Making The Best Of What Is Available: My Grocery Shopping

Grocery Shop Garden Vegetables

I have lived in five different countries over the past 10 years such as  France, Guatemala, Spain, the UK and Morocco. While I love to cook, changing country had taught me that you can’t have the same meal plan wherever you live. Grocery shopping is a different experience in every country. In France, cheese is cheap and delicious, while finding cheese other than orange cheddar is a challenge in Guatemala. You would think that living in a cheaper country means that every daily item is cheaper. It is true. But daily items mean what the people who live there eat.

In Guatemala that means beans, rice, meat and vegetables. Not cheese. Cheese is a luxury that is not part of the lower and middle class diet. Even milk is a luxury, which is strange because there are so many cows, but I guess the whole refrigerated distribution is complicated. Instead of having cheese for lunch and dinner as I would in France, I eat mozzarella or cheddar cheese once or twice a week, on pizza or omelets. And once in a while, I pay a premium to enjoy a nice goat cheese from a gourmet delicatessen, with a glass of wine.

Wine is another thing that I have learned to replace. In France any supermarket knows how to store wine, in a dry and cool room. Here it is about 30 degrees Celsius all year at the main port where containers arrive with the wine. Customs can take days to clear while the wine gets a heat shock. Then it is brought to my little town on a bumpy road, and you take a serious bet when you buy a bottle there. Once again, I could go to the wine shops of Guatemala City and pay the price of an excellent Bordeaux for an average at best bottle of wine, or switch to beer like I did, which is just fine.

Dinner in Guatemala

So what are meals like in Guatemala?

Usually a piece of meat or a fresh fish from the lake, a side of rice and a few vegetables. We don’t do three courses like the French, or even desert. Simple, healthy and cheap. Meat is $3/lb, we eat lunch and dinner with a pound since I don’t eat much meat. Rice is the base of any meal, when in France it was potatoes. Not that potatoes are expensive, usually they cost $0.40/lb, but my boyfriend says I have turned him into a ”potatovore” so I try to balance and learn how to cook more rice. Rice is perfect to fry with any leftover vegetables by the way, so often the odd carrot or zucchini ends up diced in the rice.

Another thing that I have had to get used to is shopping once a week or once a fortnight. The nearest supermarket is 20 miles away and with our not so efficient car it costs $20 round trip. So I plan my meals accordingly and have invested in a deep freezer to avoid food waste. I buy as many vegetables as possible, dice and freeze the ones that will be cooked anyway and could go bad quickly. Like celery, zucchini or cauliflower. I also freeze the meat, bacon, cheese (as we only eat that cheese cooked on pizzas or crepes it doesn’t matter).

On the first days after a grocery shop we have a side of salad, as after three days the lettuce starts looking sad in the fridge, then for the rest of the week we eat the vegetables that last longer like onions, tomatoes and avocados. Delicious ripe avocados are a real delight here, and I make a mean guacamole!

Mojarra Fish

For breakfast, we have eggs (from our hens) and beans, the typical Guatemalan breakfast. Or crepes. They are like breakfast burritos, you can put anything inside, egg, cheese, ham, tomatoes, jalapeño chilis, basil, onion… filling and delicious. If I want bacon on my eggs or crepes, I would cut a little bit of my frozen bacon and cook it in a few minutes. The packs of bacon are too big and would go bad if I had them in the fridge. The only processed food I buy on a regular basis is a can of pureed beans, that we have with breakfast. I could cook the black beans for three hours, blend them, cook them some more with onions and garlic, and then fry them a little, but that four-hour process is too long, plus unlike my crepes, I never get them to taste right. No disappointment with the can.

Dinner is not a very important meal here, many people just have a hot coffee and biscuits. Coffee is the one thing you would imagine is to die for here and super cheap, but apparently the best coffee is exported so we also buy quite an expensive coffee for my boyfriend as I don’t drink coffee. We don’t systematically have dinner, sometimes we snack on chips, or have something sweet, like my homemade frozen yogurt. I have cultures that turn milk into yogurt and then freeze it with a little sugar and some pieces of fruit. Or blend the frozen yogurt with fruits. Banana and apple were my last favourite.

