Living Like a Local: Groceries

Some American expats are like cultural chameleons, seeming to absorb the languages and cultures around them. Others embrace a more “America the Beautiful” life-style, seemingly becoming more patriotic and more “American” overseas than they were back home.

Wherever we fall on the life-style enculturation issue, it is almost always advantageous to “go native” with our local spending. This series will focus on saving money by Living Like a Local. So let’s talk about…

Eating from the local bounty

Every culture has its own most-commonly eaten foods. While you may enjoy the occasional expensive delicacy, it is usually the local staples that will keep your expat budget in check.

Imported items can often be expensive, but things that are grown or produced closer to home are usually affordable, fundamentals to the national diet. Let’s look at a few examples:

Fruits and vegetables

Some regions are famous for growing one or more types of fruit such as bananas, kiwi, apples, or citrus fruits. No single region is great at producing every kind of fruit. While an imported fig might cost you an arm and a leg in your host country, the local pomegranates might be a bargain.

Sometimes the name itself will give it away. Romaine lettuce really is quite common near Rome. I assume that French green beans are readily available in France and that Brussel sprouts are cheaper in Belgium than elsewhere.

A healthy diet doesn’t have to come at a healthy price. Live like a local.


Some meats and other proteins are much more readily available and pocket-book friendly in one nation as opposed to another. Are you open to eating rabbits, duck, pigeons, horse, tofu, insects, and so on? If a kilo of snake, a kilo of wild boar, and a kilo of sword fish all cost the same, which would you choose? Do you prefer chicken eggs, goose eggs, or ostrich eggs?

Local meat

Are you interested in adding intestines, gizzards, genitalia, liver, neck, or brain to your grocery list? They may be outside of your comfort zone but inside of your budget.

While it’s ok to be squeamish about some things, we’ve got to be careful not to only look at the same proteins as we did before our move. Meat is often an expensive item in some countries. If the locals are cheese-addicts or fans of tofu, price might be one of the reasons why.


Of course, each culture seems to have a local starch of choice. You’ve got your Vietnamese rice, your Irish potatoes, your Italian pasta, your Mexican tortillas, and your French fries. Ok, that last one isn’t factually correct, but the point is that local starches are often dietary staples, because they are easy to find and easy on the wallet.

The local version is often so much cheaper than the one you are used to back home that swapping it for the starch you’re used to might just fix your budget. Your beef stroganoff recipe will work as well with rice as with noodles. Using local-grown potatoes in our soups or making tortilla wraps instead of sandwiches is a no-brainer for some of us once we look at the price-tag.

Baked goods

What about those bakery items? You may prefer an exotic bread from Spain and the United Arab Emirates or you may be missing your French croissants and American doughnuts, but could you find a local version that’s just as good? Excuse the pun, but just changing your choice of “dough” could really save you some “dough.”

How to figure out what’s a local grocery staple

I’m a big believer in asking national colleagues and friends for a lot of recommendations. “Hey, Woo, where do you buy insurance?” “Johann, what’s the best trail for hiking?” “Martis, how do you say, ‘The bathroom’s out of toilet paper’ in your language?” However, when it comes to groceries, asking a local isn’t even necessary.

The easiest way to develop this habit of living like a local is simply watching what other people are buying. If there is a line to buy some product, it’s probably cheap and well-liked! If you see three types of canned food on a shelf and one is nearly out of stock, that’s probably the best bargain.

Take a peek into the grocery bag or shopping cart of those around you. If you see some strange looking green fruit or a lot of blue packages of boxed something or other, then giving that green fruit and blue box a try takes you another step toward living like a local and likely toward living a simpler, more cost-effective lifestyle.

Michael A. Carlson

I have a passion for introducing Europeans to Jesus, starting churches of any shape or size, teaching, writing, and training. I also love to equip Europeans and missionaries through my websites such as and