Archive for the ‘Home & Organization’ Category

Secrets to Stealing Some Space of Your Own

Monday, October 12th, 2015

From our marriage & parenting contributor, Mary Carver.

Secrets to Stealing Some Space for Yourself

I’d been feeling out of sorts, but I couldn’t exactly say why. Something was just OFF and it was BUGGING ME. Finally, the cause of my irritation became clear when my husband and I tried to clean our garage.

We live in a small house with small closets, and even though I declutter on a fairly regular basis, we still seem to acquire an outrageous amount of STUFF. And because I don’t always have the time or energy to put that STUFF where it belongs (or, even if I do, it doesn’t actually have a place to belong), it often gets shoved into the garage. In stacks and piles and Chipotle bags and diaper boxes. Anything or any way to contain the clutter I can’t bear to see in my house.

So, there we stood, my husband and me, ready to tackle what had become, on my to-do list, a capitalized chore. You know…Clean The Garage?! We were anxious to park one of our cars in that space, and anxious to remove the task from our list and the burden from our minds. We were going to DO THIS THING!

Except…after spending a solid hour going through a box full of papers and flyers and envelopes and writing utensils and brochures and magnets and statements and batteries, all I’d done was organize the box full of STUFF into three piles. Sure, one pile was a trash pile. But the other two, equally large piles? One was for things that needed to be filed or otherwise put away, and the other was for things that needed to be dealt with in some way.

All I’d done was weed out a bit of trash and create a lot more work for myself. And when I looked at the largest pile, the one for things that needed to be filed or put away? I wilted. I faced my enemy (the pile) and lost. Because the thought of finding homes for each one of those things – plus all the other things we would surely add to it as we cleared more space for our car? Was too much. It was not just daunting, it was devastating. At least to my motivation and determination to whip the garage into shape.

Secrets to Stealing Some Space for Yourself

I couldn’t whip that garage into any shape at all, because my entire house was out of shape. And THAT is why I’d been feeling so out of sorts. When we transformed our guest room/office into a nursery, I didn’t think twice about it (other than to be grateful for a third, albeit tiny, bedroom). And when we moved my desk into my older daughter’s room and our bookshelves into storage, I was so happy to have cleared space in our living and dining rooms, which would surely help us sell the house quicker.

[Spoiler alert: It did not help us sell the house quicker. Or at all. #thatsanotherstory]

Those moves were good things and for good reasons, but they also effectively stole all of MY spaces from our house. I no longer had an office – or even a desk in the dining room. I had a TV tray sitting at the edge of the couch, sagging under the precarious weight of All The Papers that I needed to deal with and/or hadn’t yet tossed into the garage. Every time I sat down to work, I’d scoop up all the STUFF and set it next to me on the couch, opening up my laptop carefully so I wouldn’t knock any remaining phone chargers, remotes, pencils, crayons, toys or other things that had landed on my “desk.”

It wasn’t a good system, and it was causing me to feel majorly out of sorts.

I told my husband then that THIS is why I’d been so grouchy. I needed an office! I didn’t have an office! I NEEDED MY SPACE! I wasn’t really throwing a fit. I was simply figuring out that in order to have peace of mind (and possibly more productivity), I needed a space of my own.

We tossed around lots of ideas that afternoon, including moving our toddler into her sister’s bedroom and turning the nursery back into an office. Since the logistics of staggered bedtimes and shared closet space stymied us, we went another direction. My husband bought a giant set of shelves for the garage, and I priced filing cabinets for the dining room.

I’d like to show you dramatic before and after pictures at this point (and, quite honestly, it’s what I’d planned for this post), but the truth is those shelves are sitting in the middle of our garage, surrounded by the same boxes and bags and piles of STUFF. And I never even bought a new filing cabinet. It’s possible we’ll get around to reclaiming a bit of the dining room for my office and bending the garage chaos to our will soon. But until then, I’ve been thinking of other ways I can steal a little bit of space for myself in this house I share with three other, space-hogging people. Here’s what I came up with:

Secrets to Stealing Some Space for Yourself

Keep it simple. Start small. You may not be able to build a “she-shed” or turn a spare room into your own personal getaway. But if you can carve out just one corner for yourself, I bet it will do wonders for your ability to breathe and smile and feel a little less like you’re wearing an itchy sweater.

When I buy groceries this week, I’m buying a pumpkin. Not for my front porch, but for my entertainment center. And not because Pinterest told me to or to create some kind of seasonal mantel decor, but because my couch/TV tray office faces the entertainment center and seeing that pumpkin (or, if I can find them, line of tiny pumpkins and gourds) will make me smile.

Think about accessibility. My scrapbooking supplies live on the top shelf of my baby girl’s closet. So anytime I want to be crafty after she’s gone to bed, I’m out of luck. We actually have several things stored in her room that I occasionally need after bedtime: luggage, craft supplies, old photos, the vacuum. This inconvenience has taught me to think about when I’m most likely to use my space – and to make sure I can get to it at those times.

