Quick Tip: Clean Your Car During Carpool Pick-Up Time

As I’ve shared before, I am certainly not the queen of clean cars. I am in my car constantly, ferrying kids (and myself!) from one activity to another and despite my best intentions, my SUV can quickly resemble a mobile trash heap. But whenever I find myself with those extra 10-15 minutes between pick-ups — long enough to feel like a waste of time but too short to squeeze in another errand, instead of getting annoyed, I remember a tip a friend taught me long before I ever had kids. Use that time to clean your car or purse.

I keep a stash of plastic grocery bags in my car (yes, I also have my reusable ones) and use one for a “stuff that isn’t trash but doesn’t belong in my car” bag, one for a “trash” bag and one for a “recyclables” bag. I can quickly go through the car in a matter of minutes, working from front to back, gathering loose items and sorting them into one of the three designated bags (don’t forget to look under the seats!) Since most places have an outdoor trash can, I can immediately dispose of the trash bag, and if they don’t have recycling, I just tie a knot in the handles and recycle them when I return to the house. As for the “stuff” bag, depending on whose stuff it is, when we come home, I’ll ask one of the kids to spend a few minutes finding the rightful home for all the items, or if I’m the main culprit of the clutter, I take charge of emptying the bag.

If I’m stuck waiting in line at a grocery store or inside somewhere, I take the opportunity to clean out or reorganize my purse (when I carry one.) I go through receipts in my wallet, put random pens back into the zippered pocket, make sure loose change goes back into my change purse and so forth.

If my physical surroundings are in order, then those otherwise wasted moments are a great time for me to get my iPhone and digital files organized — filing away apps I’ve purchased, updating my digital checklist, cleaning out my email, or just catching up with friends on Facebook. Taking a few moments — away from distractions of home — to deal with small islands of chaos allow me to feel a bit more relaxed and ready to welcome my kids back into my arms with an even bigger smile on my face.


Quick Tips illustration put together by J.J. Newby using elements from Microsoft Clip Art Gallery and Fuzzimo.

Lunch Planner Doc: Simple Tool to Reduce Chaos

I’m a list maker, a binder gal, an iPhone app junkie.  I own not one, not two, but THREE label makers. (One for home, one for the office, and one simply because I liked the fonts better). Yes, I have a problem. I like to organize things. Alas, I was far better organized before I had a family. My loving JavaKids and JavaHusband are the antithesis of Organization. The are the personification of Chaos. I love them any way… but my constant battle to maintain order is much akin to the battle between good vs. evil in the many episodes of Star Wars my son likes to recount endlessly over dinner. 

And so, when I stumble upon a system that makes all four members of the JavaFamily happy for more than a week, I consider it a success.  When I find something that works, I like to share it with YOU!

Food PyramidI would love to say that we have fantastic, creative school lunches around here, but the fact of the matter is, my kids don’t really like creative lunches.  They insist that I follow the Food Pyramid (no, seriously, they check the magnet on our fridge…) and they don’t like for me to get fancy with presentation. No fru-fru Bento box meals for them (though I’m going to keep trying to jazz things up). Also, JavaGirl is going through an impossible stage where she’ll inexplicably turn her nose up at a food she loved just three days earlier. Since becoming a Kindergartner, she’s become quite opinionated about everything. Both kids love fruits and vegetables, but my son dislikes most proteins and anything his sister likes, he is certain not to like (she likes chicken, he does not.)  He likes mayo on his sandwiches, she only likes mustard. She likes peanut butter, he only likes soynut butter.

This has made packing lunches a challenge. Even more so if JavaDad has to do it.

Finally I decided to make the kids part of the process. I created a simple matrix and now each week we go through and plan out their lunches and morning snack and post it on the fridge — one sheet for each kid. Because they are so tied to the food pyramid, I help them see how their lunches correspond to the food groups. To make life easier for absent-minded JavaDad, who often helps pack the lunches, I painstakingly detail out everything such as including ice packs and napkins. This way, no matter who packs the lunches, every single item is included, every preference is remembered, and if a kid complains about not liking a lunch, I can point out that he/she personally chose that lunch, quickly quelling any grievances.

