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How to Survive and Thrive While Grocery Shopping with Your Toddler 

This next guest post is a great transition from the topics of toddler survival into the topic of toddler food. Please welcome Aimée from the amazing food blog Simple Bites with some great tips on surviving the grocery shopping experience with toddlers.

We must have looked a sight, my three-year-old, Mateo and I. It was my last minute attempt to hit up a grocery store before beginning my serious holiday cooking and baking blitz. My shopping list was lengthy and detailed, my time limited, and my energy flagging even before I unbuckled my son and stepped toward my local IGA.

I shivered in the December winds, my winter coat not giving much protection to my 6-month pregnant shape, and inwardly cursed myself for –yet again- forgetting to bring a couple of reusable shopping bags.

Once inside, Mateo shrieked and his little snowsuit-clad form staggered across the wet floors and lurched into a massive red plastic fire truck shopping cart. As I tossed my purse into the top of it, my iPhone dinged to let me know that my email was piling up as I ran errands.

Fast forward thirty minutes finds us hot, bothered and hungry. I can barely maneuver the unwieldy shopping cart between pyramids of Christmas fruitcake and Crisco. While I searched for just the right candied fruit peel for my homemade Pannetone, Mateo had thought it would be fun to poke his finger into a few shrink-wrapped packages of dried fruit. He was now grounded to the fire truck, where he fully reclined on the seat, his muddy, still-too-big winter boots hanging out the side window.

Too tired to care that his boots were a potential hazard and focused on finding the last few items on my list, I took the corner into the cracker aisle. In classic comedy style, his boots took out the entire bottom row of a tower of Breton crackers – and the rest came tumbling down around our cart.

That was it. I was done. I headed for the nearest check-out, paid my 5 cents per plastic bag, and enlisted the help of the grocery packer to push my cart out through the slush to my car. He must have seen the lag in my step, for he quietly loaded the car and gently closed the trunk before wishing me ‘Joyeuses Fêtes’. I sighed. It wasn’t my brightest hour. I knew better.

At home, as I unpacked the clementines and cranberries, my thoughts drifted to this yet-unwritten post and what wisdom I could possibly impart to Annie’s readers. It seemed only fitting to share the most obvious lesson of the day – how to survive a grocery shopping trip with your toddler (and pregnant belly) in tow.

Because we don’t just want to survive an outing like this, do we? They have to happen once or twice a week, so we may as well aim high and plan to actually enjoy them. On days when I’m not in a hurry or feeling hugely pregnant, I prepare ahead of time to make the grocery shopping a learning experience.

And so, here are my tips for making the best possible grocery shopping experience with your toddler.

1. Make a List.

This goes without saying, especially for those of us with chronic ‘mommy brain’. Make the menu plan, write a detailed grocery list, and stick to it, thus avoiding impulse buys.

I take the organizing one step further. After my list is made, I take three different colored highlighters and highlight the list: fresh produce, pantry staples, and dairy/meat. Now once I’m at the market, it’s easy to see at a glance if I’ve gotten all of our fruits and vegetables for the week.

2. Fuel Up.

Either have a snack before you go, or pack something portable to keep little hands busy (them), avoid more impulsive buys (you) or ward off hunger pains (all parties). Since we practice smart snacking, there’s usually something in the fridge or pantry that is ready to grab and go.

Just sayin’: sugar free lollipops can make standing in line at the cashier much more pleasant. Oh, and I’m not opposed to dipping into a box of rice crackers before they’ve been purchased either.

3. Apples or Pears?

When shopping for groceries, occasionally include your child in the process by giving them a choice between two items. Not only will it keep them engaged, but they will genuinely feel as they are not just along for the ride.

Bonus: Letting your child choose between green or yellow wax beans really does help him connect with his food and later you will reap the benefits around the dinner table when he is eager to eat ‘his beans’.

4. Quiz Time.

Kids love to show off their smarts and can be easily entertained by your request to name off fruits and vegetables. They are curious too, and will listen to your tale of where the produce came from and how it was harvested if you care to spin one. That just might buy you enough time to select the perfect avocados you need.

