You don't know what you don't know April 2016

11 Apr 2016 | Mandie Rose van der Meer

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By Mandie Rose van der Meer
April 2016


You don’t know what you don’t know (#YDKWYDK)

An ACCESS column for expats in the early stages of their Dutch journey


If you’re new in the Netherlands – however you define ‘new’ – there is a lot to learn about how the locals live. It’s hard to sit back and observe the culture around you while you’re busy food shopping, for example, so let me do it for you! After all, you don’t know what you don’t know.


This month’s focus: the Dutch supermarket.




Hmm, let’s see. You’re being pushed out of the way while trying to decide between the big bag of kale or the bigger bag of kale. You’re being pushed out of the way while trying to decipher the difference between yoghurt, vla, kwark and karnemelk (which are very, very, very different dairy products). You’re being pushed out of the way while trying to determine which one of the seven choices of bacon is actually the one you want. I know! You’re in a Dutch supermarket.


Okay, it’s not the kind of pushing that will knock you over. It’s more like a scoot. But be prepared: in the supermarket your Dutch neighbour is not going to politely stand to the side waiting for you to make a choice. Quick and efficient shopping is the norm here, which won’t be easy for you at the start (seriously, karnemelk is very, very, very different from regular milk), and you’ll eventually start to push back a little yourself.


But let me start from the beginning, before you exit your car or dismount your bicycle. Do you have your own shopping bags? This custom is such a major part of Dutch culture nowadays that a law has been passed whereby we are charged about 10 to 20 cents per plastic bag we use, if we don’t bring our own. Now that you’ve got your bags, you’re ready to grab a shopping cart. You’ll quickly learn that you need a coin in order to free a cart, otherwise you’re dragging a train of 17 carts around, drawing unnecessary attention to yourself and likely knocking over one of the workers stocking shelves at all hours of the day. I just found out from good friends at ACCESS that if you forget a coin or just gave it away so your child could ride the helicopter outside, then you can ask the customer service desk for a muntje (pronounced “MUN-chyah”), an in-house coin that works just as well as a 50-cent piece. Now you’re set to follow the flow of traffic as best you can.


Usually the first section you come to is produce, or fruits and vegetables. At some supermarkets you must weigh items yourself at the scales provided. Look for instructions on the digital touch screen where you’ll hit the bon button for the barcode sticker for your bananas. If you’re unsure how this works, ask another shopper.


Beyond the fruits and veggies the layout of a Dutch supermarket can be surprising. Peanut butter, for example, is kept near the jam (not because these two foods are eaten together here – they are not). These jars are kept by the Nutella which is near those hagelslag sprinkles close to those hard, round cracker-type discs called beschuit which are in the neighbourhood of the oatmeal which is next to the cereal – which is definitely not kept in the same aisle as the pancake mix but which might be by the breads. And we finally come to the logic of this structure: these are Dutch breakfast foods.


You’ll find sugar next to the coffee, not next to the flour. Vermicelli noodles next to the bouillon cubes, not with the other pastas. Black beans with the taco shells, not with other canned beans. Eggs are not refrigerated but margarine is. Organic foods? Well, wherever there’s shelf space, if available at all. A nice plus is that beer and wine are available in supermarkets, although rarely kept cold.


Funny thing about one of the final steps in your Dutch supermarket ritual? Despite all the pushing back at the start, at the end there’s a lovely deed I’ve always appreciated. Once you bring your items to the register and start loading them on to the belt, you’ll see that the shopper in front of you will place the beurtbalkje between his groceries and yours. The beurtbalkje (roughly pronounced “BERT-bahlk-yah”, a word little known even to Dutch people, so now you may impress them) is that plastic pyramid-shaped baton with the supermarket’s logo. I find it a friendly gesture by my Dutch neighbours.


Then again… now that I think of it, this custom probably has nothing to do with being polite and has more to do with making sure he doesn’t get stuck paying for my groceries!


By the way, karnemelk is buttermilk. You’ll see it’s in a red carton. Full-fat milk is in a dark blue carton, while 0% milk is in a light blue carton. The less fat in the milk, the lighter the blue on the carton. Now you know!



Mandie Rose van der Meer is a writer, editor and ACCESS volunteer originally from New York City. When she discovered that a certain American mayonnaise was in stock at her supermarket in Noordwijk, she actually did a dance in the aisle in front of the teenagers stocking groceries. Share your supermarket stress at


Have you read the Spring 2016 ACCESS Magazine, which is all about Dutch food? Learn about Dutch cuisine, unconventional eats in Amsterdam, lekker Limburg cafés and restaurants, how Dutch neighbours do takeaway, and what to expect from the only book of its kind, Food Shopper’s Guide to Holland. There’s much more about life in the Netherlands! Enjoy the read.


For more stories of expats’ personal experiences settling in here, check out the book Ready, Steady, Go Dutch, published by & ACCESS. For example, Chapter 4 covers daily life; chapter 10 covers the best and the worst of life in the Netherlands. Available for purchase at English bookshops in Holland, or via the website:




Note: The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of ACCESS.

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