Expats Move Home: Is Getting Groceries Easier in America?

Thrifty Travel Mama | Is Getting Groceries Easier in America?Grocery shopping – it’s either a mundane chore or an obsessive activity depending on who shares your shack. If you only cook for one or two, restocking the fridge may be an afterthought or even an annoyance. But for those with HUNGRY munchkins nipping at their heels, getting groceries is serious business.

While purchasing provisions in Germany vs. the US might not be as drastically different than, say, bartering for baloney in a rural Mongolian market, the discrepancies while abroad were enough to make me pine for the greener pastures of Publix, Kroger, and… Costco.

During my weekly German Aldi run, I longed for a bulk store like Costco or Sam’s. I was completely over the cashiers’ stares when I bought my standard ten liters of milk every Monday. Must I always insist that I am not feeding a herd of baby cows each week?

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Is Getting Groceries Easier in America?

Rookie German grocery mistake: don’t buy more than your teeny fridge can hold.

In Germany, buying in bulk is just not a thing. Are you a big-box or warehouse shopper? Do you buy your milk by the liter or by the metric ton? I would’ve preferred the latter, but really, all I wanted was to shop at one store.

ONE.

Super Size It

America has done such a bang-up job of exporting BIG abroad – BIG brands like Oreo and BIG companies like Coke (to say nothing of BIG hair and BIG bodies plastered on the BIG silver screen). Unfortunately, my homeland failed me in neglecting to force the rest of the world to jump on the jumbo food packaging train.

Did I count down the days until we could join an American warehouse club store? You betcha.Thrifty Travel Mama - Strawberry Madness! Ideas and Recipes

Shop Around

Beyond the super-sized milk jugs and bloated boxes of cereal, the second major annoyance focused on the necessity of patronizing a minimum of two grocery stores every week to purchase ingredients I needed or wanted. More often than not, I visited three OR MORE… e v e r y    w e e k.

Give a little shout out if you that routine sounds major awesome!! No one? Really..?

One store. That doesn’t seem to much to ask, does it?

You might say, but hey, don’t you often sign the praises of Aldi? Yes, you’ve caught me. I do love Aldi, so much so that I pitted German Aldi vs American Aldi in a supermarket smackdown which you can read here.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Is Getting Groceries Easier in America?

Weekly Aldi grocery run.

Unfortunately, as a discount store that aims to keep prices low, Aldi does not and cannot carry everything. Another German grocer, Rewe, is as expensive as it is amazing. Most Rewe stores are sparkling clean with two or three times as many products as Aldi or Lidl. But, that variety comes at a premium. Prices at Rewe were too high to shop there exclusively.

Despite their advantage over Aldi in terms of options, even Rewe doesn’t carry cilantro for my homemade salsa or black beans for this cheesy Warm Chipotle Dip. Want to know why?

I’ll let you in on a little secret… many Germans do not like dishes that feature a lot of spices (the exception being, of course, currywurst). Plain Jane is the name of the German flavor game. Grocers in Deutschland don’t carry a plethora of ethnic products because the majority of German customers won’t buy them.

So, what if you want to buck the well-established German flavor system and cook delicious dishes like curries and stir fry? Where are you going to find the essential ingredients?Thrifty Travel Mama | Global Eatery - Sri Lanka

The best place for global cuisine staples is an Asian or Middle Eastern specialty shop. Since I just can’t live indefinitely without my red lentils or soba noodles, I added yet another stop to my grocery groove – the Turkish market.

Exhausting and irritating yet unavoidable for the flavor seeker – patronizing multiple stores was my weekly routine. And every time I did the dance, I dreamed of being about to shop at one store per week.

Just ONE.

Coming to America

By now, you’re thinking that the neighborhood Walmart sounds like a fabulous place to shop in comparison – yeah, you and me both. Well, okay, maybe not Walmart. That place sends me into an absolute panic.

As you can imagine, one of the things I looked forward to the most when moving back to the States was one-stop grocery shopping. One store – done.

Bahahahahaha. Boy, was I wrong.

In Arizona, we became Costco members, and I gleefully loaded my colossal shopping cart with industrial-sized laundry detergent, a city block of toilet paper, and enough ketchup to last me until the apocalypse. Those first few weeks of buyers bliss were seriously something awesome.Thrifty Travel Mama | Reverse Culture Shock: First Thoughts on Reentry

But, I soon realized something.

Costco really is fabulous, but it doesn’t carry all the produce we usually eat. Kroger has low prices, but they don’t have all the natural and organic foods I buy. Sprouts is a decent health food store, but even they don’t carry all the ethnic food ingredients needed for more exotic dishes.

Oh my… here we go again.

I still find myself frequenting at least two stores every week here in America, often three if I add Trader Joe’s in the mix.

