Do you enjoy bringing your kids to the grocery store? I’m sure the answer could go many ways. I used to love taking my kids to the store (pre-pandemic) and we thought of it as a fun outing. We would often go, take our time, and thoroughly enjoy the experience. I can also recall a handful of times when I immediately regretted my decision and wished I had made the trip alone. Things can take a turn for the worse rather quickly.
Currently, things are a little different. Today I do most of my grocery shopping online, but that doesn’t mean my kids aren’t involved. I also like to prepare for when my kids can go shopping with me again. Healthy eating, meal planning, and food buying do not simply stop during times like these.
A grocery store can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience for a child. Still, you must understand that it can also be highly over-stimulating. Not only are there a lot of people, bright lights, and music around, but it’s packed full of foods that seem incredibly enticing. Some of these foods you may agree on are a good choice for your family, while a good portion of them are likely to be an unhealthy option.
It’s important to know what you’re in for when you choose or don’t have the choice to bring your kids to the supermarket. It can be a rewarding and educational experience for both the caregiver and child.
So how do we avoid tantrums and make the shopping trip a positive experience with lasting benefits?
Preparation is key
With or without kids, grocery shopping is much easier with a plan. We all need a grocery list. Not only will the trip move smoother and faster, but it’s also usually more cost-effective.
One habit that I started implementing with my kids was letting them participate in the meal planning process. There are a few ways that your kids can help you without taking over the entire process. They have to understand we can’t have pizzas and hot dogs every single night.
1. Present them with healthy options first
Let’s assume and hope you’ve all been eating healthy all along. If your kids are already accustomed to healthy eating options, they will naturally gravitate towards those choices. Unhealthy food dominates checkout aisles. Some cities have even issued bans on the sale of junk food in supermarket checkout displays.
Supermarkets know that you will be stuck standing in line next to the junk food and that your kids will demand you buy it for them. If you say no, it will trigger a tantrum, and you may give in to them and buy the unhealthy snack to just keep your kid quiet.
If you’re a family who’s just starting to adopt healthy eating habits, start slow and be a good example. Children are constantly mimicking our actions. If they see you snacking on a bowl of carrots, they will also think that’s a good idea.
2. Find recipes together
The internet is a fantastic resource for healthy, family-friendly meals. At Genes2Teens, we recently shared some of our favorite crockpot meals.
Pinterest is also a fun simple way to browse recipes through a few easy search terms. My kids especially like this option because the photos are immediately available. It’s easy to click through to a particular recipe. I’ve found it pretty easy to find specific things my kids are looking for, like “healthy mac and cheese” or “kid-friendly make-at-home sushi.”
I also recommend the Little helpers toddler cookbook for tasty recipes that are easy to make with your kids.
3. Let them make their own shopping list
Kids love it when we include them in making decisions, but we can’t always abide by them. Still, it’s important to encourage them to be part of the process of making healthy choices. If we gave kids free rein of the grocery list, it would be full of cookies, ice cream, and potato chips. That’s not going to happen as long as we guide them in the right direction.
Allowing your child to write their own shopping list gives them a sense of purpose for the trip and then a sense of accomplishment during the trip itself. A healthy shopping list for kids doesn’t need to be long. You could encourage them to think of 3-5 items they can pick out themselves that they’d want in the kitchen. Have them pick 1 fruit, 1 vegetable, and 1 new thing to try. I love encouraging my kids to try new foods regularly without pressure. Sometimes we find inspiration in books or songs.
One recent example was from the book The Little Red Hen, which my son had read in school. It mentions a simple bread recipe, but he wanted to make the bread independently. We found a straightforward bread recipe online (we even improvised a little) and made sure we had all of the ingredients. Then whatever we didn’t have, we added to his list and picked it up during the next grocery run.
4. Pack and prepare activities for the shopping trip
Do not leave the house empty-handed. You’ll want to have a few activities on hand for your children if things start to go wrong. Believe it or not, you may even want to pack some snacks. Some stores have the policy of trying foods while you’re in the store before purchasing. This can be a fun backup plan, but I’d still encourage you to keep a few easy snacks in your bag or pocket for an emergency.
Other items to carry might be a small book or toy, depending on your child/children’s age. You could also draft up a short scavenger hunt for the kids to do while you’re shopping. Alternatively, check out if your local supermarket has activities or free gifts for toddlers and big kids while shopping.
For instance, a store we used to visit distributed “free fruit cards” in the produce section where my children would each pick a fruit to enjoy while we shopped. Another shop would hide a stuffed animal somewhere inside the store, and kids had to look for it the entire trip. They would then share where they found the stuffed animal and win a little prize at check out.
