“We’re out of sandwich bags. Again!” my 17-year-old huffed with the amount of exasperation one might reserve for an issue far more troubling than swaddling ham and cheese on wheat bread inside foil or plastic wrap.
“We don’t have any good snacks either,” his 13-year-old brother added.
He didn’t mean a piece of fruit or yogurt. He was referring to the kind of treat that listed sugar as its top ingredient, or a salty wonder that left a coating of neon orange dust on his fingers.
With an alarming frequency, these complaints, grumbled amid a cacophony of drawers closed with a bang and pantry and refrigerator doors slammed shut, had become the soundtrack to my first waking moments.
Friends and neighbors told me I should be grateful my boys were fixing their own breakfasts and lunches, allowing me to enjoy another 15 minutes of sleep, but these crack-of-dawn skirmishes were exhausting — and undeserved.
I hadn’t stopped grocery shopping. For years, I’d been doing the bulk of it, which, for a family of five, sometimes involved one large shop and two smaller visits for milk, bread, fruit, and vegetables per week. My husband helped out when asked or needed. But because I have a more flexible schedule, the bulk of it fell to me.
I always made sure the big things — hot dinners complete with side dishes — and staples — toilet paper and soap — were on hand, as well as all the boys’ favorites. So how had it come to this?
I spent days puzzling over a solution. And then I did something I’d avoided for the better part of a decade: The next time I went grocery shopping I took them with me.
I’d abandoned this when they were younger because it was painful for me and nearly every other customer at the market. I still had flashbacks of my boys weaving precariously past shoppers pretending our cart was a runaway train. I winced as I recalled heads of iceberg lettuce and bouquets of broccoli sailing over the produce section as they attempted to sink three-pointers in my cart. Then there were the checkout stand showdowns over candy bars and beef jerky.
Was I up for all that again? I had no choice. When I told them the new plan, they flinched. “No, Mom, please! We hate grocery shopping!” they whined.
“Do you think I enjoy it?” I asked.
Before we left, I had them carefully write down all the items they’d need for the coming week. On the way to the store, I imparted life lessons on the importance of comparing unit prices for various sizes but balancing cost savings with common sense. “No one needs six pounds of pickles even if it’s the better deal, get it?”
I attempted to caution them about the slippery slope of sale tags. “If it says ‘Must buy three,’ well, boys, if you want that bargain price, you must buy three.
"And remember, always check expiration dates,” I told them.
Armed with our own lists, we divided and conquered. Once they learned where everything was located, we finished much faster than if I’d shopped solo. Sometimes I spent $20 more than I would’ve had I gone alone because of their impulse purchases or desire to stockpile chips and desserts. But if it saved me the time and trouble of a midweek trip, it felt like a small price to pay.
As weeks passed, their groans disappeared as they realized this new ritual had become as unavoidable as showering. And then something happened. They began working as a team. “You get the bagels, I’ll get the cream cheese,” I overheard them negotiate.
Together, we shared in the thrill of finding a beloved product on sale, celebrated the joy of a good coupon, delighted at remembering we needed eggs before we were back in the car.
Now when I come into the kitchen my sons will say, “When are we going to the store again? We’re out of cheese. But don’t worry, I’ve added it to my list.”
If someone had told me a decade ago that we’d be grocery shopping together again, I’d have thought they were high on sugar cereals. But these unlikely outings have restored our once-peaceful mornings and given my teens a tasteful reminder that I’m their mom, and not a one-woman Fresh Direct.
Elizabeth Alterman is a writer and editor living in Chatham, N.J. Find her on Twitter @LizAlterman.