Whether you’re coming to the UK as an expat or just for a visit, one of the must-do experiences is to visit one of the grocery stores in England to check out the differences between American and British grocery stores. I mean, firstly, they don’t even call them “grocery stores,” they call them supermarkets, so there’s your first example already!
British grocery stores are completely different to our American ones in name and brand, so don’t come over here looking to find Publix or Krogers or Giant or your local favorite. Instead, you’ll find ones like Waitrose (which is for fancy people), Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, and Asda. I know some people buy their groceries at Target, so check out this article I wrote about Target in the UK to find out more about that.
There are even more brands like the Co-op which tend to be smaller stores instead of massive ones and are meant to be the place you drop in when you forgot the milk rather than somewhere you go to do all of your shopping.
That brings me to another point, actually, in that British fridges and freezers are smaller than American ones, and many people who live in flats only have a half-size one that would more closely resemble what we would have in an American college dorm. This means that people tend to make more frequent trips to the grocery store instead of the bulk buying process many of us in the States do. It also cuts down on food waste.
Now, British food in general has a bad reputation for being, how should I say, horrible. I’m not qualified to speak on this, as I’m a picky eater and think a lot of food is horrible. To stick up for the UK, though, I have learned to enjoy quite a few ‘proper’ meals like fish and chips and roast dinners. ‘English breakfast’ is very good, and I have gotten into the habit of eating baked beans with things I never would have eaten baked beans with before. I have had even had lasagna with baked beans and LIKED IT.
Anyway, join me on this journey through British grocery stores so we can experience the highs and lows of being an American in a British supermarket.
A Guide to Grocery Stores in England Vs. America
Let’s start in the produce section, where I see the word “salad” and instantly feel at home. What could be so different about a bunch of vegetables?
In fact, there aren’t too many differences here, though it’s helpful to remember that zucchinis are “courgettes,” eggplant is “aubergine,” and rutabaga is “swede” (though who even knows what a rutabaga is to begin with?). Swede is actually a really popular vegetable to have with a Sunday roast dinner, so my completely unfounded guess is that Swede/Rutabaga is much more highly consumed in the UK than it is in the US.
The next stop is the refrigerated section, which is relatively standard, but holds some secrets of its own.
(I literally just posted a picture of cheese. Am I doing this blogging thing right?)
Cheese is called grated cheese, not shredded cheese, but it means the same thing. Also, British Cheddar cheese is white, not orange, and while there are a few places that stock what we think of as “American cheese,” they are few and far between because most British people like to make fun of Americans for eating what they assume to be fake, floppy cheese. I can’t really argue, but there you go.
Orange juice is readily available, which is heaven to my ears for a Florida girl. However, “pulp” is referred to as “juicy bits,” and honestly the jokes just write themselves.
Navigating your way through grocery stores in England starts to get even more exciting when you start to look for the eggs in the fridge. Oh, no. The eggs are not in the fridge. They are stored casually, on the dry shelves, next to the bread like it’s NO BIG DEAL.
This is jarring for an American who is used to the “eggs must be refrigerated” mantra, but it really isn’t a big deal since the eggs are processed differently than in America. My British husband does prefer to store our eggs in the fridge at home, but I think that’s just for storage purposes and has nothing to do with food safety. If you’re incredibly interested in the egg in fridge/eggs on shelves debate, here’s an article. If you’re not, let’s carry on (isn’t this the most fun you’ve had all day? I BET!)
The snack aisle is one of my best friends, which is very apparent to anyone who sees me in a bathing suit, I can’t help it, I’m an emotional eater! You should see my luggage when I’m coming back to the UK from the US. It’s basically filled to the brim with all things oatmeal creme pie and Goldfish.
Thankfully, the UK has Oreos, but they’re sold in single sleeves instead of the 3 sleeved approach in America.
Sometimes I think they sell them in single sleeves here because British people control themselves and don’t want 46 Oreos at once, but that’s just not something I can commit to so I am pro-3 sleeved American Oreos all the way. You can find both Original, Double Stuffed, and the Golden (vanilla cookie) ones, but they don’t stock the crazier American flavors like Red Velvet Cake and Birthday Cake because they obviously don’t like fun.
You also might stumble across one of the British favorite chocolates, Freddos (Chocolate in the shape of a frog. IS THAT WHERE JK ROWLING GOT HER CHOCOLATE FROG IDEA FROM? This is blowing my mind).
Freddos at made by Cadbury, which you may think you have in America, but you actually don’t because Cadbury in America uses different recipes than Cadbury in England. Cadbury in England is a national treasure, and while people do like to get angry about the decreasing chocolate sizes while still paying the same price, there is an entire theme park called Cadbury World so the brand is doing just fine.