The main difference is I zip around in my car instead of my bike, burning gas instead of calories, while stressing out about traffic instead of whether the heavens will open up and drench both me and my bike trailer full of groceries. Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Is Getting Groceries Easier in America?

Win, Lose, or Draw?

If neither Germany nor America can give me that one and done experience – will ANYONE win?

On the plus side for America, it really is nice to save money in the land of grocery competition where stores often sell items at a loss just to get you in the door. I am once again using coupons (though nowhere NEAR the level I did once upon a time) and shopping the sales.

But, other than that aspect – significant as it may be, I can’t say that the American market experience is much better in terms of value added. America just stocks more products, offers more choice, and advertises more options… all of which isn’t necessarily a good thing, especially for an expat in reverse culture shock recovery.Thrifty Travel Mama | Global Eatery - Sri Lanka

I do like that I can get any ingredient I need at nearly any time of day or night. And, yeah, the free samples at Costco and free cookies at Publix are a godsend when shopping with little boys. It’s also a big bonus to have my groceries bagged for me instead of having my meat and potatoes flung at me by an overzealous Aldi clerk because I’m not sacking them fast enough for her…

I don’t like that every time I go to the grocery store here, I am loaded up with a zillion and one plastic grocery bags. Where is the petition to ban these convenient nuisances from stores? Please, put my name at the tippy top.

Environmental concerns aside, those piles of plastic are a mushrooming monster, multiplying at an alarming rate and silently conquering every available nook and cranny in my house. At least German stores charge for plastic bags which passes the cost to the customer and makes one rethink how many bags are actually necessary.

Even if I can’t shop at one store, maybe I could make it out of each one with only ONE reusable bag instead of ONE thing in each plastic sea-creature-suffocating bag… A Sip of Summer - Refreshing Blueberry Lemonade and Green Tea

Wrapping Up

Contrary to my domestic daydreams, the grocery shopping grind in the US isn’t all I had hoped it would be. Despite living in the land of infinite possibility and choice, grabbing groceries every week at ONE store is simply not possible unless you possess (a) loads of cash that allow you to always pay full price or (b) a personal shopper who goes to all the various stores for you.

My one-and-done goal turns out to be downright unattainable under current circumstances. But, who knows? Maybe ONE day, that dream will come true.

What do you like and loathe about your weekly grocery trip? If you have grocery delivery, I would love to know your experience and if you think it simplifies things for your family.Signature Thrifty Travel MamaLead photo credit

 

Walmart is Terrifying! – Notes on Reverse Culture Shock

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: A Series of Posts our Family's Repatriation ExperienceHere’s another post written during the first few weeks of our return to the US in the fall of 2014.

One of the things that scares me the most about returning to America after four years in Germany is the dreadful reverse culture shock. It’s nasty, sometimes hard to identify, and manifests itself differently in each person.

The last time I went through reverse culture shock, it wasn’t so bad. I was in my early twenties and had spent the better part of a year in Russia. I was single, and I only experienced a few weeks of floundering before I had to buck up and finish my last semester of university. I’m sure it was worse than I remember, but I moved on quickly.

This time around I have four other people to think about besides myself and none of them has the slightest idea of what lies ahead.

So far, Charlie hasn’t noticed a thing except that there is an abundance of snacks here ranging from slightly salty to serious sugar high. He hasn’t met one he didn’t like. Obviously, he’ll be fine.

Bravo is distracted by all the big-kid Lego he now owns. We had been saving the transition from Duplo to Lego to hype as a major perk of moving to America. Now that we’ve made the switch, he likely thinks we’re on a continuous Lego shopping trip which is a win in his book. He’ll also be fine.

Alpha is not happy with all the homeschooling we are doing (to catch up on taking a few months off to pack and move). He thinks it strange when I refer to everyday items and places using German names (Spielplatz instead of “playground”). German is NOT cool in his book. But other than that, he appears to be fine.

Perhaps things with these three boys will get worse when we actually settle somewhere and they have to integrate into school, church, sports, clubs, neighborhood friends, etc.

Update, September 2015: No ill effects other than disdain for speaking German in the US. Apparently, Germany never happened in their minds except when random memories pop up. They don’t express any emotions at these memories; only facts are stated.

As for Doc Sci and I… oh sure, we smile and share a box of Cheez-Its, but inside? We are freaking out.

I strive to play the good American. I hop in my car, drive the one mile to Walmart, and do my best to “pick up a few things.”

At the superstore, I go inside for milk, cookies (because, you know, the Oreo aisle), and a piece of poster board.

Several hours later, I emerge.. My bags are laden with three kinds of cookies, two peanut butter candy bars, hummus, pita chips, four boxes of cereal, one piece of poster board, and the latest anti-aging moisturizer because this move is giving me wrinkles… but, no milk.

