Turning chaos into calm: A Chicago Parent Facebook chat

From managing busy week nights to wrangling all of the shoes and assorted clutter that comes with kids, Chicago parents are always looking for tips to manage the chaos.

Recently, experts from Cultural Care Au Pair, Less is More Organizing and Meez Meals joined Chicago Parent for a Facebook chat to share some of their best tips with moms and dads. The info was so great we want to share a summary. The full version can still be seen on Chicago Parent’s Facebook page. Feel free to add your own tips in the comment section below.

Managing busy week nights and dinner

Blogger David Wallach calls week nights “the hurricane” and “hard as heck.”

Jen Moore, founder of Meez Meals, says she understands. She recommends cooking dinner together to get quality time with the family. “The conversations that happen while you’re working on something else are usually the best ones!”

“I like to put the kids to work – makes a great activity and keeps them occupied, and even the smallest kids love to help cook. Can little ones tear lettuce for the salad? Can bigger ones measure out the ingredients or add them to the pot? Can little ones “check” the ingredients before they go into the pot? Yes, we’ll admit it. Dinner does take longer when kids help. But kids get genuinely excited about kale and cauliflower when they’ve helped create the dish. It’s also a great way to transform dinner prep time [from] a chore into quality family time.”

Marcie Wolbeck, local development director for Cultural Care Au Pair, suggests getting another pair of hands. Dads, she says, are sometimes the most hesitant to host an au pair but end up being the happiest. “The fact that the au pair is around to help with the ‘hurricane’ that happens in everyone’s house allows them a few minutes to decompress after a difficult day at work.” She says au pairs can be totally flexible around a family’s schedule, including a few hours before and after school.

To better plan dinner time, Moore suggests deciding on the meal in the morning, which allows the parent to have a game plan that takes away the stress and pressure of coming up with something to cook as soon as they walk in the door at night.

“The thing I love about Meez is that we deliver all the ingredients you need [already] prepped and ready to cook, but you’re still the one doing the cooking. It’s a way of getting an assistant, but you’re still doing the important part!”

For those with picky eaters, Moore suggests converting to a deconstructed family meal rather than working as a short-order cook.

“We all worry our kids aren’t getting enough to eat, and it’s tempting to make different things to please everyone at the table,” she says. “It’s a recipe for chaos. Make just one meal, and you’ll be surprised at what your kids (and husband!) will eat. And this doesn’t mean everyone’s eating “kid food.” Instead, if you have picky eaters, serve a dish “deconstructed.” If you’re making pasta with a sauce you’re not sure your kids will love, serve the sauce on the side and let them dip their pasta into it. Or serve the sautéed vegetables for a stir fry separately before you’ve cooked the sauce in. You’d be amazed at how many members tell us they had no idea their kids would love kale!”

Taking care of shoes

Mom Shannon Ball Younger says shoes are a real problem. “It can get pretty ugly by my front door.”

Sarah Giller Nelson, of Less is More Organizing, suggests a purge. “I do this exercise with clients often: line up all your shoes. Organize by type and color. Count them. Keep that number in your head. Then choose the ones you really love. Be ruthless.”

Stuffed animals and keepsakes

One mom asked: How do you successfully throw away the kids’ overstock of stuffed animals without, you know, feeling like you’ve killed Bambi?

“Donate them and consider it re-homing, not killing,” mom Lisa Nugent Noel suggests.

“Start by setting aside the ones that your children really don’t play with. Put it in a covered bin out of sight. If they ask for it, it can be retrieved. If not, you know it is not really loved and can be donated,” Nelson says, adding that she has resources on where to donate stuffed animals and other things on her site.

Papers from school also create a real problem. Jen Szabo Matuska says she’s learned that it’s OK to throw away daily schoolwork – unless it is a spelling test or art project her son wants to proudly display on the family chalkboard.

Wolbeck suggests taking pictures of the school work and make a photo book out of the pictures as another way to treasure the memory but eliminate clutter. Mom of two, Erin Diffin Brighty, uses an app called Artkive to do just that.

Maintain order

“One of the easiest ways to maintain order at home is to use labels everywhere -on the toy bins, in the pantry cabinets, in clothing drawers and closets. Pictures or stickers can be used for pre-readers. Labels get everyone on the same page and help with a speedy clean up,” Nelson says.

One mom says she feels like she never has enough room for all of the stuff in her house.

“One way to control the clutter is to be mindful of what you bring in. Before you buy, figure out where you are going to store it once you get home. If there is no room, then wait to buy it until you can purge what you have,” Nelson says.

Mom Shannan Ball Younger says she’s frustrated in trying to keep all of the items from her kids’ activities from taking over her house.

Nelson suggested keeping a “kit” for each activity. It consists of a tote with all that is needed for each activity, which then allows the parent or child to grab everything quickly and go.

“One of my favorite tips for families with two or more children is to assign each child a color and have everything they use be that color. Towel, toothbrush, lunch bag, hook, wastepaper bin, plate, water bottle, line on the calendar, etc. That way everyone knows whose is who.”

Wolbeck suggests identifying a place where the kids keep their lunch boxes and backpacks, instruments, etc. “Remind the kids to get in the habit of emptying their lunchboxes and backpacks every day. With this, make sure there is a place for them to leave any information and notices from school, or tests to be signed, in a designated space so that you’re always sure to see it. Also, rather than allowing the kids to do their homework in front of the TV, be sure to set aside a particular space that is quiet and free of distractions. Getting organized and designating these spaces will help get the kids not only get into a daily routine, but into the practice of picking up after themselves – a win, win for everyone!”

Slow down

When it comes to family time, Wolbeck suggests devoting at least one night a week to the family, with no technology. It can be spent playing board games, talking about the day or even planning for the week ahead.

“As cheesy as it sounds, it takes locking eyes with my 4-year-old and saying “yes” to her requests instead of “not now.” It slows me down and reminds me of what this whole life of mine is about,” says Jen Szabo Matuska.

Pantry problems

One mom questioned how to get her pantry under control.

Moore suggested giving yourself a cooking challenge. “Rather than digging through the pantry to suit a recipe, start with an item in your pantry that needs some loving and build a recipe around it. It’ll keep your pantry rotated and keep dinner creative!”

Nelson suggested purging anything that is expired or that you won’t use, which will free up a lot of space. The next step, she says, is organizing using shelves. Try a lazy susan or tiered riser.

Reader Jill Boysensays donating unwanted items to the local food pantry – as long as they are not expired – is a good lesson for kids about giving.

Getting kids to do chores

Blogger Samantha Vales Schultz, a mom of boys, makes a game of it. Create sticker charts or encourage fun activities and rewards. “I think children helping is a great time for family bonding and really learning valuable lessons.”

Nelson adds: “One of the reasons that kids don’t clean up is simply because they don’t know where things go. Start with toys. Assign a bin or box for each toy set, then label it clearly. Use pictures or drawings for non-readers. Then, practice picking things up with your child so that they know exactly where it goes. Then, cheer their successes.”

Matuska has a schedule on the fridge that starts at the moment her 6-year-old gets off the bus until bedtime. “Sticking to the routine keeps chaos under control … at least a little bit of it! Lol.”

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