5. Go grocery shopping with your toddler at the right time
Is there a perfect time to go grocery shopping with your kids? Probably not. But you can choose optimal times. Just as you don’t want to go shopping while you’re hungry, neither do your kids. Therefore, try to go after mealtime or pick a good time that works well with nap times.
For smaller infants and toddlers, you might be able to squeeze in a nap during the trip while wearing your baby in a baby carrier. For older kids, try to go after a nap. Most importantly, don’t skip a nap to go shopping, as that could be a recipe for disaster.
Make good choices as soon as you walk in
Have a plan, or rather at least know the direction that you’ll head to as soon as you walk through the door. If you bring your kids to the market, it’s best to only shop at the store’s borders, which includes the produce, dairy, and lean proteins section.
It’s where you’ll find whole foods that are the most nutritious. It’s important to emphasize how excellent the produce section is and point out seasonal fruits and vegetables that might not always be around.
“Look at these fresh, delicious strawberries! We better grab some now before they are all gone!”
“This autumn squash is such a fun, bright orange color. I wonder what it tastes like?”
This also brings them into the shopping process. Imagine how great it might be if you could send your future teenager into the store all by themselves to pick up a few things for you? Believe it or not, it all starts here. Remember, our children are copying everything that we do.
Read nutrition labels as you shop
You must read nutrition labels. This information is what’s going to help you make the right decision for your child. When they see you reading a nutrition label, they will probably ask you why. Be sure to share with them what you’re reading and looking for. Next time, they might want to peek with you.
Don’t be afraid to compare products either. The snacks, cereals, chips, etc., specifically marketed to attract little children’s eyes are often the ones with some of the worst nutritional content. To do this, pick up 2 options, 1 bad and 1 good. You can read the standout facts that may help you and your child pick the healthier one.
As much as little ones might not understand things like carbohydrates or sodium yet, sugar can be a relatively easy concept to start grasping. I often emphasize that not only is a high sugar content terrible for our bodies, but it’s not good for our teeth. We don’t want food in our house that causes “sugar bugs” on our teeth.
Try different shopping experiences
You don’t always have to purchase food at the grocery store. I prefer the outdoor shopping experience of a farmers’ market. I’m sure most children would agree. It’s a much more fun environment for children. And by nature, it provides healthier, fresh, and local ingredients to choose from.
If you’re shopping at a local farmers’ market, take the extra time to talk to the farmer. Don’t be afraid to ask for a small sample. The kids will love trying unique tastes before bringing something home. One day our local farmer gave my kids a carrot (dirt and all), and they danced around eating it together. Now they ask for carrots and talk about that farm dance every single time.
For those who’re doing grocery shopping online, let the kids glance at the shopping process. My kids love being able to click on which type of apple they want to add to our online shopping cart. It’s fascinating for them to see that that apple they picked can show up right at our doorstep.
How to deal with toddler tantrums in public
So, you prepared for the grocery trip, made your lists, packed your snacks, and everything is going great until…
Your kid is crying at the store and throwing an epic tantrum, which you don’t know how to resolve. First, it’s important to remember that it happens! There might not have been any way to prevent the tantrum. Some other factors might have come into play. Did your child nap? Are they hungry, or are they simply having a rough day?
Here are a few tricks that aren’t guaranteed to help but have given me some success over the years:
1. Use the “wish list” strategy
Imagine you’re in the store, your child spots a delicious-looking cupcake in the bakery, but you’re not willing to buy it today. Suggest adding it to their “wish list.” This “wish list” could be something that they ultimately get at a different, more appropriate time, such as during their birthday, or it could be an activity.
You could suggest that they pass up that cupcake and instead go home to search for the perfect homemade cupcake recipe for the family. You can research a healthier option and then make a list for the next time you go to the store. Or, if you’re quick on your feet, you can look up a recipe right there and then grab the ingredients right away.
2. Get some fresh air
A few times, I have left a full cart by the door or by the customer service counter and left the store for a few minutes. You can let an employee know, “We need some air,” and do just that. Go outside, take a few breaths, and the change of scenery may help calm your little one down.
3. Remain calm
The best thing to do is to remain calm, demonstrate deep breaths, and work towards moving forward. Remember that you’re the adult and the one in charge.
Also, remember that kids imitate our behavior. If they see you losing your temper at the grocery store, there’s no reason to think it’s not ok for them to do it too.
I hope this helps you navigate your way through grocery shopping with young children. Teaching our children about grocery shopping can be a really fun way to work together and encourage a healthy family lifestyle.