Okay, still with me here? Brits like to make fun of Hershey’s for tasting like, IN THEIR WORDS, ‘vomit.’ I would not agree to this necessarily, but Cadbury is definitely amazing and melts in your mouth. However, you always must have Hershey’s for s’mores, I will not budge on that one.
Okay, yes, America has pizza Pringles and so I can hardly judge the UK for following their paprika-loving hearts, but roast chicken? How does that even work? If the chicken isn’t enough to tide you over, you can always follow it up with some flame grilled steak.
Now that we’ve eaten an entire week’s worth of meat in the snack aisle, we’ll continue on to the breakfast aisle. The cereals are pretty standard, though noticeably lacking in sugar. You won’t find Froot Loops, Captain Crunch, Cookies n Creme or any of the cereal I grew up stuffing my face with. No, British grocery stores are the land of the sensible, the bran flakes, the plain cheerios, the breakfast options that are good for your cholesterol but not so much for your happiness.
What the UK lacks in sugary cereals, however, it certainly makes up for in beans. Need some beans with your toast? Don’t worry, the UK takes its baked beans very seriously. Don’t be expecting BBQ flavored baked beans though. Beans here come without the BBQ flavor, and are more…bean flavored. We’ll go with that. And that makes sense because as mentioned above, beans go on everything here and no one wants a smoky BBQ flavor with every meal.
Here’s my guide on how to make beans on toast if you’re interested in following along as I almost burn my apartment down.
One of the saddest sections for me and my Americanness is the Poptart section, which isn’t so much a “section” as a small sampling of the wonders that Poptarts can bring you.
Only strawberry and chocolate? WHERE IS MY CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIE DOUGH flavor? Brown sugar cinnamon? S’MORES?!? Lately, I’ve started to find a few different flavors of Poptarts in the International Section of a few mega grocery stores, but these are imported and thus cost like 5 pounds a box which is far too much to pay for my fix of breakfast sugar rush. Oh, also I’m pretty sure even the strawberry and chocolate flavors that you can find in most grocery stores here are only for the expats as well, as most British people I’ve spoken with still react in shock when I tell them we eat them for breakfast.
After we finish wiping our tears and texting all of our friends to send us cookie dough Poptarts ASAP, we’ll hit the frozen section. Of course they’ve got the staple frozen items—ice cream, pizza, vegetables. You can buy things like frozen yorkshire puddings, which is something we don’t see in the US. A Yorkshire pudding isn’t actually pudding (go figure), but instead a doughy pile of goodness that is served with gravy and a “roast dinner.” You can make them yourself, or you can buy them pre-made (shout out to all the lazy cooks out there like me), but either way, this is one joy of discovering the grocery stores in England that you won’t want to miss.
And now that we’re coming to the end of our culinary tour, I’d like to make up for the British food jokes I’ve made along the way and present to you one of the greatest achievements to have ever come out of the British empire: the potato waffle.
Is it a potato? Is it a waffle? I was obsessed with these when I first moved to the UK, and my roommates and I spent hours discussing what we thought it would taste like. We should have known from the box that specifically states it’s “made from real mashed potato,” but we had only ever experienced waffles made from dough and served with generous helpings of syrup and possibly some whipped cream.
We had a whole event dedicating to trying them and I believe we even had some friends over for the reveal.
Turns out, it’s literally a potato product shaped like a waffle. Like a french fry, but in a waffle shape. Two of my favorite things in one. Nice, move, England. Almost enough to make me forget about your roast chicken Pringles. Almost.
Checking Out at a British Grocery Store
Oh, and one final thing to mention that marks a major difference between American and British grocery stores: at British grocery stores, you often have to bag your own items.
This is one of the things that took getting used to when I first moved here, not because I wasn’t willing to do it myself, but because I sat there awkwardly staring at the cashier as she threw food down at the end while I should have been bagging it, which left me with a giant pile of food to bag after I had paid.
Oops. You’re supposed to greet the cashier, then take your spot at the end of the belt and start piling your own items into bags.
This can sometimes be super stressful because the expert cashiers are just flinging food down at you and you’re all, “Hold on two seconds while I catch my breath, the bacon got caught on the bananas!” and they’re like “No time! This is Britain, do as we do!” and the rest of the people in line are looking at you all huffy.
Also, plastic bags in England cost 5 pence each, which is a minimal amount but everyone now tries to bring their own lifetime bags to avoid the 5p charge, which in turn saves the environment and is part of why the charge was introduced in the first page, so hooray!
Have you been to grocery stores in England as an American? What did you think? Did you get lost in a sea of strange flavors or did you sail those culinary ships with ease? Let me know down below!