How to Feed Yourself in Sweden

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One of my best purchases in a Swedish grocery store: bacon and cheese paste

Like many other young college students, I struggle to feed myself. I didn’t grow up cooking for myself or for my family. I have very little experience cooking for myself. I used to live off campus, but last year I lived on campus and ate in the cafeteria. Over the course of that year, I forgot many of my cooking skills. It is especially difficult to cook in a different country. Everything is different: there are different foods available, many familiar foods and brands are missing, the packaging is in another language, and the directions on the packaging is in a different type of measurement. The one thing that stays the same is the difficulty of deciding what to make for dinner. Here is my advice for feeding yourself in Sweden.

Choosing Food

  • Make a shopping list in Swedish.
    • The grocery store has been a mesmerizing and frustrating place. There are so many new foods to see and try. Everything is unusual from the way the milk is packaged to the layout of the store. I forget everything when I enter the store. It is really hard to focus on what I need when all I want to do is explore the store.
    • Very few products in the grocery store are in English. You may never find what you are looking for if you don’t look for it in Swedish.
    • This also keeps you focused on your budget.
    • The contents of your shopping list:
      • Focus on meals.
        • Don’t waste money on snacks.
        • Buy or bring Tupperware from home for your leftovers. Cook for the week.
      • If you need ideas of meals, call an “adult-adult” who has been cooking for years, research recipes online, or copy what your roommates or friends are making. It is really cool that my apartment complex is all international students. This means I get to learn about Korean, Japanese, and Ecuadorean food as well as Swedish food. We have been doing one group meal a week and each cook presents his/her country through food.
      • Stick with what you know how to cook but improvise for foods which might not be available in Sweden or with new additions to your old recipes.
        • For example, I made a bacon-cheese paste and ham sandwich with lemon mayonnaise and pineapple curry sauce.
      • I am used to making packaged or boxed meals at home, but in Sweden, these are mostly nonexistent. You must cook every meal from scratch; therefore, think in terms of ingredients which can be utilized in many different meals.
        • For example, I have tried putting that bacon-cheese paste and the pineapple curry sauce into almost every meal I have made.
        • Some examples of ingredients which work well in many meals:
          • Pasta
          • Rice
          • Sugar
          • Salt
          • Butter
          • Milk
      •  Only buy unfamiliar foods if you have an idea of what they are and a premonition that you will like them
        • Don’t waste money on foods which are completely unrecognizable and have a high probability of tasting awful
      • That being said, buy one completely unrecognizable, only available in Sweden, food during each shopping trip. You never know what you might like.
      • Find one food that you really like and treat yourself with that.
        • For me, this has been Risifruti, a rice pudding fruit cup. I like eating these for breakfast.
      • Avoid buying meat.
        • Meat is really expensive here and only comes in small quantities. For these reasons, I am eating meat sparingly. Since it is difficult to prepare, it makes more sense for me to eat out if I want meat than to try to purchase and cook it myself.
      • Don’t expect the food you buy to be American food. This is not the U.S. This is Sweden. You will be disappointed.
        • The ramen spice packets aren’t very flavorful. The yogurt is liquid. The cream of chicken soup only comes in powder form, so it ends up liquidy instead of creamy. The salt and vinegar chips are made with Balsamic vinegar which is a totally different flavor.
      • Expect organic food.
        • There are far more organic foods in the grocery store than non-organic. In many cases, organic produce is the only option. Surprisingly, the organic food is not drastically more expensive or grouped apart from the non-organic foods. Ekologisk, organic, was one of the first words I learned in Sweden because it is on so many packages.
      • Anticipate healthier foods.
        • Almost every food is low or no sodium and low or no sugar. Even the snack foods seem bland to me. It’s better for my body, but a change in flavor. I have to do most of my own seasoning now.
      • Accept the tubes
        • Many foods are packaged in tubes. Everything from mayonnaise to caviar is stored in tubes. Your meal may be squeezeable.
      • Forget about pumpkin spice.
        • There is no pumpkin spice lunacy in Sweden. I didn’t realize that I bought into the consumerism idea that pumpkin spice equates to autumn until a friend posted on Facebook about eating pumpkin cream cheese on pumpkin spice bagels and I got homesick.
      • I’m not a big alcohol drinker to begin with, but don’t waste money on alcohol.
        • In Sweden, alcohol is only available at the systembolaget, a special state-run liquor store. The decision to drink is revered in Swedish culture and should be made ahead of time, not impulsively. The systembolaget is only open until 2 p.m. on Saturday and not open at all on Sundays, a chief complaint among my roommates. Even if you can get to the systembolaget during opening hours, alcohol is extremely expensive. Having food for the week and money to travel beats a hangover any day.
  • Set aside a large chunk of time when grocery shopping.
    • This has been the place of greatest culture shock for me so far. Give yourself time to process what you are seeing and experiencing in the grocery store. You won’t be able to fully experience it if you are in a rush.
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My first bacon-cheese paste ham and cheese sandwich

Buying Food

  • Eating out is more expensive than cooking at home, so utilize the grocery store.
  • Food is by far, the most expensive part of my stay in Sweden. My latest shopping trip-a single backpack full of the essentials- cost U.S. $107.
    • Ask locals which grocery store is the cheapest. It might not be the closest one to your house, but it is worth any commute to save money on food.
    • I was shocked to pay so much for food, but where I live there are no discount stores. Factor the cost of food into your budget.
  • Compare grocery stores.
    • Different grocery stores sell different products. If you can’t find what you are looking for at one store, try a different one. Ask a local where to find the food you are searching for. It is useless asking store employees because they will say if the food is not at their grocery store, then it must not exist in Sweden, which is not always the case.
  • Bring your own bags!
    • There are no plastic or paper bags available at the checkout counter. You will be in a bad predicament if you don’t have some way to carry your groceries.
    • That being said, only buy what you can carry.
      • I have been avoiding buying heavy items like juice or soda and fragile items like glass bottles.
      • I have learned to put the meat on the bottom of the bag and the bread on top.
    • Don’t use a bag which you would be upset if it got ruined if something spilled inside it.
  • Don’t expect to buy in bulk.
    • There are no warehouse stores or family-sized discounted products. Many Swedish foods are individually packaged. You can’t buy large quantities of food. There are no gallon jugs of milk or large sacks of flour. I’m still not sure how I would hypothetically feed a Swedish family of four when I can only buy small quantities.
    • For this reason, it appears Swedes don’t do all their grocery shopping at once, so prepare to visit the grocery store more often than at home.
      • I am used to filling a cart up with food, paying $80 at most, and not having to return to the grocery store for at least a month if not longer. That is not the case in Sweden. Only baskets are available. The locals know the names of the cashiers and greet them when they check out. They go to the grocery store often and get to know the workers.
      • Going more often to the grocery store means getting fresher, healthier food. In Sweden, fresh bread and produce are purchased daily. Frozen, canned, or foods laden with preservatives are not readily available. You are expected to make smaller more frequent shopping trips.
    •   I have been bringing my backpack to the store and filling this up with my purchases. Even that is a surprising amount of food to be purchased at one time for the Swedes in line behind me. I receive a lot of disgusted looks from other customers for this practice.

If you follow these simple tips, you will be able to feed yourself in Sweden.

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Sandwich supplies
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Sandwich supplies and sanwhich
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Some of my less successful food purchases