Grocery Shopping in Europe: A Strategy Guide

Grocery Shopping in Europe

A cheap breakfast consisting of bananas, yogurt, orange juices and pastries.
We got all this for about $4 . There’s even 2 authentic Danishes in that bag! In the States this would have been somewhere between $6-8 at a convenience store like the one we got this breakfast from.

When we were planning our move we knew that eating healthily and grocery shopping in Europe would be easier and cheaper than in America. This was a huge factor in our decision, but we didn’t quite realize how cheap it actually is.

Seriously in Eastern Europe, a 1.5-liter bottle of water is around .35 USD! That was just crazy for us coming from America where a bottle that size would be at least $1.50. Cheap healthy natural food is the best thing about grocery shopping in Europe, hands down.
 
As far as the rest of the shopping experience that’s another story. We didn’t think about how different shopping in other countries would be. I mean it’s a just a grocery store, right? Make sure you are translating labels and you should be good to go. Easy peasy. Ha! Nope.
 
While there are definitely universal similarities, each country has its own little quirks and a unique grocery and market culture. For us going to the store was a complete culture shock. It was nothing like home and we had no idea what the hell we were doing. This was one guide we did not bother looking up before we left home. So to help others prepare better than us, we put one together full of tips and tricks we learned along the way. 
 

What to know: Grocery Shopping in Europe

USD dollars

  • If you’re from the U.S. and are exchanging money you will usually make out. The U.S. dollar is still one of the most valuable forms of currency in the world and in most places the exchange rate will be in your favor. This makes buying food even cheaper while visiting another country than if you lived there. 

Understand the prices

  • You may have to take some time figuring out how much you’re spending while shopping. Different countries have different units of currency and you can spend more than you intended if you are not paying attention. We suggest using your phone and/or Google. In Hungary, the units of currency are very high so you may spend 10,000 HUF on a trip to the store which would be about 40 USD. When you’re dealing with larger increments it can get confusing very easily. Also, the price listed will include the tax amount if there is any. So at least you won’t have to figure out the tax rate on top of doing the conversions. 

Translate packaging 

  • Okay, this is kinda obvious. Most products in foreign stores will be in foreign languages. Duh. Make sure you know what you’re buying. Ask someone, use Google, use Google translate, or something of the like. Don’t just assume because it looks like something from home that it’s the same thing. Once while we were in Krakow we bought Polish sour milk instead of regular milk. Our Coco Puffs were not happy. Apparently, sour milk is a kind of comfort food in Poland. We were told that it’s equivalent to how we view hot chocolate in America. We did not find comfort in it at all…

Stores are smaller 

Photo via: europeanfinefood.com
  • One thing that jumped out at us immediately about European stores, is how cramped they are. The aisles are narrow and the stores are hard to navigate when they are busy. Duck and weave is our suggestion and keep moving. This is common in many European countries since there is less space for new construction or buildings are historical and protected. Chain supermarkets may resemble the ones you are used to in America.

Duck and cover! 

  • Grocery shopping in Europe can be serious business! There is a get in and get out, get shit done, attitude for sure.  Which we found odd considering everything else Europeans seemed to do was the complete opposite. Americans are supposed to have the fast-paced chicken with its head cut off lifestyle, not Europeans. Did we miss something? 
  • There is a strict well-laid plan set up in advance and they stick to it. Don’t mind that 80-year-old woman that almost runs you over without saying excuse me or sorry. She doesn’t mean any harm and she’s not trying to be rude…most of the time…she is just really, really into her shopping. And, let’s be honest you’re  probably in her way anyhow while you’re trying to figure out if you’re buying cheese or butter. Stick to the sides and watch your toes!

Seasonal only products are common  

 

  • Produce, and I’m sure other things as well, are very much seasonal in Europe. If it’s not the season for strawberries you won’t find them easily and most likely the ones you will find won’t be organic or locally grown. Larger chain supermarkets tend to carry items year around like in the States. 

