Thursday, September 20, 2018

38 Let's Chat! School Lunches and a Free Printable!

We are officially a couple of weeks into the new school season, and with that, all of us are re-finding our routines and putting a few systems into place that correlate with this busy season of life.

This year I have a senior in high school (!), a freshman, and a 6th grader. By now, we have done the back-to-school organizing and routine changes quite a few times, and most things continue to get easier and easier. LOVE that! And over the years, I have shared quite a few of the things we do to prep, but this year I realized I haven't really posted about school lunches. So today is the day because they are a huge part of our daily life!

A few things I want to mention right off of the bat; lunch and food is a personal parenting decision that I never judge and hope that we can definitely keep this conversation helpful and encouraging. There have been times that I have felt bad that I wasn't making bear shaped sandwiches for my boys, and I definitely have my kids eat school-prepared lunches as well. That shouldn't make me feel bad and I know that now. We all do the best we can for our kids, period. I know that some people truly enjoy making art out of food, that some kids are vegetarian, have food allergies, only eat organic, or don't do sugar. This post isn't about that, it's just a few really quick and simple tips for how I handle the lunch prep/making process around here. So let's dive in.

TIP #1

The first thing I did this year is sit down with my boys and figure out what each of them enjoys most. My biggest problems leading into this year have been over-purchasing foods, trying to over-cater to their specific taste buds, then ending up in a hamster wheel of packing the same things on repeat with very little variety.

So, I sat with the boys and asked them what their favorite foods are, and wrote down all of the items that they could all agree on. We took some time to look for quick ideas online together to come up with 15-20 different lunch options as well as a variety of quick and tasty sides.

You know me, I couldn't miss an opportunity to whip up a free printable for you all, and I am SO glad I did. I made it editable so that we could type in all of our lunch ideas (which are broken down into categories: main course, fruits/veggies, sides/desserts), and then print it off and keep it inside of our pantry with our shopping/meal planning items. You can also just save it filled in digitally and access it from your phone or computer.



Now when I am grocery shopping/meal planning for the week, I can glance at their list and be sure to stock up accordingly. This list has items they will all eat, so I can now quickly put together lunch ideas without over purchasing food while offering some variety from week to week.

TIP #2

Keep it simple! One of the primary goals is to be speedy about lunch making. Whether in the morning or the night before, I don't want to have to invest much time in putting everything together. And really, the best case scenario is that I give the boys the tools they need to be able to do everything themselves.

So, that might mean giving into some pre-packaged items or creating my own quick snack packs that we can all just grab-n-go. Typically I portion off crackers, popcorn, fruits, veggies, protein bites, etc... Whenever I can, I select fruits and veggies that I know I will get the longest life from (I have found that grapes, carrots, celery, cucumbers, pea pods, oranges, peppers, melon, and apples will typically stay fresh throughout the course of the week without concern of spoiling, and are easy to portion out). This is HUGELY important and probably my biggest tip.

I will also purchase individual meat snacks, cheeses, nuts, yogurts, granola, etc... if the price is right for the time I am willing to invest. If I have more time on a given week, I might opt to purchase in bulk and create those portions myself.

TIP #3

OK, so basically the first step was to select the simple sides that can easily be tossed into a lunch, and next, I like to do a little prep. Again, I am putting groceries away anyway, why not just put them away in individual grab-n-go packages to make the entire week go smoother?

Aside from the fast fruits and veggies mentioned above, we all really love berries as well. So, while putting groceries away and doing my weekly meal prep I will soak/rinse them in a bowl of water and vinegar for a couple of minutes. They seem to last longest if I do a quick soak and then let them air dry before refrigerating. This is one more step, but if I multitask during other meal prep, then it isn't too bad and I know I will prolong the freshness for a few extra days. I do this with all berries, not just strawberries.

Also fresh from the grocery store, I will cook up chicken to create grilled chicken strips that I will put in wraps, tacos, on salad, etc... And every couple of weeks I will freeze sandwiches in a few varieties in bulk.

I recently switched to these wax paper bags because they are compostable and keep the sandwiches fresh in the freezer. I will make a few loaves of bread worth of sandwiches at a time (I will also use rolls/croissants with meats/cheeses, etc...) and I find they work best if I don't use spreads other than peanut butter and jelly directly on the bread. I will put together a few sandwich varieties to select from, and just label the sandwich type on the wax paper bag.

The bulk sandwiches go into freezer zipper bags (which I just keep reusing) and into the freezer until a school morning when they are transferred directly to the lunchbox and they are ready to eat by lunch.