Consider making it portable. Could your “space” actually fit into a basket or bin? Could you store your favorite books and a blanket in a basket that you can take with you, creating your own space wherever you are? Maybe you stick your stamps and ink pads in a bin that you can move from room to room – or your most-used file folders or notebooks or journals, with the gel pens you like but want to hide from the kids. Whatever makes your space YOUR SPACE, think about making it portable so you can have a space of your own no matter where you are.

Secrets to Stealing Some Space for Yourself

Make it pretty. Make it yours. Maybe you don’t need a place to work or create. Maybe you’re just tired of every single surface being covered by crayon marks and Goldfish dust. In that case I say steal a little space and make it pretty! Clear off a shelf or the corner of your desk or a spot on the wall or some space on the counter – and put something pretty or sparkly or inspiring there. Whatever makes you smile – something with bling, something with encouraging words, something that smells good – put it there and keep it there and call that YOUR space.

I’m pulling my bookshelf out of storage and making it MINE. No kids books, no stack of bills, no purses or diaper bags or Target bag of things to return to the store. I’m going to give my [way too] many books a home on those shelves and then put something pretty (although still unbreakable) on top of it. It might not be an entire room or even a desk to call my own again, but it will be something and it will be mine. It will not just transform my space; it will transform my state of mind.

How do you steal a little space in your home?

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M Challenge Mornings Morphosis: Set An Alarm or Not?

Wednesday, September 30th, 2015

As part of our M Challenge Focus on Better Mornings, I asked Mandi Ehman of Life Your Way to share how she is tackling her mornings – and I think her answer will surprise you!

Move towards better mornings with an alarm clock - or without

Confession: I am a firm believer in the value of getting up early, getting your day started before your kids wake up, and taking control of your day. So it might surprise you to hear that I no longer set an alarm 99% of the time.

The reason is simple: While I highly value and need those morning hours to myself, I also know that I need enough sleep or I’m grumpy, impatient and unproductive.

I also know that there’s nothing worse than getting woken up in the wrong part of your sleep cycle.

When I set an alarm, I inevitably get woken up right in the middle of my REM cycle, and my alarm has no idea whether the baby was up 17 times, I suffered with insomnia, or my body just happens to need more rest on any given morning. (And changing the alarm in the middle of the night involves turning on my iPhone screen—since we don’t use a regular alarm clock in our room—which inevitably gives me insomnia because of the bright, artificial light!)

Letting myself wake up naturally means I wake up during the best part of my sleep cycle—usually as soon as it starts to get light out these days—and I’m less groggy. Sometimes it means I sleep a couple extra hours in the morning, but I’m willing to trust that my body knows best on those days!

Obviously this approach isn’t for everyone, and if you’re a natural night owl, have early morning commitments or school buses to catch, an alarm is probably a safe bet.

I’m considering an alarm like ZenAwake or Progressive Alarm Clock that wakes you up with gentle, progressively louder sounds so that your body isn’t jarred out of sleep like with a traditional alarm for those fall and winter mornings when the sun isn’t there to help me get up.

These days, getting enough sleep is a high priority for me even when the to-do list is full, and an alarm clock just isn’t smart enough to know when I really need to get up and when I need to sleep, so—for now—I’m skipping it.

Are you an early bird or a night owl? Do you wake up to an alarm?

Maximize Your Morning Hours

Monday, September 14th, 2015

Maximize Your Morning Hours from

I was forced into being a morning person thanks to my kids. In my younger days, I would stay up late watching mindless television, and would sleep in until the last possible moment. There is nothing like an early bus schedule to take a girl out of her cushy routines, is there? Although I never desired to be a morning person, it’s incredible how much better I feel and how productive I can be with those extra morning hours. I am actually pretty thankful that early mornings are now a part of my routine and I even try to maintain the schedule as best as I can during the summer months.

Here is what I know…

If I can become a morning person, ANYONE can!

Today I wanted to share a few tricks that have helped me in creating an ideal morning for my family and I’d love to chat with you about your ideas too! 

Utilize Your Evening Hours to Get a Good Start

Getting up earlier can mean that I am a little less productive in the evening since I am usually pretty worn down after a full day! I try to make a couple of things top priority though to help save my sanity in the morning. The first is that I always set my coffeemaker the night before and program it for my morning brew (this is the inexpensive pot that I use now), I always make sure that the dishes are done and that the dishwasher is run, I always try to get all the paperwork signed and in the backpacks, and I always try to lay out my gym clothes the night before so I can hit the gym first thing in the morning!

These small habits in the evening help us start on good footing the next morning.

Set a Million Alarms

I have a hard time staying on track with the multiple schedules going on during our mornings. Maybe that is just me?  I set an alarm on my phone to make sure each kid is up and then I set an alarm 5-10 minutes before we have to head out the door to have them get their shoes on and grab their gear. Although it doesn’t apply to my morning routines, I set alarms to remind myself when I need to head out the door to the gym, when the buses are returning, and even an alarm to remind me that I can take a break for the day from work and read for an hour.

