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In a perfect world you would never set foot in a grocery store with a 6-year-old in tow.

You could buy what you need and check out without telling your child, over and over, that no, they can't have the candy, cookies, chips and junk food they beg for.

While it isn't a perfect world, experts at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health say it could definitely be improved, but it will require help from supermarkets.

The biggest problem, they contend, is that grocery stores seem to stock these unhealthy treats on shelves that are eye-level to most children. As they walk down the grocery aisle with their parent they are literally kids in a candy store. So one solution is simply stocking these items in a less conspicuous place.

Caving in

The study started out as a pilot project designed to encourage healthy food choices in a low-income neighborhood in Baltimore. That study found that many caregivers simply couldn't stand up to the relentless nagging of their children. They ended up buying lots of things they had no intention of buying when they walked into the store.

To get around this problem, the experts suggested three possible solutions; different food placement, allowing children to sample healthy food at the store and even offering cooking classes to older children.

The authors believe that the study has broken new ground in consumer behavior, examining both the influence of a store's display strategy on children and children’s influence on grocery shopping. The bottom line – if you leave the kids at home you are more likely to come home with healthier food.

“Our study suggests that grocery shopping with children often can have negative consequences on the healthfulness of grocery purchases, but has the potential to have a positive influence instead,” said Pamela J. Surkan, assistant professor in the Department of International Health at the Bloomberg School.

The consumers who were questioned said they often caved in to their children’s demands – even though they initially resisted. They sometimes used strategies to counter their children’s clamoring for unplanned, unhealthy food choices, starting with flat-out refusals, redirecting to healthier foods and setting aside the demanded item when the child wasn't looking.

Stores aren't helping

As for the store environment, study participants noted the quantity and advertising of junk food options, versus healthy options.

The study also suggested there are ways grocery stores can reduce children's whining for candy and chips. Besides getting these tempting treats out of the line of sight, the researchers said the shopping experience is the perfect opportunity to introduce kids to healthier foods.

Why not have sampling stations, the asked, where children could sample fruits and other healthy snacks? One mother interviewed for the study recounted a shopping trip with her son, who wanted to taste the blueberries. But she didn't want to buy an entire container of blueberries until she was sure her son liked them.

Other ideas

Until supermarkets decide to change where they display the Ho Hos and bags of candy, experts say there are a few things you can do to reduce the nagging and the unhealthy food purchases.

Just as adults should never go grocery shopping when they are hungry, neither should children. Hunger in a grocery store inevitably leads to unintended impulse buys – often unhealthy ones. So snack up the kids just before leaving for the shopping trip.

Make a grocery list and stick to it. Be organized in your approach. The idea is to spend as little time in the store as possible. A shorter shopping trip is less taxing on a child's limited patience and gives them less time to beg.  

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