Parenting lowers the standards for so many things!
Entertainment, bodily fluids, exciting conversation topics…
You go grocery shopping with your spouse as part of “date night” because you have a babysitter, and you TRULY enjoy it, like a highlight of your week!
I have joked about this with so many people in person, and the wide eyes and nods of agreement are always the same. It’s really a treat to be in a store with my husband and without children.
However, like many things about parenting, the easiest and most enjoyable option isn’t always the best for everyone.
As much as I pine for a grocery shopping trip by myself, I would feel guilty if I did it all the time.
And no, I’m not crazy.
I just know in my heart of hearts that grocery shopping is such an incredible opportunity for my children for a number of reasons:
- A little face-time with Mommy, for babies and toddlers/preschoolers who get to ride in the top part of the cart. I enjoy being able to communicate with them without chasing them down first.
- Learning what produce looks like in its whole form.
- What paying with real money looks like (and figuring out change) – at least when we shop at the Farmer’s Market.
- Real life academic practice with mathematics, letters and more.
- Family norms and responsibility.
I was asked recently if my background as a teacher impacted my parenting, and I realized that although I don’t notice it and I don’t think it does, teaching is so ingrained in my person that it must. Constantly looking for opportunities for growth (whether I’m disciplined enough to take advantage of them or not!) is one of those teacher/parent integrations that I couldn’t shake if I tried. (That, and teaching my kids to cook, I suppose.)
So let’s pretend for just a moment that you are going to embrace your next grocery shopping trip as an opportunity for your kids to develop as human beings rather than just gritting your teeth and getting through it as quickly as possible.
What would you want to do to make the best use of every precious moment in the store?
This post is sponsored by Plan to Eat, because getting kids interested in cooking and all the parts of a meal, including grocery shopping and meal planning, is a mission for them! See what Plan to Eat can do for you with a 30-day free trial.
3 Tips to Grow Babies’ and Toddlers’ Brains on a Trip to the Store
The primary way babies and toddlers are going to learn about the world is through speech and experience. Typically at this age, children are dying to explore their world and touch everything, but that’s not a good idea in a store. They’re better off being pinned down in the cart or a baby carrier (the Moby Wrap or ring sling are my favorites for little ones!).
Since they lose the ability to move and explore, let’s replace that with conversation.
Tell your tiny ones everything you’re doing. They’re right up near your face, so they can see your lips, where your eyes look, what your hands are doing, and they’re more involved than they usually are if they’re on the floor or in a high chair.
“Mommy is getting a jar of salsa down. INto the cart it goes!”
“Here is some lettuce, some green lettuce, some WET, green lettuce. Let’s put it IN the bag and IN the cart!”
Although it feels weird to narrate every move at first, it’s so helpful for our babies and toddlers, who know nothing about the world except what we tell them.
2. Let them SMELL Things
Babies learn a lot through all their senses, but they don’t always get a lot of opportunities to be exposed to different scents.
Wander the produce area or visit fresh flowers and talk about what smells you can smell. Give baby a close-up chance to sniff mint leaves, a fresh rose, or baked goods (they even smell great through the plastic!).
Teaching your child to use all of her senses is a great start for science investigations, slowing down and appreciating their world, and in this case, even learning to blow their nose as a random bonus! (Isolating the awareness of what their noses can do – to suck air in or blow air out – is step one in that process.)
3. Practice Counting
I always feel guilty when I realize that I forgot to count the stairs as I walked down them carrying my little one or didn’t point out some letters on a sign for my preschoolers. It’s really hard to remember to integrate all the little academic things into your daily life when life moves so fast!
The grocery store is built for building kids’ brains though. There are so many things to count!
- count fruits or veggies into a bulk produce bag
- count as you put items into your cart
- count people who pass you
- count as items go on the conveyor belt
- count the number of bags you put into your vehicle
What else could you count for your tiniest ones in the grocery store?
What to Do With Preschoolers at the Grocery Store
If academic opportunities are built in at the grocery store for babies and toddlers, it’s even better with preschoolers. I forget to do this with mine allllll the time, by the way, so I write this as much to give myself a kick in the pants as to give you inspiration!
You’re not going to narrate everything you do like with tiny tots, but a preschooler’s vocabulary is determined in large part by the diversity of words he hears before age 5, so get talking! Label produce, talk about turning right and left, describe people and packages you see, ask questions of your child, discuss what’s on the list next.
You can play memory games with the list too, like, “We need bananas, apples, oranges, and peaches in this section of the store. How many items is that? Let’s try to remember them…” and then repeat the 4 items over and over and ask your child to tell the list back to you. This gives them strategies for memorizing plus practice doing it in a real life situation. Super helpful!
2. Count and Point Out Letters
The world is your textbook in preschool, and there’s rarely a more robust place to find numbers and letters to practice than a grocery store.
Point out the numbers on sale signs, ask your child what the beginning sound is in the word “spinach,” see if they can begin to recognize words on containers. If you can make it work so that your pre-reader can “read” words because they know what’s in the package, they’ll feel such a sense of accomplishment! If the bread bag says “bread” in big letters or the milk carton says “milk,” see if your preschooler can identify what the word might be, and don’t miss the chance to talk about beginning (or ending) sounds.
Do lots of counting too, just like with the babies, but this time get the child involved as much as they are able to. If you need six jars of spaghetti sauce, ask the child to count as you put each one into the cart and count them again once they’re in the cart to double check.
