Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Smart food shopping in Mexico

Revisiting the cost of living in Mexico

After being here for over a year and a half, I have finally found our groove on how and where to shop for our pantry and fridge needs. While many of you reading really only tune in for toddler pictures (hi family and friends back home!) , my stats page tells me many of you tune in from other expat/Mexico blogs. So on the hunch that many of you reading along are preparing for a big move to Mexico, considering it for the future or are already here, I am continuing the conversation on cost of living.

We lived with my inlaws (four of us, and four of them) for over a year after moving to Mexico. While I may have had my share of complaints, on the whole it was an amazing, educational and beneficial experience. My MIL took the girls and I along to el mercado almost daily to buy groceries for meals. She introduced us to her preferred vendors, showed us the daily rythmns of browsing the stalls, and who and how to saluda. She also mainly showed off her nietas guapas, who everyone still goes nuts over!

While I like to give credit where it is due, it must be admitted. My MILs method of meal planning (or lack there of) and the daily trips to the mercado are not the best way to save your money. She has a fridge and freezer, uses modern appliances and has no reason to go to the mercado daily. We hadn't been here very long when it dawned on me - she doesn't like to sit in the house all day and likes the daily banter of going through the mercado. Heck, I don't like to stay in my house all day! It is understandable. It also has a price though. She spends between 400 and 600 pesos DAILY at the mercado. Daily. 400-450 are spent on food and pantry items. The rest is spent on special candles, things for my SIL (beauty items, clothes, shoes etc) and other various wants.

Now that we have been living in our own place for a good while, I can safely estimate that a family of four can live and eat pretty well on a food budget 200 pesos daily, or much less depending on your dietary needs. We buy lots of fruit, and my girls like the fruits that arent cheap here. So while I could just buy the ugly kind of apple or bananas, we continue to buy pear, plums, various berries etc. Our meals follow pretty closely the suggestions by the USDA "My Plate" campaign. We don't always include a grain at every meal, but sometimes the girls have homemade cinnamon rolls for breakfast so it all evens out ;) The man eats more carne than the girls and I combined, but he also weighs more than the girls and I combined so that is to be expected.

Where to buy food:

Fruits and Veggies - almost always better priced at the mercado.
-Listen for "Miercoles at the Plaza" commercials on TV and other promotions for supermarkets though. I have paid as little as 8 pesos for a kilo of avocado at Chedraui. Right now they average between 30 and 40 pesos per kilo in my area, so paying attention to those annoying commercials is worth it.

Meats and Dairy- often times better priced at supermarkets
-everything comes with more of a waranty of food safety at big bix stores. You are issued receipts at supermarkets, and can view the package date and expiration date. In the mercado the meat may be fresher & "never been frozen" , but it also sits at room temperature all day and perhaps until the next day if it doesnt sell on day one. However, room temperature isn't always a bad thing. There are = healthy ways to prepare and sell fresh meats safely without refridgeration within a certain time frame of being slaughtered (I'm talking about the chicken vendors, most beef and pork butchers have giant fridges and freezers for storing the meat overnight.). If you know someone from your nieghborhood and they can tell you who they buy fresh meat from in your mercado, that would be best. Although we are being overcharged, we have never been sick from our chicken ladies and neither have my inlaws in 20 plus years of buying from them.
-Get what you paid for. Since meat proteins are often the most expensive food item on our list, it is important we are actually getting what we paid for. I own a scale for baking. Yeah. I have checked when I got home if I got my full kilo. And our pollo vendor that is supposedly so " trustworthy" and very popular in the mercado has a scale that is a good 18% off. In their favor of course. I know, everyone has to make a living. Just not at my expense. Sorry!
-Different of cuts of meat should have different costs. At one butcher in the mercado, they charge 105$ pesos per kilo for every cut of pork. Not every cut of pork is worth the same peso amount! At Walmart right now for example, pork chops run around only 50 pesosper kilo. Big difference.
-Also, consider buying in bulk. For example , an entire chicken will only cost you 30-35 pesos per kilo. One chicken weighs 2-3 kilos. So for 3 kilos of chicken you can pay 100 pesos. Buying just the breast would cost you 65-75 pesos per kilo, and the breast usually weighs a kilo+

Household items - better to buy in big box stores.
-I have been told and suspect that many soaps (liquid laundry detergent, fabulouso, bleach etc.) are sold watered down in mercados. Can I prove this? No. Is there a better selection of soaps and household detergents in supermarkets anyway? Yes. You pick.
-Things like household items are often purchased at a supermarket first and then resold in the mercado. I have actually seen one of the mercado vendors at Walmart, buying Fabulouso and other detergents to resell. They add a peso or two to each bottle. It adds up.
-Like I mentioned in the Costco post, some things like toilet paper and toiletries are cheaper at the big bulk stores. Some you are paying for the American brand. Do a little comparing and shopping around on this one.

