A Grocery Store Is a Window on the World for Children

The pandemic has erased most of my kids' memories of urban life.

little girl in grocery cart

Getty Images / chee gin tan

I had not realized the extent of my children's COVID-induced isolation until I took them recently into a grocery store in a moderately-sized urban center several hours from our home. It wasn't just any grocery store—this was a food market that carries specialty items from all around the world. 

For me, it was a quick and necessary stop to grab something for dinner as we passed through from one rural setting to another. I didn't think anything of it. But for my children, who have hardly left the borders of our small Canadian town in 14 months, it was a foray into a world they've apparently forgotten about. They've barely even been to the regular grocery store because it's an errand my husband or I typically do alone.

They stood in the produce aisle, gaping at the bittermelons, the huge jackfruits, the ropes of long string beans, the fresh bamboo shoots, and the tiny Colombian bananas the length of my finger. They couldn't get over the live crabs in the tank, the enormous groupers on ice, and the fact that you could buy almost every part of a pig's body. 

Their glee was infectious. I saw other shoppers' heads turn with amusement as they overheard my children's exclamations of wonder. They must have wondered from where these children had emerged. Escargots stuffed with herb butter! A pack of hefty duck eggs! Whole frozen durian! It almost sounded like Christmas morning, the way they took in all that glorious exotic food.

While I loved watching and listening to them, it also filled me with profound sadness. Even though our experience of the pandemic has been much easier than that of families living in densely packed urban areas, thanks to a large backyard and access to wilderness all around, it hadn't occurred to me just how much their world had shrunk until that moment. 

Because they're so young, they don't have the same memories of the busy marketplaces and packed restaurants that I hold in my heart and take for granted, thanks to the years I spent living in cities and visiting regularly after moving away. I remember those ordinary experiences with nostalgia but reassure myself that they'll come back eventually.

My kids, on the other hand, cannot remember them at all. They haven't eaten in a restaurant in over a year. They haven't even been to a city in a year and a half! All they know is their little town of a few thousand people, with the occasional trip to a remote cabin in the bush.

This pandemic has taken so much from them: freedom of movement, play dates with friends, and even their official education at school. But the thought that it's also stealing their mental images of the world—that it's shrinking the limits of their little memories to the confines of our town—was heartbreaking to me, especially as a parent who's always strived to stretch those limits and expose them to as many places, foods, and cultures as possible.

I realized the best I can do is bring the world to them. So I bought the items they wanted in the grocery store, which ended up being the tiny bananas, a pack of quail eggs (the littlest begged to hold them on his lap), a bucket of kimchi, and several bags of dumplings that we cooked for dinner. Based on their reactions, it was better than candy.

As we ate later that night, I described what it's like to go out for dim sum in Toronto's Chinatown and their eyes grew wide. "Can we go? Do you really get to eat all you want? Does it taste as good as this?" I promised them that, yes, we'll go as soon as we can, and no, it tastes way better. 

Our conversation was shaped by the things they'd seen that day. We talked about banana varieties and how there are so many others out there, not just the big Cavendish ones that are endangered. ("They're fighting their own pandemic," I said.)

We discussed the ethical importance of meat-eaters eating every part of an animal, and how it's not gross to see unusual parts but rather a sign that less is being wasted. We even had a quick lesson on fermented foods, inspired by the kimchi, and how great they are for gut health. I think we'll make some for their homeschooled science/home ec class, following instructions in the Zero Waste Chef's new cookbook.

At that moment, I felt a new appreciation for food, for its ability to transport us to different places, to spark discussions with children about where it comes from and how it's prepared, and to create powerful and family-bonding memories. We cannot travel right now, but we can cook and eat together, and that is the next best thing.