All of the pre-prepped snacks and sides are put together in a section of the fridge that the boy's love to grab from.

TIP #4

If you have the space for it, I recommend storing all lunch related containers together. That way everything is quick and easy to pick from during the lunch making sessions.

We have a nice deep drawer in our pantry and it holds all of the lunch boxes/bags, containers, water bottles, thermos, reusable bags, etc.... It has become a pretty popular drawer!

TIP #5

Tip five isn't as much of a tip as it is just some of our favorite lunch products.

We have done bento-type containers and boxes in the past, but now that the boys are bigger, they have outgrown many of those. We prefer containers that will hold a full-size sandwich or wrap without having to turn it into bite-sized finger food.

These sandwich boxes are our new favorite and I appreciate that they are dishwasher safe! They can hold the main course as well as two adequately sized side items. They are also really handy for sending snacks to school to get the boys by between classes and their extracurricular activities.

With all of the fruits/veggies/sides, and my quest to eliminate our use of plastic sandwich bags, I invested in some reusable options and so far I have been really happy with them.

I went with both the snack and sandwich sizes and they are great for keeping a variety of snacks ready to go and fresh in the fridge, and the rest stay on hand for the dry goods. They can be washed in the dishwasher, but I usually just wash them out with this dish brush in an attempt to prolong their number of uses even more.

Above you can also see the containers I am smitten with for dressings and condiments. They are typically used for baby food storage, but they are completely leak proof and durable and reusable so we give them major thumbs up for lunch boxes.

An insulated food jar is also high on our list because it allows us to really expand on what we send to school. We can quickly heat up items in the morning, pop them in the insulated Thermos and everything stays nice and warm until lunchtime (think leftovers, rice, pasta, soup, etc...).

An insulated Thermos can also keep items cold, but we don't find ourselves using it for that purpose as often (but love that we can if we would like to). We do have these ice packs on constant rotation to help with keeping items fresh and cool for the few hours they are packed up.

As you can see in the lunch drawer above, we also have a few airtight snap containers that work well for bulkier items and salads (similar). In general, I looked for containers and products that can be reused, are durable, and are dishwasher safe, all of which keep our day-to-day process running quickly and smoothly.

Finally, these fridge bins (similar) rank so high on our list, they are wonderful for corralling all of the individual servings of our lunch and snack sides and act like a deep drawer in the fridge.

If you are looking for a couple of easy peasy ideas, here are the lunches we currently have on our list that all of our boys are willing to eat and are pretty simple to assemble or prep at the beginning of the week:

M A I N  C O U R S E S

Grilled Chicken, Ham & Cheese Croissant, Hard Boiled Eggs, Turkey Apple Sausage, Pepperoni/Cheese/Tomatoes, Soup & Crackers, Lunch Meat Wrap, Pasta Salad, Quesadilla, Peanut Butter & Jelly, Chicken Taco, Spaghetti/Pasta, Sub Sandwich, Salad, BLT Pita Pocket, Bagel Sandwich, Rice Cake w/Peanut Butter

F R U I T S / V E G G I E S 

Pickles, Clementines, Grapes, Peppers, Applesauce, Melon, Peaches, Pears, Apple Slices, Strawberries, Raspberries/Blackberries, Carrots, Pea Pods, Celery, Cucumbers, Bananas, Side Salad

S I D E S 

Almonds/Nuts, Cheese Sticks, Pretzels, Peanut/Almond Butters, Crackers, Yogurt, Rice, Taco Chips w/Salsa or Guacamole, Pita Chips, Veggie Straws, Granola, Cottage Cheese, Fruit Strips/Snacks, Popcorn, Cookies, Trail Mix, Beef Sticks

And because you all educate me just as much as I try to share what is working for us, I would love to hear more lunch ideas that are a hit in your households. It could be a quick meal, a quick tip, a favorite product, a helpful website/app, anything! Please take a moment to chime in below!

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

67 Homekeeping 101: The Basics

With the kids home all summer and a lot of conversations with friends happening about general household chores, I thought I would take some time to focus on the basics. Because just as much as I love a little hack for cleaning shower heads, a great homemade cleaner recipe, or an amazing cleaning checklist, the basics are what keep our house running on a daily basis.

