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How to survive grocery shopping with children

By Melody Tan 5 min read

Marketing and pricing are the main reasons why our kids are reaching for junk food. Here's how to shop for healthy food and not succumb to pester power.

It could be a squeezy yoghurt pouch with a Minion on the front. Or a fruit drink with Elsa twirling around on the label. Maybe even Buzz Lightyear flying across a kids-sized bottle of chocolate milk.

You know there are only four things children aged under five should be drinking. But between pester power and the fear of a public tantrum, those drinks somehow make their way into your trolley even though they're nowhere near your shopping list.

Looking around, the trolley of any mum laden with a preschooler looks suspiciously similar. No wonder: Research is showing that children are still consuming sugary-sweet drinks in alarming quantities, but it's not entirely your fault.

How supermarkets are letting parents down

While it's easy to blame parents for providing kids with less-than-healthy food choices, it turns out the real culprit lies in persistent product marketing.

“In contrast to common rhetoric, our study shows children’s sweet drink consumption is often influenced by factors beyond parental control,” said lead author Alexandra Chung, a visiting researcher in Deakin’s Institute for Health Transformation and PhD candidate at Monash University.

“Individuals have a choice, we’re all responsible for our own choices, but if the environment we’re in doesn’t support us to be healthy, then that makes it really difficult.”

Alexandra said her study identified the key environmental factors driving sugary drink consumption in preschoolers were marketing and pricing.

“Parents really talked about marketing in places like supermarkets and on TV. They spoke about product placement and popular cartoon characters being used to market sweet drinks to children, leading children to easily identify and repeatedly request these products, making it harder to turn them down,” she said.

“Pricing was also considered a very influential factor, especially that common occasion when families are outside the home and it’s cheaper to buy sweet drinks than it is to buy water. A particularly stark example raised by parents was the $1 frozen cokes at fast food outlets.

“The low price of tap water was viewed as an incentive to consume water, but a lack of availability of places to refill water bottles and the inconvenience when bottles were forgotten was a barrier," continued Alexandra.

6 tips for successful grocery shopping with kids

If you've ever considered avoiding the shops and simply going online because a shopping trip with your kids just seemed too much to bear, you're not alone.

Karen Holford is Mums At The Table's resident family counsellor. She says, "Grocery stores are highly over-stimulating environments that can easily push many children into an overloaded emotional sensory state that they need their parents to soothe, comfort or remove them from.

"Personally, I have high sensory awareness and I struggle to cope with grocery stores too because on top of shopping, I am having to manage my own sensory overload."

So when it comes to a tantrum or pestering, Karen says sometimes, it's really a demand for connection with the parent and tangible evidence of whether the parent "cares" for them. And that's really hard when you're shopping, since the focus of your attention is likely to be on the grocery list.

1. Identify the tantrum

Believe it or not, there are actually different types of tantrums, with different solutions:

Sensory overload tantrum: Take them out and soothe them.

Attention-seeking tantrum: Give them some positive eye contact or focused, one-to-one attention for a while.

Demanding tantrum: Do not give in to a demanding tantrum, if at all possible, because it reinforces the behaviour. Instead, say “I really cannot understand what you are saying when you speak to me in your noisy voice. I’ll listen when you can speak to me in your quiet voice.

"I know you want [item] and I know it is really big and important to you right now. I love you and I care about every bit of you. Because I love you and I want you to be happy and healthy, I want to help you make good choices about what you eat and drink. We only buy drinks that are [positive characteristics] and food that is [positive characteristics].

"Some drinks and food look fun and tasty, but they are filled with things that don’t love your body the way that it is good to be loved."

2. Offer choice

Give children a choice between two healthy options or nothing.

For older children, show them the sugar/fat level information on the packet and agree on a healthy limit. 

3. Give them a task

Kids love having a job to do. If you can devise a useful task, such as pushing the trolley or ticking items off a list, they’ll feel more involved and interested. 

If they have a need to buy something, let them help you choose a healthy food item that they can then contribute to a food bank or food collection charity. This will teach them to do good with their spending and learn selflessness, rather than selfishness. 

4. Visit the free fruit station

Supermarkets don’t give out free fruit to kids because they’re good people, but because they want to build a fresh food image and want you to stay in store longer. But the free fruit means your children can make their own healthy choice at no cost. A healthy snack might also give you the time to complete the shop with minimal fussing.

5. Fight boredom

Sometimes children ask to buy things because they are bored, so look for fun ways to keep them interested and helpful.

You could talk to your children as you shop so that they can learn about colours, objects and experiences. This has the added advantage of letting them know you are giving them some attention.

Have a small bag with different toys and books that can be attached to the trolley and change the toys throughout the shopping trip for variety.

6. Make it short

Divide up your shopping trips so they are short and manageable. It may be easier to do three short trips than to do one long trip where everybody is tired and cross at the end.

And if it all goes pear-shaped while you're at the shop, sometimes it’s best to just cut and run. Go home, have a cup of tea and try again another time.

Pester power is real . . . but less effective than you think

While research from the University of South Australia suggests that kids will nag parents to buy something every four minutes, the situation is not as dire as you may think. The research found that just over half of all shopping trips we do actually occur without any challenging behaviours from children and when requests do occur, less than 20 per cent of parents cave in.

Lead researcher, UniSA’s Dr Bill Page, says the finding is a positive sign for parents.  "Despite the narrative about parents feeling relatively powerless in the face of children’s nagging, our research shows most parents holding their ground when it comes to pester power," he says.

“Being able to negate difficult behaviours such as pestering is all part of a parent’s job, and to be fair, also a part of a child’s development as they learn to express themselves and practise communication and negotiation skills.”

So yes, any shopping trip that you embark on with your children has the potential to end in tears (sometimes theirs, sometimes yours), and it's also likely you'll find yourself buying something you never really wanted to. But armed with the above strategies and the knowledge that there are parents out there who have managed to hold their ground, your next shopping trip with your kids will hopefully be more enjoyable.

Melody Tan is project manager of the Mums At The Table multimedia initiative. She lives in Sydney with her husband and her son.