If the child makes a mistake, try to allow them to figure it out. (Note: Some kids don’t understand 1-to-1 correspondence until they’re an older preschooler, and that’s ok. If your 3-year-old has trouble counting the correct number of items even though they know how to count generally, help them touch each item as they say one number. Don’t get frustrated, just keep trying – practice makes perfect!)
3. Have a Plan for the Checkout Gimmies
I keep him so busy being in charge of the quarter and the cart at ALDI that he doesn’t even have time to get the gimmies!
This is as much for you as for them, harried mamas.
Often the most painful part about bringing kids to the store is when they get the gimmies and ask the adult to buy all sorts of things they neither need nor can afford.
It will help everyone have a more enjoyable time if you have a plan going in. Explain to your kid that you’re only buying what is on the grocery list and nothing else (if you can stick to that!) or at least that they won’t be able to buy anything for themselves (and stick to it!). It’s so important to be consistent every time!
Even if you want to buy them something in the checkout line (or anywhere else), I’d work hard to make the initiative yours, and never a response to their request. They’ll think it might work every time, and then you’re stuck with the gimmies.
Our strategy is to say that we’ll put the wished-for toy on the child’s birthday or Christmas list, and that appeases them better than a straight-up “no.”
Why Take Elementary Aged Kids to the Grocery Store?
I have to admit that I don’t often end up with my bigger kids at the store because they’re in school all day, but I’ll make it a point to get them out grocery shopping and especially to the farmer’s market a few times this summer.
Because it builds our family norms and culture and gives them authentic experiences of money and interaction that can’t be reproduced at home.
I really start building the norms in preschool – things that are just “the way things work” in our family, like reusing produce bags, looking for good deals, shopping most of the time in the fresh produce section instead of the middle aisles, etc. I don’t have to teach them other than by example.
With bigger kids, however, I can start to explain the reasons behind some of the norms so that, when they realize that our norms aren’t always the ways of the world, they have a chance of buying into real food, conservationism, and frugal living.
1. Talk About the Whys
Still more talking!
Now you’re getting into higher level thinking and taking advantage of time with your kids without screens, ear buds, or an escape route for them.
Talk about how you’re deciding on deals, ingredients you look for when you flip a box or jar around to the back, how you determine how much of something to buy, etc. If you have a price book or one in your head, give your child insight into how you run the numbers and why. There are many judgment calls and decisions that you make without thinking about it while shopping, and it will help build your older child’s critical thinking brain if you narrate how you do it for them.
Besides that, like I said above, understanding the “why” behind less conventional choices will give them a foundation for those habits becoming part of their adult lives and not just “something Mom used to do.”
2. Give Them the List
Big kids will get bored in the store if they’re not involved, so let them be in charge of crossing off your list, whether that’s running through it verbally, on paper, or digitally, like my Plan to Eat shopping list on my phone. If you have two people working on the list, the whole shopping experience may be more efficient as well!
Did you know Plan to Eat auto-generates the shopping list based on what I have in my meal plan – and I get to choose my own recipes?! PTE often saves me when I’m trying a bunch of new recipes, because then I won’t ever forget a random ingredient that I don’t buy often, like capers or parsnips.
Being hands-on with the list also helps the kids know how much time is left and may motivate them to think of ways they can help move the process along, like grabbing something on one end of an aisle while you’re collecting something on the other. And for early readers, they get great practice on their reading skills, mostly phonics because a list is by nature out of context.
3. Cultivate Thinking Skills
Something as simple as helping bag groceries – properly – can teach kids that there is a method that works best. They have to think through putting heavy items on the bottom, not overfilling a bag, and organizing shapes so that they fit nicely in the bag.
Paying for food and accepting change – and especially figuring it out in their heads before hand – is awesome math and interpersonal practice and is such a rarity! Think about how often you swipe a card rather than use money nowadays. I take my kids to the Farmer’s Market solely for this reason: to see actual money change hands.
I always challenge them to figure out the change and teach them polite interaction, thanking the vendor and wishing them a nice day.
And if we end up with a little locally made kettle corn or a treat that they brought their own money to pay for, well…that’s so much better than dollar store junk, I’ll take that and embrace it, too! (In fact, I encourage my kids to spend their fun money on food!)
It’s all part of the life skills training that is the job of parenting and my mission to teach my kids to cook – that starts with sourcing and purchasing food and the decisions involved in that!
If I ever add modules to my Kids Cook Real Food eCourse, I’m considering meal planning and grocery shopping lessons for the biggest kids. It’s so important!
My son Paul wrote a real cookbook!
He and 4 friends have published a cookbook by kids, for kids, all healthy foods — Chef Junior.
If you want to see how kids write to kids and get some fab bonuses for supporting these 5 teen authors, buy the book and then redeem the bonuses the kids created!
Big thanks again to the sponsor of this post, Plan to Eat, for their commitment to making real food easier for all of us!
Other kids cooking posts:
- 7 Things You Should Never Let Your Kids do in the Kitchen
- Easy Kid Made Lunches
- 20 Recipes Kids can Make
- I Taught My Kids to Cut Onions – Our No-Tears Trick!
- The time Bethany Realized her First Grader Had Never Used a Butter Knife
- New Food Rules for Kids