Learning Culture at the Grocery Store

It may be odd, but I love taking my children to the grocery store with me. I like to set time aside to spend getting what I need, but I also like taking our time to just look around. Of course, when my children were very small, it was harder to do this. However, once they turn three or so, I love the conversations that come up and the amazing learning opportunities.

Discussing the learning you can foster in a grocery store is easy. Grocery stores offer your children math practice through looking at prices and sales or weighing produce. You can practice reading and letters by looking at labels and signs. You can discuss nutrition with your children by looking at why you buy more fruits and vegetables and not as many sweets. Learning culture is also accessible while looking at all the different foods.

Food is a huge part of most cultures. Typically, a culture eats what is grown locally. However, with the growing connection globally, we have so much more available in our grocery stores. I am not just talking about the international section (though I will address that section), because many sections have a wider range of options than what is available locally.

What sections in the grocery store can foster learning about culture? The short answer is all of them. However, let’s break that down.…

  • The international section feels like the most obvious place to start. When you look in that section, you may find some things that look familiar, but do not be intimidated by the new ingredients. Be willing to try new food and to learn about it, because your children see your response to it. Pay attention to which culture is displayed with the brand.
  • The frozen food section is another great place to see new foods. I love seeing a new food in the frozen section and then finding a recipe to make it my own. Though it is easier buying a frozen food and just warming it up, many times how it is made originally is a big part of the culture. One of my favorite examples for my family is egg rolls. I could just buy them frozen, but I found an easy recipe and the kids love helping me make them. After looking into the culture linked to them, we would sometimes change some ingredients to make them our own.
  • The rest of the sections, including the refrigerated section, meats, breads, fruits, and vegetables, are also great areas to explore new foods! You probably have your go-to staples for the week, but when your children ask about something (it can be any ingredient), you have the opportunity to go deeper. Going beyond how you “normally” use the ingredient can expand their view of foods that they may even feel are common. Expanding their views of foods can also help them be more adventurous in trying new things.
  • Finally, I wanted to mention specialty grocery stores. These are the stores that are focused on reaching a certain audience. Maybe it is a “natural” grocery store or an “Asian” grocery store, but it is one that you may not frequent for your staple food items. These stores are worth the trip! You will see different foods or different ways foods are sold. They are great opportunities to learn about others and expand your palate. Many of these types of grocery stores even have restaurants or cafes inside of them. My challenge to you is to make it an outing. Go try new food, then explore the store together. If this is not something you already do, your children will be delighted to spend that time exploring with you. Let them know when you do not know something, and connect with them through learning together!

 Here is a process you can use when learning about other cultures in the grocery store:

  • First, if your children ask about an ingredient, be willing to discuss it. Also, be willing to ask about foods yourself. Start with your history with the item. How did you eat it growing up? What were the different ways it was used or made? What was your favorite way it was used? When you start the conversation, you spark interest, and that interest can lead to asking about other items in the store.
  • Next, start stretching the scope of the ingredient. What are other ways it is used in other parts of the country you live in? Expand your children’s view of that food while still staying in your own culture. A good example of this for our family is okra. Where my husband and I are from, okra is grown locally. My husband loved eating okra many different ways, whereas I mostly stuck to fried okra. When we saw the ingredient at the farmer’s market, I decided to try different ways of making it for my kids. They were amazed how many ways you could cook okra and loved how my husband and I had different stories linked to the different ways we made it. They were gaining understanding of the culture they were coming from.
  • Once you have reached the end of your knowledge, you can join your child in expanding your knowledge together. This part is where the internet comes in. How is this ingredient used in other countries? Find some recipes to explore together. Going back to my okra example, we were amazed that okra is big in India! When we ate Indian food in a restaurant one night, we decided to try the okra, or as they called it, “bhindi.” It was delicious! My husband was the one who ordered it and loved it. Not only did we expand our children’s view of the ingredient, but our knowledge of how it could be used expanded also!
  • Finally, you want to explore together how culture relates to[ES5]  this food. Look at your own culture as well as others. You may even want to look at the history of the ingredient in relation to this culture. As you start researching together, go down the rabbit trails. Let this be something that you enjoy together. Finishing up the okra example, I saw how differently the two cultures used the same ingredient and how the culture is what influenced those cooking techniques.

The full process for exploring foods may not happen in the grocery cart, but the conversation starts there. If you cannot buy the ingredient immediately, take a picture of it and jot down the name. You can discuss what you know right then, but make sure to bring it up later and expand on it. Maybe do some research of your own before coming to your children. Have some videos and websites ready to go. Once you start looking, what you find will probably surprise you, maybe even about your own culture!

Some questions to ask as you explore the food of a culture:

  • How did this culture get introduced to the ingredient? Is it grown there or natural to the area? Was it imported or introduced through another culture?
  • How is this ingredient used? Is it used in a way unique to this culture?
  • How is this item used in this culture compared to other cultures?
  • Is this ingredient used in many recipes or few? Why do you think that is?
  • Is this item used for food for a festival or celebration of any kind with this culture? Why?
  • How do other cultures view this ingredient? How do you view this ingredient?

On this post I will include a free printable for allowing your children to do their own exploring at the grocery store! These can be printed off and filled out while you are shopping, or your children can use them to make their own notebooks for exploring new foods. They can jot down the prompts before going and fill out what they can there. Having a notebook can allow them to explore an ingredient further in the aspects that intrigue them the most. Happy Hunting!