Miracle of miracles — lunches come home eaten. Lunch-packing is faster. No more “oh wait, we’re out of ___” panics because we have planned lunches for the entire week and make sure anything we need is stocked or on the Sunday shopping list. It’s not rocket science, but with the whole family being involved, it’s no longer just another one of Mom’s harebrained ideas.

Some additional changes that have helped:

  • I’ve put a bin on the lower shelf of our kitchen island that holds all of our lunch-making items including Posh Pouches, reusable water bottles and thermos cups, plastic containers, etc. instead of constantly moving them from the dishwasher to the different “appropriate” spots in our kitchen cabinets (i.e. glasses cabinet, “plastic containers” cabinet, etc.) only to have to retrieve them every morning. Now it’s a mere arm’s reach from the dishwasher to the bin, and from the bin to the counter where the lunches get packed — everything is in one place and my cabinets are less cluttered.  Why didn’t we think of this sooner?
  • The kids know that the first thing they need to do when they come home from school is empty out their lunch boxes and snack sacks, putting ice packs in the freezers, emptying out containers, and setting everything that needs to be washed by the sink.
  • I don’t like packing up sandwiches the night before as I feel they get a little soggy, but I do try to prep anything that can be, the night before (i.e. slicing tomatoes, putting carrots into a Posh Pouch, pre-filling cups and keeping in the fridge).

You can download the lunch planner form as a Microsoft® Word document or a PDF document.

Microsoft is a registered trademark of Microsoft Corporation. Photo credit: Microsoft Image Gallery (lunch bag).

Legos: Organizing the Obsession

Legos seem like they’d be the easiest thing to organize (they snap together, so modular, so neat!) and yet they are the cause of so much playroom clutter, both by my own informal visual inspection and according to online anecdotes.  Somehow they morph from the initial single bin or box into overflowing containers, toppling towers of boxes, or complex filing systems of kits or worse — a floor littered with teeny, tiny (and painful to step on!) Lego pieces.

Since JavaBoy had acquired several kits between Spring and Summer, in the grand back-to-school room cleaning, I sought advice via my personal Facebook page from friends about the One True Solution for organizing Legos, and found there really wasn’t one.  But there were several good ideas.

The Great Kit Debate

One of the first things to decide when organizing Legos is your kit philosophy.  Do you think those kits with their zillions of tiny pieces (perhaps I overstate) need to remain intact?  Or are they put together once and then disassembled and the pieces should join in with the rest of your Lego collection?  This is not a simple question.  My Facebook thread on this became quite heated.  There were those who felt it was essential to keep kits whole and even this group divided into those who believed in building once and never taking the piece apart and those who believed in building something and taking it apart but keeping the pieces in a single container together (the original box, a Ziploc bag with the instructions, etc.)  Then there were those who felt that the kits stifled creativity and that the whole point of Legos was to dream up your own creation.

After much thought and internal debate, I came to decide that I liked that the kits taught JavaBoy how to follow instructions, how to visualize both the small parts and the big picture, and even taught him the simple basics of construction and architecture and that by doing so, he was then learning valuable skills for planning and building his own creations with the “loose” Legos we kept in another container.  In other words, I see value in the structure of the kits and I see value in the freedom of unstructured play with Legos.  This means I’m going to be spending a lot of money on Legos.

Bins, Drawers, Cases, and Bags

sorting LegosNow that I had our philosophy down, just how was I going to organize all that stuff?  My friend Daisy had a beautiful system for the kits.  “Large freezer (like these because they are thicker) ziplock bags for individual sets with large numbers written in permanent marker on the bags. The large numbers correspond to a Lego 3-ring binder that has pages laminated with pictures from the cut up boxes for individual sets with each set page labeled to match number from ziplock bag. The ziplock bags in turn are combined together in larger clear rubbermaid storage boxes by similar themed sets. If sets get mixed up, I don’t fret as the kids can look at the pictures and simply find alternative pieces to make up sets. I like encouraging as much creativity as possible and my boys seem to prefer this too.”