My poor cat is so annoyed by my alarm system that she cries every single time one goes off.

I won’t lie.

I sometimes want to cry too. I love the reminder though to keep things on track so we don’t miss our morning buses or oversleep!

Maximize Your Morning Hours from

Turn Off the Distractors

I know everyone struggles with getting distracted and the quickest way for my morning to get off track is to turn on my phone or computer. I decided to add the Facebook Kills News Feed extension to help me not cheat and peek at Facebook during the day when I need to be productive.

I also make deals with myself about when I am allowed to peek at my phone. Each day the deal is something that I need to accomplish from household chores to an article for a client to finishing a book. Once I fulfill that daily contract with myself, I can cruise the FB newsfeed and catch up on all I am missing out on.

Email also has been of my biggest distractors so now I check it once in the morning, once midday, and once before the kids get home from school. I noticed that each time my phone made a ding, I ran to it like my cat when I shake the treat bag at her. It lead to lots of interruptions, a half-present mom, and a lot of anxiety when I wasn’t dealing with whatever I had opened. If I can’t sit down at my desk and deal with it with a proper response, I just don’t open it! Not only has it made my mornings smoother, but it has made my entire life run more smoothly.

Maximize Your Morning Hours from

Make the Morning Household Chores Bearable

I am big on maximizing my time and I know that you are too. I have discovered that podcasts and audiobooks make wonderful companions in the morning while I am getting things done around the house. Three of my favorite podcasts right now for making the most of my mornings are the The Lively Show, Magic Lessons, & Elise Gets Crafty. Thanks to the Overcast app that I downloaded, I also am listening to them at a quicker speed which helps me consume a little bit more while I am tackling that laundry and tidying the house. Not only am I proud that I am being productive in my home, but I’m learning so much about living with intention in the process.

Maximize Your Morning Hours from

Make Room For You

I may be one of the rare ones in the world because I rarely feel guilty about making time for myself. I know when I can fill my cup up, I have more to give to everyone else. I am not sure if that is because I have such a supportive spouse who has always encouraged that or if I just have always been thinking about myself. Oh, who are we kidding? It’s probably both! My ideal morning involves a good Bible study on She Reads Truth, a cup of HOT coffee, a little journaling (right now I am doing this journal with my husband) and then I head to the gym where I do classes I really love and that make me happy.

Our mornings aren’t always perfect, but starting with good intentions, smart planning, and a little self-care reward help me start my day on the right foot!

Do you have any tips or tricks for a great morning routine? I’d love to hear them as we explore this topic this month in our m challenge series!

*this post contains affiliate links. I only recommend what I love!


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Minimize Morning Stress With an Organized Command Center

Thursday, September 10th, 2015

Minimize morning stress with an organized command center

When we created our small space entry DIY command center, my goals at the time were simple: create a space for the kids backpacks and keep their school paperwork off our counters, as well as have a place for basic entry items (space for keys, glasses, etc.). It ended up working great for the space as well as our family AND gave an added bonus:

It has minimized our whole family’s weekday morning stress levels and has helped our morning routines run a lot more smoothly!

Use any space to organize for better mornings!

As I shared, we started with a simple corner in our living room right around the corner from our front door that was a place we naturally dropped our things anyway – that’s the best place to start, right? Figure out what’s already working and then make it work better. And prettier, of course.

Mirrored coat rack

We added a functional and decorative mirrored coat rack, perfect for tying on a scarf before heading out the door as well as holding coats and small purses. We also moved a seldom used storage ottoman here to hold the backpack and briefcase clutter and finished off the mirror area with a large basket  for storing our magazines and umbrellas.


To catch the school paper clutter that always seems to be on the brink of becoming out of control, we use an upright file folder organizer and colorful file folders for organizing the whole family. It has become one of the best things to keep the morning stress level down!

Set Up a File System to Minimize Morning Stress:

1. The kids each now have an IN and OUT folder. If they need something signed, they put it in the IN folder for me for signatures and I give it back to them by putting those items in the OUT folder, that they can check before they leave for school.

2. Special memorabilia that is worth saving still resides in their decorative boxes in their rooms.

3. Mom and dad each have their own files for paperwork that needs to be dealt with before filing or recycling.

4. Taxes has a file for receipts and other items that tend to pile up waiting to be filed.

5. There’s a general “kids” file for any items that we need to take care of (things we want to file, or waiting for a meeting, etc.)


The other thing we added that has helped with our morning routines, almost eliminating the last-minute-trying-to-get-out-the-door search for ________ (fill in the blank: keys, watch, glasses, etc.), is a long, narrow compartment organizer for keys, sunglasses, and other things rests on this half moon table for easy finding and grabbing in the morning. Best. Thing. Ever.

