By Courtney Woodruff
My pulse raced and my palms began to sweat as I made my way to the entrance of the tiny village market for the first time. I took a deep breath, eyeing the other patrons as they chose their carts and disappeared one after the other behind the automatic sliding glass doors. It all looked so familiar and yet. . . so completely intimidating.
“You can do this,” I giggled nervously, giving myself a last-minute pep talk.
Grocery shopping can be overwhelming enough in a store you know like the back of your hand. Add a new language, unfamiliar labels, and foreign food products to the mix, and the task becomes even more daunting. Feeling anxious about shopping on the economy in Germany? Here’s what you need to know to make the most of the unique experience.
1. BYOB (Bring Your Own Bags)
There is nothing quite like the walk of shame that follows paying for a cartful of groceries at the check out counter. . . only to realize you left the mountainous pile of reusable sacks you’ve been collecting at home. Remember to bring your own shopping bags to save yourself the embarrassment of having to toss items back into the cart a handful at a time — while the line of waiting shoppers shoots a collective death-glare your way.
2. Keep a stash of coins handy
If your list is long enough to require a shopping cart, make sure you have a 50-cent piece or 1-euro coin on standby (quarters seem to work just fine, too). Buggies are chained together in the designated return area to encourage patron responsibility. Insert a coin into the slot to release the lock; you’ll get your deposit back when you return the cart to its rightful place.
3. Withdraw cash
The rumor is true: Many stores in Germany (especially smaller establishments) do not accept credit or debit cards. If you’re not sure whether or not a certain place takes plastic, stop by an ATM on your way there. As the saying goes, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
4. Avoid purchasing items in bulk
Many perishable German food products are not processed the same way they are in the US, and most items contain fewer (if any) preservatives. In turn, packages are usually smaller due to goods having a shorter shelf life. Do as the locals do–purchase only the items you’ll need for the next few meals to keep from wasting your money on items that will likely spoil by the end of the week.
5. If you can’t find an item in the refrigerated section, look on the shelf
I’m not kidding when I tell you it took me six months to realize German grocery stores do in fact carry coffee creamer, just not where I’m used to looking for it: In the refrigerated section. Instead, it’s stocked on the shelf, right next to the eggs, milk, whipped cream, and margarine.
6. Save your plastic bottles and beverage crates
It pays to recycle your drink containers in Europe. Return them in bulk to the automated recycling or reverse vending machine (it looks a little bit like an ATM), and you’ll receive a small deposit back.
7. Do your weekend shopping on Saturday
A vast majority of German grocery stores–even hypermarkets like Globus and Real that rival American counterparts–are closed for business on Sundays. Get into the habit of restocking your pantry for the week on Saturday–or you’ll have to wait until Monday morning.
8. Weigh your produce
When shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables, observe the other patrons to see whether or not you need to print stickers indicating the weight of your items to present to the cashier. I’ve made the mistake of assuming there was a scale at the register more than a couple of times, and I have had to face the option of going back to weigh my produce. . . or leaving these goods behind.
9. Give yourself time to adapt
It’s unrealistic to expect to become a pro at navigating the local grocery store overnight. Give yourself plenty of time to get to know and adapt to your surroundings. Avoid shopping at the last minute so you have time to explore, translate food labels, and compare items. Keep your list short and sweet until you feel comfortable in local stores (it won’t take long, I promise).
10. Try something new
Shopping on the economy is a fantastic way to immerse yourself in German culture and experience the flavors of regional cuisine in your own kitchen. Challenge yourself to choose a new product to try each time your shop on the economy. A few of our family favorites include fresh Spätzle (a German noodle that can be found in the refrigerated section), Rotkohl (red cabbage), and potato croquettes.
11. Lean on your sense of humor
If–or, more realistically, when–you find yourself in one of the many embarrassing situations that commonly befall military families at German grocery stores, you have two options: You can either let it bring you down and discourage you from taking advantage of the opportunity to experience Europe like or local, or you can laugh it off, learn from it, and move on. I prefer the latter.
Now that we’ve been in Germany for a little over two years, it’s been a while since a wave of anxiety has stopped me it my tracks at the local grocery store, but I can remember the first trip like it was just yesterday.
Bonus tip? Next time you push yourself to step out of your comfort zone at the local market, treat yourself to a Kinder Egg or a bag of sour gummy bears (my favorite) to celebrate a successful overseas grocery shopping excursion. You’ve earned it.