Well, we haven’t quite gotten to that level of organization.  The kits were mostly still in their boxes with *most* of their pieces in the boxes, but the boxes were taking up too much space.  We spent some time putting them into plastic bags and trying to see if we had all the pieces but haven’t finished that project yet.  I would say it is about 85-90% done.    Other things like our beach trip, school starting, soccer starting and so on have taken over, but I consider it a good start!

We store our “loose” Legos in an Iris cart drawer, as I use Iris carts for Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs as well — no more stacked up bins to deal with, easy to open and close and they can roll out of the way if I need them to.  This works great for those regular brick pieces, but the itty-bitty pieces and specialty shape pieces tend to get lost in a big drawer.  Which is why I adore a tip from my friend Susan, “I use a few of those divided notion-sorters from the sewing aisle at Wal-Mart to sort all the tons of little pieces that you end up with… that way it’s super easy if you need to go back and find a specific piece. I use the same kind of divided container to sort lego figurine pieces (each piece in its own section: heads, hair, torsos, legs, accessories, etc). I found that the boys enjoyed playing with legos much more after doing this… they love making their own characters.” 


I immediately ran out to our closest Michaels art supply store and in the beading area I found that there were different sizes of divided containers (and different prices — the ones that were perfect for our needs were actually the really cheap ones) and we turned sorting the pieces into a family project.  JavaBoy LOVES having the little Lego bodies sorted.  He also liked having the small pieces sorted out such as the “one-bumps” and “two-bumps” and so on.  These boxes then fit into the Iris cart drawer, so it didn’t create any space issues, just made it easier to find the smaller pieces.

Why Does It Matter?

After I straightened out the Legos a bit, both kids had renewed interest in the Legos.  In fact, it reminded me that we had the large base plates and since JavaBoy has a Lego table in his room, I took those base plates and put them on the table in JavaGirl’s room so she now essentially has a Lego table in her room.

More importantly, Legos are the ultimate toy.  Both low-tech and yet highly-linked to generating interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), Legos are toys that turn grown-ups (notice I didn’t say just men) into kids again, and stimulate the logical and creative sides of the brain.

The only people I know who hate Legos are people who have to clean them up!

So I wanted an easy-to-maintain system so that JavaBoy (and as she gets more obsessed with them, JavaGirl) can pull them out and put them away as he wants to and I don’t have to worry about lost pieces or injured bare feet.  And most of all, I wanted to be able to encourage the kids to play with them instead of relegating the Legos to the basement because I was sick of dealing with them.  They are just too good of a toy to hide away.

A Few Fun Things to Know About….

  • Lego Stores Monthly Mini Model Build  Lego Stores have a time to when kids ages 6-14 can build mini-kits for free (these kits are not for sale).  The McLean store does this after 5pm on the first Tuesday of the month, check your local store for details.
  • You can have a birthday party at the Lego store — contact your local store for details, but it includes a little Lego kit for the attendees.
  • There are programs intended to get kids interested in science, technology, engineering and math that begin as early as age 6 and continue on through high school.  They begin at age 6 with Jr. FIRST Lego League and increasingly move from working with Legos to working toward serious robotics.
  • The National Building Museum in DC has a special exhibit (meaning you have to get tickets for it — and they sell out, so get tickets early) called Lego Architecture: Towering Ambition  featuring 15 world famous buildings recreated in Lego bricks by Lego Certified Professional Adam Reed Tucker.  Not only is it amazing to look at the buildings, but the room immediately following the buildings is a Lego free-play area where kids (and grown-ups) are invited to create their own masterpieces at what I can only describe as a Lego bar!  Our entire family enjoyed this, in fact it overshadowed seeing the rest of the museum.  Tickets are $5 each and the exhibit is here until September 5, 2011 (yes, NEXT year.)
  • There will be more Lego fun to be had at the Lego booth at the USA Science and Engineering Festival in DC October 23 and 24.  (If you happen to go there, please also stop by the booth for the Children’s Science Center!)


