I know a lot of our readers have made resolutions to commit to sharing more experiences with their kids instead of buying them stuff, and that includes travel. While we all know the many benefits of travel, you might not have considered that simply eating your way through a foreign destination (or even just another state!) can be an educational experience all itself.
As a diplomatic family currently stationed in Germany, I am traveling with our teenagers to a lot of new countries. When we do, one of our first stops is always the neighborhood grocery to stock up for breakfast for our rental home or apartment.
Over the years, it’s become as much of a fun activity for us as a museum, giving us an opportunity to explore and understand local culture through food.
In fact, I agree with a recent New York Magazine article suggesting that the grocery store is the best tourist secret attraction.
Grocery store visits in other cities and countries can create great teaching moments for kids, especially teens and tweens, providing lessons in diet, economics, geography, biology, ecology, psychology, sociology, religion, and business
9 ways to turn your international food shopping experience into a learning experience
Check out these great ideas, plus a few mini culture lesson opportunities I’ve picked up.
After a few trips to the store, you’ll be able to identify all the things that are good, bad, and even confusing about these new supermarkets.
1. Compare the shelves to ours back home
While restaurants and cafés are of course an easy way to sample the local flavor, grocery stores give you the “real deal” with a behind-the-scenes look at what local fare really consists of.
Think Germans eat a ton of sausage, bread, and beer? Yep, those three food groups take up a sizeable portion of German grocery stores. Walk into any Japanese grocery store and that same real estate is dedicated to rice, soy sauce, and fish. In Scandinavia, salmon reigns as king of the meat counter. And in Korea, ramen is indeed a favorite, so finding an entire aisle devoted to various flavors and sizes is likely.
Many times, our stereotypical ideas of what a particular culture consumes is true; French grocery stores do smell of pungent cheese, while a supermarket in the Middle East is all about exotic (to us) spices.
When visiting a new country, walk through the grocery store and take note of what produce is plentiful, which meats dominate the counter (and how they are cut), which grains fill the shelves (bread, rice or noodles?), and which dairy products look most interesting or different from what we’re used to back home.
Even beyond the basics, you’ll likely find multiple shelves or bins filled solely with variations of products like chili paste (Korea), flavor packs (Germany), tomato sauce (Italy), licorice (Finland), sour cream (Hungary) or squid (China).
Mini Culture Lesson: Have your kids point out the products that catch their eye, and explain which ones dominate the shelves. Explore the reason that might be, like accessibility to farms or fishing. Then draw the connection to our own grocery stores in the U.S. What would other cultures be able to guess about us based on our own shelves?
2. Seek out the international version of your own family favorites
While looking around, we like to scope out our own favorite foods. Many countries carry similar products, which are often even branded similarly to our own, even if it has a different name. For example, you can almost always find Oreos in foreign supermarkets, but you may also find a “knock-off” version or a local favorite that’s similar but different.
You’ll note that many European stores carry smaller-sized packages of products than we’re used to, because families have smaller homes and use smaller refrigerators. Additionally, cities like Copenhagen or Amsterdam have so many shoppers who travel on foot or by bike, so getting home with an entire gallon of milk just isn’t practical.
Another fun lesson is to look for familiar snacks and sweets and note how they’re flavored with some of the local favorite spices – paprika, fish, wasabi, licorice, green tea, avocado, spicy sour cream and onion, prawns, and ham.
Who wants to try Mint Mischief Lays potato chips from India?
By far the most fun experiment for kids though is to browse the sweet and salty aisles – trust me they are there – and pick out a few snacks to try. Try both snacks that look tasty and similar to the ones we’re used to, and try a few which look tasty and a few which look a little more…challenging. Dried chicken feet from China, perhaps?
Mini Culture Lesson: Compare the names of familiar American products as an exercise in translations. It also opens a discussion about how different cultures may use (or avoid) certain words, and what that can tell us about them. For example, American Frosted Flakes, formerly “Sugar Frosted Flakes” is called Zucaritas in Mexico. Loosely, that translates to “Sugaritas.” From this, you might assume the use of “sugar” in a cereal name isn’t hurting sales south of the border.