Another crucial element to our daily routine is found above the table: our family calendar. We can keep track of important events at school, doctor’s appointments, business travel, and more – the calendar is usually filled to the brim!


I also love using our family management binder in this command center, especially to check out the menu before we head out the door to know if there is something I need to pick up at the store. (Oh, and we’ve recently revised the cover so that it now comes undated so that it can be customized by you – I love this binder and hope you do, too!)

If you don’t have your own family binder copy yet, grab one by using the handy form in our sidebar to sign up for our weekly newsletter – a recap of all the happenings for the week and will make sure you never miss a post. Then you’ll be eligible for this and other free printables we offer ONLY to our VIP subscribers.

I had hoped our small family command center would help our mornings run smoother, of course, but it wasn’t one of our main goals, just a happy bonus, and has continued to renew our commitment to living small. Even if you have a small home, you can make any space a functional space for your family!

How do you minimize morning stress?

Warm Up Your Outdoor Space for Fall

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

Warm Up Your Outdoor Space for Fall from

This post is sponsored on behalf of BHG at Walmart.

Fall is just around the corner and today I wanted to share a few ways to personalize your outdoor space for the autumn season by bringing in some warm textures to your outdoor decor. This month I am partnering up with the BHG Live Better Network to show how we personalize our outdoor space with a few items that you can find at your local Walmart store.

Warm Up Your Outdoor Space for Fall from

The first step towards warming up our outdoor space was selecting an outdoor rug to go underneath our picnic table. Outdoor rugs have come such a long way, as I discovered when creating my own little she-shed this past year. They really hold up well to the elements and they add such warmth to the space that it almost feels like you are dining inside with these beneath your feet. After endless browsing, I settled on this BHG Medallion Rug in an 8×11 size, for just $159.

Warm Up Your Outdoor Space for Fall from

Warm Up Your Outdoor Space for Fall from

I’m pretty terrible at caring for plants, but I am a collector of pumpkins. To anchor the corner of my table, I filled this 16″ Bombay Decorative Planter with a few pumpkins from my growing faux pumpkin collection. I love the twiggy pumpkins against my DIY dollar store thumbtack pumpkins that I made last fall. To prop them up, I filled the bottom with paper so the pumpkins could peek out a little higher in this pretty pot.

This pot is the ultimate fake-out too because it looks like a heavy breakable ceramic pot and it is, in fact, PLASTIC and unbreakable. I can’t wait to fill it with plants that care for themselves in the summer!

Warm Up Your Outdoor Space for Fall from

Warm Up Your Outdoor Space for Fall from

Of course, nothing says warm and beautiful like the twinkle of outdoor lights. I did a ton of research on how we could mount outdoor lights over our picnic table when we didn’t have any trees to anchor them. I read this fantastic article and then was like, “I need pipe and a clasp.” I then hit myself in the head and remembered that we had two fantastic poles that were already ready on our lemonade stand that I could detach and use to hang our lights, clasp even included!

Have you ever hung outdoor lights over your table before? I’d love to hear how you anchor them if you don’t have trees! For now, this set-up worked out beautifully and you can’t beat the fact that I didn’t have to buy anything.

Warm Up Your Outdoor Space for Fall from

I am a big fan of utilizing the items we already have to charm up our outdoor space for guests. This knitted leaf centerpiece made from my yarn scraps continues to be a favorite in our home and it adds the perfect Fall touch to our outdoor table.

Warm Up Your Outdoor Space for Fall from


I hope these ideas inspire you to warm up your own outdoor space for Fall! I love these sweet and simple affordable touches that can be found at Walmart with a few of my favorite handmade accessories! I hope they inspire you too!



In accordance with the FTC Guidelines, I am disclosing that I received compensation from BHG at Walmart for my time and participation in the BHG Live Better Network. Although we have material connection to BHG, any publicly stated opinions of BHG and their products remain my own.

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Organize Your Spice Rack (FREE PRINTABLES!!)

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

Organize Your Spice Rack (FREE PRINTABLES!!) from

When I say that my life has felt a little disorganized, I mean it! One sore spot in my house has been my spice cabinet and pantry. Thanks to the gentle shove (ahem) of The Magic Art of Tidying Up, I am trying to transform those sad corners and joy-robbers into more thoughtful spaces. I figured that I can’t be the only one with a disorganized spice rack so I wanted to offer free printable spice labels and pantry labels that you can use to spruce up your own space too, designed by our own MJ from Pars Caeli!

Organize Your Spice Rack (FREE PRINTABLES!!) from

Here is my cabinet before I tackled it. There were several spices that had empty jars (why? who helped me on clean-up? WHO?), several duplicates (who does the grocery shopping? who? oh wait…), and there were some that had labels as far as back as 2008 (THE SHAME!). There were also spices lurking in a few other corners in the pantry that were, of course, duplicates. Hunting for spices in a million spots and then trying to not get a black eye from knocking myself out with one as I dig around was a nightly occurrence.

