Thanks to fears around the coronavirus, venturing to the grocery store is more fraught with peril than ever. The lines, crowds, germs, rationing and bare shelves have sucked all the joy out of what is typically my kids’ favorite errand.

When you must venture out to a grocery store (are we seriously out of milk again?) at least make it worth your while and bring back more than food. Grab a store circular to use as a launching off point for creative play that introduces kids to life skills.

Try out this activity, which incorporates exercise (jumping jacks), math (counting, addition, subtraction), budgeting (shopping), science (food groups), and fine motor skills (cutting, gluing, coloring).

Here’s What You’ll Need:

  • Grocery store circular or printed out pictures of food with prices
  • Timer
  • Paper
  • Envelopes (optional)
  • Scissors
  • Markers
  • Shopping bags or baskets
  • Paper plates (optional)
  • Glue or tape

Try it Out:

1. Go to Work: Set a timer for one minute. Count how many jumping jacks (or pushups, windmills, crunches, etc.) you can do before the timer beeps. The number of reps you completed is the number of dollars you just earned at “work.” Write it down as your “bank account” balance.

2. Make the Money: Cut out paper rectangles to represent the money you just earned. Use markers to add dollar amounts to the bills, making sure that your total adds up to the amount of money in your “bank account.” Pretend to withdraw some or all of your money from the ATM. Design a wallet to store your cash by folding paper or using an envelope.

3. Shop: Look through the store circular and pick out a variety of food. Think about what you might like to have in your refrigerator or cupboard. Cut out the pictures of food you choose along with their prices and place them in your shopping bag or basket. Remember that you are shopping on a budget. Add up the prices of the food you select, and make sure you have enough money before you check out. Then, calculate how much change you have left in your wallet.

4. Plan Your Meals: Draw a circle on a piece of paper to represent a plate or use a paper plate you can draw right on. Use a marker to divide your plate into five sections for various food groups, such as protein, grains, fruit, vegetables, and dairy. Dish up a meal by gluing or taping some food pictures onto your plate in the appropriate food group categories. Calculate the cost of the meal you prepared by adding up the prices of the food on your plate. As an extension, plan out additional meals using more plates.

Let the Magic Happen…or Not

I tried this activity with my four kids this morning, and they each gravitated toward different components.

My number-loving son lit up with the thrill of a timed exercise as well as the concept of earning money. He decided to reset the timer and keep exercising in order to rack up money in his “bank account” rather than spend it on groceries. He thought about buying $10 worth of beef at one point so he could subtract $10 from his bank account but ultimately decided to do more push-ups instead. “I already ate breakfast, so I don’t need food,” he said matter-of-factly.

My three-year-old fixated on the cutting aspect of the project, methodically slicing at least 100 little strips of paper into “dollars.” She also loves envelopes, so one became her shopping bag for the oranges, Cheerios, and Oreos she selected. Hours later, she returned to the activity and asked for help sealing even more food pictures in envelopes.

My five-year-old was most interested in shopping through the circular. She collected such a variety that she shared her yogurt and Cheez-Its with her little sister, having already covered all the food groups with her pizza, mushrooms, cheese, apples, and salmon.

My snack-loving seven-year-old zeroed in on the chocolate-covered granola bars and wouldn’t shop beyond that. What more could she possibly want? She busied herself making a paper purse for the money that she never actually designed. She was occupied with her own plan to build a hotel in a low cabinet where the food could be delivered, setting up another branch of imaginative play.

Let the play develop naturally instead of forcing it—adding on extensions when a child shows particular interest and breezing over those ideas that don’t resonate. Make a paper box ATM machine or cash register. “Shop” at the pharmacy too. Set up a mini kitchen and stock it with your paper groceries. Bring along dolls and strollers on your shopping trip. Explore nutrition labels. Plan a meal that’s entirely green. The possibilities are endless.

If nothing else, you can use the playtime as an excuse to plan your own meals for the next week or two. With grocery stores in their current state, meal planning is the key to minimizing those dreaded trips to the actual store.