This little piggy went to market.
I recently found out that Joe started a grocery shopping trend in our community with his Facebook post a few weeks ago about a new Albert Heijn store opening up in our neck of the woods. He’s kind of earned a reputation at post for finding hacks to make things cheaper and/or easier and he’s always happy to share any tidbits that will help others save time or money.
When it comes to grocery shopping, we’re both all aboard the frugal train but still want to make fresh, healthy and tasty meals. It took us a little while to get into our groove here — especially because Belgium groceries are quite a bit more expensive than in neighboring countries — but we’ve gotten it down and are pretty pleased with our results. Here’s a list of where we shop (and where we don’t) to keep our weekly shopping bills relatively reasonable.
A few things first.
Grocery shopping in Brussels is pretty similar to grocery shopping in the States once you get used to it, but these few tips and tricks might help you out if you’re new here:
Remember a quarter. It doesn’t actually have to be a quarter, but you’ll need a coin to get a cart out of the corral. I was an Aldi gal Stateside, so it’s always going to be a quarter for me even if a €1 coin is probably what was intended.
Bring your own bags. You’ll pay 10 cents for each sack the store gives you. Do a solid for both the environment and your wallet by investing in a couple of nice reusables.
Weigh and tag your own fruits and veggies. Most stores expect you to weigh and tag your own produce on the scales in the produce section. Once you’ve done so, the machine will spit out a sticker to attach to the bag for you or the checkout staff to scan.
Watch for white label goods. Remember when your mom wanted to stretch the food budget and bought totally generic grocery staples? You can do the same here. White label generic goods may not win any awards for packaging, but most of them taste exactly the same as their store brand counterparts and probably even come off the same factory lines. There are a few exceptions not worth the cost cuts — coffee being the most notable one.
Don’t look in the refrigerated aisle for your eggs. You won’t find them there. European eggs aren’t washed before shipping and still have a protective covering (plus a bonus feather or two if you’re lucky) so stores save on costs by keeping them on the dry goods shelves. It’s a good idea to put your eggs in the fridge when you get home however.
Or your milk. Ultra-high-temperature (UHT) pasteurized milk is the norm here. It’s plenty drinkable and we think it makes better lattes. Plus, if you don’t open it, it keeps in your pantry for almost a year! If you’re really craving fresh milk, you can find it but you’ll pay a bit more than you’re probably used to.
Thou shalt not shop on Sunday. (Or after 8pm.) Belgian grocery stores aren’t typically open on Sundays although there are some exceptions. And don’t expect to do a late night shop — most close their doors by 8pm.
Where we shop. (Rank ordered by frequency.)
Albert Heijn is a Dutch chain with a few locations (Zaventem and Wemmel) just outside of the Brussels capital region where they don’t have to bother with dual-language requirements. Be ready to read your labels in Dutch (only) and rejoice in the fact that AH stocks items, like pindakaas (peanut butter) and pindasaus (satay sauce), that you won’t find in the Belgian or French stores thanks to a completely different supply chain. AH earns bonus points for a free coffee machine in the middle of the store and Sunday morning opening hours but isn’t going to going to win any awards for its bakery department.
Insider Tip: Sign up for the store’s loyalty card and you won’t even have to deal with humans.
1. Use your card to pick up a self-scanner at the door
2. Scan away and place the items in your bag as you shop
3. Tuck your scanner back into the rack at the start of the self-scanner lines
4. Scan your loyalty card at the self-scanner checkout to pull up your items and pay
5. Scan your receipt to open the exit gate
Hypermarché Carrefour was our primary grocery before Albert Heijn opened a location near us and it’s still a go-to for the items that AH doesn’t carry. This “hypermarket” store from the French chain is pretty similar to the Safeway/Giant/Kroger familiar to Americans. Plenty of choices and decent enough prices (especially in Kraainem where a little friendly competition keeps them lower) make this an OK place to shop if you’re willing to put up with a bit of ‘tude from checkout ladies and ridiculously long lines on Saturday nights.
Insider Tip: Sign up for the store’s loyalty card to rack up bonus points which can be converted to “cheques” that basically act like gift certificates. Keep an eye out for the promotion where if you shop at least 5x in the promo period, they give you bonus checks equal to your average cart size during the same period. (Just remember: when you run in for that liter of cola during the promo, don’t use your card and bring down your average!)
