Tantrums in the Snack Aisle


Toddler crying in a grocery cart

When young children do not get their way, things can get hairy for their parents. In grocery stores, parents denying their children a favorite snack can end in tantrums. And the last thing a stressed parent may want is a screaming, crying child in a public space, drawing unwanted attention. The American Psychological Association explains that these outbursts occur because children are still learning how to process their emotions and frustrations and recognize a sense of power.

In supermarkets, children’s interests are heavily influenced by their parents, their friends, and media advertisements; kids between ages 2 and 7 years old are particularly impressionable. Young kids skillfully use their pester power to convince parents to give in to their demands, which typically involve highly-marketed, prepared foods.

Food is incredibly powerful, not only in terms of nutrition, but also because it can be used as an agent to control behavior. Most research addressing this method to manage youth behavior has focused on the home setting. Kathryn Lively and colleagues set out to understand how mothers respond to the requests children make in the grocery store, and how such responses relate to their feeding habits.

The researchers collected information from mothers with children between 2 and 7 years old through an online survey. In addition to sharing their feeding practices, participants responded to questions about how often their children requested food purchases. The questionnaire asked about mothers’ willingness to purchase the foods their kids requested, and mothers were presented with images of food types. The researchers categorized these food types into two groups: nutrient-dense and nutrient-poor.

Mothers who tended to use food as a reward were generally more willing to buy nutrient-poor items requested by their kids, compared to those who did not reward children with food.


Mothers were questioned about three types of food-related practices, which were assessed with elements from the Comprehensive Feeding Practices Questionnaire: using food as rewards, for emotion regulation, and to model eating habits. Rewarding children included offering something sweet or a favorite food item in exchange for good behavior. Emotion regulation captured giving children food or drinks when fussy, bored, or upset. And modeling described those times when mothers actively and enthusiastically ate nutrient-dense food in front of their children.

Mothers who tended to use food as a reward were generally more willing to buy nutrient-poor items requested by their kids, compared to those who did not reward children with food. Similarly, the likelihood of giving into nutrient-poor food requests was greater among mothers who used food to manage their children’s emotions, compared to mothers who did not. Willingness to purchase nutrient-dense foods was found to be higher among mothers who responded that they modeled healthy eating habits.

Understanding the dynamic between mothers and children in the snack aisle of a grocery store may provide insight into health promotion efforts about nutrition. The researchers suggest that mothers engaging in conversations with their children about eating habits can influence food purchasing trends. They also acknowledge, however, that their study captures the experiences of more affluent mothers, and propose exploring how income may factor into the relationship between grocery store behavior and child nutrition.

Feature image: Filipovic018/iStock