Special Treats & Snacks - mercado!
-street food vendors have got the art of food prep down, baby! I have tried pambasos at Chedraui, and can you say "gwacala!" . Gross. If someone has been preparing sopes her entire life and selling them in the mercado, I garantee you she has learned a thing or two and her food is way better tasting than bulk prepared Walmart c-r-a-p
-Don't believe in street food? Look for vendors that have a line, who put on a glove or uses a food tissue to accept payment and who have hand sanitizer out for the public use. If someone is smoking a ciggarette and making your food, would that be appetizing to you? Use your noggin and dont be afraid to ask for a prueba. Things like sandwiches and sopes can't be given tastes of, of course - but if you want to try a bite of fruit, or the meat they are selling (carnitas for example) - just ask! If they say they can't , don't be embarrassed. Just like in the States attitudes vary from person to person. It doesn't hurt to ask though, many are super willing to give tastes! Enjoy the picture below of a wonderful street food snack- fruit cocktails!

Grains, Beans and other pantry items -either mercado or big box stores
-This one is harder to generalize. I dont know what grains you like? Will you ever find quinoa in a small mercado? Not likely. Cotsco has a quinoa mix, so that is where I buy it. I am still searching for a better bulk proce on quinoa and other grains, my hunch is the Central de Abastos will be my golden goose egg once I make it there. Are you picky about your rice? If not, just buy whatever they have at the mercado.
-Dried beans are almost always sold in season (meaning they werent dried 2 years ago and have been sitting on a shelf since then, waiting to be purchased.) at mercados, the problemita is I have no idea of knowing which vendors actually have fresh beans or not. It is pick and choose I suppose. Buy one bag from a vendor and see how they cook up! The problem with this theory is I like to have a fully stocked pantry at all times. So I don't like to buy just one kilo of black beans, or quinoa , or rice etc.
-There is almost always more of a variety of flours, sugars, and baking needs at big box stores. The exception is if you happen to have a baking tienda nearby, which we do! This also has to do with how picky you are however. Do you care if the flour you use is bleached? Most flour brands in Mexico have bleaching agents in them. I know. I'm on a search for one that doesn't. Yes, I have a label reading addiction.

So, that is my take on where to buy food and household needs in Mexico. There is one major exception - if you live in a town or area that has a FARMERS market, all comments above are out the window. The kind of mercado I am writing about is where the vendors wake early, drive the the central de abastos, buy food in bulk and resell it in their neighborhood for a slightly higher price. These vendors are NOT farmers. There are occasional people who sell their own grown fruits or veggies. Like the nopale man and corn truck near us.

By all means PLEASE buy directly from a farmer whenever you have a chance.. They don't charge any higher than other vendors, and they need to be supported by their communities. This is another post, but there is a horribly cruel reason which fruit and veggies prices are generally so low here in Mexico. I will touch on it another time, but it is a big problem for the farming community here. Support these small farmers if you get the chance!

And as a reminder, I live in northern Mexico City. Prices and availability of goods vary throughout the country, just like in the USA.


  1. I love to read posts like this to see the price differences all over the world. It seems to be the same here as far as where to buy what although I have no access to bulk stores.

    1. Jennifer,
      I didnt get tooo specific on actualy costs because I didnt know if people would like thqt kind of thing. Bt now that I know you do, I will def do another pot sometime.

      The fruit we bought yesterday:
      Gala apples - 35 per kilo
      Yellow plums - 35 per kilo
      Baby mangos - 10 per kilo
      Bbybananas - 12 per kilo
      Canteloupe - 10 each
      Watermelon - 15 pesos for half a watermelon
      Liches - 50 pesos per kilo (havent bought these in a couple weeks, I think they had a short season because I dont see them anymore! Super sad about this!)

      For dinner we had a roast chicken and sweet potatos. Sweet potatoes run about 35 per kilo (yikes, huh?) . A salad with italian lettuce (10 pesos per head) and the pretty ball tomatoes (15 per kilo) , and onion slices (7 per kilo for white onion and 15 per kilo for red onion) .

      Anyway, thanks for commenting! I love to read this kind of stuff too LOL. And especially before we moved, I was a googling and blog scanning freak! ;)

  2. Nice breakdown!

    And I've been thinking about getting a scale for following Mexican baking recipes . . . and it can double to check the accuracy of my vendors' scales! Can't believe your chicken lady is off that much! Well, no . . . I guess I can! ;)

    1. Yeah Jill, and they are the sweetest ladies . My kiddos even know their names and run to their stall to greet them. Too bad, huh?

      And a scale for baking is a must! So must quicker than using measuring cups. :)