Can You Eat Groceries Before Paying?

Eating while you shop at a grocery store, yep – we’re talking about it. There is not a more hot topic around. Let’s have an intelligent conversation without shaming anyone, there are some good points worth sharing.

First, if you have kids, there are some real-life stories that must never be told. Under the influence of stress some real “did I just see that?” moments occur in grocery stores. Two weeks ago I observed three toddlers jumping up and down in a Walmart shopping cart clothed only in diapers. Their caretaker (parent?) flew them, cart and all, through the store.

I’m guessing the cart driver was taking a chance to “get in and get out” as fast as they could for something urgently needed. Am I holier than thou? No. My family still laughs about the teeth marks my toddler son left through the plastic of a block of cheddar cheese. This argument comes down to should you, or could you eat while grocery shopping.

Eating groceries in a grocery store or supermarket before paying is socially unacceptable, but falls into a gray area if it is against the law if the shopper intends to pay for it. In the U.S. the store owner retains “shopkeeper privilege” – a law which allows the store owner to take action against suspected shop lifting. Eating while grocery shopping can be viewed as stealing.

Follow along as I rebut several popular arguments from people who believe it is OK to eat in the store while grocery shopping. If you think eating in the store may be a response to grocery shopping anxiety, check out “Why is Grocery Shopping So Exhausting?.

The restaurant argument

Ohhh, good one! You may consider eating while grocery shopping similar to eating in a restaurant, because you pay after the food is consumed. What is different is that the restaurant visitor sits at a table, where food is served, an account of the food is “on the tab.” The owner of the grocery store has no clue what you are consuming when you are wondering around a supermarket. In fact, some employees are asked to watch visitors who engage in such behavior.

Although some people are honorable and pay for what they have consumed, others do not.

A grocery store offers fruit to kids while parents shop

A shout out to the Quillin’s grocery store in Waukon, Iowa. Helpful store owners offer fruit to kids while parents shop

The “on credit” argument

Man, you guys are good. Here’s another one from the pro group eat-while-grocery-shopping: “it’s basically the same as buying something with credit – you use now and pay later.”

It’s not a credit situation if you haven’t signed and entered into an agreement to pay later – which by using a credit card, you agree to.

Pay by the pound

Sorry folks, this is pretty black and white, here. Any food that is priced by the pound will result in a decrease of weight if you (or your child) has snacked on it. This will weigh less, and you will be charged less, and the owner will pocket less money for the product. That is stealing.

Is eating while grocery shopping considered illegal AKA shoplifting?

Whoa! That got ugly pretty fast. Many of you munching in the aisles probably never thought of what you were doing as shoplifting. We all know that is a crime. Hold on, it is a bit in the gray area.

According to Find Law, shoplifting is described as the intent to not pay for something. Many of us tell our conscience it OK because we do intend to pay for it in the checkout aisle. So this “grazing” while shopping is not necessarily stealing or illegal if we intend to pay for it.

In addition, a shopkeeper has discretion into pressing charges. Of course, they pick their battles. Any scene in the store would cause a PR nightmare for them – it’s just not a scene they care to make.

My kid is screaming in the store and I need to calm them down

From myself (and everyone who has ever shopped while listening to a screaming child). THANK YOU for doing your darn tootin’ best to keep that whole situation under control. It’s hard, I know, because I’ve been there. Store owners understand that – they want your food business so you keep coming back.

family with small children grocery shopping
Grocery shopping with children is full of teachable moments.

Some grocery store owners are making an effort to meet you half way, offering cookies or a piece of fruit to kids. I witnessed this in recent years in my small-town grocery store. It was surprising, but a nice move by the owner. What a win-win. It makes them look understanding (because they are) and you don’t have to be embarrassed about things getting out of hand.

Most people will vote to let kids eat occasionally (this is from the lady who witnessed three half-naked mostly naked kids in Walmart). One gentle word of advice, don’t let this turn into a habit. There are a ton of teachable moments here. The child can learn about boundaries, manners, patience, accountability, and my favorite, character, when they learn to refrain from eating in supermarket aisles.

Bad manners police will come get you

We’ve established that you probably won’t get in trouble for eating before paying for groceries. Likely, no one from the store will say anything. There is that little thing called a conscience that leaves a lingering yucky feeling. I mean, if you don’t feel it, OK. But… I bet you kind of do.

There is the scowl of the aisle boy looking at the crumbs you just dropped on the floor. Did I mention the grimace of the checkout person that has to scan (in disgust) a half-eaten food item or bag of food? And those weird looks from the other grocery store customers… eek!

There is also the largely awkward situation of employees wondering if you are going to pay. They’ve all experienced finding partial, unpaid-for food items on shelves. It’s an uncomfortable situation to put them into, which is not cool.

Did you ever stop to think that your actions are hurting the business of the shop owner? People may avoid shopping there because that behavior (and other poor choices by customers) turns them off. Hurting someone’s business is really not cool.

How about considering that you are disrespecting… yourself? Being classy is the complete package of how you carry yourself and behave in public. Choose to be classy or choose to take yourself down a few notches.

I can empathize dealing with tired, fussy children, but I can’t be so lenient towards adults. Where did these habits start? Just remember, if you are a parent, you have a responsibility to set an example for your child. If you don’t have a child, here’s still your chance to set an example to the youth in the store. It takes a village to raise a child, after all.

But I do it in my culture!

There are some cultures that do not frown upon eating food in a grocery store. Or there may be a variation of it that the expectation to sample is OK before you buy it. Not here in the US. Some foreigners report having “taken the hint” and have learned to refrain from such activity when in United States supermarkets.

COVID changed everything

Thank you, COVID-19 variant, for abruptly changing our grocery shopping lives. Now we touch our own food at self-checkouts because no one else wants to.

If you are lucky enough to get a real checker, they can deny touching something you have your DNA on. I just previously talked about self-respect; good for these people for standing up for themselves and their dignity.

In a similar argument, fruits and vegetables should be washed before eaten. Did you wash your hands before eating whatever it is you are eating? How about handing that grape to your child with the pesticides on? Now we’re getting into food police territory.

In conclusion

Sorry, it was a bit hard to stay neutral on this topic. My feelings go out to the hard-working staff at the grocery stores and supermarkets who deserve our respect. They’ve seen and experienced some difficult situations, We expect them to be cleanly working around food, why shouldn’t we adhere to the same expectations in ourselves?

Keep it classy when grocery shopping!

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