Every year, it’s the same thing for many families: We launch into January full of energy to finally clear out the kid clutter, sit down to healthful meals together and stop nagging our kids during those nightmarish school mornings.
But in a matter of weeks (days, even), it’s back to piles of school papers, chicken nuggets and rushing out the door with a piece of toast in hand.
So this year, let’s go beyond making wish lists, and listen to the experts for a few pointers on how to actually make some change.
We spoke to a professional organizer, a meal planner and a parent educator about how to hit the restart button on our parenting lives.
Their thoughts were enlightening, and I’m excited to give them a go. I think you might be, too.
First, let’s organize
Rachel Rosenthal, a professional organizer and owner of Rachel and Co., said this is a good time of year to start fresh. Sure, you probably set up some sort of system when the kids went back to school, but that was lifetimes (and several book reports and science projects) ago.
An important way to get this done right is to get the kids involved, she said.
Do you have a pile of projects and artwork? Have the kids go through and pick their favorites. You might have a few yourself. Rosenthal’s girls have their own “keep box” for each year of school. They put the pieces they want to hang on to in the box. Others are mailed to grandparents (“Look at the snowflake I made you!”), or tossed. (Check out the videos of Rosenthal’s 6-year-old twins talking about their organizing ideas. The videos may help you realized that, yes, your kids can help out, too.)
Then make sure to set everything up so you don’t fall into your old routines. Keep all papers in one place. And: “The more time between when the paper comes in and when you go through it, the better,” Rosenthal said.
Why? Because that homework sheet kids may have thought they wanted to keep will mean nothing to them a few weeks later. So the things that do matter will stand out.
“A lot of people who save things put them into a huge tub, never to be looked at again. Then at some point they run out of room,” Rosenthal said. “So be conscious about what you are putting into” the keep box.
Next, take time to reorganize the study and homework area. How many pencils do you really need, kid? Those chewed-up pens? Toss. Markers kind of fading? You know where to put them.
“Pay attention to the homework station,” Rosenthal said. “It gets frustrating if there’s more stuff there.” In other words, cull, cull, cull. And keep culling as the weeks go on.
Finally, toys. Many children have received myriad gifts during the holidays. Instead of just piling on, put the old toys they haven’t touched in a while into a trash bag. Don’t toss them right away. But if the kids don’t ask for those toys for a while, that means it’s time to donate them.
Rosenthal put it this way: Think about how much time kids actually have to play with their things. If they are in school, half the day is gone. Activities? Even less time at home.
“There’s a very defined amount of time to use those toys,” she said
Plan — and organize — accordingly.
Getting dinner on the table
The holidays are all about overindulgence. Spending, eating, receiving and eating more. Early January is often the time for people to focus on getting the whole family to eat better.
The best way to do that is to prepare more meals at home, said Aviva Goldfarb, owner of the 6 O’Clock Scramble. It’s no coincidence that subscriptions to Goldfarb’s weekly meal plans spike at this time of year. Take time now to step back and think ahead, and let yourself get into the habit of doing so.
“It’s easy to implement when you don’t have to stop at the store on your way home from work,” Goldfarb said. In addition, making a grocery list and planning ahead “can save you $100 each week, no sweat,” she said. Plan ahead, and you won’t fall back on pricey ordering out, or stopping on the way home to grab an overpriced dinner for four. (Personally, the market near my house might lose half of my paycheck if I actually plan ahead this year.)
Goldfarb sees three things as essential to changing the way your family eats. First, keep a weekly grocery list, and make it available for everyone to add to. Then set aside some time every week to plan. For Goldfarb, it’s just a half-hour every Sunday morning. Take inventory. Look at what needs to be used up. And plan for three dinners, even if you think you’ll be home for four. There will be leftovers and the inevitable last-minute plans for the other nights. Then go to the store and get the ingredients.
“It’s that decision-making and not knowing if you have all the ingredients that can derail dinner success,” Goldfarb said.
In other words, eating well comes back to organization, too.
Much like organizing the house, being successful at the family dinner thing means getting the kids involved. Take out a bunch of recipes and have everyone pick one, Goldfarb suggested. If it works out with schedules, have your children help prepare the meal they picked. Or if you want to go all out, have them pick an international dish and do some research together on the country and origin of the dish. The knowledge might translate into a willingness to eat something different.
To help those picky eaters who have grown accustomed to the dull quesadilla/pizza/chicken/pasta rotation, pair something old with something new.
“Just a little tweak on something you already like” can help them stretch their young palates, Goldfarb said. They like quesadillas? Fine. Make them. But this time, add a little pesto or a new salsa. Have the kids guess what’s in it.
Refreshing the family
So we have the clutter and the eating covered. How about all the other stuff?
This is the perfect time to take care of that relatively undefinable part of our everyday family lives. School is just ramping back up and the holidays are all but a memory, leaving time to make a meaningful attempt to make your family work better.
So assess how the year that just ended went. Vicki Hoefle, author of “Duct Tape Parenting,” suggested getting everyone together — especially the kids, because their perspective is important. Talk about what they did during the year, what they wanted to do more of and where they struggled.
Then from there, talk about what you want this year to look like when you gather this way again in 2016.
Hoefle remembers that her family decided one year that they wanted to be a more peaceful family. The parents came up with one thing they would do differently, and the kids did the same. Hoefle and her husband realized that around 6 p.m., their voices started to rise, so they made an effort to do something different at that time every evening.
“Our solution was to turn on music, which soothed the tired beast,” she said. “It modeled to the kids that we would hold ourselves accountable.”
At the same time, her son said he needed to learn how to deal with his frustration. He said he realized that when he got mad, the whole family was affected. Then his siblings jumped in and said, “Oh, we can help you with other strategies” so he wouldn’t get so angry. It opened up a way for them to communicate about it.
In those conversations, the family can also talk about habits that don’t work for them. If the morning routine, for instance, has everyone feeling stressed and rushing out the door, it’s time to discuss how to change that routine. It can be as simple as laying out clothes the night before. Putting toothpaste on toothbrushes ahead of time. Packing lunches in advance or getting to bed earlier.
Make a short list of two to four things that you can work on, and make it positive, Hoefle suggested. “What can we do differently to bring more peace or organization to our family life?” for instance.
“As a family, you take an inventory, look at what has been working and allow the children to really invest in helping the family for the upcoming year,” Hoefle advised.
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