3. Sample the variations of your favorite foods
We always purchase yogurt when away, and every country has its own version of “Greek-style” yogurt. It’s fun to try new versions of the same thing, and get a sense of how different cultures have different taste and flavor preferences. It’s also fun seeing how the packaging differs. In Niger, for example, you might spot hot dogs with a bun in a can, and in Slovenia, they sell a mix of ketchup and mayonnaise in a tube, which comes out striped like toothpaste.
We also enjoy visiting the “American food” section in various markets — my kids love seeing what is branded as American food in different countries, and how they identify it as such. You’ll even notice some stars and stripes packaging! You might also see products that aren’t American, but are branded that way.
Usually you’ll find products like peanut butter, hamburger buns, bagels, Hershey’s chocolate syrup, Pop Tarts, packaged cake mix, or cold cereal.
Mini Culture Lesson: Ask the kids what makes the American foods seem distinctly American, and why they might be considered “exotic” in other countries. Hamburgers may be seen as uniquely western, but why packaged cake mix? Why pancake syrup? Boxed mac n cheese? And why is a bottle of WishBone Caesar dressing nearly 13 Euros here?!
4. Compare ingredient labels to those you know
If language allows, compare ingredients in those products you know well. Products such as Nutella or Coca-Cola, which have similar labeling, will have different ingredients. (We all know about “Mexican Coke,” made with cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup. Not only are the ingredients different, but the taste — even of the “same” product — will be different.
You can also see that different countries have different regulations regarding labeling on food packages. The US Nutrition label may look similar to those in Europe, for example, which are standardized across the continent. However in Germany, they’re introducing a voluntary NutriScore labeling on every product which has been met with some controversy. You can see the B score above, on the Danone yogurt packaging.
Of course label comparisons are a little harder to do if you don’t know the language, but a translation app can help you out.
Mini Culture Lesson: See what’s different about labels in different countries, and ask the describe the reasons for the differences. Are some countries more concerned with calories than fat? Might some country be more or less highly regulated than others when it comes to food labels?
5. Look at prices for a lesson in supply and demand
Would you spend $19 for a watermelon or $5 for a single apple? In Japan, that’s what you’ll pay — likely because watermelons in Japan aren’t in demand as they are in the U.S.
The produce section offers one of the best opportunities to examine price differences for some of your family favorites, seeing as how locally grown and sourced items will be cheaper.
Consider starting with fruits you know well, like apples, oranges, bananas, pineapple, and tomatoes. Then see what produce is most abundant, and what it costs comparatively.
In Peru, papayas and limes may be bountiful and cost next to nothing while in Korea, ready-to-cook/eat raw fish and green tea are both plentiful and inexpensive. Even the difference between the prices of avocados or Napa wines in New York supermarkets are going to be a shock for those of you used to the prices in California.
And of course, the imported “American” products may be outrageously expensive compared with what you’re used to seeing.
Mini Culture Lesson: Find your family’s favorite types of food, whether chips, cereal, or candy. (Or okay, fruit too!) Look at the prices for an opportunity to teach a money conversion lesson, then compare with prices back home. You can do the same converting metric grams or liters to ounces. Also take a look at the size of the packaging as well — are their cereals, soft drinks, beers, cookie boxes smaller or larger than back home?
6. Use store hours as a lesson in cultural priorities.
Grocery store hours are a quick way to glean some cultural knowledge on which days and times of day are considered sacred, sometimes even for religious reason.
For example, in Germany, by law, grocery stores are closed on Sundays, and often close early the day before a holiday. Only those small markets affiliated with airports or train stations are allowed to remain open. That means families must plan ahead for the week’s grocery trip. The expectation is people should be spending time with their families and going to church on Sunday, not shopping.