Eggs and milk are not always refrigerated 

  • The EU has very different laws when it comes to producing and handling eggs and dairy. It is very common to find eggs and milk not being refrigerated in many countries outside of the U.S.  Short reason being is that here we vaccinate, pump our animals full of hormones and other chemicals as well. This weakens any natural antibodies of the dairy, the eggs and even what is in the meats. For the eggs we also wash them, removing any of the remaining natural defenses and thus forcing us to refrigerate them. There are other factors involved as well, but that is a long subject on its own that I will not get into it right now. 
  • Interesting tidbit…Amanda in the past few years developed an allergy to eggs and can not eat any without feeling horrible. While we were in Budapest, we found out that she can actually eat European eggs and only has a problem if she eats too many. I can only assume it comes down to what chemicals are being used on the eggs or given to the chickens here in the States. Since our trip, she now buys organic ones when we are home and can usually eat them if they are truly an organic product. 

There’s no ranch dressing…

Amanda presenting a box of Danish pizza burgers.
You may not be able to find some of your American stables but at least you can find random things like this. It’s sorta kinda like something you find in the States…
  • You’ll find some of the same products as in America but not all. The reason is like I said, they have strict laws. A lot of additives and preservatives found in U.S. products are simply not allowed in Europe. So either the brand has to change it’s ingredients or just not sell them in that market.  Also, some items are just not popular in other countries like they are here. Like freaking ranch dressing for instance. If you are really craving something from home you might be able to find it at a specialty grocer that caters to Expats, they are however usually limited to bigger cities. 

Know where and when to shop

The Great Market Hall, Budapest: The sheer amount of edible goodies here is just mind-boggling. If you have never been to a food market look one up right now and go! You will not regret it.
  • Some stores are not going to have everything you need and you might have to go to multiples. One might have organic veggies, but not a good choice of meat. Another might have great cheese and meat but they only sell non-organic produce. That kinda thing. If you need another store don’t worry they are usually located very close to each other in most European cities. If you’re looking for a store closer to the supermarkets you might be familiar with in America then check out Spar, Aldi, and Irma. 
  • Businesses are not open all the time like here in the States. Most hours are from 7 or 8 am – 7 or 8 pm. Very few stores are open on Sundays, and fewer still are open 24/7.  Gas stations and small convenience stores are an exception to this but not always. A pharmacy is not even open on Sunday! 
  • Speaking of pharmacies, you can’t buy medicine in grocery stores in Europe. Not even ibuprofen. You will need to find a pharmacy and they are always marked with a green cross. 
  • You can’t buy tobacco in most grocery stores either. A lot of times you will have to find the tobacco shop. If you want alcohol you have to get that from a counter at the front of the store. Most stores only have wine out in the open. 
  • As an alternative to grocery stores, farmer markets or food markets are very common in Europe. Not only are they an amazing place to get the best quality locally grown and butchered foods, going to a European market is an experience everyone should have. 

The final boss…

OMG! The checkout line.

  • Checkout is crazy. Cashiers are there to ring you up, take your money and get you out of line as fast as possible. These cashiers are crazy fast, they seriously need to come train some of their American counterparts. They’re not so much on pleasantries, but when you’re flinging food down the conveyor belt at 50 mph and your customer is only in line for 30 seconds, no matter how many groceries they have, you don’t need them.
  • Again, checkout is nuts. You don’t just get a bag with your groceries wherever you go. You’re not entitled to such things in Europe. They care about their environment. You have to pay cold hard cash if you want to use paper or plastic in Europe. When you get to check out you need to know how many bags you need and tell the cashier who will be hoarding the stockpile behind the counter. It’s kind of like Aldi here in the States. Don’t forget to buy the bags either or the next person in line will trample you before you get a chance to ask for one.
  • Checkout can mean life and limb!  Don’t hold the line up unless you want THE look from everyone around you and want to risk getting run over by the person behind you. They even have split conveyor belts in some stores just to make sure you are not holding up the people around you.
  • I can’t stress checkout enough! Make sure you have your money ready. If you have to do conversions or figure out what money is what, it’s best to have a head start. Again, THE look is vicious. 
  • OMG, you’re almost done with checkout! You’re almost to safety! Like Aldi in the States, most stores have a separate area for you to bag your groceries. Don’t make the mistake of starting to bag at checkout, again THAT look…

Congratulations you survived shopping in another country! We’ll continue adding to this guide and write new ones as we learn more about foreign grocery stores on our travels. Until then we hope this helps you with adjusting to grocery stores and markets in Europe. 