Organize Your Spice Rack (FREE PRINTABLES!!) from

I absolutely love the clean design of these labels and they couldn’t be easier to print. You will need to purchase a package of this style of label to print on. We kept the design simple and light to keep the ink waste to a minimum.

If you have spice jars you can reuse, by all means do it! About five years ago, I asked my in-law’s for two sets of these jars since I intended to redo my spice cabinet. I found them when I organized my scary storage side of my basement this weekend while binging on podcasts. It felt like Christmas all over again. This decluttering has really been paying off!

I used a small funnel to funnel the spices that still had life in them into these new fresh jars and then attached the new labels. How easy is that?

Organize Your Spice Rack (FREE PRINTABLES!!) from

For pantry items with a larger volume, I used some mason jars that I already owned that had been gathering dust on a shelf. These are the perfect holders for these items and the labels work really well on this size jar too!

Organize Your Spice Rack (FREE PRINTABLES!!) from


This corner is making me so much happier and it made prepping for our dinner hour so much easier this week! I didn’t realize how much frustration I was having and how much time I was wasting hunting for these spices each night!

Organize Your Spice Rack (FREE PRINTABLES!!) from

Organize Your Spice Rack (FREE PRINTABLES!!) from

Get the Labels!

If you are interested in receiving 14 free home management printables and these beautiful pantry labels (see the small sampling above), just input your email below or in the sidebar and we will send you the link to your packet as our thank you for being a subscriber (look for it in the final welcome email). Subscribers will have access to our additional printables as they become available.

Note: if you already subscribe to the Mom Advice Newsletter, be sure to look in your inbox for a special email that contains the link for your set of these printables! If you can’t seem to get the form to work with your browser, just look over to your right in the sidebar on the site. You will see a handy form there too that works with all browsers! We appreciate you so much! Thank you! 



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7 Easy Upcycle Projects for Fall

Thursday, August 27th, 2015


Do you love decorating for Fall as much as I do? Of all the seasons, this one is my favorite and I love that you don’t have to spend a lot to make a beautiful impact on your home during this season. Nature brings so many free and fun elements to your home decorating. Pairing these with a few simple upcycle DIY’s, you don’t have to spend a lot to make your space cozy and beautiful.

Today I want to share with you seven easy upcycle projects you can try to make yourself and your home cozy for Fall. These projects were selected with your Goodwill shopping in mind and should be easy to execute with some commonly found items at their store!

Head on over to the Goodwill Tips blog to check out these fun Fall upcycle projects that I have gathered for you today!


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DIY Lunchbox Creation Station

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

For our Meal Planning M Challenge, we don’t want to overlook the challenge of creating school lunches day and and day out for the school year, so we’re republishing one of my favorite Organizing/DIY projects: making a “lunchbox creation station.” I love this organizing idea for two big reasons: it’s easy for the kids to find things for their lunches, putting a lot of the responsibility to them AND it’s easy for me to see what we have available and what I need to stock up on. That’s a win-win!

As our kids head back to school, I am in preparation mode to get our family organized & back on track for the new year. One area that I am always working on organizing is streamlining our lunchbox routines. I am excited to share with you my DIY lunchbox creation station that you can create in a corner of your home to streamline your lunch routines. You won’t believe how easy this is to create and you will love my idea for revamping this into something you can use in the summer months too!

For this craft you will need:

  • 3-6 Sterlite Medium Modular Drawer
  • Krylon Chalkboard Spray Paint (often home improvement sections)
  • Avery Removable Wall & Window Signage Sheets (in office supplies)
  • 16 count chalk (in office supplies)
  • Large circle hole punch or a jar or glass that you can use for tracing your circles (I had this in my craft supplies at home)

We are going to start this craft by creating our cute Chalkboard labels first.  You may recall that we made these easy chalkboard labels before when making my super cute Chalkboard Conversation Bubble Cookie Jars. We are going to do the same thing that we did in that craft for this one, but we are cutting them into circles instead of the conversation bubble!

First, pull out your Avery Sheets. For this craft, we are going to use the Wall Application Side for spraying with chalkboard spray paint. This is the side that has the sticky side that is removable and adjustable… perfect for people who can never get anything on their projects perfectly straight.

In a well-ventilated area covered with newspaper or cardboard, place your Avery sheet. Shake the can vigorously for two minutes. Hold can 10-14 inches away from your project and begin spraying. Spray a thin coat in a sweeping motion beginning off the surface and continuing off the other side. Follow this pattern horizontally and then vertically. Wait fifteen minutes or so and then apply another coat.  They should be dry and ready to cut in about an hour.

Cut these out into circles. One sheet should give you six generous size labels that you can write your labels on. While those are drying, you can begin assembling your drawers.

Your needs for your lunchboxes may be different than my own. I wanted to show you what I did in my drawers, though, to inspire your own categories for your lunchbox creation station. I used six drawers because that is what would fit on my pantry floor and would cover all of our lunchbox needs. I have a drawer for snacks, fruit, drinks, chips, water, and a drawer of fun (more about that below). Think of the problem areas in your kitchen and create a drawer to accommodate!

