The Ginger Principle: When Buying in Bulk Is a Mistake

Sarah and I are adventurous amateur chefs. We love trying all kinds of things in the kitchen with fresh ingredients and interesting flavor combinations. Like everyone else, of course, we do have our own preferences. I tend to like spicy foods, ones that almost burn on the tongue as you eat them, for example.

Which, I suppose, brings us to ginger.

I love using fresh mashed ginger root as an ingredient in pretty much everything where it makes sense (and often things where it doesn’t). I love ginger in my stir fry. I love ginger in soups. I love ginger with curry. I love making gingersnap cookies and even using ginger and sugar in other kinds of cookies.

That means that every once in a while I have a need to head to the store and buy some fresh ginger root. After all, nothing beats freshly-mashed ginger root right into a stir fry or right into soup or right into a muffin recipe (cranberry ginger muffins…. mmmm…..). The aroma… the taste… I want some right now.

The problem is that I almost always seem to buy far more fresh ginger root than I need. I’ll go to the store, dig through the ginger root for sale, and find a piece of what I think is reasonable size for the recipes that I want to make. Yet, although I end up using it several times, I invariably still find a dried-out and basically unusable piece of ginger root in the refrigerator several weeks later and then I’m back to the store to get another piece of ginger root.

When I’m at the store, I fully intend to use that ginger root for lots of recipes in the coming week and I even have two or three planned out for the coming week. Beyond that, though, I don’t have any specific plans, just big visions, and by the time I get around to actually doing those things, the ginger root is no longer really good to use.

It’s really wasteful. It’s a poor use of money. It’s also kind of sad to throw out ginger root that could have been used if I hadn’t kicked the ginger-based recipes down the road for a while.

For me, this whole experience is a shining example of something that I’ve come to call the “ginger principle”: never buy more of something than you’re absolutely sure you’ll be able to use before it goes bad. Although there are situations where doing this might cost you a little bit of money – for example, when you turn down a bulk purchase – there are many, many situations where the “ginger principle” will save you money.

Let’s look at how the “ginger principle” works with regards to many of my most common purchases.

If I’m buying household supplies and toiletries, I can almost always safely buy items in the biggest bulk that I can. Shampoo and soap and razors and such things never go bad in any reasonable timeframe, so it’s completely reasonable to buy those things in enormous bulk.

That’s why, if you look in our closets, you’ll see tons of bottles of shampoo and garbage bags and toilet paper. We buy those in bulk and we stock up big if we find them on sale because toilet paper stored in packages in a dry upstairs closet is going to basically last forever. We could go years without buying toilet paper at this point.

I use the same principle (to an extent) when it comes to canned foods. If the canned foods are packaged in small individual containers, then I’m willing to buy them in extensive bulk, especially if the expiration date is far into the future (years). I generally avoid canned goods in large individual containers; there’s really no benefit to us opening up a two gallon jar of pasta sauce, for example, as we would have to repackage almost all of it immediately.

If I’m buying frozen goods, I am willing to buy in bulk for something that I know we’ll use frequently, but not on other items. Frozen goods tend to have a decent lifespan in the freezer, but there’s a risk – if we lose power, everything in the freezer is lost. So, I tend to limit my bulk buys when it comes to frozen items.

This brings us around to the fresh items, the real reason for the “ginger principle” in the first place. When I buy a fresh item, I ask myself a few questions.

First, can it be frozen – and will I realistically freeze it? Similarly, can it be canned – and will I realistically can it? I might buy a bulk purchase of a particular vegetable at a farmers market if I am dead certain I will go home and put it in the freezer in the next day or so. We don’t actively do canning – we experimented with it, but didn’t find the cost-benefit high enough for us when considering all of the time and materials.

Second, am I using this fresh ingredient in a “make ahead” meal? Our family really values “make ahead meals,” which are complete meals that we make well in advance. We freeze these meals and pull them out of the freezer a day or two before their final cooking so that we can have, say, a homemade lasagna after a very busy day at work.

Generally, this means that I’m planning ahead for a specific ingredient or two that I’ll buy in bulk. If I’m looking at the grocery flyer, for instance, and I see that tomatoes are on sale at an especially low price, I might plan to make several pans of lasagna in advance that week and then buy a ton of the sale-priced tomatoes, far more than we might normally eat. The same is true for virtually any fresh ingredient, whether it’s fruit or a vegetable or a meat.

If I don’t get a firm positive answer from the above questions, I simply buy what I need for the meal at hand and nothing more. It’s a pretty simple rule to follow.

So, this all comes back to me standing there in the produce section, digging through the ginger roots. What exactly do I do?

Well, it’s a fresh ingredient… and I’m not planning on making a bulk meal with this ingredient… could I freeze it? It turns out you actually can freeze ginger, whether in whole root form or in small teaspoon-sized amounts of ground ginger (like in an ice cube tray). But will I actually freeze it? If I just take home a medium-sized root, I might grind all of it up and store the extra in a couple of ice cube trays, freezing them thoroughly and then keeping “ginger cubes” in a bag. Will I do it? Maybe… if I think that I will, then I’ll buy a medium sized root. If I’m honest and realize that I won’t, I’ll buy a tiny piece of ginger root.

That, my friends, is the ginger principle at work. The ginger principle just launches a short series of questions in your head, either before shopping or while shopping, that can guide you right toward the appropriate size of a purchase. I’ve found that, as I’ve become more used to utilizing the ginger principle in my own shopping, I do it before ever heading to the store. Instead, I do it with the grocery list, identifying things that I might buy in bulk (like sale items at the regular grocery store or bulk items at the warehouse club) and marking them as such on the list before I ever head out the door.

Yes, there have been times when I might have “saved” money by making a bulk purchase of some kind and the ginger principle has talked me out of it – a great example is that titular piece of ginger root. However, using the ginger principle means that a lot fewer perishable purchases are going to waste, and the reality of the matter is that whenever I throw away food that has gone to waste, I’m throwing away money.

Overall, the ginger principle is a real money saver. In one simple statement, it tells us which items make sense to buy in bulk and which items do not. It reduces household waste, which is really just dollars thrown out the door, and it ends up being environmentally friendly, too.

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