Take your kids with you to the grocery store. Yes, really, especially when they’re 10-and-under.

I totally understand why most people opt to do their grocery shopping in the evening or on weekends, when they can go alone. Sometimes I do, too.

But I try not to make that my normal routine, because I think it’s good for the kids to get to the store, too. That doesn’t mean I think everybody must, or that everyone should do it the same way I do, of course. But if we do think our children are a blessing to us, then we need to act like it in real life and not just affirm it in our minds.

Give the kids a pep talk before leaving the car.

One reason taking the kids grocery shopping can get frustrating – both for mom and for the kids – is unspoken, unknown expectations on both sides. Mom has her vision of what well-behaved children do and do not do that she thinks, from her lifetime of experience, is quite obvious.

The children, placed in this new, overstimulating environment of vast sugar-filled food items, loses himself and doesn’t even realize anything outside himself exists. Probably the children consider their mother rude to be always quashing their zeal on this adventure which seems so full of potential.

I would say that above all else, the tactic that has had the most benefit for few (not zero) grocery-store melt-downs is that I try to remember to give them a prep and pep talk before we leave the vehicle. We go over the ground rules and expectations:

  1. Stay by mom. Do not touch things we are not going to buy. I will ask you to help me get things, but do not touch anything else.
  2. Keep your eyes open for other people and try not to obstruct traffic.
  3. Do not ask for things. We are buying what’s on the list, and nothing else (this doesn’t work as well after they can read and realize that you’re making exceptions for sale items).
  4. You can pick a piece of candy from the bulk area when we’re there, but you can’t eat it until after we pay for it, and you don’t get it if you disobey in the store. It’s a treat for helpers.
  5. I need helpers at the store. Can you be my helpers today?

Then, I am simply armed with the expressions that have become second-nature: Don’t touch what we aren’t buying. Oops, move out of the way. Stay by me, please. Repeat, repeat kindly, repeat, and enforce – don’t let them ignore you (this means that you also can’t ignore them or what you’re saying, which is kinda inconvenient, I know, but the reality of being the mom).

When they point out things they’d like or do ask for something, I often respond with something like “Oh, that does look interesting, doesn’t it?” or “Maybe you can choose that for your birthday meal.” or “Oh, yes, maybe we can get that as a special vacation treat sometime.” or “I bet that would be good, but we aren’t going to get that now.” Then, of course, they say in a whiny voice, “But, when?” and I say, “Oh, probably never. It won’t actually taste as good as it looks. It’s not actually good food.” (that is, assuming that they’re pointing out some highly processed, highly marketed food product).

Decide what your ground rules are for your kids at the store. Decide what jobs they can do that actually are helpful or at least make them feel so (more on that tomorrow). Find a way to say that simply and clearly.

Say it simply and clearly before the temptation to whine and demand and fuss comes, and get them on board and on your team rather than kids against mom. Then, be prepared to repeat your reminders as you go about, though it seems like 100 times should be enough already.

Letting your kids know what is expected of them before the heat of the moment makes them crazy is the #1 tip for taking children out in public, period.

Give the kids jobs at the grocery store.

One thing that makes grocery shopping with children miserable is their boundless energy being unleashed in a new arena. In addition to giving them a pep talk about expectations, you need to give them a useful outlet for that energy.

Here are some of the jobs I’ve given my kids at the store. Most kids genuinely do want to contribute value, be helpful, and be thanked for their efforts. Grocery shopping is one avenue I give this to my children.

  • Sometimes I have a tall-enough child push a cart. I’ll push a cart full of children and have the other child push a cart for the groceries. This only works when the store isn’t very busy and when the child is tall enough to make sure of his way.
  • Let a child put 5 onions or oranges or whatever in the bag. Or, if it’s a fragile fruit, pick them and give them to me so I can put them in the bag.
  • Let a child grab the celery or the tuna or the can of tomatoes and put it in the cart.
  • Have a child write the numbers on the bulk tag.
  • Have a child pick which shape pasta you buy this time.
  • Pick an empty aisle and send them running down and back to use up antsy energy.
  • Talk to older ones about price per ounce and show them how to read the price tags on the shelf. See if they can figure out which olive oil is cheaper per ounce before you do.
  • Have them help put groceries on the conveyor belt to check out.
  • Have them help bag the groceries, if needed.
  • Have them help unload at home.

The more practice they have, the more of a true help your kids really can be at the store!

A great byproduct of having the kids help out in these ways is that much more frequently than “You’ve got your hands full,” I hear from fellow shoppers, “Looks like you have a lot of helpers!” My theory is that people just feel like they have to say something when it is obvious that they’ve noticed you, so they say the easiest thing, the first thing that comes to mind. They aren’t usually trying to be irritating or negative, they just say what comes naturally. If it is the children happily helping, they tend to comment on that rather than their sheer numbers.

That has, at least, been my experience, in a town where 3-5 kids is common, people are friendly, and where I don’t have an unusually large family.

One important thing I have noted over the years is that, for the children, behaving and helping at the grocery store is a skill that gets better with practice and declines when not practiced. So if I want to be able to take the children with me to the grocery store and maintain my sanity and blood pressure in the process, I need to take them several times a month — that is, more often than not. When they are accustomed to the errand and know the routine, it’s actually usually pleasant to have a couple extra sets of hands to help.

Three Benefits of Taking Your Kids with You to the Grocery Store

  1. They want to get out of the house, too. At least, my preschool and homeschooled children can get as stir-crazy always being at home as I can. Just like I sometimes feel like I just need to get out and about, so do they. And, the more often we go, the more practice they get, the better it all rolls (typically).
  2. It is part of living life together and apprenticing them in life. It’s not that I think they’re learning math by seeing prices or colors by helping me bag produce, but that they are learning by experience what goes into choosing and purchasing food. They know that we don’t buy anything and everything our heart desires, but that we have to make smart choices. They know their way around the many types of foods and when they are off on their own they will be no stranger to navigating a store and making food decisions. Another aspect of this point is that when all the little eyes are with me, I make better food choices. I can’t sneak candy and junk to stash away for myself. Because I would, just as they will when they get a chance, but they and I will also have years of good habits that will bring us back after wayward interludes.
  3. It is good for society to have children around. The more that families with 4 or more children stay out of the public eye, the more the public eye assumes it’s weird. Yes, sometimes I get rude or thoughtless comments on my crew. However, I get more compliments than censures. Part of that is that we live in a very family-friendly town, but it’s also because I’m reaping the fruits of daily discipline and training. I figure it’s putting that at-home work to good use. We can go out and speak and act politely and cheerfully, learn to be aware and considerate of those around us, and be a public testimony to the blessing of children. That doesn’t mean we aren’t noisy. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t sometimes in people’s way. That doesn’t mean that sometimes there aren’t tantrums. But sometimes being the mom with a screaming baby that the old lady helps to her car is a blessing to the community, too. It happens. Someday I’ll be the old lady helping the overloaded mom. It does mean that overall, more often than not (this is where frequency helps our odds!), people exclaim over the children, “What helpers you have!” Positive reinforcement and praise from outside the family is a better encouragement than a piece of candy (not that candy hurts, either).

This menu plan template and master pantry resource will help streamline your kitchen.

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