Making the trip to the United States to study abroad is a huge first step. But once you arrive, you’ll need to quickly learn the basics of adjusting to a new country. For example, once you’re all settled into your new apartment, you will need to buy groceries. If you are living with roommates, have a discussion about whether you will be sharing groceries, or if it is better to purchase your own food and keep it separate.
Your first trip to the grocery store in a new country may be completely different than what you’ve experienced in the past, so we’ve compiled a few tips to make your grocery shopping experience in the United States easier for you!
1) Make a List
• Making a list can be helpful no matter what country you’re shopping in. Before heading to the store, think about what you will need. Are you looking for fresh produce? How about cereals and breakfast foods? Take a few minutes to write out your list before arriving to ensure you don’t forget anything when you leave the store.
2) Know When to Shop
• While most grocery stores in the United States are open 24 hours, it’s worth checking the hours of operation at the grocery store closest to you. If you would like to avoid a crowd, it’s best to shop earlier in the day or later in the evening. The busiest times are typically around lunchtime (12 p.m. – 1 p.m.) or when people get off work (5 p.m. – 6 p.m.).
Different sales can occur on different days of the week, but Wednesdays are usually when grocery stores have their best sales on products which are about to expire. Wednesdays are also the most common day the stores restock their produce and meat selection.
3) Use Coupons
• One of the best ways to save money while shopping at grocery stores is using coupons! Coupons offer discounted prices for a particular product and can be found in a variety of places, such as in newspapers, magazines, on food labels, the internet or in the grocery store itself.
When you are checking out at the store, remember to present the coupon to the cashier before they scan the item. Also make sure you purchase the correct product for the coupon, not just the brand!
4) Understand Generic vs. Name Brand Products
• What many international students may not know before shopping is the difference between generic and name brand products. Generic brands are a type of product that lack a widely-recognized name or logo because it isn't usually advertised, and is often much less expensive to purchase. On the other hand, name brands are generally more expensive because their products are well-known to the consumer. However, in most cases, they are the same product with almost exactly the same ingredients. So, why not buy the cheaper version? If you do not know which is the generic brand, it most often has the grocery store’s name on the packaging.
5) Earn Rewards Points
• Most American grocery stores offer membership cards to their customers to reward them for shopping. By going to the customer service desk and asking to become a member, you can fill out a short form to receive one of these cards for free. In return, you will receive a card that you can scan every time you check out. With the reward card, you will automatically get all the discounted prices the store is offering at the time of checkout.
6) Paper or Plastic?
• When you’re checking out at the cash register, you may be asked the question, “Paper or plastic?” In this scenario, the cashier is asking whether you want your groceries packaged in paper or plastic bags. While some countries will charge you for bags, most states do not charge. If you want to be more eco-friendly, you can always bring your own reusable bags!
7) Finding International Food
• Some grocery stores have an “International” food section. To save you time, check your local grocery store’s online website that lists all the products they carry. If you’re looking for a product from your home country, search online to see if they carry it. You can also ask the store manager if they are willing to stock a particular item for you to purchase.
Most cities in the United States also have independent grocery stores that carry food items from different countries around the world. Consider asking your school advisor or other international students on your campus for recommendations!
The first time you go to the grocery store in the United States will likely be a different experience than you’re used to. But with time, you’ll learn how to navigate the aisles and become more accustomed to finding what you need! And don’t forget, if you ever need helping finding something, the store’s staff can always point you in the right direction. Just be sure to keep these tips in mind to make the adjustment as seamless as possible!
Yu Wu is a native of Nanjing, China, and works with universities and education organizations at CORT Furniture Rental to help international students and scholars settle in faster when studying in the U.S.