How to shop with a 3-year-old

Author: Maraya Steadman '89, '90MBA

I read a lot of parenting books. Books about what to expect, what to say, what to buy, how to talk, how to listen, setting limits, setting goals, setting standards, counting blessings, counting costs and counting to three. Now that I’ve been a parent for a while and I’ve read the books, I feel qualified to comment.

Illustration by Penelope Dullaghan

I think when it comes to the authors’ research and opinions, they do a decent job. But on real life stuff, in my opinion, they tend to keep quiet, scary quiet. So I thought I would write something realistic.

Grocery shopping with your 3-year-old child:

In preparation, go out and buy a 35-pound bag of dog food.

Now, start your day. Since it is morning, you’ll need to assume your dog food is throwing a temper tantrum because you put milk in the wrong sippy cup. Carry the bag out to the car and gently manhandle it into a five-point harness. Stay calm and don’t say any bad words, even when you get kicked in the face and you drop your keys down the sewer grate.

When you get to the grocery store, park as close as you can to the cart corral. It’s easier to put the cart back after you are done shopping, which you need to do every time now, even when you don’t want to, because your dog food is watching you.

Walk into the store skipping and singing silly songs as you try to convince a 35-pound bag of dog food that going grocery shopping is fun.

Once you are inside, head for the coffee shop. If your grocery store doesn’t have a coffee shop, find one that does. By this point in your parenting journey, you’ll be drinking coffee.

Make sure you have no money in your wallet, because you gave your last $20 to a high school babysitter who makes more than you do on an hourly basis. Now balance the 35 pounds on your knee as you get your credit card out of your wallet with one hand, so you can charge a dollar and 82 cents.

When the clerk asks for your driver’s license, because you look like a weirdo with 35 pounds of dog food on your knee and not the sort of person who spends $2 on a cup of coffee, don’t be discouraged when they remark, “Wow, that’s a good picture.”

Next, go through the produce department saying things like, “This is an apple. A is for apple. Can you see something orange? That’s right, that’s an orange. How many oranges do we want? Count with me, one, two, three.” Then clap your hands repeatedly and move toward the nuggets, macaroni-and-cheese and sugared cereals because, despite all nutritional efforts, that’s what your kid will be eating.

When you get to aisle 8, let the dog food out of the cart because the bag has started to whine. Leave the bag in aisle 8 and realize your dog food is missing by the time you get to frozen foods. Start to run frantically through the store yelling, “Dog Food! Dog Food! Where are you?”

As visions of heroin addicts lurking in the grocery store aisles trying to steal hemorrhoid medication and abduct 35-pound bags of dog food haunt you, and you are running around the grocery store like a crazy person, you will spot your bag and start sprinting as fast as you possibly can down the aisle.

When you reach the bag, get down on your knees and strengthen your parenting bond by yelling loud enough for everyone in the store to hear you, “Don’t you ever run away from me in the grocery store again! Do you hear me?”

As you carry the 35-pound sack on your hip and contemplate the long-term effects this will have on your rotator cuff, discover that some well-intentioned employee has found your cart and started to put all the groceries back. Walk out of the store without buying anything.

As you hug your dog food, remembering what it felt like when you couldn’t find it, and you feel the weight of the bag in your arms, bury your nose in the top of the bag. Your dog food says, “I love you, Mommy.”

Realize there is nothing more precious than your 3-year-old child, and all you really need is your child in your arms and a cold cup of $2 coffee. Too bad you left your coffee in the shopping cart.

Maraya Steadman, who lives in a Chicago suburb, is a stay-at-home mother of three children. Her website is Email her at