9 Tips For Grocery Shopping In A Foreign Country

International grocery shopping

One of the most common pieces of advice about travelling is to live like a local. There is no better way to do that than by grocery shopping in local markets and stores. But living like a local comes with a price because grocery shopping in a foreign country can be quite overwhelming. 

I learned this first hand when my family and I spent a summer abroad travelling through Europe. That’s right, my husband and I took our four kids (6 years and younger) to live in Europe for 8 weeks...and we survived!

It's So Much the Same and Yet So Different

While we put on over 8,000 km I also had the chance to shop in grocery stores in six different countries and four languages. Here are the 9 tips I learned about how to grocery shop in Europe. 

Don't Be Afraid to Go to More Than One Store

While Europe is starting to get on the big supermarket bandwagon that doesn’t mean it is the best way to experience shopping like a local.

French Bakery Boulanger

I found this to be particularly true in France. Where the locals go to the boulanger for bread, fromagerie for cheese, and the boucher for meat. If you have a chance to speak with the locals they’ll be sure to tell you who makes the best baguette and who to avoid.

When in Rome...er France.

Pay Attention to the Store Hours

Unlike the US, most European stores aren’t open extended hours, let alone 7 days a week. I can’t tell you how many times we had to do a last minute grocery run on Saturday afternoon so we’d have enough to get through Sunday. 

Translate your List Before You Go to the Store

If I had to choose one tip to share with you this would be it. Download the Google Translate app and translate your list before heading to the store. The biggest hurdle for most shoppers is that everything is in a different language.

In addition to translating your list beforehand you can also use it to translate on the go while doing your shopping but the more you have translated before you go the easier your trip will be.

Nothing is Where it "Should" Be

Finding your staple items is not as simple as it would seem. In Europe, eggs and milk are generally kept in non-refrigerated sections of the store. Then once you find them you have to wrap your head around the idea of non-refrigerated milk and eggs.

In reality, the eggs are pretty straightforward, except you won't find the convenient 36 pack you might be used to picking up at your local store (if you happen to have an equally happy family as mine).

The really tricky one is milk, the first time I went to the grocery store I literally stared at the milk options for 10 minutes before deciding what to get. Not only does it come in small cardboard cartons but they don't label it in percentages like we are used to.

During my 10 minute standoff with the milk options I witnessed one shopper grab an entire plastic wrapped 6 pack of milk and then another shopper tear open the plastic wrap and grab just one carton. Needless to say, I was baffled. 

uht milk lait de france

Try At Least One New Food Per Trip

Now, I'm not saying that you should fill your cart with crazy off the wall food you have never seen before. But half the reason for going grocery shopping in another country is trying to foods you've never seen before. 

nutella display

Even when I'm shopping in my regular grocery store I always try to find at least one new food to try. This is even more fun when you are travelling (can you say Kinder Eggs?). The grocery stores in Europe are filled with all sorts of fun treats and variations of food we have here and it would be a shame not to try some. 

This is especially true for trying the foods a particular country or region is known for. How could you not try chocolate from Belgium or wine from France or cheese from the Netherlands? 

Keep A Euro Coin Handy In Case You Want to Use a Shopping Cart

You might have seen this at Aldi in the US but if you haven’t seen it before don’t worry. Just insert your coin to release the lock and then get your coin back when you return your cart to the corral. Stores do this so that they don't need to dedicate employees to the task of returning abandoned carts. It makes me wonder if that was more common here if there would be so many rogue shopping carts.

aldi sud shopping cart

Bring Your Own Bags

As with most eco-conscious movements, Europe is ahead of the US by charging a fee to use plastic bags, in fact, I’m not sure I even saw a single plastic bag during our entire trip.

They do have a lot of great options for reusable grocery bags that you can buy at the checkout during your first shopping trip. The bags usually fold up nice and small so you can just keep them in your purse for the next trip to the store.

As long as you don't forget them back at your hotel you won't need to buy new ones every time. I learned this one the hard way.

Weigh Your Produce Before Heading to the Checkout

Okay, this isn’t a universal tip, every store does it differently. Make sure to see what the other shoppers are doing and if you see them stopping at the scale, chances are you need to have your fruit and veggies weighed ahead of time.

I may have also learned this the hard way (more than once) and had to leave the checkout to run back and weigh my fruit causing extreme embarrassment for me and annoyed looks from the shoppers behind me. There are some produce options that come prepackaged and don’t need to be weighed. 

produce scale

Know Your Credit Card Pin Number (and Limits and Exchange Fees)

Europe is also ahead of the US in requirements for credit card security measures. You will need to make sure your credit card has a chip and not just the stripe on the back as all cards in Europe are required to have the chip.

You also need to know the pin number for your credit card, I bet you didn’t even know you had one let alone what it is.

On that note, it is also important to call your credit card company and make sure they know you are travelling abroad so they don’t flag your card for suspicious activity (thank you banker husband).

It would also be a good idea to have more than one credit card option (Visa, Mastercard, Amex) so that if one type of card isn’t accepted you have a backup. And if you can try to choose cards with the lowest foreign transaction fees because this can really add up.

Now Go Shop Like a Local

It goes without saying (although I will anyway) that all countries are different and even regions within a country will have varying norms. That is the beauty of travel, getting to see all different cultures and you really do get to see a secret inside slice of life by visiting the local grocery stores and markets.

As overwhelming as it could be I really loved being able to see what the locals were buying and how they shopped. And as an extra bonus I found some awesome little treats along the way.