Piquing your child’s curiosity for food can help lead to a lifelong interest in healthful eating, cooking, or even farming. It’s never too early or too late to begin.

5. Don’t Get Then Started on Junk Food. Ever.

As Annie writes, we as parents have a responsibility to say “No” to unwholesome foods and to teach about and provide our children with proper nutrition.

We want our children to grow up to be healthy eaters, aware of the way their food choices affect the planet, and how it is produced. Most importantly, we want them to connect the dots between healthy, whole food and happiness.

So much of developing a healthy family food culture begins in the grocery store with the choices our children observe us making from day to day, season to season, year to year.

I can safely go down the cookie or junk food aisles without one request for Twizzlers or Bear Paws. Sure they’ve had these items at grandma’s or playgroup, but both my sons instinctively know that they don’t go in mama’s cart.

How do you manage the grocery outings? I’d love to hear your wisdom, stories and tips!

Aimée Wimbush-Bourque is a food writer and expectant mother of two, living in Montréal. She draws from her rural, whole foods upbringing as well as her professional training as a chef to prepare simple, unprocessed home cooking on a daily basis for her family. On her award-winning food blog, Simple Bites, she chronicles her kitchen experiences with stories, cooking tips and recipes. For more whole food inspiration and everyday delicious chit-chat, follow Aimée on Twitter and Facebook.

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Reader Comments (29)

Great post! The way you tell the story is definitely how shopping goes with a toddler. One product I've found that makes life easier is a tray that clips onto the cart handle. http://www.ontray2go.com One for your coupons and one for the kids does great.

Also, I found it works great to store my re-usable grocery bags IN the car, rather than in the house. This way the bags are always there when I need them.

Happy Holidays!

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMindi@B.A.Bookworm

I always make sure to bring my soft-structured carrier, so that when my youngest refuses to stay seated in the cart, but also won't walk by himself, I can put him on my back where he is both contained and safe.

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTina

Does it count if my survival method is to shop by myself after the kids are in bed? =) Actually, I had a very pleasant shopping trip with my 2 year old yesterday, probably because we were not in a hurry and it was just the two of us, so I could really take the time to talk with him about the foods rather than refereeing between two boys in the cart.

Giving them a job is so key. Even if it's "Help me find the apples" for my 2 year old. For my my 4 year old, I usually give him three things that he's in charge of remembering and making sure are in the cart.

In the check-out line (which is always twice as long on days when your nerves are cut in half), I read back through the grocery list and have the kids scan the cart to make sure everything is in there. Keeps their eyes off the impulse candy that way too!

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlissa

I know, I know! They never seem to make it back to the car, though. :)

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAimee @ Simple Bites

Great tips, Aimee! Glad I'm not the onlyone ;-).

My dad taught my toddler a fantastic game to play while at the grocery store. He pretends to eat he food he sees. Instead of getting into mischief Ray entertains himself by reaching his hands out left and right - not really grabbing anything - and bringing his hand to his mouth and making loud lip-smacking noises.

Ray loves this game, and it keeps him happy and entertained for at least some of the shopping trip!

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSteph (The Cheapskate Cook)

The shopping list is definitely a must - gotta get in and out of there as efficiently as possible. When it's just my 2yo in tow I put him in the shopping cart seat and things usually go smoothly - he's very interested in seeing what's on the shelves and waving to passing shoppers. Occasionally he'll demand snacks (power of suggestion, right?) so I'll often end up picking up a pack of crackers. When my 4yo is with me we'll get one of the shopping carts with the cars attached and she stays pretty content. I avoid having either of them outside of the cart while I'm in the store - way too chaotic. Ideally I try to go the store on the weekend when they can stay home with my husband. :-)

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKathy - Panini Happy

We're all about the shopping list! This summer, I'd stick my kiddo (then 15 months or so) into a hiking backpack and walk down to the co-op. Now, at 19 months, he doesn't like to sit still for that, unless it's a really short trip. Admittedly, I leave him at home whenever I can do so and shop by myself, but if he has to go, I talk with him the whole time about what I'm doing and what the food is going to be in our meals (time to get the flour! This will be for pizza dough. Can you count the scoops with me? One, two..."). I also let him hold things that aren't too breakable, like small cans, raisins, or oranges, etc., although that one's iffy, since he ends up throwing them when he gets bored. We're not quite able to choose a fruit or identify them (almost there!), but I love that idea. Also helps that we know almost everyone at the co-op, so people stop and say hi, and he gets to chat with them and their children. I'm so grateful for our co-op! I think I'd freak out if I had to shop with him at a big box grocery store. You guys are some brave mamas.

