When most of us travel, we bypass the most mundane aspects of life in another country – paying bills, registering kids for school, getting a new phone plan. And you should – because after all, you’re on vacation. Who wants to do those sorts of things?
But when you move to a new country, there’s no running from it. Some errands just need to get done. You might not speak more than two sentences of the local language (yet!), but you still need to fill your fridge.
Now that we’ve been here for a month, I’ve got some serious reps under my belt with grocery shopping in Germany – thanks in large part to my new friend Helen. She took me the local Kaufland on our first outing together and showed me how things are done. I highly recommend finding an awesome grocery guide if you can!
Here’s what I’ve learned so far, from practical matters like buying produce to bagging groceries. I tend to shop at my local Edeka right now because it’s the easiest to walk to, and I guess you could say it’s comparable to a Wegman’s or Whole Foods. More to come as I branch out and explore the Lidls and Aldis and Normas and Pennys of the German grocery landscape!
The Cart Situation…
Are you used to just pulling out a cart and going about your merry way? Not in Germany! Here, the carts are locked up and you’ve got to pay for the convenience. If you’ve been to an Aldi in the US, you’re probably familiar with the process – you drop a coin in the slot (it can be 50 cents, €1 or €2 – doesn’t matter) and then when you return the cart, your coin will be returned to you.
Turning in Pfand recycling…
Many glass and plastic bottles require you to pay a deposit, called Pfand. We like to kick off our shopping trips with a quick stop at the Leergut (which can be translated to “empties”). You put your bottles on the conveyor belt, and it scans the barcode to count up all your Pfand bounty. We’re still learning which containers have Pfand, but generally you can check the bar code for reference – look for the “Pfand” marking. “Ohne Pfand” means without Pfand, btw. And if you get it wrong, no big deal – the machine will just spit the bottle back at you!
When you’re done, you hit the button and a little receipt comes out. You can redeem it at the checkout.
Also, it’s not uncommon to buy a case of the drinks you like, whether beer, or juice, or water. We just got bottles of our favorite multivitamin fruit juice and banana nectar (mmm…so good!). It comes in a crate that you also pay a deposit for, and they actually reuse the bottles instead of just melting them all down.
Similar to grocery stores in the US, the produce aisle is where you’ll truly start your grocery journey. And what a journey it is – because the selection is vast, the fruits and veggies are undeniably fresh, and the prices are relatively low. But let’s be real – not only is this place is a feast for the eyes, I HAVE to keep coming back because my fridge is so small that frequent trips are a must!
Helen warned me that it’s a big no-no to show up to the checkout without having weighed and tagged your fruits and veggies. The process is pretty simple, but it varies from store to store. At Kaufland, you’re prompted to select your situation to calibrate the scale – is the item not bagged, placed inside a reusable fresh bag, or in a single-use plastic bag? You pick. Then, you navigate to the item itself and a sticky tag will shoot out of the dispenser on the right. It’s almost the same process at Edeka, except you need to note the 3-4 digit code assigned to the item and you type that in instead of searching for the item. German efficiency at it’s finest!
Do you like fresh-squeezed orange juice? Look no further. It’s so easy. All you need to do is choose your bottle size, then push down on the lever. The oranges go into the machine, get sliced in half, and squeezed in the blink of an eye. You’ll be amazed by how fast the process is!
Okay, now you’ve got your produce and it’s time for that other staple – bread! Listen, if you’re doing a low-carb diet when you arrive, you may not be for long because German bread is amazing. It’s not packed full of preservatives so you’ll have to eat it relatively quickly. And shouldn’t that be the way it is? Why eat bread that can sit unsullied on the counter for weeks when you can have the fresh stuff? The best part is that you can even cut it yourself with this clever machine that lets you select the thickness of your slices. Even a kid can do it!
Next up you’ll probably stumble across rows of cereal, tea, and coffee. It’s all pretty self-explanatory, aside from needing to translate German to English. Thank heavens for optical character recognition (OCR)! But most likely the biggest surprise will hit you when you get to the dairy section.
You may be taken aback to see eggs sitting out on the shelf. They don’t refrigerate these. Why? I found the answer on my handy-dandy go-to site, The German Way. But if you just want the short answer, it’s that eggs have a natural protective layer that prevents the nasties from getting into your eggs. We wash all this off in US though, so they have to be refrigerated after that. Either way, it’s a good idea to wash the eggs before you use them as you’ll sometimes find dirt, chicken poop, or feathers on them.
You’ll also see milk in cartons out on the shelves. It’s highly pasteurized and shelf-stable. I’m still figuring out the particulars of what to get, as they don’t have the same labels as in the US. I haven’t had a lot of luck finding half-and-half here, either. However, each carton has the percentage of milk-fat listed and I’m currently testing out 3.5% for regular milk and 15% for my coffee creamer. Rich and creamy, just the way I like it!
In between all of that, there are plenty of new and interesting foods to explore. Sometimes I just buy random things to try them. You never know when you’re going to find a new favorite!
- The Fitnessbrot is a loaf of chewy bread with about eight super thin slices. It’s amazing toasted with butter…
- The puddings here are also delightful. I don’t usually spring for the sweets but like I said…be adventurous!
- The Schwarzwaldhof bacon is smoked and the slices are super thick. You chop it up and fry it as a garnish (at least that’s what I’ve been told). It’s definitely not comparable to breakfast bacon in the US!
I don’t have photos for these ones, but here are some other foods that are high on my list:
- Muesli – packed full of dried fruit for a quick breakfast
- Sugar cubes – yes, still in love with these!
- Pretzel rolls – the boys will walk a mile just to get a couple to munch on during the day
I’m still working up to the cheeses and meats. One thing holding me back is that I don’t know how to describe the amount I want. However, I got some cheese at a smaller shop yesterday from a friendly woman who spoke a little English and she just pointed to the size before cutting it. And of course I was all like “ja, bitte” because that was the easiest thing to do!
German grocery shoppers don’t play around – take it from my German friend Tina. Get your stuff on the belt and put it back into your cart as fast as you can. Don’t even try to bag it if you’re not approaching a professional level of speed!
On that note, most Germans bring their own bags, or pay for them at the register. We’re used to that from our Hawaii days when plastic bags were banned, so no biggie. But people were moving on island time, and that won’t cut it here.
Being the curious family we are, we’ve been surreptitiously glancing at our German counterparts to learn their tricks. One new addition to our tool kit is a collapsible crate. It fits quite a few bags of groceries and the hard sides keep things organized. No more fussing to open bags, just pop the crate open, fill it til it’s full, and set it back down in the cart. Boom!
And while many places in Germany will only take cash or the EC card (kinda like a debit card), I have no trouble using a credit card (even my American Express!) at Edeka and Kaufland. That’s a small miracle. It’s been interesting going from a cash-free life to having to plan in advance to pay for things.
Well, that pretty much covers it. I’ll keep updating this as I learn more over time. 😉