Grocery shopping with children--without the gripes

CRYING babies, children begging to buy candy, frazzled parents trying to remember what they need from the grocery -- is this your supermarket bad dream? Well, it doesn't have to be. You can actually return home from the store feeling great about your purchases, the good time you had, and how much your children are learning. A good grocery trip starts at home with the week's menus sketched out and a grocery list made from them (a good in-front-of-TV job). If you generally shop at the same store, take a few minutes sometime to walk through the store, aisle by aisle, making a list of what you normally buy. Copy this list, keep one in the kitchen during the week, and use it as the basis for your shopping. This way there's no backtracking in the store, because your shopping list coincides with the products in each aisle.

En route, remind small helpers of the Big Three Grocery Rules:

Walk -- no running or pushing permitted.

Talk -- no crying or shouting allowed.

Gawk -- look at but don't pester for things.

Children should know what to expect if they act up in public. When you tell them that they will be disciplined later at home, be sure to carry through with the needed correction. If you do, it will make subsequent trips happier.

Babies like the lights and action of the supermarket if they have a soft, safe seat, a tied-on toy, and a juice bottle offered about halfway through. As you stroll through the store, don't hesitate to talk happily to the baby, who takes pleasure in just being with you.

Toddlers are another matter. Don't turn them loose yet, since they have a habit of crashing carts into unsuspecting grandmas. One mother thought she had a solution by putting junior in the main section of the cart and ignoring him. At the checkout station, she found he'd removed all the labels from the canned goods. Give these active young ones an assignment: holding your pencil, looking for a particular item, waving to other toddlers, telling you to turn left or right, announcing the number of the aisle. We all like to feel essential. Also consider these little games:

What do you see? Name something you are looking for -- cottage cheese, a pumpkin, oatmeal. Pick something from the aisle you're in. Do this for each aisle so the youngster begins to look for pictures or items.

Vocabulary building. Point to items and name them distinctly, letting the child repeat the name: oranges, crackers, lettuce . . . working up to rutabagas, aluminum foil, and salmon steaks. Remember to ask next week what some of those things are.

Who can find red first? At the beginning of each aisle, select a color and see which of you will see it first.

And keep in your purse two ``just-in-case'' items: a book (kept only for car and errands) and a little plastic bag of crackers or grapes.

By first grade most children can push the cart for you and organize the contents efficiently to get everything in without smashing the potato chips. Start guessing games: How many pounds of potatoes do we have? Which brand of applesauce is least expensive and still tastes good? How much will our groceries cost? What did they cost last week? Is there a reason for the difference? Provide simple ``prizes'' for winning answers if you have two or more children along: sitting in the front seat, choosing the sandwich for lunch, buying a special treat.

Let each child pick out a ``surprise item'' -- something you haven't tasted before. You'll be pleased with the new things they'll try. As one grade-schooler said to his sister who looked hesitant about the toasted pork rinds he'd selected: ``I bought it. You eat it.'' She did, and they became a favorite.

When children can be on their own in the store, give them an item to find. Then increase their ``list'' to three, then five items. This is good practice for remembering. Remind them to WALK-TALK-GAWK as they go about the store. This is a good age to point out that TV ads for foods are devised to sell us a particular food and that we should carefully consider a purchase rather than just buying because of the ad.

Soon you can divide your list among your shoppers and cut your in-store time in half, permitting a stop like the park en route home. Let these older children put together the elements of their sack lunches, devise an entire meal and buy the ingredients (which my family calls Mystery Supper), or investigate the foreign-foods department.

By junior high, children should be able to do the shopping alone while you do other errands. But remember to be gracious about items that aren't what you had in mind. A good project for high schoolers is a yearly comparison-shopping test. Select 20 items you buy regularly and let the student shop for and compare prices at several markets.

Checkout time can be boring for little children, so keep them busy counting items, guessing how many bagsful there will be, naming things they like. Older children can go to the car and get it open and ready. A good going-home game is seeing who can recall the most items purchased.

Back home, everyone but the baby unloads the bags into the kitchen. If you're adventurous, divide the bags among the children and have a race to see who can put away his contents first, getting them on the right shelves.

How wonderful those words ``Take me along'' sound! All too soon children are grown and gone, and you will have to find new joy in being a solo shopper.

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