Crappity crap. Cookies without milk.

I’m too terrified to go back in that freaky big box again, so I just leave and go home minus milk for the cookie smorgasbord.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Walmart is Terrifying! And Other Notes on Reverse Culture Shock

Walmart.. once you go in, you may never get out. Photo

I found this article browsing through an old issue of Cooking Light that just happens to be a perfect picture of the American grocery store experience.

Spend two hours in a big supermarket, not shopping, just studying the food and customers, trying to take every bit of it in, trying to receive fresh clues about an everyday activity.

 

Ninety minutes in, you may find yourself having an out-of-body experience, as if wandering the aisles with Timothy Leary’s ghost. Such is the hallucinatory effect when you open your mind to all the brands, claims, data, memes, and pop culture icons that crowd shelves and packages, hooting and hollering for attention.

 

There are as many as 40,000 products in a supermarket, just one of which, if you stop to study it, is a cereal that offers nine health-related bits of information on the front of the box and 134 bits of information about nutrition and ingredients overall.

 

Now that you’re in the cereal aisle, walk its length. There are 28 paces of product, five shelves high: a staggering number of variations on the single theme of something crunchy to pour milk over.

 

Of 137 cereal products, about 93 look to be sugary. But there are also sugar-free cereals, low-added-sugar products, “natural” products, and products containing urgent amounts of fiber… (full text here)

If I could sum up our current state in one word, it would be overload.

For someone who is used to shopping at a grocery store that is approximately the size of two, three-bedroom American homes put together, the sheer size of Walmart is the first hurdle.

The second is the vast amount of choice. My German neighborhood Aldi stocked four kinds of chips. FOUR. How do you pick between the 6,902 varieties here? Either you are required to take the time to read every.single.label to check for hidden chemicals and unwanted ingredients or you are forced to not care.

And speaking of reading labels, I had forgotten how long ingredient lists are in the US. Friday night dinners in our house are usually fun, lazy cooking kid-friendly affairs.

In Germany, I would often pick up frozen chicken strips and oven-bake fries to serve with a quick salad. The chicken strips were composed of chicken (as in actual pieces, not that weird pink puree), flour, spices, salt, and maybe some broth. Less than 8 ingredients and nothing I couldn’t pronounce, even auf Deutsch.

And those fries? Potatoes, sunflower oil, salt. Nothing hydrogenated or hydrolyzed.

Short, straightforward ingredient lists are scarce in a vast majority of American food products. Here’s another snippet from the Cooking Light article I quoted above…

Keep walking and watching—all aisles… Sugar, fat, and salt, the three sirens of the American diet, still seem front-loaded in so many products.

 

A “light” 3-ounce snack pack intended for one child contains 77 ingredients, 17 grams of fat, 7 grams of saturated fat, 1 gram of trans fat, and 620 milligrams of sodium.

 

Mark Bittman, crusading New York Times columnist and cookbook author, would say that a lot of this food is not even “real,” inasmuch as he finds it not “recognizable by appearance or flavor as what it was when it started.”

 

Little cans of propellent-powered cheese spread insist that they are, however, “made of real cheese!” (full text here)

Thankfully, it’s not all bad news. I’ve been encouraged to see so many American brands rolling out product lines with a “simple” theme featuring fewer ingredients and no artificial chemicals. It’s just so dang difficult to find them in the sea of 40,000 products all vying for your attention and money.

So, while my kids are loving the free-flowing Goldfish crackers and I’m enjoying a cold glass of dark chocolate almond milk, I have to admit I’m straddling the line… the line that separates the “food is better for you Germany” from “but choice is what makes America awesome.”

I miss my little Aldi with it’s limited choice. Though, if I dig down deep, I have to admit I don’t miss it enough to say it was better or that I wish I could go back to shopping there every week.

Yes, there’s still a teeny part of me – my residual “Americanness” – that enjoys a smattering of choice and the convenience of being able to get almost any product at nearly any time, day or night. But this unmitigated freedom and overabundance of choice leaves me exhausted.

What I really crave is the simplicity that comes out of choosing from only a few products that are truly made well.

I know it’s only a matter of time before I fully jump the fence on to the American side – joining Costco and buying my toilet paper in 100-roll packs. But, for now, we’re stuck in the overwhelmed stage of culture shock… eating our way out one Cheez-It at a time.

Since writing this post, I have (ahem) joined Costco. The plethora of choice still paralyzes me at times, such as when I visit a new restaurant that offers too many options on the menu. I still find myself lost at Walmart and end up leaving with things I don’t need and without the things I do.

So, what do you think about the abundance of choice in the US? Love it? Hate it? Do you get overwhelmed with too many options or frustrated with too few?Signature Thrifty Travel Mama