Grocery Store Sanity: 5 Tips for Shopping with a Toddler

I have four children. I love them dearly, but I can remember a time when I just didn’t want to take one of them out in public. It wasn’t the same child. It was each of them at different times, and, it’s no coincidence, it was the one who happened to be between 18 months and three years-old at the time.

Taking a toddler out of the house is unpredictable, and just plain exhausting. Even the most well-behaved children get loud, have quick hands, and have endless curiosity (this goes double for all those high-energy and strong-willed children). None of this mixes well with grocery stores, restaurants, and doctor’s waiting offices.

I feel your pain!

Toddler Grocery

To avoid the grocery I’d scrounge meals from anything I could find in my pantry (Popcorn and apples for lunch? Sure! That’s healthy!), I shopped online (Thank you, Amazon Prime!), and, whenever I could, I scheduled doctor’s appointments around my mom’s free time so she could babysit the others. 
A solo trip to Target was like a day at the spa.

Still, I didn’t just leave my house when I could shed a kid or two (or three or four). I couldn’t. By the time my youngest outgrew his toddler years, I’d have been confined for 10 years! (Actual criminals don’t stay on house arrest that long!) No, as difficult as it sometimes was (and sometimes it was really difficult), I took my toddlers out. They needed to experience the world (and so did I).

And so do you.

So, for the next few weeks I’m going to share my best tips for managing your day-to-day with a toddler in tow. I’m calling it the “Out and About Survival Guide” and I hope it helps you. I hope to encourage you and give you a game-plan so these (formerly frightening) outings will become positive time spent together. Quality learning and bonding time. I don’t want you to just survive your next outing, I want you to really enjoy it.

Today we’re starting with the dreaded grocery store.

5 Ways to Make Grocery Shopping easier with Toddlers 

1. Mindset

Start by checking your attitude; take your emotional temperature.

If you’ve experienced a few difficult outings, the mere thought of another trip might be raising your stress level.

If so, you can bet your kids sense it. You’ve lost the battle before you even buckle the car seat. To cope with this, try to shift your thinking from a chore or to-do list item, and think of the next trip to the grocery as a way to have fun. Trying to put a positive spin on it is only one part.

Your mindset won’t change overnight. It is a process and it takes practice, but begin with little changes.
Take a few minutes before heading out to say a prayer, grab your favorite coffee on the way, or call a friend for encouragement. Actively viewing grocery shopping as a positive experience for your child rather than a unwanted chore to survive goes a long way toward improving the experience for both of you.

2. Prepare

Prepare yourself, prepare your toddler, and prepare your schedule. 
First, prepare yourself. Have everything ready in advance. Having your shopping list, coupons, keys, and diaper bag ready to go in advance will allow you to focus more attention on your child and less on deciding what you need to buy or worrying you don’t have enough diapers if you have a sudden emergency. (Plus it has the added bonus of limiting any impulse buying.)
Second, prepare your toddler. Timing is everything. Plan the trip for a time when your little one isn’t too hungry or tired (or, by all means, both!). Here’s a little math problem for you:

Tired + Hungry + Toddler = Tantrum!

Also, get in some active play before heading out. Between our house and the grocery we’ve got a small park, so I’d often stop for 20 minutes or so and let my children burn off some energy before they’d have to sit in a shopping cart for a long stretch. If you don’t have that sort of option, you can can provide active play at home before heading out by bouncing on a ball or bouncy horsejumping on trampoline or spending a few minutes sliding. Even a few short runs up and down the side walk before climbing in the car is better than nothing.
Third, prepare your schedule. Time your trips during less crowded times of the day. You’ll spend less time in lines and your toddler is less likely to be overstimulated by a loud and busy atmosphere. (I no longer have a toddler, but I still avoid Sam’s Club on Saturday morning.)


3. Engage 

Don’t strap your toddler in the grocery cart seat and then expect them to entertain themselves while you do your shopping. Involve them in the process. Talk to them! 

Narrating as you go along is a natural path for language and other cognitive skill development. “We need apples, do you see any red apples?” Count apples as you put them in a bag, or allow a few choices to involve your toddler in the process: “Do you want the strawberry or blueberry yogurt?

Of course, sometimes you need to look at your list, check the quality of the eggs, or find the correct bag of cheese. You can’t hold a continuous conversation with your child. My third was the worst about this. He would often say “Talk a me Mommy” (translation “Talk to me Mommy“). He liked all my attention to be on him (and still does).  You can begin to teach simple waiting skills with responses like, “Let me check my list and then we can sing a song/look for the chips/head to the checkout.” Then, expect them to wait while you look over your list for 30 seconds.

Your child may fuss at first, but, over time, they’ll expand their patience. Then, after they’ve waited patiently, make note of it, with a “Thank you for waiting, now we can ____________.” Reward their waiting with some positive attention. 

4. Distract

Bring along a few items to capture your child’s attention, especially in the slower moments like at the check out, when you’re waiting in line, and loading the groceries on the conveyor belt.

Something to keep their hands busy is especially helpful. So, take a snack (I loved these snack containers when mine were small), a lift-the-flap book (my favorites are Where’s Spot, or this set of four), a squishy ball to squeeze, a travel magna doodle, or a vibrating teether are all great options.

I also recommend keeping a bag of favorite “go-to” toys, and suggest limiting access to these toys to outings. This keeps the toys fresh and exciting. If they haven’t seen these items for a week or more, the may engage a little longer.

Distraction is also great for diffusing a tantrum when you see it brewing. If you can, try a detour down the dog food aisle and point out the different dogs as you walk by.  That 15 second side-trip may be enough to calm a child on the verge just long enough to finish your trip.  You can also give them an item you’ll be purchasing from the cart (preferably something toddler-proof). Let let them know they’ll get to put it on the conveyor belt when its time to check out; that seems like a very important job to a little one.


5. Survive

If all else fails, just survive.


Even with all the planning and prep your child may melt down before you make it of out of the store. That’s the time for survival mode. Of course, a melt down may be a sign of a bigger (real problem). So, make sure your child’s safe and, if so, get to the checkout a quick as possible.

Now, here’s the hard part: Ignore the stares. Remember, you’re not at the grocery to make new friends! You’re there to get groceries to feed your family, including the wailing banshee in front of you!

I can vividly remember my daughter screaming through Target because I would not let her stand on the seat. I had to holding her down, in the seat, while pushing my way to the exit as fast as I could. All the while she screamed like her hair was on fire. I was so concerned about the stares I kept repeating (a little louder that necessary), “Mommy said you must sit in your seat.” For some reason I felt I needed to explain myself to all those strangers.

In hindsight, most of them had probably been in the same position once or twice themselves and were more sympathetic than judgmental. Still, it’s funny, I can’t remember any of my fourth child’s public tantrums, I am sure he had them, but I really feel like I reached a point in my parenting where the tantrums didn’t fluster me.

I knew how to limit them from happening, and, when they did I knew we’d both survive. Plus, with four kids I don’t have time or energy to worry about a stranger’s opinion of me. 

What was the worst tantrum you survived in the grocery store?

Leave a Reply