Makro is the closest thing you’ll find to Costco inside of Belgium. (And no. It’s never worth it to drive almost all the way to Paris to go to Costco.) Actually, Makro’s closer to the lovechild that would be born out of an unholy union between Costco and Target. You’ll find everything from home decor items to party supplies to 36-roll packs of TP all before you make it to the food section. Need to stock up on a 2kg bag of frozen broccoli or a 500g container of Greek yogurt? Baking up a storm and need an industry-sized bag of chocolate chips or tub of Nutella? Makro’s your place.
Insider Tips: You’ll need to sign up for a membership card before you can shop. (It’s plenty easy enough to do this online and have it mailed to your home.) Have a fireplace? Their Drive-In stocks great firewood and it sometimes goes on a pretty good sale.
Picard has everything you miss from Trader Joe’s frozen food section and then some. This French, all-frozen shop only has a few outlets in the Brussels area and we’re within walking distance from one of them. Oven frites and microwavable lunches (some of which the astute shopper may recognize as exact replicas of beloved TJ’s items) make for easy meals on the days we’re too lazy to cook and too cheap to eat out.
Insider Tips: Get the store’s loyalty card for the specials pricing. Speaking of prices… watch out. Not everything’s a stellar deal.
The Sunday Markets at Abattoir and Gare du Midi are where we go when we need to stock up on cheap produce. The Sunday market experience is worthy of its own post — lucky for you, I’ve already written one up.
Kam Yuen isn’t the only Asian market in town but it is the biggest. If you’re like us, you’re happier buying your medium grain and Jasmine rice by the very large sack. This is the place to find it along with curry pastes, oyster sauce and at least 25 different varieties of instant noodle meals.
Insider tip: Plan to take the metro to De Brouckère or ride a two-wheeled vehicle because driving a car downtown is best left to masochists.
The Commissary is only open to those of us with shopping privileges but it’s worth mentioning because it’s the one place in Belgium you’ll find USDA Grade A steaks with some proper marbling. The Commissary’s an hour drive from our house so we don’t do much of our shopping there but it’s nice to have access when we’re hunting for American goodies that we can’t find anywhere else. Whole Thanksgiving turkeys anybody? (Just make sure you measure your rather small oven first…). Don’t have shopping privileges? Please, please don’t be that person who asks us to buy groceries and get reimbursed by you — it’s literally against the law.
And where we don’t.
Colruyt is Belgian’s version of Cub or WinCo with its concrete floors, bare steel shelves and no-frills store brands. It’s perfect for a family on a budget but we’ve discovered that it’s not that much cheaper for the items we buy. Totally not relevant to my interests as a teetotaler, but I’ve been told it’s the place to go for cheap wine on par with what you’d find at Trader Joe’s.
Insider Tip: No credit cards! Cash, Maestro (Bancontact), or get lost.
Delhaize’s logo will evoke memories of Food Lion for anybody who’s lived in the South and, although Delhaize owns Food Lion, that’s where the similarities end. Delhaize’s a pretty upmarket shopping experience with prices to match. We’re not against shopping there but when our neighborhood Carrefour and Colruyt sell 95% of the exact same products for less, it’s hard for us to see the point. It may, however, be the best option in your own neighborhood.
FreshMed, The Barn, or any of the other “bio” markets are simply too spendy for 99.9% of the shopping that we do. Still, it’s nice to know that they’re there when I’m craving kombucha. (I really need to start making my own…)
Match may be the most convenient because it’s literally at the metro station but sketchy produce, high prices, and stocking practices + customer service that leave much to be desired even by Belgian standards make this a literal no-go zone for us.
Rob the Gourmets’ Market is the source of at least ten jokes in our house. It’s the place to go when you need to find organic, single-source, first-harvest, ethically-produced, grown-under-the-new-moon almond oil or when you want to spend €10 on a bottle of hot sauce. (In all seriousness, it’s a great shop for foodies. But if you call Whole Foods “whole paycheck,” you might want to join us on taking a pass on Rob.)
The Stockel Market is the market I wish I could love. After all, it’s held three days a week mere footsteps from my door. It has its place, yes. It can be a fun spot to hang out on a nice day and makes for a great field trip when one has guests in town. If you’re searching for high-quality, artisanal items, it’s the market to find them in. Those rotisserie chickens and fancy cheeses are indeed delicious, but we’d go broke if we made a habit of doing most or even a fair portion of our shopping here. (Although, I will say that I’ve heard it on good authority that Thai by Tom has a nice take-a-way curry deal on Saturdays...)