended to keep paper grocery sacks in your house. They are often infested with roach eggs (gross, right?). I don’t have a source for that or anything, but when we moved into our apartment they asked us not to store them.

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