Grocery Diaries

5 Things I Learned About My Own Eating Habits While Working at a Grocery Store

updated May 24, 2019
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My first summer job was at the local supermarket in my hometown. For 20 hours a week, I traded my swimsuit for an unflattering maroon smock and rang up groceries, enjoying the air conditioning and fairly mindless work of scanning items and swiping credit cards.

Little did I know that I was actually learning (about myself!) while I was there!

I started working at Market Basket when I was in high school, and continued picking up shifts whenever I was home from college and needed a little extra spending money. By the end of my tenure, I was pretty willing to call myself an expert cashier. I had almost every single produce code memorized, I could find a UPC code on a box in less than half a second, and I knew how to make almost any coupon go through the system.

Working at one of a small chain of discount supermarkets taught me a lot about how other people eat, and made me examine how I eat as well. Here are five things I learned about my own eating habits, which still hold true today.

1. I’m more adventurous than I give myself credit for.

When you work somewhere for five years, you’re bound to have a few familiar customers. One woman came every Saturday, three bouncing kids in tow, filling up two shopping carts with the same collection of food week after week. An older gentleman came after church on Sunday, always buying his wife the same exact chocolate bar. I’m familiar with the old adage that people are creatures of habit, but this job made me realize that people really tend to stick with what they like. And while I’m pretty loyal to the brand of butter I buy (Kate’s) and think that the store brand almost always tastes exactly the same as the national brand, I love to try new things and mix it up.

2. I’m not as lazy as I thought.

I take a lot of shortcuts in the kitchen — pancake mix, bags of shredded cheese, jarred tomato sauce, etc. — but working as a cashier made me realize I could be a lot lazier. I would ring up customers who’d constantly buy hard-boiled eggs and pre-sliced apples. I’m all for modern conveniences, but I’m also very budget-minded, and many of these things are more expensive than their non-prepared equivalents. I also happen to be someone who enjoys cooking, so I don’t mind a little prep work.

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3. I’m willing to spend more — when it matters.

Speaking of budgets, my days behind the cash register showed me how much money people spend on food. Quite honestly, it was shocking. I remember going grocery shopping with my mom, and she would be annoyed if the bill for the week was more than $100 (it was always more when I tagged along — whoops!). Meanwhile, I saw other parents who would be thrilled to get out of the store for less than $300. Even back when I was younger and had less money, I chose to spend more on fresh, organic produce, meat, and dairy, and cut back where I didn’t feel quality matters as much — store-brand snacks, dry goods, seltzer, cereals, and cleaning products, for example.

4. I have the snack preferences of a child.

I’d see the snacks that kids would beg their parents for and I’d almost always agree with them! Although I rarely indulge, I’d eat Goldfish crackers, color cereal, boxed macaroni and cheese, and Oreo cookies every day if my internal mom voice would let me.

5. I don’t plan ahead enough.

Every day, the same guy would come in to shop for dinner that night — ingredients for naan pizza, fresh seafood for a summertime clambake, cheese and cured meats from the nice part of the store — always making sure he had fewer than 12 items so he could come through the express checkout. I’d always think about how much time he must spend coming to the store every day. And then I’d catch myself doing the same thing — shopping for groceries for the night after my shift. (Hey, at least I was already at the store!)

I have an office job now and moved from the suburbs to New York City, but I still find myself making almost daily trips to the supermarket. City living really limits the amount of groceries I can buy! Like my former customer, I also have no talent for meal planning. I’d rather peruse the store, see what looks good (or what’s on sale!), and concoct something for the evening’s dinner on the spot.

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What have you learned about your eating habits from your (past or present) summer jobs?