Food in America

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Updated 2021-08-02 08:22

The United States is a culinary melting pot, with cuisine as diverse as its people. While it's true that stereotypically “American” foods such as the hamburger are popular, there are many more delicious and unique things to be found. Expats in the U.S. should count themselves lucky as restaurants offering almost every type of international cuisine can be found in most cities. If not, you're still likely to find the necessary ingredients — either in an international market or online — to prepare your preferred dish at home.

What is traditional American cuisine like?

The United States doesn't necessarily have a traditional cuisine the way many other countries do. Mention 'American' foods and most people will quickly say hamburgers, hot dogs, and apple pie. But even these foods are an American take on foreign dishes. The multi-national heritage of the US is fully evident in its food, meaning that many cuisines brought to the country have been adapted to the taste and ingredients that are locally available. Some of the most popular Americanized cuisines in the US are Mexican, Italian, and Chinese (Cantonese).

Perhaps the most traditional meal in the United States is Thanksgiving, a national holiday celebrated each year on the fourth Thursday in November. The centerpiece of the meal is a whole roasted turkey. Common side dishes include stuffing, roasted sweet potatoes, cranberry jelly or sauce, and pumpkin pie. These side dishes can sometimes vary based on the heritage or regional influence of those preparing the meal.

Regional food specialties in the US

As a geographically large and ethnically diverse country, different regions have distinctive food traditions and popular dishes. Popular cuisines in each region have been heavily influenced by the availability of local ingredients and the groups which originally settled in each area. For example, the northeastern states are known for their lobsters and clams, and even have seasonal festivals dedicated to all things shellfish. Cuisine in the midwest has been shaped by the abundant farms and ranches, meaning that beef, potatoes, and corn form the basis of many meals. Heartier still is southern cuisine, which features corn grits, biscuits, and endless varieties of barbecue. The southwest offers a lot of Mexican and Mexican-inspired dishes that include spicy salsas, beans, and grilled meat. In the northwest, there is abundant wild-caught salmon, an emerging wine region, and a large movement towards sustainable food practices.

Allergies and food preferences

One benefit of having such a fluid food culture is that those with food allergies or dietary preferences will have no problem finding meals to accommodate their needs. From fast food to fine dining, most restaurants will alter dishes or offer modifications to a customer's preference, making it convenient for many. Menus and grocery store packaging are required to clearly label allergens present in foods, such as gluten, nuts, and animal or dairy products.

Dining out in the US

Dining out in the United States is very common and expats will find many options from fast food to some of the best restaurants in the world. Seafood lovers will want to stick to the coasts where all varieties of seafood are available. Those interested in fine dining should head to New York City, Washington D.C., Chicago, and San Francisco, all of which are home to many Michelin-starred restaurants. Vegetarians, vegans, or those interested in restaurants featuring locally-sourced products will want to keep Portland, Oregon, Los Angeles, and New York City in mind as they are destination cities for these types of cuisine.

Good to know: 

Tipping in U.S. restaurants is a standard practice, with 15-20% of the total bill added on as gratuity. It's especially important to tip restaurant servers because they are paid less than the minimum wage with an expectation that gratuities will make up the rest of their wages. When paying for a meal, you may leave a tip in cash or by writing it in on the final bill, to be deducted from your credit card. Tipping is only mandatory at sit-down meals where food is ordered from and brought to your table. In casual restaurants or coffee shops where you order at a counter, small tips are appreciated but not required.

Grocery shopping in the US

If you prefer to cook at home, you will find lots of options for doing your grocery shopping.

Most people do their grocery shopping at dedicated grocery stores like Whole Foods, Jewel-Osco, Meijer, Trader Joe's and others. You will find lots of variety here and will be able to stock up on anything from fruits and veggies to ready-cooked meals. Some stores offer online shopping and can have groceries delivered right to your door. This can be quite convenient as most big grocery chains are not typically found in downtown areas.

Department stores are huge one-stop shops where you can buy practically anything: from groceries to furniture to hiking gear. Some of the biggest department stores in the US are Target, Costco and Walmart. Many of these stores will also have banks, pharmacies and small eateries on their premises. They also tend to have better prices than grocery stores — especially if you buy in bulk.

Finally, convenience stores and gas stations are places where you can quickly pick up some small daily items like soft drinks and snacks. However, it's generally not a good idea to buy groceries here as prices can be quite high.

You can also buy groceries at farmers' markets. These are typically organized as a collection of stands where sellers sell home-grown produce, handmade items, flowers, craft goods and more. These are especially popular during the summer months.

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