When I was a little kid, the most exciting day of the week was the day my parents decided they had enough time to take my sister and me to buy groceries. Growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta, grocery shopping meant either a nonchalant trip to Kroger or Publix, or a serious time investment of at least two hours at Costco.
Buying food was not only a way for me to spend more time with my parents, it also brought my sister and I closer together, because we made grocery shopping a goddamn occasion.
We were obsessed with Food Network, to the point that we would watch the shows, take notes about the ingredients, look up recipes online and base our ingredient shopping lists on the shows.
We alternated doing our routine mail check for that Costco coupon pack that would arrive every few weeks. The day it came, we would sit together at our kitchen counter and debate about which bulk products were worth buying, whether it was a 40-pack of Rice Krispies or three large tubs of lobster dip. While the final verdict was ultimately decided by Mom or Dad, we took pride in the fact that we could, at least in some way, influence the goods that our family kept in the household.
Visiting Costco basically felt like going to a spa. If you were feeling stressed or worried about something, you could walk in there, indulge in free samples, grab a satiating but relatively inexpensive meal from the food court, and walk out with a cartful of staple Kirkland products, feeling much better because you literally just bought a bunch of STUFF and because you can now eat that STUFF.
Whether it was the double chocolate muffins, the huge bags of raw walnuts, packages of filleted salmon, or the canned tuna…Costco was a utopia to behold.
It wasn’t until high school, when my family moved out of the suburbs and closer to downtown, that we even considered shopping at places like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.
I’m pretty sure the only time I ever stepped foot in a Whole Foods – in Atlanta – was when I had to wait there to get picked up by a friend. I didn’t buy anything, feeling put off by the organic, wholesome manner of the store. Where were the bins of discount items about to expire? The dozens of bright tags advertising special deals?
One milestone that I didn’t expect to impact my grocery shopping life was getting my license. I remember that evening, defiantly declaring to my parents that I was going to Target by myself, “just because.” We didn’t need any food, I just wanted to go somewhere on my own. The day I got my license was the day that I became an independent grocery shopper. I could buy my own food – not just snacks and meals at school, but actual ingredients to make my own meals.
Since that point, I’ve become much more autonomous when it comes to food, and I’ve definitely seen it translate over in my college routine.
The grocery store is a comfort zone, full of staple buys and familiar products, but it’s also a place to experiment. When I go, I know the things that I love and have loved to buy. I tend towards apples, chicken sausage, broccoli…but while I seldom tire of these ingredients, I feel compelled to stretch myself every once in a while.
What I buy reflects my eating lifestyle, which currently revolves around meal prep, healthy eating and experimentation. I gravitate towards wholesome, fresh foods that are simple and straightforward.
But I can’t take credit for these food consumption principles. They were instilled in me from a very young age, by my parents, who always emphasized fresh produce, nutritional snacks, indulging in moderation and buying organic when necessary.
Obviously, there was a strong influence on Chinese cooking throughout my childhood, but growing up as an ABC (American-born Chinese) definitely had its perks, in that my sister and I were often the experts on pasta, burgers, salads, etc. We were encouraged and celebrated for thinking of buying the ingredients in the first place, and following through and trying to create the dish.
At the same time, however, grocery shopping has become more of a nuisance in college. While I still love cooking, multiple factors – the busyness of college life, the physical difficulty of trekking to a grocery store and somehow carrying everything back myself – have reduced it to more of a chore in my life.
Though I do have a roommate, I’m technically shopping for one – myself.
Still, I try to make an event of it sometimes, going to “splurge” stores like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s with friends. I haven’t lost that spark, that excitement – I think it’s just temporarily dormant, suppressed by the other interesting people and activities that I’ve encountered in college.
When I was young, the question was always, “Can I?”
These days, it’s “Should I?”