Having the kids home from school all summer is always a quick reality check of how messy the house can get oh-so-quickly, and how important our "all hands on deck" mentality is. From beach towels to athletic gear to multiple meals a day and sleepovers galore, things can spiral out of control in the blink of an eye. The following "basics" have definitely been our glue, and although some of these tips might seem ridiculously obvious, they are absolutely worth mentioning.

I have talked about this before but here it is again because it is my top tip for quickly maintaining your home: Set yourself up for success.

I recommend storing your household cleaners in the primary areas of your home so they are easy to grab and use. Also, simplify your cleaners down to just what you need to reduce confusion for the entire family. Many all-purpose cleaners are just that and can tackle counters, windows, stovetops and even quick floor cleanups. Keep bathroom cleaners under a bathroom sink and kitchen cleaners under the kitchen sink.

The basic cleaning supplies that I have found I can get away with using for 99% of our household chores are:
  • Duster
  • All-Purpose Cleaner (I just use a mixture of distilled water, 2-3 drops of dish soap, vinegar, and tea tree oil, and apply it to counters, appliances, glass, and floors)
  • A couple cleaning cloths (one for glass, one for surface)
  • Vacuum
  • Mop
In the bathroom:

I have loved and used cleaning caddies for years now, and they are great when I am doing a bigger room-to-room deep cleaning session, but for daily battles, I like that my go-to cleaners are right within an arm's reach of the mess. I also recommend keeping a vacuum and broom on each floor of the home and storing less-used specialty cleaners together and out of the way (I keep mine in our laundry room).

By removing a lot of the extras and keeping it simple, my family asks me fewer questions and are quicker to just grab what they need to get the job done.

Color code the cleaning rags.

We use microfiber cloths for just about everything, and to prevent cross-contaminating the bathroom germs with the kitchen germs, I assigned the two spaces their own cloth colors. Green is used in the kitchen and blue is used in the bathroom (or for other dirtier jobs). I also added a stack of pink for our pets near their feeding station. Easy enough for all of us to remember and the rags just get stored in their designated areas.

At the end of each week, the bathroom rags are washed with my mop heads and bath mats, the pet rags are washed with dog bed covers and their bath towels, and the kitchen rags and dishtowels are washed together. I always wash these items on a sanitary cycle during my Sunday linen wash day.

Baking soda and dish soap can clean just about anything.

Clear dish soap makes a really great stain remover and I use it all of the time on furniture, clothing, rugs, and spills. Because it is clear, I don't have to worry about it damaging colors or materials (I always start with a small drop or two and paired with some water it typically does the trick). Baking soda is a good deodorizing agent and also helps to absorb the spill/stain/wetness.

For those tougher messes (think pots, pans, baking sheets, ovens, etc...), soaking items with baking soda, dish soap and water is a major sanity saver. After cooking I always soak our pots and pans with baking soda and dish soap and by the time I am ready to wash them, they come clean with little to no scrubbing.

Baking soda and dish soap seem to be a powerhouse cleaner when combined, and I wouldn't hesitate to reach for the combo when tackling any major cleaning job around the house, inside or out!

Clean from top to bottom.

This general rule applies to just about any cleaning task; it is always easiest and quickest to work from the top down. Washing glass? Start at the top and make "S" motions down to the bottom. Cleaning the kitchen, wash counters and the table first, then vacuum/mop the floor. Bathroom? Clean the mirror and work down to the sink and counter and finish at the base of the toilet. Spraying down the siding outside, start at the top and... you got it! Work your way down.

Clean with the grain.

There are times when I actually encourage folks to go against the grain, but that is not the case when it comes to basic homekeeping. Washing items against the grain will bring out imperfections and may cause the surface to appear less clean than it is. It is always best to clean floors, stainless steel, wood furniture, etc... with the natural grain of the item. When the cleaner dries, it should blend right in and enhance the beauty, not fight it.

Dishwashers are not just for dishes!

Did you know that so many other things can be cleaned in a dishwasher? A few examples of things we have washed in our dishwasher are light fixture shades, toothbrushes, sponges, scrub brushes, toys, soap dishes, shower caddies, combs, vases, canisters, baseball caps, drawer organizers, basic tools, vent covers, etc...

Of course, I say this with my use with caution warning, the top rack is usually best for anything you worry about. Avoid putting anything too precious in the dishwasher, also avoid washing anything made of wood or with a delicate metal finish. Always rinse items first to prevent clogging up your dishwasher and when in doubt, leave it out.

Fold/hang clothes straight out of the dryer.