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

I have my son with me 95% of the time I grocery shop so it actually feels really strange when I don't. I do all the things you list above, but he's 19 months so I feel really lucky that he's so good when we go. I'm looking forward to the day he can help me find items and double check the cart.

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCandice

I think all moms have had a nightmare shopping experience that just had to be done... we all know to be organized and to go when everyone, especially mom is fresh!!! Cannot always be!!! Mostly we get it right:
I love shopping with my kids in tow... they are great company!!! Our shopping bags belong at the front door when we are finished unpacking them. It is my three year olds task to take them to the car when we go out - she loves having an important task!!!
I am so with you on staying out the biscuit/soda/candy (and cleaning product) aisles!!! My kids know we don't go down them and are happy in the produce section!!! My mom-in-law was always moaning that I don't treat the kids. My eight year asked her:"How is it a treat if it is bad for me?"... Silence!!! Still waiting for the reply!!!

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterse7en

I usually love taking my 18 month old with me. I have a whole approach: Publix opens at 7:00 AM, and I always go on Thursday when the ad changes. We hit the store by 7:15 AM right after breakfast. I write my grocery list in the order of the aisles so I can move quickly.

Even on the roughest of days {when he wants to throw things out of the cart} I think it is really important to always bring him. Most of our food is fresh produce and meat, and I want him to find the pleasure in picking out vegetables and fruits. We don't do junk food, and I want him to see and understand why. Like your kids, Samuel has never once looked at the candy aisle or potato chips and wanted them in my cart.

Great piece! I'm always looking for tips to make grocery shopping more pleasant and fun for everyone.

Thanks for this post Aimee. I love grocery shopping alone and I love grocery shopping with my kids (preferably one at a time).

I do think it is important that I take them often, because it teaches them so much (I often worry that I sound really judgmental to others in the store as I explain to them why we make the choices that we do). I like to give them the opportunity to make some choices too - like what kind of fruit they want to have for breakfast or which toppings they want to get for homemade pizzas.

At the same time, however, I do love the opportunity for leisurely grocery shopping alone because I am an exploratory cook and I love discovering new ingredients, reading labels, and inventing meals as I go through the store. Unfortunately, that isn't easy when someone is saying "Mama" every 10 seconds.

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

If I'm buying something from the deli my 21 month old gets a treat...a piece of cheese! The people behind the counter are willing to give him a treat and my 21 month old has an opportunity to practice his please and thank yous!!!

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermeghan

That highlighter trick is just fabulous!!! I always re-write my list in order of the store layout to streamline my trip but a simple color coding would save TONS of time and paper. You're so clever!

December 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterlisa

Aimee, I love your posts and recipes but, really. You want tough? Try grocery shopping with your infant, three year old, and your five year old autistic child, whose texture issues mean a limited diet coupled with a lack of understanding that he can not have what is in the cart RIGHT NOW!!!! I have been known to give him a-gasp-Bear Paw while shopping. And, with the now two year old we have begun taking the offered cookie from the bakery...she munches happily and we fill the cart with nutritious items without throwing things out of the cart, having to have discussions about why we buy what we do, or knocking down cracker displays. Just sayin'.

December 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCheryl F

I am not at that stage where my son quite knows what the items are but we do go down my list and i say the items out loud he helps me find them. it's real cute!

December 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSaniel

My son has multiple food allergies so I tend to grocery shop after hes in bed or during nap time if the hubby is home. I have to read lables so the shopping takes FOREVER and he is only 18 months. Plus I need to be able to read lables, not try to read as I keep him from trying to get out of the cart lol

December 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLisa R

That is so cute! Doesn't he ever ask for samples? ;)

December 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAimee @ Simple Bites

Wow, can I steal that line and teach it to my 6yo?!