Here is an interior view of my drawers and here are some ideas for items you could keep on hand for your kids:

Snacks- Granola bars, low-fat puddings, natural fruit leathers, nuts, goldfish crackers, rice cakes, wheat crackers, sunflower seeds, homemade cereal mix, fruit snacks.

Fruit- Natural applesauce, yogurt covered raisins, raisins, dried fruit, apples, bananas, oranges.

Drinks- Juice Boxes and organic milk boxes.

Chips- Sweet Potato Chips, Veggie Chips, Pita Chips, Pretzels (I package my chips in tiny Glad containers and have used these a few years now with great success. This drawer also contains my new favorite sandwich cubes that I found at the The Container Store).

H20- This is where I have all of our water bottles so that the kids can grab one in the morning and before extracurricular activities.

Fun- This is where I keep my cookie cutters, homemade play dough, and craft supplies for our kitchen.

Next to the drawers, I nestled a basket for extra snacks to be placed in the drawers as needed and the lunchboxes. Place your designated labels on your drawers and stand back and behold your AWESOMENESS.

With this simple system in place, the kids are now in charge of creating their own favorite lunch combination, selecting one item from each of the lunchbox drawers. My kids have already been scheming and dreaming about their daily lunches and are excited to finally be in charge of their own lunch destiny.

When the summer months roll around, I plan to erase the labels and fill them with all of our summer necessities like pool snacks, water bottles, drinks, sunblock and insect repellent, and other items that tend to accumulate on counters and on top of my fridge. I think this is a great organizing solution for all year round!

Designate one day a week (my day is on Sunday) to creating your snack packs and making items that can be tucked into lunchboxes.

Another tip to keep your lunches organized and accessible is to designate one refrigerator drawer towards lunches. Items like freshly cut fruits and veggies, sandwiches, and Asian lunchbox noodles can all be waiting for the morning in this drawer.  I even tuck commonly forgotten items in the drawer like napkins and spoons to trigger my tired brain to kick in on busy school mornings.

Don’t forget about yourself in all of the hustle bustle of school preparation! I love this DIY Salad Bar to help keep me on track with healthy eating during the school year!

What do items do you love to keep on hand for your child’s lunchbox? I would love to hear your ideas!

I am a part of the Walmart Moms program, and Walmart has provided me with compensation for these posts. My participation is voluntary and opinions are always my own.

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3 Challenges & Solutions to Meal Planning for My Family

Monday, August 17th, 2015

From our marriage & parenting contributor, Mary Carver.

Meal Planning Challenges & Solutions

Sometimes I think my family is out to get me. I mean, surely they can’t be so obnoxious without some planning or plotting! Could they be this difficult naturally? All at the same time? Without coordinating their attack on my patience and sanity?

These are the thoughts that bombard me several times a week, almost always in regard to dinner.

DINNER. They want it every single day. Every! Single! Day! And do they want the same things? NO!

Sigh. Okay, fine. They’re probably not out to get me. But I bet I’m not the only wife/mom/home manager to feel that way – especially around dinnertime! So in case you also struggle with picky eaters or busy schedules or lack of motivation (oh, just me?), I thought I’d take a look at three of the challenges – and their solutions – I face to meal planning for my family.

1. Time

Every Sunday night my husband and I have the same conversation. It goes like this:

Me: Heavy sigh.
Him: What’s wrong?
Me: Nothing. Just thinking about everything I need to do.
Him: Can I help you?
Me: No. I just need more hours. Could you give me more hours?

Poor guy. He just wants to snuggle on the couch and watch another episode of Blue Bloods with his wife, and here I am mentally reviewing my to-do list and trying to figure out how to get it all done – no – get ANYTHING done. Because I often feel like the repetitive but necessary tasks of everyday life take up 90% of my time, leaving me very little margin for new ideas, extra projects or defrosting my refrigerator.

So when I think about making a menu and a corresponding grocery list, it feels overwhelming. I mean, REALLY. Who has three hours to sift through all those yummy recipes I’ve pinned and clipped over the years to find five or six meals to make in the coming week? And then to choose sides to go with it? And look in the pantry and fridge to see if we already have any of the ingredients? And THEN make a list?

Gah. It seems so much faster, in the moment, to just hop in the car, drive to the store and buy what I think we need for the week. Except . . . you know just as well as I do . . . that does not EVER save me time. Or money. Or that precious commodity: sanity. Going to the store without a plan never results in the right combination of food for a week of meals! I KNOW THIS! So, how do I resist the temptation to do it anyway?

Easy. I don’t make a new menu every week.

I have a few basic meal plans that I can rotate, based on categories for each day. (e.g. Monday is something grilled because my husband has more time that day, and Wednesday is something fast and easy because my daughter has piano lessons that night.)