Iris, Lego, Lincoln Logs, Michaels, Rubbermaid, Tinker Toys and Ziploc are trademarks and/or registered trademarks of their respective companies.  I am affiliated with the Junior League of Northern Virginia, a major contributor to the Children’s Science Center.

My Constant Battle With Plastic

Everyone has their demons.  Mine seems to be plastic.

No, not credit cards.  Although I’ve had my share of issues with those in my younger days.  I mean the actual material, plastic.  It seems to be a running theme through some of my daily struggles – physical and ethical.

For example, JavaGirl and JavaBoy have a lot of toys.  And though I try to do a good job of culling through them seasonally and donating or consigning them as they outgrown them, it always seems like there are more toys than any of us have patience or space to manage.  Especially right around, oh, 5 pm.  So, I’ve been working on surreptitiously going through and boxing up some toys with the idea that if those toys aren’t noticed as “missing” in the next few months, they are GONE.  (I would like to note here, that my children actually ENJOY all their toys and will happily play with all of them and actually take pretty good care of all of them and do try to help put them away, but it is overwhelming even to me to put them away, so I can see why it gets to be overwhelming to them.)

So good-quality toys I’ve been putting into a large storage bin to go into the basement, some smaller toys that a lady in my church can use for Operation Shoebox at Christmas-time I set aside in a bag for her, but some things are so small or so junky (i.e. pinata toys, or maybe party favor toys, etc.) that eventually it’s time for them to be tossed and I was merrily doing so.

But THEN along will come something to guilt me out of my purging — like this video which was floating around Twitter last night.  And now I feel guilty for every piece of plastic that I may ever consider tossing (I recycle what is recyclable).   The video is from a great sharing site called Ted.com and it is called  The Seas of Plastic by Captain Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation.


So, I did finally remember to bring my reusable grocery bag into the store today.  AND I learned how to actually get my five cents credit per bag in the self-checkout lane at Giant.

But I cringe now as I try to purge the toys.   And I’m kind of mad, actually, as part of what I am purging is excess packaging — stupid packaging that makes it hard to store toys in a reasonable manner, or really, really dumb toys that come with kids meals at fast food restaurants.   Well, of course, the best choice is not to go to fast food restaurants, but let’s face it, sometimes that’s just what happens.  And often I choose not to get the full kids meal so I can avoid the toy, but the JavaKids are getting wise to that trick — almighty Marketing has started to reach them.  But I have to say that of all the restaurants, Chik-fil-A is the one who seems to have it the most figured out.  Often their giveaways are books or CDs — things the kids will actually use and keep around a while — and (something I didn’t know until another mom told me) — you can choose to exchange your unopened toy for an ice cream cone while you are there if you prefer.  Now, an ice cream cone doesn’t do much in terms of nutrition, but it does mean no more junky plastic at home.  I like that! 

I’m struggling with my purging, and noting the irony that I bought, yes, PLASTIC bins, to store a lot of the toys in to make it easier to keep things orderly.  But I can’t drown in the small plastic things at home, either, so I will continue to purge.   I do try to help by often buying used (a form of recycling) and passing on or selling items when we are done (another form of recycling), and recycling any packaging of new items.  We do use our plastic grocery bags for many things in the house and I’m trying to do a better job of remembering to bring in the reusable shopping bags.  I often will tell stores not to bag things when I have just one or two items — which still raises an eyebrow now and then, and THAT surprises me because I thought we were all in this “use fewer plastic bags” thing together?!

My other demon?  Paper.  And JavaBoy’s current obsession with construction paper love notes and “No Bears!” signs.  But that’s a post for another day.

Help for the Decorating Commitment-Phobic

I didn’t realize the extent of my decorating commitment phobia until I started ripping open packages of 3M’s Command products — suddenly, I am free from my phobia — I am hanging things up on my walls like a maniac all because of an ingenious line of products by the same people who brought us the Post-It Note.

(Note:  I am not associated with 3M, and get no compensation from them — when I find something I like, I share it!)