Freshly Harvested Beans

Our diet is quite basic, and I do almost everything from scratch. We never buy frozen meals, I cook and freeze. A few products are really expensive like I mentioned, although most days we eat pretty cheaply. I am trying to keep an eye on the grocery spending and have joined the grocery game challenge, with a goal of $200 per month for two. I have only $100 for January and February because we did a big shop for Christmas, and I am fully stocked on expensive items. If you would like to see more about grocery prices in Guatemala, and how bad I miss coupons, you can check Mr CBB’s grocery game challenge posts.

I forgot to say that we also buy drinking water, we pump our water from the lake to shower and do dishes and it is a very clear lake but we’d rather not risk it, so every week, a truck delivers a 5 gallon tank of potable water to our door for $2.

Colorful Market Town of Zunil

My point with this post, apart from showing you how the food and cooking goes in Guatemala is to suggest that you try doing the best you can with what you have on hand.

  • If you live in the country, chances are you will find farmers selling corn by the side of the road at a bargain during harvest season. Make all kinds of recipes and you won’t feel like you are eating the same thing all the time.
  • If the supermarket has a special item on offer, stock up, not so much that you will throw food, just enough to prepare a few cheap meals.
  • If you harvest berries in the woods, wash them and freeze them to enjoy them all year.
  • If you have a garden, learn how to can or preserve your surplus crop.
  • If you find a deal on beef meat, freeze part of it and don’t buy chicken or pork that week.
  • If you go to the market at the end of the day, forget your shopping list and articulate your meals around the reduced products.

Having an exotic meal once in a while is perfectly fine, but if you want to control your grocery spending, your best bet is to make do with what is cheap and available.

The following is a guest post from Pauline Paquin, a French girl who blogs over at Reach Financial Independence. Born and raised in Paris, Pauline writes about how she has been traveling the world for the past 10 years, while trying to build wealth and achieve financial independence, and how you can follow your dreams and reach your goals too. You can follow Pauline on Twitter @RFIndependence

Editors Note: Thanks Pauline for opening our eyes to food and grocery shopping in a different culture and a small part of your life in Guatemala.

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  1. Hey there! Would you mind if I share your blog
    with my facebook group? There’s a lot of people that I think would really enjoy your content. Please let me know. Thanks

    1. CSA is really cool to get things you wouldn’t buy otherwise. We don’t have it here but I try to buy strange to me things once in a while, some are now fully part of my diet!

  2. You’ve done a great job pointing out the luxuries we have. Being able to buy out of season produce is a fairly recent and rare occurrence around the world. My grandmother used to preserve about 75% of what she got out of the garden. That way we were able to enjoy green beans and fresh tasting tomato sauce in the middle of winter. Now I can go to the store and get fresh tomatoes anytime I want.

    1. in France kids used to get an orange for Christmas. It was a fascinating treat, and very expensive in the middle of winter. Impressive how the world changes in 50 short years.

  3. Great post, Pauline! Despite following you for awhile now, I am always intrigued to read about the life in Guatemala. It’s totally different than it is here and it’s so fascinating!

    1. thanks Jason! sometimes I think all this is normal, this is my life after all, and wonder why would people care, then looking back I realize this is definitely not the norm, and there are good stories to tell!

    1. coffee, sugar, bananas, all the best stuff gets exported. the bananas that are not perfect enough to ship to a US supermarket are sold on the market. they taste much better though.

  4. Pauline, what a cool post! Since we’ve never been out of the U.S., it’s fun for me to experience different cultures through your travels. The food in Guatemala looks delicious! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    1. Not just yet, I’d like to enjoy the house I am building once it is finished! I remember eating quite healthy in Sydney, the rest of the country so so. Didn’t get to try exotic meat though. Have you ever had gator, kangaroo, or something unusual?