December 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAimee @ Simple Bites

Oh I hear you on this one. Reading labels is SO hard with a toddler in tow.

December 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAimee @ Simple Bites

I too find myself trying to mix child-accompanied visits with solo, leisurely trips through the store. With the kids, we can talk about the merits of seasonal produce, or which types of produce we'd rather buy from the farmers' market (or get through our CSA), or even which fancy cheese we'd like to try at home, grocery budget permitting. (Budgeting is another issue that we discuss--I kept to a fairly strict budget when I'm shopping, and at least for my now-six-year-old, this helps him to understand why we can't always buy EVERYTHING that looks delicious in the store.)

I do love the reminder about snacks, Aimee, because I am ALWAYS forgetting to ensure that the kids and I are "fueled up" before grocery visits. At those times, I'm thankful for the constant samples at Trader Joe's. ;)

December 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKristen

My two strategies...
1. Home Delivery. My goal is to gather enough coupons to offset the cost of delivery.
2. I let my toddler hold on and ride in the front of the cart for short outings. She has a ball and it frees up the front of the car for my 10 month old.

December 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEmily @ Random Recycling

I thought grocery shopping was fairly simple with my toddler, using most of your tips above! Then when he was two baby brother came along and shopping with two for the first time was such a nightmare that I swore I would never do it again. I did, but now with three kids, my husband and I take turns with shopping duties, mostly at night when it isn't crowded.

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December 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBritain’s Really Disgust

You all are so strong. I don't grocery shop with my toddler. She will neither walk or sit in the cart so there is no peaceful way to get it done. Occasionally, my husband will come with and we take our daughter, but usually by the time we get to checkout we regret doing so. I miss the days when she would ride peacefully in the sling.

December 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterOlivia

I mostly do my grocery shopping online, so when we do go to the grocery store it is a special outing. That way I'm able to keep it fun and worthwhile - I don't think I would if I was doing it once or twice a week and also relying on it for all my food.

December 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChanna

I'm curious how you handle a situation I've seen a lot with other kids I knew growing up. Some of these kids had parents who didn't allow any junk food in the home, and whenever they were outside of Mom's vision, or just out and about, they would eat every piece of junk food they could get their hands on. It was actually rather problematic, because at church youth events, these teenagers would eat 4 or more helpings of cake or 6 or more donuts (leaving other youth without any), or whatever, because they wanted it, and at that point, they were outside of the area where Mom could control their eating.

Is there some point where you would stop and allow them to eat what they want? I know your post here is about toddlers, and it's easy to control toddlers a bit more, but while I'm interested in teaching my daughter to avoid junk food, I'm terrified of having her turn out like these kids I grew up with (and I've seen it in 3 different families that tightly controlled junk food, so it wasn't just something with that one parent's method of doing this...)

December 27, 2011 | Unregistered Commentertuxgirl

We have 3 boys (9, 6, & 3) and one on the way and I always have at least one kid with me every time I head to the store. Another thing that helps us is having a routine. We get produce first, stop at the deli for a free piece of cheese, visit the lobster tank to say hello, etc. The kids know if they ask for something that my response will be "is it on the list?". Basically, the kids have very clear expectations on how they are to behave and 95% of the time they do.

December 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTricia

My son usually gets a donut as we walk into the grocery store, as there's a Tim Horton's close to the entrance. I've tried to cut back on that, but keeping him occupied at the beginning usually leads to a great trip. Also? When I have more than one small person with me, carts with more than one seat are a godsend.

December 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJen Wilson

These are great tips! My other tip would be to choose the time of day mindfully... at a time when you know your child will not be over-tired and ideally (though this might not be doable for working moms) at a time when the grocery store is not crowded. I usually take my 3yo son shopping right after he gets out of preschool at 2:40. The store we go to allows children to choose any piece of fruit in the store to eat for free while shopping, which LittleA finds tremendously exciting. I encourage him to choose an apple or pear because gnawing on that keeps him busy and out of trouble for most of the trip. He'll follow me sweetly while I put things in the car... well, most of the time :)

December 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterThekla Richter

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