C-VILLE Kids! The littlest shopper: Hitting the market with your child can be fun and tantrum-free

Photo by Cramer Photo Photo by Cramer Photo

Too often, grocery shopping with kids is the scene of blood-curdling screams and tantrums. It’s no accident that balloons, gumball machines, and colorful packaging abound, transforming the best-behaved child into a pile of flailing limbs. Executives bank on the fact that parents will give in to purple ketchup and SpongeBob yogurt to avoid embarrassment.

Maisie’s been my shopping companion since she was strapped to my front, being tickled by beet leaves and fennel fronds. Four years later, she’s still my shopping buddy, but a perambulatory one who lends an able hand. Our favorite place to shop are farmers’ markets, but we depend on grocery stores in the off-season and to fill in gaps year-round.

Maisie’s summertime pasta1/2 box of whole wheat linguine
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and lightly smashed
4 small zucchini, washed and sliced into thin rounds
Salt and pepper
1 pint grape tomatoes (in various colors), rinsed
Handful of basil leaves, torn or chiffonaded
Freshly grated parmigiano-reggianoBring a large pasta pot of water to a boil. Heat olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat and add garlic cloves. Once they become fragrant, add the zucchini, seasoning with salt and pepper and cooking until browned and softened. Add whole tomatoes to the zucchini and cook until their skins split and their juices ooze. Season again. Remove garlic cloves. Add a generous handful of salt to boiling water and cook pasta one to two minutes shy of package directions, saving a half cup of pasta water before draining. Combine drained pasta with the vegetables, adding a drizzle of olive oil or some pasta water if necessary. Top with fresh basil and lots of parmigiano. Serves 3.

I’ve honed my approach at the big stores. We go after breakfast or lunch (full tummies prevent meltdowns—for both of us), I always bring a snack, water, and a sweater (Arctic temperatures make anyone cranky), and I organize my shopping list by aisle. We spend the bulk of the trip in the produce section, picking out ripe avocados and quizzing one another on the names of unusual fruits and veggies. As I select, I discuss a dish, coming up with alternatives if there’s no rapini or if the bok choy looks tired. We translate the word for artichokes into Italian (carciofi!) and hold shiitakes over our heads, pretending that they’re mini umbrellas.

It’s hard to explain why I don’t buy strawberries in January even though they look red and juicy. I remind Maisie that it’s warm when we pick our own berries and that they ripen in sunshine—not snow. I bought off-season berries for her once so that she could taste the difference. She gorged herself despite their white, flavorless cores and then suffered a stomachache the rest of the day. Now she asks me if “it’s time yet” for blueberries, tomatoes, or figs and eagerly awaits the different seasons’ splendors.

During trips down the stores’ center aisles, she notices the bright colors and cartoon characters as any child would, so I let her explore the packages. If she ever asks why we aren’t buying such an item, I say that it’s junk food. Never did I expect such a pat response to work, but to this day, she shows no interest in neon foods or cereal with marshmallows in it. At preschool once, she was offered Cheez-its for a snack and when I asked her if she enjoyed them, she said, “No! They were orange!”

Come summer, the Wednesday farmers’ market at Meade Park is our weekly stop. It’s shadier and less crowded than Saturday’s City Market—and there are no doughnuts to tempt us. We chat with the purveyors, sample veggie burgers, smell sunflowers, and treat ourselves to a Pantheon popsicle. Sometimes Maisie even leaves with a balloon, but the experience connects her to the people who grow what’s for dinner and to the fact that food—in its most natural state—already comes in a rainbow of beautiful colors.