Filling Up a Free Food Box: Teaching My Toddler about the Gift of Giving

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With the holiday season approaching, I contemplated how to introduce my daughter to giving and generosity. Being only a mere two-and-a-half years old, the concept of kindness is simple for her: hugs make mommy smile, giving the dog a French fry makes her tail wag, sharing a cookie with a friend makes them happy, etc. Therefore, it was not lost on me that starting a tradition this giving season may be a lost cause. However, to my surprise, it was an enriching and educational experience for both of us, so I figured I’d share what we did and what we realized.

Days leading up to Thanksgiving, I explained to my daughter that we would go to the grocery store. She’s familiar with this routine, so I had to explain that we were not shopping for our family – instead, we’d be shopping for other people who may need it. It took a few conversations, but eventually, she understood that others may not be as fortunate to have some of the things that we do, such as our home and access to food. After making our purchases, we set out around the neighborhood to disperse the food and beverages to various Free Food Boxes.

A task that only took a couple of hours greatly impacted my daughter and me; therefore, here’s what we learned.

Free Food Boxes

Having grown up in a relatively affluent area, I was pleasantly surprised at the ways in which people reached out to the community here in Indianapolis. However, it was not until I did this that I realized just how many Free Food Boxes were accessible in the area. (For those who don’t know, a Free Food Box is just that: a little pantry in a high-traffic area where those facing food insecurity may obtain needed items.) Once I started researching and asking around Facebook neighborhood groups, I created a decent list of boxes to which my daughter and I could contribute. Lots of these boxes go through food pretty quickly, so I knew that our offerings would be appreciated – and relatively soon, at that. It was eye-opening to see just how many of these were available right in our very own neighborhood that we had never noticed before this adventure.

Mindful Donations and Food Choices

Initially, I intended to let my daughter take the reins completely on the shopping trip. Yet, once my logical brain kicked in (meaning, she immediately grabbed three boxes of Pop-Tarts), I realized that this might take more thought than I had originally thought. I put on my functioning, competent adult thinking cap and got to work in the aisles.

I knew the food had to be shelf-stable, as it would not be refrigerated or guaranteed to be consumed by a specific date. Explaining this to a toddler was easier said than done, though, so I kept it simple: we would stay in the aisles with shelves (cans, boxes, etc.) because those items can be kept outside for an extended period if need be. 

Well, while dietetics is certainly not my forte (my personal food pyramid more closely resembles the figure of a snowman), I knew that food should be rather substantial to get more for our budget and keep those eating the food fuller for longer. This opened a discussion with my daughter about the food we eat and what it does for our bodies at an obvious toddler-like level, yet I’m not sure if I would have done so with her being so young without this teachable moment presenting itself. 

Use of Toddler Time

As I mentioned earlier, I was skeptical of my idea from the get-go because of my daughter’s age. Some things I considered, which I think made a huge difference, were her ability to make decisions, the time we utilized together, and her role in the whole ordeal. 

Although we made some better food choices after a little conversation, I still allowed her to have a choice. For example, would we do canned tuna or individually packaged tuna? (This also opened up dialogue for tools needed to make various foods, like a can opener.) Which jar of peanut butter do we want to buy: the one with the red cap or the one with the blue cap? At first, I was worried these “choices” were not enough, but eventually, it was evident these options gave her enough sense of control to keep her engaged in our mission.

Similarly, I noticed she felt the same way about the tasks she was given. When we checked out, I let her put all the items on the belt, which differs from our usual grocery trips. The pride she felt was beaming as she placed each item – yes, one… by… one… two days before Thanksgiving (insert sweating emoji face here) – on the belt in front of the fellow shoppers behind her. As for donating the items, I purposely picked Free Food Boxes because I knew she’d be able to place each item in the boxes. To my surprise, she also enjoyed “spotting” the boxes once we parked near each one, and although I already knew where they were located, I played along because her celebratory cheers brought us both joy. Sure, we could have gone to a local food pantry, and one day, we might still do that; however, for now, this seemed like the best option for my child to help out at this chapter in her life. 

Before I knew it, our trunk was empty, and my girl was fading fast back in her car seat. Ah, yes, almost naptime, I thought. Our whole adventure took a mere couple of hours, yet she still reflects on the experience here about a week later. It warmed my heart to share this moment with my daughter and allowed me to realize that toddlers can do and understand so much more than we give them credit for sometimes. What I thought was going to be an outing doomed with tantrums and disengagement ended up being one of the best experiences I have had thus far with my daughter. We both learned a lot, and I do not doubt that this will be a tradition we continue (and adjust as she gets older) for years to come. 

(It’s not lost on me that those who lack basic necessities need these items all year round, not just around the holidays. If you’d like more information on how to help, here is an Indianapolis Moms post about where to donate items and a list of Indiana food banks.)

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