When our son was a new toddler, a trip to the grocery store was always an adventure he looked forward to. In fact, it was often an actual destination for us when we were desperate to get out with our overly active and abundantly curious little guy. The sights! The colors! The smells! Watching and listening to the little train circling around above the dairy aisle was enough to thrill him endlessly. He was so curious about everything, it made sense for us to let him sprint down the aisles, look around, and then pick out a treat if he was good. Boom, Thursday morning activity, done.
As he got a bit older, I had to develop a few strategies to keep him entertained while I did longer shopping trips, as I was learning how beneficial and smart it was to shop less frequently. Keeping my little sidekick happy required some planning, but he still loved to be my companion, happily helping me pick the prettiest tomatoes and enjoying his treat along the way as he sat in the cart.
Let’s fast forward to life now with that same boy as a tween middle schooler. Staying home alone for a long period of time is on the close horizon but not something he’s quite ready for yet. And since I only do two longer consolidated trips to the grocery store a month and that’s it, I’m there for a while. This means my preteen resentfully drags himself along with me. I’m certain that within a few months, he’ll feel more ready to opt out of coming with me and prefer to stay home, but in the meantime, there isn’t much I can do to help him feel better about being at the grocery store. He’s too old for the promise of a lollipop, too jaded and cool to help me pick stuff out, and too preoccupied with hurrying up so he can get on with his own life and meet up with friends. My, how times have changed!
Sometimes, I’ll see if he remembers the fun grocery shopping games we played when he was younger or wistfully remind him of how much he couldn’t wait to get to the candy aisle, but my nostalgia is lost on him. Oh, tweens! I can, however, use my prior experience as a one-time mom of a young one to help others who may be looking for some sanity-saving strategies for grocery shopping with little kids. Here are some tricks to help you get through the experience with as little stress as possible:
Plan Ahead of Time: Let’s face it. Grocery shopping is not a kid-centric experience. After all the bouncy places, parks and playdates that you fill your kids’ time with, it may be a hard switch to sit still and focus on something that requires them to behave, be quiet, and do something that’s not about them. That’s why it’s so important to plan ahead and anticipate everything they may need. Don’t head to the store on a whim with kids, but rather, spend some time thinking about the shopping trip and prep your arsenal ahead of time. You can even designate a specific tote to be your “grocery shopping” bag filled with snacks, books, small toys, treats like lollipops, puzzles, and other small trinkets to keep hands busy, as well as wipes/diapers and “snuggle friends.” Perhaps the contents of the tote can stay in there full-time, so your children know those items only come out at the store, therefore making it something to look forward to. And while you’re planning, make sure the kids are fed and hydrated before heading out!
Find Your Family’s “Sweet Spot”: Going grocery shopping first thing in the morning sounds like a smart idea, but perhaps your children behave better right after naptime in the afternoon, or after a few hours when they’ve had a chance to play freely first. You probably already instinctually know when your kids’ “sweet spot” is for good behavior. Try to plan your shopping trip for this time, and plan the rest of your day accordingly.
Set Expectations: A lot of us may threaten consequences in the midst of a meltdown or bad behavior, but that is ineffective, because the children have already stopped listening. Even very young children thrive and actually want you to set your hopes for what you expect from them, even if it doesn’t seem like they do. Before you head to the store or get out of the car, articulate what you expect from them clearly. Will they each be allowed to pick out one special treat? Who will help push the cart this time? What will the consequences be for fighting, whining or running off? What will the reward be for meeting your expectations? Be clear and precise, and don’t enter the store until you’ve taken a moment to let them know what you expect from the trip.
Play Grocery Store Games: My son learned to read, in part, by playing grocery store scavenger hunt on those now-nostalgic trips. I’d make a simple scavenger hunt list of items for him to find, but he’d have to figure out what the word was first by sounding it out. If he found everything, he’d get a lollipop from my bag, which kept him quiet for the rest of the time. For younger kids not ready for reading, you can make a scavenger hunt list by drawing simple pictures of things they can find in the store. You can also quickly prep some “grocery store bingo” sheets ahead of time, or even just make a quick game of “how many things can you find that are purple?” and similar “I Spy”-type games.
Follow the “Halfway” Rule with Rewards: My trick for making the most out of a reward for my son while grocery shopping was to make sure he was given it halfway through the experience, not at the end. This way, the reward, whether it was a big lollipop or a new book in my bag of tricks, could keep him entertained and quiet the rest of the time, just as his attention span for whatever game I utilized was wearing. If you’re playing a game or just expecting good behavior while shopping, be sure to stop halfway through and reward your kids at that point with something that will also extend the life of their good behavior.
Delegate Simple Jobs: Sometimes, it’s easier to just do everything ourselves, but remember—kids are not tag-along accessories. Our goal is to teach them life skills for when they’re ready to emerge out into the world on their own. Give out simple, age-appropriate jobs that they can do at the grocery store to both keep them busy and help you out. Older kids can walk off a bit to find you a funny-looking pineapple, and they can figure out simple math and calculations. Younger kids can put non-breakable items in the cart and put things on the conveyor belt for you. Contributing, even in small ways, makes all children feel valued, needed, and empowered.
Finally, please stop worrying about what strangers and other people out in public think about the way you are parenting or the way your kids are acting. I truly think this mentality actually sabotages how our kids do act, whether you realize it or not, because it means your focus is not solely on engaging with them, but rather what others may be thinking when your 3-year-old has a tantrum or your kindergartener is whining for something. When you’re with your kids somewhere, try your best to be 100 percent engaged with them, and act as if you have blinders on to everything else around you. Trust me—no one else is noticing what your kids are doing as much as you may think they are. Childhood goes too fast, and you can chose to take something as mundane as grocery shopping and turn it into an opportunity for bonding and education for everyone. Good luck!