Recently, I took a business course, where Costco was used as a ‘model’ example of how to grow a successful enterprise: apparently, Costco’s success lies in the fact that they value their employees and aim to keep costs as low as possible, which means they will refuse to carry products where the mark-up would have to be significant to be worthwhile. Interesting philosophy when it pertains to food commoditization, but more about that later.
I decided to give Costco a second chance, despite my reservations about the bulk shopping philosophy for regular-sized households, as well as my slight trauma at having been subjected to the Costco parking lot etiquette on a Saturday purely without intention (I took a wrong turn, got lost in said parking lot, and was accosted as people cut me off to find parking – all I wanted was out, man!). I realized as I prepared for my trip to Costco today that I would have to check my expectations at the door, and come to terms with the fact that human kindness becomes significantly muted by the incredible prices to be had at Costco.
My main reasons for subjecting myself to sprinting Mothers operating shopping carts at 40 km per hour and customers blocking aisles as they chomped on the numerous samples offered in white paper cups was to research what food items a family with young children could purchase that were healthy as well as cost-effective. I am also working with a day care providers to incorporate the concepts of Food Flair into their establishment under which healthy meal preparation would fall.
I cruised the aisles of a plethora of products, but focussed mainly on the whole foods, like fruits and vegetables, grains, dairy, and meats/alternatives as well as the least processed packaged foods. I have grouped each into its own category for commentary below.
Fruits and vegetables. Basically, most fresh produce offered at Costco is not organically grown nor locally produced, but overall, there was a good representation of produce at a decent price.
Grains. As I had heard from my clients in the past, Costco has the best price on whole grain bread by Silver Hills and even carries a gluten-free variety.
For a high fibre pasta option, I like Catelli Healthy Harvest whole grain pasta, which Costco offers at a reasonable price.
I also really liked the idea of these pre-cut sweet potatoes, that can be easily made in the oven for a healthy version of sweet potato fries (sweet potatoes are a vegetable but I’ve included them in ‘Grains’ category due to their starch content, although they can be a great choice for those on a diabetic diet).
Dairy. I focused on cheese options in this case, because our household does not drink that much milk (we mostly use Greek yogurt, but I could not find the brand we use at Costco), but the cheese options were generally economical in price. However, I hesitate to buy cheese in bulk because when it is in the house, we eat more of it. It is difficult to control portions of this saturated fat-rich dairy product, so I looked at the individually wrapped options. BabyBel was the most affordable, lowest sodium cheese option, with fewer ingredients and food colourings, although saturated fat content was comparable to most other cheeses.
Meats/Alternatives. Costco has a substantial variety of meat-based protein options but animal husbandry practices follow conventional means, so if you like antibiotic-free, hormone-free, organic and/or grass-fed cattle and poultry, you might want to shop elsewhere. There are also many aisles of frozen vegetarian, vegan, and omnivore patties in packages ranging from a few to many ingredients, so you might want to follow my label reading tip below for navigation. I quite like this almond butter option shown below, if allergies and sensitivities are not an issue for your family.
Packaged Foods. Whenever I am shopping for foods that require label reading, I use the ‘5-15 rule’. For example, if the percent daily value (DV) of sodium in a food item is less than 5%, then the food has little sodium in it (watch the portion/serving size, however), but if the food has more than 15% sodium per serving, then I would choose not to buy it. Fibre is the exception, however, where a higher percentage (more than 5%) is better.
For cracker options, I liked the following brand, Crunchmaster, because it was in keeping with my 5-15 rule for sodium and fat. It also had a low number of ingredients, all of which I could pronounce. What I realized, however, is that other flavours of the same brand could have a very different nutrition profile in terms of fat, salt, and fibre content, so make sure you read labels carefully.
If you are in a rush to make these at home, healthier ready-made options for dips such as guacamole (high in healthy fats from avocado) and hummus (high in protein and fibre from chickpeas) are listed below. Again, I used the 5-15 rule as my criteria.
Overall, I found Costco limiting in terms of cereal, cracker, and dairy options, but knowing more now about their business model, I can understand why: it is just too expensive to carry organic, less-processed goods, because they spoil too quickly and also require more rigorous processes to meet higher standards. Comparatively, mass-produced and in some cases, lower quality foods can be sold to consumers at a more reasonable price. There is a tug-of-war between economizing on food costs and eating healthy and I will admit, the items I have chosen based on the 5-15 rule are some of the more expensive Costco options. One thing is clear: the power of the purse is in the hands of the consumer, so Costco thrives on how much and what we buy.