    1. thank you! The saying here says have a king’s breakfast, a prince’s lunch, and a pauper’s supper. Not sure if that translates fine in English or if there is something similar. I usually sleep better after a light evening meal but prefer something salty, tea and biscuits generally don’t do it for me.

    1. that is really strange. Same here, sometimes I see the grocery challenge shop of others in the US and Canada and they got super cheap items that were probably shipped from Mexico or Guatemala and are more expensive here. One orange was $0.5 last time I went to the supermarket! You probably get 2lb for $1 in the US.

  5. Great opposing posts today here and on your site. We probably need to branch out a bit more and eat some different things. I feel we eat the same things over and over again. I agree that the grocery game challenge has helped our grocery budget tremendously and I’ve learned to freeze and use leftovers much more that I used to. It is always fun to see how prices differ in other places. I really enjoy seeing what food costs outside of what I am used to.

    1. I also get in a rut about grocery shopping, to expedite the process I buy what I know after 3-4 trips getting used to products and good values. I have tried many different fruits and veggies here, and also cow’s udder and other weird stuff but usually stick to my own list of basics. Writing it down on the grocery challenge made me realize it even more! but it is great to keep track.

  6. I love reading posts like this that compare costs of living around the world. Here in Thailand many things are also cheap, but typically not Western foods. Cheese, breads, wine, and any cold weather fruits and vegetables are very expensive. Like Guatemala, rice is a staple here, so our diet has switched to lots of rice and noodles. Very informative and interesting post!

    1. Hey mate, I didn’t know you were in Thailand, you’re next on my hit list then… you up for it.. I’ve been to Thailand before, loved it… food was awesome, people were great. I hung out with the locals though because that’s living the experience to the fullest. Cheers mate

      1. Definitely up for it. Hit me up via email or Twitter so we can discuss your needs. Yeah, Thailand is pretty awesome, food, weather, chilled attitudes, people…I have no complaints 🙂

    2. thank you! I loved the food in Thailand, so fresh an full of new flavors. Every once in a while I enjoyed a more western food (stayed about 6 months in the region) but like Guatemala there are plenty of delicious dishes to go around! I would have a hard time without variety.

  7. I love fish and since we live near the ocean we eat quite a bit but I could not give up cheese although I have learned to eat low fat cheeses. I don’t like my coffee too strong but I don’t like a weak coffee either….however it looks like a diet full of variety that one would adapt too quickly. However dinner is such a social event here and we all hang out and visit around the table tonight we had ribs, salad, potatoes, carrots, and applesauce, and tomorrow we are just having soup and grilled cheese but biscuits and coffee would not cut it but it is fascinating to learn that that meal is not so central in Guatemala. What a fascinating and interesting post the food pictures are gorgeous!

    1. thank you! like anything, we adjust. Since I don’t work anymore, having the big meal of the day at lunch around 2-3pm is fine, we socialize then, and no one has to rush back to the office. It is sometimes hard to be productive in the afternoon with a full belly that calls for siesta though!

  8. I think I would have a difficult time adjusting to the variety, not having cheese readily available would be painful. I probably shouldn’t admit this (being of Cuban descent)) but Ihate beans, so that would limit me even more!

    1. I have acquired the taste for beans, at first I wondered why have beans AND rice or beans AND bread but now I enjoy them. Whole beans in a stew are pretty good.

  9. I am guessing that it is pureed beans in the middle of the plate but what is the pale rectangle at 6:00 and the odd looking dark thing at 8:00?