While stores in Spain also close on Sunday, many supermarkets close for a mid-day “siesta time” around 1 or 2, and reopen at 4 or 5 pm. Contrast that to much of Asia, where stores are open all day, every day.
Supermarkets in many Middle Eastern countries will close Friday morning into the afternoon when prayers are over. Or, in Israel, shops may close Friday evening through Saturday night in observance of Sabbath hours.
Mini Culture Lesson: Look at the store hours upon entering and have a quick discussion on why the hours may be as they are. What does this tell you about the values of the culture? What can you infer from a culture that keeps its stores open all day and night, versus those that close at 6 pm?
7. Bananas in Plastic? Examine the produce packaging
In our eco-conscious society, I find a lesson in food packaging extremely worthy of discussion as we travel country to country.
Wander into an Italian grocery store and you’ll see produce is unwrapped, though customers are requested to wear disposable plastic gloves to handle produce. Despite having their own peels to protect the fruit, bananas in Korean grocery stores are still sealed in individual plastic wrap. In Germany, shrink-wrapped cucumbers and heads of broccoli still remain common.
This allows for a great conversation about sustainability, eco-conscious practices, and also, concern (or lack of concern) with germs.
8. Learn the grocery store etiquette, which differs from country to country
While the items are the shelves are the main attraction, watching how people maneuver through the store will give you a glimpse into the unspoken “rules,” which kids should learn and obeyed so you don’t get reprimanded.
- Shopping carts. Observe the options for carrying groceries. Are there carts, baskets, rolling baskets, baskets on carts? Do the carts require a token or coin? In the Netherlands, some stores have scanners specifically for the cart. Scan all your items and put them right in your bag. When you are ready to check out, hand the scanner to a cashier, pay and walk out the door.
- Picking produce, meat, and fish. When picking produce in Italy or Spain, customers are required to wear plastic gloves and weigh their own fruits and veggies. In Germany, most cashiers will do that for you, but in Austria, you better be ready to know the code.When waiting at the meat counter in Scandinavian countries, you may need a number to queue up to be served. In Germany, you just stand patiently and attentively to grab the butcher’s attention. In the Philippines you select and bag your own raw meat.
Sometimes your purchase may still be alive like in China where you can pick out your fish of choice while it’s still swimming.
- Recycling products. Many grocery stores, especially European markets, have return stations to compile shoppers to return glass bottles, cans, and plastic bottles for a small amount of money. Watch the bottles get sucked into the machine, push the green button, and voilà, a receipt is printed with your credit. Customers often wait a week to bring in their entire collection of recyclables so you might want to take care of yours at the end of a trip.
9. The check out line: Maybe the most educational part of all
Just because you hit the cashier doesn’t mean the adventure has come to an end. The check out process is the cultural experience as far as I’m concerned.
Every country has different customs in terms of how to queue, where to place the basket, how items are scanned, who scans them (you or the cashier), how groceries are bagged (or not), and how to pay. Also, note how the shops are packaging food up for customers at the register, and in which cities most shoppers come with their own bags.
The checkout line gives kids a wonderful chance to take note of the other people there, and see what they’re buying, and how much in one trip.
In some countries like South Africa where customers don’t buy all their food for the week at once, the checkout is not a conveyor belt at all; it’s a small square where you place your items. If you bring too many items, people may roll their eyes at you.
In Germany the checkout process can be stressful! Food is rapidly thrown into the bagging area where you are expected to pack it yourself, pay, and go. Quickly. Once you pay, that bagging area belongs to the next customer, so get going. Contrast this with Korea, where customers might find a packaging area filled with boxes. Take advantage, by packing up some yummy treats and sending back to friends or your own home in the US.
Wherever your next vacation takes you, add the grocery store to your list of places to visit at least once, possibly a few times, before going home. The most remarkable thing is how much it will change you you perceive your own grocery store once you get back home. You’ll notice all things which make “your store” a favorite — but also give you some new thinking about how things back home aren’t always the best, easiest, smartest, cheapest, or even the most delicious.
Top photo: nrd via Unsplash