And those new recipes I want to try? I remember that I’m not actually Betty Crocker and limit myself to one or two a month. Because seriously, our family favorites are favorites for a reason. (And, honestly, my family would happily eat tacos every single week for the rest of our lives.)

Speaking of tacos, I know a lot of people who use theme nights for the meal plans. So Monday is Italian night, Tuesday is Mexican night, etc. Sometimes I do this, too – although sometimes it’s to remind us not to have Mexican three times a week.

2. Preferences

“Preferences” seemed like a nicer way to put it than, “Picky eaters.” But that’s really the issue, isn’t it? One of the things we say often in my house is that different people like different things. I started this to help my oldest daughter understand that just because someone likes green or football or country music or tattoos or Minecraft, they aren’t weird. They just like different things.

But for the love of sweet potatoes (which some of us like and some don’t), finding food that all four of us like gets harder every day! And while I am NOT a short-order cook, I do want all my people to get enough to eat. So where’s the balance?

My solution for now is to cater to their wishes – sometimes. I know what they like (until they change their minds again), so I plan to fix those foods and those meals often.

But sometimes I want to fix and serve something that one or two of them don’t like. And in those cases, we always have peanut butter and bread (if it’s the main dish) or cup of peaches and applesauce (if it’s a side dish). I’ll let my daughter replace one of our foods, but then she has to make do with the others. So if she doesn’t want green beans OR rice, she has the choice of which one to “choke down” and which one to replace with fruit. That’s our compromise.

As for new foods or new recipes, everybody has to try a few bites. And in the case of new recipes, we take a vote after giving it a try. If the majority (or at least the parents) like it, then we add it to the rotation. If not, well, at least we tried!

3. Motivation

Last but DEFINITELY not least is the biggest challenge of all in my house: motivation. I have to confess: sometimes I’m just lazy. Or busy. Or tired. Or ALL OF THE ABOVE! And the last thing I want to do is think ahead or make one more list. Especially after a week that’s included a bombed recipe or forgotten plans or unexpected dinners out.

But all I have to do is a little math to get myself back on track. I know how much I spend on groceries when we’re planning and cooking meals on a regular basis at my house. So a quick calculation of how much we’ve spent on fast food and take-out when I’ve slacked off will cure my lack of motivation REAL FAST.

Plus, I know that we eat a lot healthier when we eat at home. And sure, I might not have to do dishes, but my trash can (and dining room table) is overflowing with Styrofoam cups and paper bags! Yuck.

Staying mindful of those realities – and remembering my easy meal plan solutions – helps me plan meals for my family (and stay sane while doing it)!

What challenges do you face when meal planning for your family?

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Tips for Successful Menu Planning

Tuesday, August 4th, 2015

Tips for Successful Menu Planning from

One of the most stressful parts about my job as a mom is creating menu plans to feed my family and accomplishing the weekly grocery shopping. Today I want to share with you some of my own tips for successful menu planning, but first I want to work on some honesty with you about my attitude towards food preparation in my house.

Is it okay to say that I have a terrible attitude about this?

I hope it is because something happened this summer that has helped transform my mindset a bit.

Tips for Successful Menu Planning from

This summer I wanted to create some great learning experiences for my kids and to teach them how lucky we are for all that we have. One of those experiences has been volunteering at our church’s food pantry where over 400 local families are served each month. I had not expected the enthusiasm that these two brought to the job, but these kids were so happy to do this that they begged to return the next week to help again.

I am not sure what it is like for you and your children, but I feel like we live in this protected bubble that I am constantly trying to push them out of… but not TOO far.  I’m pushing on those walls because there is such a big world out there full of people who need us and it’s important to see and address those needs when we can.  I thought it would be great for them to serve others and to understand how lucky we are.

As we pulled in the first day to volunteer there was a gathering of people waiting for the doors to open. At the time we had pulled in, there was TWO MORE HOURS until the food pantry doors were open to the public. When I asked about this, I was told that they arrive that early to be able to be the first to select the food. The food given would last a family of 4 a few days, an incredible offering when one needs  it, but it made me very ashamed about my attitudes towards feeding my family.

I can plan meals for my family and buy whatever we need for the week in one trip without any worries.

I complain when the grocery line is too long, but others wait for hours just in the hopes that they will have fresh produce.

I whine about how annoying it is to have to haul so many bags from my car and put them away.

Guess who had the transformation?

I know we can’t always go into that zen place of happiness when planning our meals, but I’m working on my attitude and I want to do what I can to simplify this process for our family. It’s a bit of a privilege to go into the store with a plan and come out with what we need, isn’t it?

Meal planning is necessary to stay on budget. In fact, as I have said in my book, I feel that this is one of the biggest places I feel families should analyze when living on a budget. This is a flexible area in our spending, but it takes a good plan to stay on budget.