For some reason I find grocery stores in other countries extremely fascinating, they’re really a great way to get a deeper insight into the country that you’re visiting. Everything about the food of a place tells so much about its history, the people who live there and the culture. From the farm to the store, to the table, you can learn so much. I apparently have a lot to say about the subject, because this one post kinda turned in to so much more so… be on the lookout for more about the European market and grocery store scene in the future!  

 
Two Traveling Texans
 

10 thoughts on “Grocery Shopping in Europe: A Strategy Guide

  1. This is great! You’re right about seasonal produce, I notice that whenever I’m in Europe.
    I’m kind of experiencing this the opposite way to you. When I arrived in the US, I’d wander around the grocery store so lost and confused. First of all, trying to do the conversion of kg and grams to pounds and ounces was a total nightmare! But even the way that the store is laid out is completely different to home. It’s one of those things that takes a lot of getting used to! #TheWeeklyPostcard

    1. Whenever we’re shopping in Europe we always talk about what it must be like for European in our stores. I really think it is a cultural familiarity kind of thing. People are just used to what they’re used to and anything different is going to be strange. We thought the layouts we’re similar just in different orders when you’re going through the stores. We have a lot of junk food and pop near the front and you have produce and other choices with actual nutritional value. Though the meat set up was always strange for us.

  2. I can definitely relate to a lot of things that you talked about I am still getting used to the shopping here in England. They do refrigerate the milk but not the eggs. I think overall the quality of food here is much better than the USA, which surprised me initially, in addition to being cheaper. My pet peeve at grocery stores is when you have to put a coin in to get the shopping cart. Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard

    1. Haha, I was going to include the shopping cart thing and left it out. lol We are actually very familiar with it. Aldi’s is very common in our area of Ohio and we shop there all the time, so we’re used to this. Yes, I agree the quality is far better. We knew this going in but what really surprised us was the quality difference of places like McDonald’s, Burger King, and KFC. We were not expecting the fast food to be better quality as well. At least in most countries.

  3. Cool post! I’ve never really thought about this before. I can totally understand that it can be tough to shop in Europe. Grocery transactions in North America usually start with “How are you doing?” and/or “Did you find everything you needed today?” and progress through a variety of small talk until finally asking if you need help taking your groceries out to your car ( I loved that part!). This is not the case when grocery shopping in Europe. Unfortunately, good customer service is not really a thing that happens often here.
    #TheWeeklyPostcard

    1. Ya know, that’s soooo true. We have another post coming about that soon actually. I’m split on the subject. On one hand yes customer service does kind of suck in Europe. But, I’ve worked in customer service and management for 15 years and I find it rather refreshing to just be left alone and let me do my own thing. The only time it really bothers me is when we try to say hello, good-bye and thank you, even if we speak the language or hear someone speak English, we still get the look when we just try to be courteous. And, people not saying excuse me…that’s really weird to us.

  4. I remember being so intimidated by it when I was studying abroad. I would roam the aisles with a dictionary to try and find the hard to find spices and things I needed to bake, lol. I’ve gotten to where I love grocery shopping in Europe because of the local treats you can find though. We typically will grab things for breakfast/snacks/lunch from the grocery store and just go out for dinners… much more economical, much more enjoyable! #TheWeeklyPostcard

    1. We grew to the love them too. When we got back to the States it was so weird getting used to ours again. I find myself pointing out what is cheaper in Europe, what we’re missing, and cursing our grocery store bakers for not knowing how to bake real bread.

  5. Took me a while of living in Germany to understand why Europeans don’t refrigerate their milk and eggs, but we (me and my German husband) have always refrigerated our eggs and milk upon purchase and opening the milk. That’s pretty standard. Thanks for sharing with #TheWeeklyPostcard!

    1. Our first experience with unrefrigerated milk was in Hamburg actual. It was being served with cereal at our hostel, I tried to eat the cereal but I’ll admit I couldn’t stomach the warm milk and cereal combo… It’s not that it really tasted any different, it just felt so unnatural! lol Though later we learned most hostels keep some in the fridge for travelers. We are totally team cold milk!

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