It all started when I saw a set of spin art paper plate drying at the Junior League of Northern Virginia’s The Enchanted Forest Event. The Children’s Science Centerhad an exhibit there where children were creating spin art (using salad spinners!) and in order to create a place for the artwork to dry, the center’s executive director had hung a few Command hooks to the hotel’s walls and put string between them and several clothespin. I nearly had a heart attack at the thought of the marks that would leave on the wall. I had seen the commercials for Command products before, but having had a few bad experiences with products like that gummy party-tac stuff, I didn’t really believe in it. Well, when the exhibit was over, the director showed me how easily the reusable hooks came down — sure enough, no marks on the wall! (The hooks are reusable, you buy new sticky tabs for each use.)


So, when JavaGirl managed to yank down the reindeer-stocking-holders-of-death (with their sharp antlers that scratched my face LAST year) from the mantle this year, I decided it would be safer for all of us if I replaced the pretty, yet hazardous, stocking holders with some Command hooks on our mantle. Although I had seen this done on their commercials, had it not been for the actual demonstration I saw at the hotel, I wouldn’t have attempted this on my own painted mantel. Lo and behold, all the stockings (even after being overstuffed by Santa!) hung by the chimney with care — and even withstood JavaGirl’s constant tugs.

I moved on to put up two hooks at kid-height so the kids could hang up their coats — something I’d been meaning to do but wasn’t sure where I wanted to put holes in the wall… was afraid of hooks that might catch eyes or what not being so low… I had a bunch of reasons for not committing to that project. The beauty of the Command hooks was that I could try it out and if I didn’t like the idea, I could take them down without having to do a repair job afterward. And the hooks don’t protrude as much as other hooks so they didn’t seem as hazardous. I’m pleased to report the kids are doing a great job of hanging up their own coats when they come home.

I was able to put up a temporary hook for our Christmas card holder and some other only-at-Christmas decorations.

And then I really went nuts! : )

JavaGirl got a wall-mounted AquaDoodlepad for Christmas. I ignored the gooey party tac stuff that came with it, mounted it with the Command poster strips, then bought a Command organizer bin to put all her assorted AquaDoodle paraphenalia (we have several AquaDoodle products) in one place. It’s a beautiful thing!


My mother didn’t like us to have posters growing up b/c it would ruin the paint, and I was leaning the same way — much to my son’s chagrin when he got some coveted soccer posters. Now I have his Hooked on Phonics posters downstairs and his soccer posters upstairs all hanging on the walls, using the Command poster strips. I’ve already taken one poster down (when he completed a HOP level) and it came down easily. Mother and son can be happy.

And finally — all those framed pictures and other artwork projects gathering dust because I haven’t gotten around to hanging them. I finally realized it wasn’t just about finding the time — it was both about my fear of wanting to rearrange the room and not wanting holes in my wall, and also my perfectionism (what if I hang it crooked?) Now, with the picture hooks and picture hanging strips, hanging things takes seconds and if you don’t like the end result, you can reposition or remove entirely very easily! I finally hung some artwork in my daughter’s room I’ve been meaning to do for 2 years. First I never got around to it just because I was busy. Then I didn’t do it because we were moving her from the crib to the bed. Then because I know we are about to get her a different dresser and will rearrange the room. But with the strips, I hung the artwork, knowing that when I do rearrange her room, I can very easily move the pictures as well and won’t have to spackle and paint!


I actually had to dust off the magnet board and the white board I’ve been meaning to hang up in my home office — that’s how long they’ve been waiting to be hung up. EEK! But a few picture hanging strips and VOILA – they are up and in use!


The products aren’t as cheap as just using nails, but you can find coupons on their web siteand apparently there is a way to sign up for coupons and free samples. You can find Command products at most of the “mart” type stores (K Mart, Target, Wal-mart, etc.) and I’ve seen them even at grocery stores and drug stores. There are a lot of tips and ideas on the 3M web site as well, I haven’t even been to them all.

Command is a trademark of 3M Corporation. AquaDoodle is a trademark of AquaDoodle.