In the past I would get in a habit of taking clothes out of the dryer, tossing them in a basket, and taking them to another room of the house to deal with. Then I would do my best to fold things during a nightly T.V. show, but too many times the contents wouldn't end up put away. And just as I did when I was a kid, my boys would mix dirty with clean or would leave piles on their beds which would then tumble to the floor...

A while back we decided to try something new, so straight out of the dryer the clothes are either immediately folded or put directly on their respective hangers (I just grab the empty hangers out of the closet on my way to the laundry room), and stacked in a portable basket. Same for linens. It only takes a couple of minutes and makes it much easier to put everything away right away. I also have the boys doing this with their personal loads and it has completely cut down on the piles of questionables around the house and in each bedroom. The wire baskets we use are lightweight and portable making it easy to tote around the house and return back to the laundry room (as shown here).

Laundry can quickly become a monster if not managed regularly but really isn't all that hard if you just get into a good groove with it. I am not sure why it works so much better for us to just deal with everything right out of the dryer (vs. taking it to the couch or our bedroom to fold), but it has been a huge sanity saver so I call it a very basic win. And while we are on the subject, giving each member of the house their own designated day to do their laundry has also been amazing.

Multi-task whenever possible.

I have gotten into the habit of building some of the basic household cleaning tasks into my routine each day, which makes it much easier to maintain the home in general. For example, I wash the bathroom sink/counter each time I brush my teeth. I scrub down the walls of the shower while actually taking a shower. I quickly wipe up the kitchen counters while making my coffee. I wipe down the inside of the fridge each week when I put away groceries. These very quick add-ins really add up each week.

Make your bed every day.

Maybe I should move this one to the top because it might just be the most impactful. I will admit that I haven't always been a believer in making my bed every day, and never really encouraged the kids to do it either. But after it became such a positive habit, I can't imagine not doing it. It makes a huge difference in quickly pulling our bedroom together, but it also has been really uplifting to my mood. And I love leaving our bedroom door open and catching a glimpse of the tidy bed, which can be exactly what I need when I am having a messy day.

Not buying it? I encourage you to try it for two weeks and check out this article (or listen to this awesome speech). It is a great basic housekeeping and life-changing task!

Homekeeping takes some effort.

Dang, if I could teach my kids anything about basic housekeeping, it would be that life is so much easier if you just pick up after yourself right away. And if that just isn't possible, to set aside a few minutes at the end of each day to do so. Too many times we have spent an entire afternoon on a weekend dealing with a week's worth of random piles and messes. I can think of 1,001 other ways I would rather spend a weekend day, and my family agrees.

I know that some people are naturally more tidy than others. That some people can look right past a pile or mess and be completely unphased by it, while others can't focus or relax until that pile is gone. We have both personality types living under our roof and it has always been a give and take and compromise.

There are definitely days when I say, "the chores can wait", and the clean freak in me has done a lot of letting go over the years. There is something to be said about soaking up the little moments in life and I know first hand that our time with our kids goes much too quickly. So cheers to playing a card game after dinner instead of stressing out about those puppy nose prints on the patio door.

But the matter of the fact is that the mess will continue to be there until we deal with it, and it only snowballs if we don't.

So we try to find that right balance and do our best to take care of a lot of the basics each day and to pick up after ourselves when we take things out.

We also work together to do a quick pick-up at the end of each day. I leave a flexible basket hung on a hook near the stairs to corral random items that need to be brought down, and it also works great for running through the house and collecting things like electronics, mail, crafts, toiletries, socks, etc... that have been left out throughout the day and need to be put away. We always tidy up the kitchen (run the dishwasher after dinner, quickly sweep or vacuum, wipe down the table/counters) and fluff the sofa pillows before bed. It makes all of the difference just taking 10-15 minutes each evening to start the following day off right.

I wish there was a red "easy" button or magic cleaning fairy that would come in and get things done while we sleep, but general homekeeping just takes some work and discipline. We aren't always perfect or on top of every mess, and we still have times when we have to play catch-up and binge clean parts of the home, yard or garage. But we continuously instill in the boys that we are all responsible for our home, and always have them help with the basic homekeeping responsibilities.

I think this is one of those discussions that could really benefit from your added ideas and advice in the comments below. I hear so often that people are generally overwhelmed with household chores and keeping up with daily duties. People want quick tips, shortcuts, and basic ideas to make homekeeping more manageable and less discouraging. Do you have additional ideas to share? How about small things you have added to your routine that have had a big payoff? Any ah-ha moments that we all could benefit from? Let's chat!