Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sticker shock

Whenever we've lived overseas, I've tried to avoid falling victim to sticker shock if at all possible. "Food costs what it costs" has become my mantra, and more often than not, it's the same price everywhere. There's no collection of weekly mailers to compare to see who has the best sales, no way to tweak your menu plan to match up with the lowest prices at certain stores. You can't look forward to the two weeks twice a year when canned goods or frozen chicken will go on sale so you can stock up. You just shop week to week, and each time you make a grocery list, you have to strike the right balance among several sensitive factors:

What familiar and delicious dishes am I capable of cooking, considering ingredient availability?

...and also considering ingredient cost? What can I get away with NOT buying?

What is insanely expensive but indispensable, so that each time I buy it I die a little bit inside but know that it's for the best? (Answer: parmesan cheese. Eight ounces of it costs $7.30 and guess what? I totally buy it and call myself lucky to even have the option. Go ahead, judge me.)

What can I make at home instead of buying at a premium at the store?

Basically, the dilemma can be summarized as: What will my family actually eat, and how can I provide that at the lowest possible cost? Which, really, is the same thing I asked myself every time I made a grocery list in the US. It's just that here, the game is a lot more challenging.

In the end, our grocery bill ends up being about 150% of what it was in Ithaca (and probably close to 200% what it was in Tucson). And that's even with my dirham-pinching at every chance I get.

But we eat well, and healthily, and I call that success.

One interesting thing I've noticed is that the amount I spend on groceries each week varies depending on which store I go to. I am able to keep myself well within our budget if I go to the Carrefour in Ajman. It's the kind of place that doesn't cater to foreigners (and I'm usually the only Westerner shopping there), so I'm not tempted to buy American delicacies because they don't stock them there. If I go to the Carrefour in Mirdif (an expat-heavy suburb of Dubai), I have to put on the figurative blinders so I don't notice the string cheese and pepper jack cheese and Breyer's ice cream and Ore-Ida frozen potatoes and Lender's bagels. I have to do the same thing at Spinney's, which is why I pick up just a basket when I go there and tell myself that when the basket is full, that's it (I swear I only go there in the first place because they're the only store that sells plain, unsugared breakfast cereals, decent sliced bread, and certain hard-to-find baking ingredients). Waitrose is almost completely off-limits to me. I was there the other day for the first time and saw so many familiar foods from the US that it made my heart ache.

If you are laughing at me right now for feeling intense emotional pain about not being able to justify spending a certain amount of money on food that is familiar to me from my dear, long-past childhood home that is located in a country on the other side of the world, BE QUIET. Next time you spend a year living outside of the country you grew up in, and have another year of absence stretching out in front of you, pay attention to how magically delicious stuff like root beer and Eggo waffles starts to seem.

On the other hand, I can get those nice Persian cucumbers for super cheap, so at least there's that.


Liz Johnson said...

YES! Yes yes yes. While I didn't do all of the grocery shopping in Mexico, I went with my mom most of the time. I still remember the tears welling up in my eyes when I would see something on the shelf that I hadn't seen in years... like molasses, or canned pumpkin. We never could find grape jelly. And I remember the one time my mom came home from Costco with a gigantic package of spam, because it was a new item and it reminded her of the US (that spam, by the way, still sits unopened in their pantry, over 10 years later). And when we would come back to the US, one of our first stops would be a US grocery store, where we would stock up on all sorts of weird stuff that we couldn't get in Mexico. It was like the Disneyland of food. Those US grocery store trips are some of my dearest childhood memories. :)

Señora H-B said...

I remember practically crying when I saw fresh milk in the grocery store in Guatemala City (after living in Peru and Chile for 18 months). I was so tired of Parmalat. It's funny that now I feel the same way when I come across a Chilean packaged dessert in the Mexican grocery store here in the US.

Eevi said...

I feel for you. There are things that i miss from Finland but i was more surprised how much i missed American ingredients while i was in Finland for 5 weeks and it was only 5 weeks. Maybe we should start sending you care packages with some comfort items.

Crys said...

I almost cried eating a big Mac (a dish I normally despise) in Egypt. That is how much I missed lettuce at the time. What really struck me over seas was how lucky we are to have the variety of foods we have in the states at the prices we have them. Even being extremely careful our food budget ran 150%. The price you pay for wanting to eat an apple ever once in a while :). I'd love to know some of the prices you pay for different food items...and yes i'd be buying parmesan cheese as well!


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