The next time you go to the grocery store, try this: Put the children in charge. I know, it sounds insane. We don’t let kids drive the car, play with knives, or manage our finances. Why, on God’s green earth, would you let them be in charge at the grocery store?
Okay, I have lots of bad ideas (raising honeybees with anaphylaxis was probably a bad idea). But I don’t think this is one of them, especially once I lay down ground rules. Here’s how this works for us:
Once a month, I put one of the kids (we have a 10-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son) in charge of picking the ingredients for a particular meal. The rules: The meal has to include a lean protein, vegetables, and a fruit. Whole grains are okay, but bread is out, unless you bake it yourself. You need to think about how we’ll cook the food. Finally, the food has to be fresh.
The rules are designed to teach them to shop on the outside of the grocery store–where the fresh ingredients tend to hide. The rules also describe what I value nutritionally. They force the children to think through the meal as a whole—from ingredients to cooking to consumption. And finally, empowering the kids to make their own decisions usually means they’ll eat what is served.
The first time I put my daughter in charge of dinner was last fall. We parked at a local grocery store and before we got out of the car, she asked, “What are we getting for dinner?” I smiled, looked at her, and said, “That depends. What are you picking out?”
This had two immediate effects: Her face contorted into a wry grin, which is usually accompanied by her high-pitched maniacal laugh, and I squirmed on my wallet. This was going to cost me. Where a normal 10-year-old might head to the frozen pizza aisle, my daughter makes a bee-line towards the seafood display. My smug foodie interior rejoices; my stomach and wallet wishes she’d gone for the pizza freezer.
She headed for the entrance and made immediate eye contact with the fishmonger in the back. “Let’s go get Fred,” she said. “Fred” is her term for any fish that still has its head attached in the display. My son, no fan of “Freds,” groaned.
“Am I going to have to look at that the whole way home?” he said.
The thing is, taking kids grocery shopping is never easy. Studies have illustrated just how difficult it is for parents to make healthy choices at the grocery store when their kids are in tow. And marketers know this. That’s why cereal manufacturers, for example, buy shelf space at child level and design the cartoon characters on their boxes to make eye contact with kids.
But it’s also an opportunity. Children pick up on our dietary habits at a very young age—the good and the bad. When my kids go to the store with me, I get to act like a tour guide to their health and palates. “This is a leek; I use them in soups instead of onions.” “This is a fennel bulb; it tastes like licorice when it’s roasted.” “This is fresh river trout; my father and I used to fish for these with corn.”
These conversations continue in the car, around the stove and at the dinner table. We hope we’re building a healthy discussion of food. It was harder when they were young; just getting them out of the car and into the grocery cart was torture—and the conversation seemed futile. (Here are some great grocery-shopping tips for parents of small children). But as they aged, they engaged.
When Elise picks Fred, I feel like I have won the parenting lottery. She chose a lean, healthy protein without me interfering. Then she picked a green vegetable–fresh green beans. And her choices led to simple cooking methods—a quick sauté or baking for the fish, a light steam or blanching for the vegetables—simple enough for her to help.
I couldn’t be more proud. I just wish I had won the actual lottery, because “Fred” and his head cost $10 a pound.
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