To market we go

My mom made frequent trips to the grocery store. She’d cart me along more often than not, and I’d wait for what felt like forever as she trawled the aisles for this or that. It’s a habit I’ve picked up in recent years in the eternal quest for fresh ingredients and fair prices. Perhaps that’s why my 8-year-old son Ben has developed an aversion to grocery shopping that ensures a frustrated “aarrgghhh” whenever a trip to the store is on the to-do list.

“I don’t like shopping. It takes up too much time,” Ben says. “The store is so big and it takes so long to look over everything.” I usually take the easy way out and do the shopping on my own. But what if there were a way to make the experience more engaging?

With this in mind, I came up with an experiment. Simply put, let the kid do the shopping. Ben would do the meal planning and shopping for a weekend. I would stay out of the way (except for the cooking). His response to the proposition was warm if not ebullient. The parameters: a $50 budget, at least two meals planned ahead for each day. And ingredients already on hand are fair game.

While Ben might not like shopping, food does matter to him. He’s a staunch vegetarian and a fervent critic of fast food. He even looks at product labels for fat and calories (sometimes), though his grasp of serving sizes and calories is tenuous at best.

Idealism meets reality
Before making our foray to the market, I asked Ben for his parameters. “I would, number one, get a little bit more candy — just a little. I would not pick anything, and I mean anything, coated in plastic, wood, or metal. I will not pick anything that contains something that can harm the environment. And I will not pick any animal beside chicken and turkey and occasionally fish [for Dad, who is not a vegetarian].” The kid’s got an idealistic streak a mile wide. But as any seasoned shopper knows, the grocery store can undermine even the best intentions with its many temptations and trade-offs.

We sat down to plan the menu, me gently urging pragmatism, him throwing out increasingly complex, even fantastical concoctions. Ultimately, we settled on a mix of items including, among other things, shrimp, tofu, broccoli, cauliflower, apples, cereal, and that useful umbrella for all things fatty and fabulous, “snacks.”

With list in hand, we made our way to our local co-op, chosen by Ben for its manageable size. The kid wanted to get in, get his stuff, and get out.

Once in the store, the list became something of an afterthought. The first thing in the basket? A coconut. A head of broccoli soon followed. Ben grudgingly opted to put a fresh cauliflower back in favor of frozen when I pointed out the price per pound. (He was none too excited at the unforeseen need to incorporate math into his shopping trip, either.) I had to talk him down from purchasing an $18 whole organic chicken — a budget buster extraordinaire. Most of the items on the list eventually made their way into the basket along with packaged cookies, pricey chocolate truffles, whole wheat bagel chips, a big hunk of Muenster cheese and various flavors of Mexican soda.

For a more objective take on our grocery store haul, I asked Amelia Macahia, a nutrition education assistant with the University of Minnesota’s Extension service to evaluate Ben’s picks. Not surprisingly, she rated the soda and sweets low, but gave high marks for the majority of his picks including the Cinnamon Life cereal. Her advice: “He can always choose more fresh fruits and veggies. Think colors. He should have fruits and veggies from the green, red, white, yellow/orange, and blue/purple groups.” She also cautioned against seeing all cheese as equal. “Muenster cheese is a very good source of calcium, protein, and Vitamin A,” she says. “The problem is, it’s very high in saturated fat.”

The fruits of our labors
Getting Ben into the kitchen was far easier than getting him into the grocery aisles. He loves to cook as long as it’s on his own terms. No recipes, no rules, just inspiration. Planning meals ahead and actually doing the shopping helped keep him a bit more grounded. We ate well all weekend, though not as elaborately as Ben might have envisioned. Case in point, while the centerpiece of Sunday’s dinner — shrimp noodle soup — went off without a hitch, we couldn’t quite satisfy Ben’s presentation standards, as I have no clue how to perch shrimp upright along the rim of a soup bowl. More often than not, we ended up with a simpler but still satisfying creation.

Most striking to me in talking with Ben about the experience was his new awareness of what I assumed was obvious as when he made the observation: “Everything is in packaging. I didn’t really realize that.” Or “I was surprised that a bar of chocolate truffle would be $2.29 because most of the chocolate I get would be only $1.” Obvious to me, not necessarily obvious to a kid.

I’d like to say the experience represents a watershed. But I think, at least in our case, it’s a more incremental move toward grocery shopping enlightenment. In Ben’s own words: “I enjoyed it, but shopping isn’t my style.” Even so, he now knows a little bit more about how a trip to the store translates to a meal on the table.

Stephanie Xenos is a freelance writer living in St. Paul.

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