When you’re trying to tread more lightly on the planet, every trip to the grocery store poses moral dilemmas. But there’s value in celebrating even the less-than-perfect, best-we-can decisions.
Even though it’s early fall, it’s still barbecue time, when the oven in our house gets a nice, long break and the mosquitos feast on tender ankle. I’m an ambivalent cook (I can only really get excited about soup) so in the warmer seasons I rely heavily on whole foods I can chop, assemble, and drizzle with vinegar and oil. This year I’m lobbying hard for as many outdoor meals as my family can stand. I’ll attempt to grill corn on the cob, maybe throw on some zucchini and slice some fresh tomatoes. Oh, the tomatoes. On these warm nights, those jewel-tone beauties taste as good as they will all year.
All of which is more than enough for my husband and me, but my son is not impressed by Peak Tomato. If I hand him a plate of brilliant vegetal colors, he will only see the blank space on his plate where a hotdog should be. I know as soon as I light the grill, two terrier mutts and one Little League first baseman will line up salivating and solicitous. Madam, can we be of assistance?
I don’t personally eat hotdogs anymore, but I still long for it to be that easy. Why can’t I just buy the hotdogs and be done? We could be clearing away the dinner dishes by now. My son could get back to what he really loves: throwing a baseball at the fence, his cheeks smeared ear-to-ear with ketchup like a short, fanatical Joker.
Instead, it goes like this. It’s dinnertime. My son reminds me that there was earlier talk of hotdogs (his); he offers to drive (he is nine). At the grocery store, I get stalled immediately in front of the canned chili, weighing a can in each hand. Con carne or sans carne? What kind of carne and from where? My son looks at me suspiciously—he discourages detours—and begins to lead us gently toward the packaged processed meats.
Did you know there are at least a dozen varieties of hotdog? Standing before them I am humbled, and also embarrassed by how much this decision reminds me of choosing a college. It feels important, and also impossible, to choose the right one. Which of today’s hotdog outfits leads the industry in environmental practice and animal welfare? Are they on sale?
I pick up a package, put it down, pick it up, pretend to be a cool, normal person, who is definitely not afflicted with meat-paralysis. The label is covered with certifications purporting excellence vis a vis GMOs, hormones, nitrates and antibiotics. Good to know it’s “all natural,” not just part-natural. There’s “no water added!” Good grief. The standard in hotdogs is really bumming me out. I point out the meat-adjacent variety and my son reminds me, in diplomatic fourth-grade terms, that we already tried that brand, and it was not delicious. Then I note the significant span of prices on offer, but I’m mostly mumbling to myself.
Maybe we should get back home, my son suggests. He too would like to eat a meal that is less fraught with ethical ennui.
Of all the meats, hotdogs are probably the easiest for me to skip, but I haven’t asked my children to make that choice, and frankly I’m not prepared to have the discussion on carbon emissions and factory farming here on aisle six with my not-yet-ten-year-old. So I do the other parent thing; I stall for time. I walk away and try to distract my son long enough to do a meditative lap, but he is getting worried about the distance we’re putting between us and the hotdogs, and when he gets worried he pushes for answers.
I know how that is. I also know that so-called decision fatigue is a sign that things are going pretty well in our life. In another time or place I could be trying to tackle a deer to feed my young. I’m grateful to be in a position to make decisions with the future in mind.
I choose the package that I hope represents the least harm. How, you ask? By reading tea leaves? By podcast testimonial? By the pricking of my thumbs? Like anyone else who doesn’t inspect farms for a living, I scan the icons for the Animal Welfare stamp, and feel grateful such a thing exists. And then I focus on my son’s gratitude, which is ecstatic. (I am the best mom he’s ever heard of! He’s ready to leave the store now. He’s been ready for a while.)
When we get to the register I can tell the checker is impressed with me too because I remembered my reusable bags. Is that a subtle nod of approval he’s giving me? You bet it is. He’s thinking, Wow. She even sorts the produce from the dry goods on the belt. She probably doesn’t have meat paralysis at all. The customers behind me applaud and there’s a spontaneous parade.
I’m kidding. There’s no parade—there almost never is. I know my reusable bags aren’t going to refreeze the polar ice caps. And I don’t feel all that great about dinner, either. Nonetheless, I am placing a check firmly in today’s “less harm done” column for fewer plastic bags in circulation.
Day to day, it can be hard to know what impact we can have for good, we with our puny individual agency. But it’s great to have choices, and I’m logging every positive feeling these days because I need the energy to keep trying. If I ever land on a perfect solution I will happily share it, assuming I’m not too busy sipping my own Kool-Aid and burping rainbows. Until then I will probably continue to spend too much time at the grocery store making less-than-perfect, best-I-can decisions. If you see me there, blocking the aisle, petting a box of processed macaroni product, possibly muttering under my breath, please be forgiving. I brought my own bags.