How to Grocery Shop with Kids & Keep Your Cool

You can take the kids to the grocery store without losing your mind. We promise. A little pre-game chat and a little delegation of responsibility goes a long way toward educating and empowering your kiddos—and maintaining parental sanity!

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There was a great television ad for soup a while back that I think pretty much every parent could relate to.

The ad showed a mother walking down the aisle of the supermarket, pushing a cart with a toddler, and another little one racing around near the cart. The voice coming over the supermarket loudspeaker warned about an impending storm, with road closings, and school cancellations.

The mom looked relatable: stoic and beleaguered all at once. And then you see the mom reach out a grab a bottle of wine as she sails past the rack and place it in her cart. I think I was not alone in thinking, you get it, girl—you deserve that.

Many of us enjoy the convenience of online food shopping (I surely do), but most of us are still doing the majority of our shopping in person at the supermarket. And if you have kids, particularly little ones, there is a strong likelihood that they will be with you.

Here are nine tips for making it through the market without leaving your marbles—or your children!—behind. What are yours?!

1. Lay down the law

Have a pre-shop chat with your kids and lay down some ground rules. Discuss what you are going to get, how long you think it will take, and what you hope to see from them, behavior-wise.

2. Empower them to make decisions

Find some fun decisions for them to make that are no real skin off your nose.

For instance, let them pick a pasta shape, but you can direct them and say something like, “I need a short, chunky pasta. Will you find the one you think looks the most interesting?”

Mini Sweet Peppers

3. Engage them in all aspects of shopping

What this means is don’t just ask your children what they want in the cookie aisle, ask them to help pick out the firmest peppers, or a squash that looks cool, or help decide between chicken thighs or drumsticks. Or maybe they would want to pick their favorite type of apple.

4. Draw them in at the deli

Have them weigh in on what kind of cheese or cold cuts to get. If you shop with kids you probably know that deli counter employees are almost always delighted to hand over a sample slice. It’s also a great way to get your kids to engage with other grown-ups and try new things.

5. Compromise in the cereal aisle

This area was full of much contention when my kids were little—my kids were understandably drawn to the boxes with the cartoonish characters and words like “sugar puffs.” I was leaning more towards things with words like “bran.”

The solution was to divide up cereal into two categories: Weekday Cereal and Weekend Cereal. The more sugary ones were saved for weekend morning treats (or snacks), and the ones with more fiber and less sugar were designated for the weekdays, when the kids needed to head off to school without a sugar rush and the resulting crash.

how to make popcorn

Perfect Popcorn

6. Compromise on snacks

This will take some label reading, since sugar and fat can hide in snacks that have the appearance of being healthy.

This is also where single-serving packages can be your friend. Yes, they cost a bit more, and yes, there is more packaging, but that may be well worth the trade off for not having to spend your precious time negotiating how many cookies are an acceptable after-school snack.

7. Let them roll

If there are kid-sized carts, grab one and let your toddler roll along ahead of you and put her picks in her cart.

If she is old enough to push the big cart, set round rules for when and how long she can do so—and if there are siblings involved, divide time up and let them know exactly where the switching point in the store will be.

8. Divide and conquer

If your child is old enough, send him off to grab some items. Give him a little basket, a mini shopping list, and set up a plan to meet. Have a conversation with your child about how to politely ask for help in finding something, and how to respectfully navigate around a market.

A bigger kid could shepherd a younger sibling around, or you could have them divide and conquer.

You might mix up the items with some things you really need such as a cucumber or flour, and some items that they get to pick out, such as lunchbox snacks. This could keep them busy for a while.

Fudgy Brownies

Fudgy Chocolate Brownies

9 Embrace the treat

Is it a bribe or positive reinforcement? Let’s make it a rule that people who aren’t parents can’t answer that. Whether it’s a brownie from the bakery section or a pack of sugar-free gum, the promise of a treat at the end of a good behavior shopping expedition is a terrific incentive.

What tips do you have for grocery shopping with kids?!

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Katie Workman

Katie Workman is on a mission to make people feel more comfortable with getting weeknight dinners on the table and entertaining friends. As she developed solutions to making her family meals easier and more universally liked, she created The Mom 100. Her cookbooks are The Mom 100 Cookbook and Dinner Solved.

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11 Comments

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  • SHARYN

    I really never had that problem. I didn’t take them. They stayed at home with their father or an aunt. These days its wonderful. YOU CAN ORDER GROCERIES ONLINE AT WALMART , SELECT DAY AND TIME YOU WANT TO PICK THEM UP. AND SOMEONE BRINGS THEM RIGHT TO YOUR CAR. ITS WONDERFUL. you can select all the items you want, get a running total as you shopping so you don’t go over your budget. now I sit with my laptop a cup of coffee and grocery shop without stress, no more waiting in lines .

  • Benedicte

    I have three young boys and I have been using all these tricks with success. It’s best, if you can, to time it right. Not a good trip to the grocery store if mom is hungry or if it’s really hot outside! The notepad works wonders with us. Choosing pasta shapes, too :-) I verbalize a lot of my thoughts to « walk » my boys through the decision making process, « this is definitely a treat, not a food. » or « I’m so glad spring onions are back, what else is in season? » Recently my sons have started to get interested in the price of things and a calculator comes in handy.

  • Chris S.

    Katie, these are fantastic tips! Wish I’d had these at my disposal when raising my kids. A couple of them I actually did by sheer instinct, but all of them look good and would have been a huge help. I love the way you suggest engaging kids with decisions (such as establishing where the changeover point will be between siblings pushing the cart (empowers them to say hey, it’s time!). All in all, these would make grocery shopping with kids fun rather than a battle.

  • Lili

    Katie – I loved your take on grocery shopping with little guys. I absolutely agree with the first commandment on your list: lay down the law. I adopted a rule early on. The child designated to get treats like the toys in the cereal box also got to do all the chores that week; that child sat in the front seat on car rides, got first pick when there were special foods, placed grocery items in the cart, decided which cereal we would take home, and was designated “gopher of the week”. They loved it. Everyone got a turn every three weeks. However, to this day I love grocery shopping. There are always new things to discover. It gives me the opportunity to select something new we’ve never tried before and I can then be creative in what I cook. When my three children were little, we always went grocery shopping together. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was teaching them good shopping and eating habits. They are all adults today with children of their own. Children learn from their parents, both good and bad. Way back when, grocery stores did not give out free cookies. My grocery list included fruits and vegetables, milk, eggs, cereal, rye and whole grain bread, chicken and fish. My children shop that way today. My son was pleased to let me know recently that so many people he knows don’t know how to cook rice. He said I gave all three of them the proportions of rice to water and he uses it today. And even though my grandchildren are vegetable lovers, they enjoy mac and cheese, corn dogs, french fries in the air fryer, gummy worms and all the rest of it once in a while. As the old saying goes, everything in moderation.

  • C Canada

    In the words of my pediatrician leave them at home with their other parent.
    Failing that, do not go down the cookie aisle, bipass processed treats. They will be much healthier. That lifted half the pressure for me trying to teach them nutrition which started early. Also, we picked out seeds to grow our own food together. One toddler wanted to grow pickles, so cute! He still loves cucumbers and since he’s an adult he knows the difference. He doesn’t like processed sugar foods. He likes home made once in a while.

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