    1. yes that is pureed beans! this is the luxury version of a typical breakfast. at 6 is fresh cheese, and 8 is a piece of steak with tomato, onion and chili sauce on top hence the weird look 🙂

  10. Great post, Pauline! It reminds me of when Mr. PoP took an extended trip to Mexico and figured out that he could eat local steak, eggs, and beer for about $3/day. Not great long term for his health (no fruits or veggies!), but he LOVED it at the time. =)

    1. Most products are very cheap compared to the US, i can see why it was tempting to keep on steak forever! veggies are more a decoration than a main ingredient

  11. Love your pics and write-up experiences. Love the tablecloth and fish too haha. So much to experience in this world.

    1. I can afford cheese, it is just relatively expensive compared to the rest of groceries and what I am used to pay for cheese.
      In the local supermarket, bad cheddar costs about $10 a pound. Most cheeses in France are less expensive, that includes really good varieties, so $10/lb sounds expensive for me.
      $10 here buys 3lb of shrimp, 4lb of meat, or 5lb or fish, or 25lbs of tomatos. I would generally go for the cheaper items, but you are right, it takes some getting used to.

  12. Sounds like we’d get on well in Guatemala as my wife is a rice addict! I’ve never really thought about the availability of foods in different countries so this was a bit of an eye opener. Great post Pauline

    1. the basics (meat, dry grains, starches, fruits, vegetables, oil) are always around, no matter where you go. but something that can be as basic as butter means milking cows, having refrigerated trucks… I haven’t bought butter in 4 months, they have margarine which I dislike or very expensive butter imported from New Zealand! It is weird at first not to find your favorite products, but you learn to make do.

  13. This is absolutely true. Try and do as the locals do, is my maxim.

    I tend to prefer heavier meals at night, and lighter ones in the morning. But I can do either, or.

    Even when I travel, I try to find a place to cook food, or at least be able to buy prepared foods that are of local fare.

    The one thing I will mention is the difference between traveling and living somewhere, is you don’t have a kitchen (or at least, one you can use a lot of), so while I was in Hong Kong just last year (2012), I didn’t eat out in restaurants and bought prepared food from the grocery stores instead, but this was mostly because I found the food greasy, heavy, starchy and/or just not appetizing, even though it was cheap. I simply don’t enjoy Chinese food, but I very much like food in general and the city I was in.

    If I were in Japan, it’d be a different story as their fare tends to be lighter and less greasy.

    1. True, it is much easier to lower the food budget once you stay somewhere for a little while. Even though the hotel has a kitchen, buying basics (salt, spices, oil…) every time can be costly when there are cheap street eats. What I like about the supermarket is you can take your time to check the products and decide what you buy. A busy eatery won’t be very patient and you may often stick to what you know or order something and regret is just because you were rushed.

  14. Good post Pauline! It’s always nice to read how some of the basics are handled differently in other cultures. We do a lot of our stuff from scratch as well as we like to know what goes into what we put in our bodies, plus it’s cheaper. I agree as well with Tonya, you have great adaptability skills.

    1. thanks John! well, you learn by doing and I like to try new things, so adapting is easy. On the other hand I have a hard time forming habits that stick!

  15. Pauline, you don’t drink coffee?? I can’t…even imagine. We buy all fresh and organics so our winter grocery bill is spiraling out of control. It’s so much easier to keep our food budget down in the warmer months when the farmers have cheap delicious fare spread out on their stands. I love hearing more about Guatemalan food and typical dishes!

    1. I drank coffee for a few years in high school and college, but unlike beer, never got used to the taste! I try to stock and freeze what is a true bargain, or for example a couple of months ago we brought dozens of pomelos, lemons and other citrus from the ranch, so I peeled and froze and now we have smoothies and lemonade even though it is not harvest season anymore.

    1. It is really delicious, according to aficionados, and largely underrated. A few coffee shops are starting to bloom following Starbuck’s success story but until recently there was no coffee drinking tradition here.

    1. Our friend who lives in Spain does the same thing, they eat heavier during the day and coffee and biscuits or a small salad at night. They get used to it. When she visited us here she said it was a difficult transition to eat like we do.

    2. Contrary to what you may think, coffee in this coffee producing country is really weak, they boil one big pot of water and pour a couple of spoons of coffee then vaguely filter it, I think any child would sleep soundly after a cup of that! This is a peasant’s diet, they wake up at 5am to work in the fields so need all the calories in the morning and at lunch, while at night they are exhausted and in bed by 8pm so a light snack does the trick.

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