Here are a few of my tips for successful menu plans:

Gluten-Free Orange Chicken

gluten-free orange chicken

Be Realistic About Your Meal Plans

The overachiever in me really believes that I will cook a great meal for my family every night. The reality is that many nights I am running kids to activities and I am not home (or too tired) to execute all those good intentions. What happens when you have a lot of intentions and not a lot of time?

Spoiled food and wasted money.

I shop for 5 meals for the week, giving us two nights for leftovers and reality.

Kind of the same thing- ha!

Take a serious look at your calendar and analyze what will be happening for the week so that you can create a menu plan that will serve your family well. Slow cooker dishes are arranged on busy days where I don’t have time for food preparation, Sunday suppers are leisurely meals with all the fixings doubled so we can enjoy the dish another night, and grocery days are often prep days for chopping and dicing for quick wraps & salads for nights I don’t have the time to cook.

Slow Cooker Carnitas

slow cooker carnitas

Try a Rotation Schedule

I am a lover of routines and that also comes to the food that we share around the table. In our house, we usually have one slow cooker dish, one pot of soup or a large salad (depending on the season), some type of taco night, one “fancy” dish for Sundays, a brunch dish (that later acts as breakfast on busy school mornings), and I try to implement one new recipe a week to keep things fresh. A rotation schedule creates a clear routine for a busy week and makes grocery shopping easier since you know what you typically need each week. 

Routines are my jam!

I try to make one dish that can easily be doubled or tripled since we have been working on weekly entertaining or to share with someone who might be having a hard week. This can also be a great time to feed the freezer for another week.

Gather Inspiration for Your Meals

It would be hard not to be inspired now that we have tools like Pinterest at our disposal. I think more than anything it is not to feel OVERWHELMED with all of the meal choices or choosing dishes that are far too ambitious for your time constraints. My best bet for busy weeknights are 30-minute recipes or 5-ingredient or less ideas and that is typically what I search for when hunting down new dishes to add to my menu. 

I subscribe to my favorite food blogs through Feedly and utilize their bookmarking tool to save the recipes I want to come back to. I also utilize a private Pinterest board just for my family to test out different recipes in our kitchen. Cookbooks are like old reliable friends that I know I can always count on for a recipe or two. Foodgawker is where I also favorite dishes that I want to try in our menus (you can see our own dishes that made the cut over here!)



Tips for Successful Menu Planning from

Use Your Smartphone to Make Smart Lists

What did I ever do without my smartphone? This little device has made creating and maintaining my grocery lists each week so much easier. I am a BIG fan of the Grocery iQ app (FREE!)  for creating my grocery list because you can reuse the same master list that you use over and over again (especially if you have a routine rotation of meals) and this app automatically organizes and finds any coupons that you might want to use for your purchases. 

With Grocery iQ you can type, speak, or scan grocery list items into your list. The list automatically adds your items into categories and then alerts you if coupons are available for any items you might be adding to your list. Coupons can then be sent to your email when your list has been made or (if you have a wireless enabled printer) can be sent to your printer for printing. As you gather your items from your list, simply check it off and the item moves to the bottom of the list. Once your whole list is complete, everything is shifted towards the bottom and then can simply be clicked to add those repeat items back on the list for your next visit.

Switching to an electronic list was much easier than I expected. It also keeps me off my phone while shopping so I can really concentrate which is half of the battle for me when it comes to menu planning.

Tips for Successful Menu Planning from

Journal the Family Favorites & Put Them In Your Plans

In our family, every person has a favorite dish or a favorite memory of a meal we have shared together. To make your week easier, creating a family journal or scrapbook where you have all your family favorites for weekly inspiration and rotate a family member’s favorite each week.

Tips for Successful Menu Planning from

We made a food journal and printed out our favorite recipes and why the kids loved these dishes. This can be a fun craft project to do together AND it is something you can pass on to them when they leave the nest (but that won’t be for a LONG time so I’m not worried). If you want to try making your own cookbook, you can see this tutorial we created for it!

One thing I don’t think very often about is that many of our favorite recipes are online. If the sites ever go down (which has been known to happen), we may no longer have access to our favorite dishes. I want a place where we can keep all these food memories so a family journal is a fun activity that you can enjoy for years to come.

Pick What’s Important & Make it Happen

I have many friends that deal chase for their menu plans, but I have never been much of a deal chaser.  As the extracurricular schedule grows and my work becomes more demanding, I have to make choices about what I realistically can and cannot do. It’s okay to not chase deals.

I do my menu planning first thing in the morning (eat the frog!!) and I go to grocery stores where deal chasing doesn’t need to happen. ALDI has (and always will be) my first destination for our family groceries and thanks to the Savings Catcher app, a scan of my receipt at the end of my shopping at Walmart means I can look forward to pocketing any savings if any store goes lower in prices without chasing deals anymore.

You may find shopping at night is better for you or you may get a thrill from a deal well chased. Pick what’s important to you and make it happen for your family, but do what fits best with your own lifestyle for menu planning success.

Do you have any strategies you can share for menu planning? Let us know in the comments below!






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