Suzanne Tobias

Grocery game a chance to teach life skills

Get your shoes on, I told my 13-year-old son last weekend, as he lay on the couch playing some kind of mind-numbing video game.

You’re going to the grocery store with me.

Jack may have sighed or rolled his eyes. Maybe he gave me a pathetic look. I can’t recall exactly what prompted me to up the ante, but the next words out of my mouth were inspired:

“Tell you what,” I said. “How about if I take half the list, and you take the other? And we’ll see who finishes first.”

“You mean by myself?” he said, suddenly interested. “In the store? With my own cart?”

That’s right, I said, and began splitting the shopping list, writing his items neatly on an index card. I gave him several basics – milk, eggs, bread, ground beef – and a few challenges.

“Chicken broth?” Jack said. “I don’t know where that is. What if I can’t find it? … I don’t know about this.”

Heavens, I thought. It’s not like I was pointing toward a dusty corral and saying, “See that wild mustang there, son? Go break him. And don’t come back until he’s gentle as a Shetland pony.”

It’s not like I handed him a pair of hair-cutting shears and said, “Do me a favor, would you, and fashion me a nice pixie cut? Not too high around the ears.”

I wasn’t sending him alone into a vast and uncharted wilderness. This was a 21st-century urban supermarket, with a deli and an olive bar and a full-service Starbucks. And Jack is 13, plenty old enough to shop for groceries.

If you can’t find something, I told him, just do what every other clueless young man does when asked by some aspiring chef in his life to fetch saffron threads, lemon curd or spicy pickled okra: Read signs. Ask an employee. Or ask a middle-aged woman who looks like she knows what she’s doing. (An envelope full of coupons is a sure sign, I said, as is squeezing or thumping things knowingly in the produce section.)

As we drove to the store, Jack reviewed his list and plotted his strategy. My hastily drawn-up plan – first one back to the Super Bowl pop display with all the required items wins! – had tapped into that most basic of teenage-boy instincts: competition. This boring errand just became worth his time.

Jack didn’t ask if there would be a prize. He didn’t care. He grabbed a cart and headed for the cereal aisle.

He did, in fact, win the contest. When I finished my shopping and turned back toward the pop display, I saw Jack smiling over his cart full of groceries. He had almost everything right – pulp-free orange juice, 1-percent milk, boxes of store-brand cereal that were somewhat healthy and less than $2.50 apiece. The egg carton looked different, and I realized they were medium instead of our usual grade-A large.

“Oh,” Jack said, disappointed. “But you didn’t say what size. So I figured, happy medium.”

Makes sense, I smiled. Together, we wheeled our carts back to the egg section and traded the mediums for large. I showed Jack how to open the carton to check for broken eggs. I also taught him crucial supermarket etiquette, pulling our carts to an open area rather than blocking the entire egg display. Valuable lessons, all.

Then we wandered back to the produce section, because I had forgotten bananas. On the way, Jack spotted some spicy corn chips and asked if we could get a bag, so I shrugged and threw them into the cart. Cheap and easy first-place prize.

I was the real winner, though, having discovered a way to not only jazz up an everyday errand, but to teach my son some life skills as well. Next time, I thought, I’ll throw him some real curve balls – frozen edamame, perhaps, or coriander seeds, or mascara. Maybe I’ll challenge him to find a high-protein, low-calorie after-school snack. We’ll find a recipe and then search out the fixings for a family dinner that costs $10 or less.

And we’ll expand the game to include my 16-year-old daughter, who doesn’t mind cooking but believes ingredients just appear in the pantry, as if delivered by the Grocery Fairy.

Well, the Grocery Fairy has retired, replaced by the Go-Get-’Em Grocery Game. Win-win.