You dash into the supermarket with your children in tow. You have a specific agenda — to shop by the list and avoid unnecessary spending. But all your planning goes haywire once the kids spot chips, soda, and all other things you classify as “junk.” They rant and bully you into buying what they want, and you end up feeling guilty for giving into their demands. Hundreds of parents all over the world face this. And who can remedy this situation? Supermarkets, apparently. All they need to do is stash the unhealthy foods high up on shelves, where children can’t see them and place healthier options at their eye level.

This novel suggestion was made by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who believe when it comes to children, the "out of sight, out of mind" strategy always works. Titled “Child as change agent. The potential of children to increase healthy food purchasing,” the study was published in this month’s edition of Appetite. It explores both the influence of store environment on children and children’s influence on grocery shopping.

The research was first initiated to promote healthy food purchasing in low-income neighborhoods’ in Baltimore, Md., when the study group found that often parents and caregivers gave in to kids’ demands and ended up buying unhealthy, expensive food, which they had not intended to buy. As a solution, caregivers suggested altering food placements so that healthy food would be accessible to children, and also offering cooking classes to older children.

“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 lead author Pamela J. Surkan, in a statement.

This quantitative study was also novel in that the end results were not numerical figures and statistics, but rather narratives from the participants who were mainly low-income African-American women and caretakers to at least one child under age 16, and their household’s primary food shopper.

Of the 62 participants, 30 participated in interviews, and the rest were split into five focus groups. The study also included the owner and employees of the store, which was the focus of the study. The store was in an area that had limited access to healthy, fresh produce. It catered primarily to the low-income group.

While the participants admitted to giving in to their children's demands, they did not do so without a fight. They tried all tactics from flat-out refusal to suggesting alternative healthy snacks, or setting aside the coveted item on the sly.

A majority suggested that the store’s policy of advertising for junk food should be changed. Others suggested that children can benefit from a healthy shopping experience, and this could be done by giving them samples of healthy food, such as a fruit.

One mother noted that her son wanted to try blueberries, but she didn’t want to “buy the whole thing and take it home, and it’s a waste [if they don’t like it].”

So she suggested that the shop allow children to try fruits before they were bought. But how far will grocery stores go to accommodate shoppers? Only time will tell.

Source: Wingert K, Zachary D, Fox M, Gittelsohn J, Surkan P. Child as change agent. The potential of children to increase healthy food purchasing. Appetite. 2014.