Food Shopping: A Chore or a Pleasure?

Women perform twice as much “foodwork” as men—shopping, cooking, and planning meals. We often think of food shopping as a chore, but it turns out that many women take pleasure in this work—if they’re middle class. In a study of Toronto food consumers we were surprised by the number of women who spoke favorably of food shopping.

One woman we interviewed said, “I do like shopping. I like the tactile experience and determining if something’s good. I don’t think of it as a chore. It’s a pleasure.” Others described trips to the supermarket as “fun,” “exciting,” and even “therapeutic.” Two women in our study made midnight “dates” at a 24-hour grocery store, so they could share the pleasures of grocery shopping without their husbands rushing them along.

This research highlights the emotional element of purchasing food, which has important links to gender. Food shopping allows women to perform a socially valued femininity—to be the woman bringing home a tasty and nutritious bounty. This isn’t the stereotype of the female shopaholic stockpiling purses and shoes. A successful female food shopper is celebrated as a nurturing figure who carefully researches the best values, and brings home healthy, delicious food for loved ones.

Indeed, many women said they derived joy from feeding others, especially when they had enough time and money to savor the process. One woman we spoke with described a sense of “euphoria” when gathering ingredients for a dinner party. For others, food shopping is a way of spicing up their daily tasks.

Beth said: “I do get a little tired of the everyday, you know, we need bananas, but that’s why I go to different stores to make it a bit of an adventure.” Besides seeing grocery shopping as a potential “adventure,” it was also seen as a break from responsibilities women faced at home. “I went shopping to avoid my children,” said Grace, drawing laughter from the other women in the focus group, “I got my ass out of the house so my husband could deal with the children.”

Describing the experience of shopping with her husband, Lois said: “I’ll just cruise the aisles to see what there is, and he just goes bananas. He wants to go in, he wants to get what he wants, he wants to get out.” In addition to being less emotionally invested in the food shopping experience, women saw men as less capable shoppers. Nina joked, “Sometimes my husband is happy to help…but he comes home with lots of unauthorized purchases.”

For women living in poverty, such emotional rewards are harder to find. “It makes me angry if I can’t afford something,” said Nadine. “Everyone should have access to decent food.” Shannon spoke of her struggle: “It frustrates me because I can’t make the best choice that I think is available for my family.” As a single mother living on social assistance, she often felt as though she had failed. “If you could just go in the store and not look at prices and pick up anything and everything you wanted, how much less stressful would life be?”

While for some women, farmers’ markets and high-end grocers like Whole Foods Market are aesthetically pleasing and relaxing, others found such settings stressful and uncomfortable. Judy stated: “to go to the farmers’ market is TRULY a joyful experience for me…How beautiful everything is, just the whole vibe of the other people shopping.”

In contrast, Syd, a low-income participant, described her discomfort at farmers’ markets: “I actually end up feeling really intimidated when I go in those sorts of places… ‘cause money is a huge stress for me at all times.” Vicky felt equally out of place at a gourmet grocery store, but for different reasons: “It was so awful! All these rich people were in there dropping hundreds and hundreds of dollars. All these fancy, way over the top foods…I was totally disgusted.”

It turns out the grocery store can be a place of joy and leisure—but it is also the site of gross inequalities. As women in our study made clear, food and love are deeply connected in our cultural renderings of femininity. To be denied access to good quality food is not only a material deprivation, but a site for emotional struggle and gendered hardship.

Further Reading

Want to read more from Josée Johnston and Kate Cairns? Look for their forthcoming book, Food and Femininity.