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Reality Check: Grocery Shopping With a Toddler

Q. Food shopping with my 2½-year-old daughter used to be a nice outing, but now Louise refuses to stay in the cart. Inevitably, she has a tantrum, everyone stares, and I get embarrassed. What should I do?

A. I remember when my daughters were babies and food shopping was fun. Strangers would admire their cuteness as they occupied themselves happily just gnawing on the end of a baguette. (Choking Police, ignore the previous sentence.) But then they grew up and learned there's more fun to be had cruising the aisles as a pedestrian than buckled into that uncomfortable little metal seat.

Here's what has sometimes worked with my 3-year-old escape artist, Eleanor. Before we set out, I pack her favorite Hello Kitty tote with things like cheese, crackers, peeled apple slices, and a spillproof water cup, all in small plastic bags she can open herself, plus a couple of little toys (a stuffed animal, a baby doll) and books. At the supermarket I place the tote in the shopping-cart seat, point it out to Ellie, and then, real casual-like, lift her into the seat. Usually, she goes right to work on the bag (it helps if it's close to lunchtime), and this gives me at least 20 minutes of somewhat peaceful shopping. After that, it's improvisation. Not knowing Louise, I don't know if this strategy will work with her. I can tell you it wouldn't have worked with Madeline, my 6-year-old, who would have simply demanded that the tote bag be taken out of the cart and handed to her.

And although it's preferable to keep a toddler in the cart, that won't guarantee she'll stay out of trouble. I'm thinking of the time Ellie, while still in her shopping-cart seat, nudged a glass gallon jug of juice off a high shelf and pulled one of the bottom pieces of fruit out of a pyramid of $4-a-pound organic apricots.

A friend of mine, who has given up trying to keep her preschooler in the cart, maintains good spirits and reasonable control by giving her son a job. She describes and points to pasta, canned goods, and other nonbreakable items; he goes and gets them off the shelves and hands them to her. Kids like to be useful, and they know the difference between make-work and real work.

When a public tantrum can't be avoided -- and it's totally normal that sometimes it can't -- how do you deal with it? Says Anne Cassidy, author of Parents Who Think Too Much, "The main thing is to follow your own instincts, even though others may be judging you." Sometimes this means holding your flailing toddler in your arms in a quiet corner of the store, sometimes it means staying on that checkout line and toughing out the tantrum (the point, after all, is to leave the supermarket as quickly as possible with the groceries), sometimes it means not sneaking in one more errand when you know in your heart your child has had enough. And though I'm not sure why, I feel less embarrassed if I answer my daughter's loud protests (and the judging stares) with a calm-voiced monologue: "I know you're tired, and it's more fun to be outside running around and soon we'll be home...." Come to think of it, this is what I'd like someone to say to me when I'm feeling hysterical.

Contributing editor Trisha Thompson, a former editor-in-chief of BabyTalk magazine, writes often on health and family.