By Laurie Fox
You’ve spent all summer enjoying your house. Whether lazing around indoors or playing outside in the backyard, your home likely got a workout. Maybe you even cleaned and organized it and remembered why you love spending your free time there.
But now it’s back-to-school. All of those lazy summer meals and moments of family gathered together likely will give way to chaotic mornings and grumpy evenings. The additional grind of school-year activities can mean drive-through dinners and homework done in the car.
That place that became such a vital part of your family over the summer is destined to become a backpack dumping ground. And if you do manage to spend any time at home it only reminds you of all of the meals that you haven’t cooked or the stacks of school papers that you haven’t sorted.
But your home can still be that great place that kept the family connected all summer - if you commit to making it a place to regroup and make a few adjustments to steady the frenzied pace of fall.
“I see kids coming in who are overworked, anxious, stressed out and tired,” says Jeffrey Gallup, a Mansfield licensed professional counselor. “They need time to relax and be with their families. There is less real communication going on in families.”
The school year sets some families up to fail. Those who aren’t organized or haven’t made it a priority to schedule some at-home time together can find themselves careening through their days, struggling to stay connected in the modern age.
“Kids need boundaries and structure. And that starts in the home,” says professional organizer Rochelle Ross. “We need to teach them how to set those boundaries: with time, with money, with stuff. It’s about parenting. We have to teach our kids to prioritize their time and learn to make good choices on their own.”
Ross, who owns the organizing company A Simplified Space, says choosing to spend more time together at home does mean making some changes. But many of the families who have are calmer and more joyful once they give up some of their activities, especially those for younger children, she says.
Professional organizer Lorraine Brock says spending more time at home as a family is important but it takes buy-in from everyone. She sees three common elements in the families she works with: lack of time management, being overcommitted and no clear delineation of household responsibilities.
“In this goal of having ‘well-rounded children’ the family unit suffers,” she says. “The kids don’t have down time on a large scale to communicate with their families. The world is pouring into your kids but you’re not.”
Gallup says that once families decide to be together at home more often they need to “turn off the phones and focus on one another” and set aside a specific time to spend together whether it’s doing an activity or just congregating in a common area and hanging out.
“It can be the living room, the game room, the kitchen, anywhere in the home where everyone is comfortable, but it takes the family making that happen,” he says. “As long as the kids know they can relax, they let their guards down. Your kids won’t learn to have a conversation with you unless you work at it by engaging with them.”
Hanging Out At Home
Your home is ideally suited for simple things like a regular game night or working on a new hobby together. Utilize areas like outdoor porches and decks for casual and relaxed meals and family time where the entire family can let down. Compare everyone’s calendars and find a common spot for a “family day.” And don’t just plan for that down time, put it on the schedule.
Professional organizers say hanging out at home can be a much more stress-free time if you work as a family to keep your home clean and set up a structured system for keeping things in their place.
“I find myself doing a lot more picking up than I should,” Ross says of life with her three children. “There needs to be an expectation of putting things back where they belong every night from Sunday through Thursday. Toys put away, dishes done, blankets folded - it just sets a good mental state. It’s tedious but it sets the tone.”
Brock, owner of Get Organized!, says that it’s difficult to want to spend time together at home when the debris from the school week has piled up. So she suggests creating a nightly electronics “Shut it down” time about 30-45 minutes before bed. Then get everyone involved with the pick-up routine by assigning each family member a zone of the house.
“This isn’t about cleaning or chores,” she says. “It’s about picking up those toys, clothes and papers and returning the house to an organized state.” Brock does advocate age-appropriate chores for children because “it teaches them responsibility, a domestic skill and helps the logistics of the house.”
The school year can be a tempting time to eat out more. But bringing the family to the dinner table can be a great way to spend time together and get everyone talking about their day. “It is a lifestyle decision,” says personal chef Deb Cantrell. “By the time families bring me in it’s like being a firefighter. They want it yesterday.”
Cantrell says many kids would eat at home more or try more healthy food or different foods if parents set up their lives to have as many meals at home as possible. She says the most common hurdles families face with preparing meals at home revolve around scheduling and follow-through. She recommends that families create menus and shopping lists to stay on top of meal-planning. She also suggests preparing meals ahead, pre-cutting ingredients and letting kids help out with simple chopping or cooking tasks.
Finding a fun theme meal like a weekly “Taco Night” that everyone participates in, utilizing the Crock Pot or slow-cooker and other think-ahead meal strategies can get home-cooked meals in front of your family more often.
“As long as kids are open to trying things, you can win them over,” says Cantrell, who owns Savor Culinary Services in Arlington. “If you sit down with kids you’d be surprised that they don’t always want pizza and chicken nuggets.” She suggests “eating with your eyes first” by using brightly colored foods like purple or red potatoes. These can be prepared easily by cutting them and coating them with olive oil, salt and pepper and roasting them in the oven for 20 minutes, she says.
Cantrell recommends trying to eat at home at least a few nights a week. Aim to start cooking dinner around 6 p.m. if possible to get everyone used to the idea of sitting down together. “If it’s a crazy night, you make sandwiches. But grab some artisan bread and some good meat,” she says. “If you have pre-prepared mashed potatoes put them in one of your own bowls. It’s about incorporating little things and leading by example. It becomes a culture of the family that you eat together.”
So before you let back-to-school take over your family life, try to remember: there’s no place like home.
Get With The Program
Steps to help you go back to school on schedule
Nothing makes a family’s daily life more difficult during the school year than a disorganized home. Creating routines and systems for a busy morning departure and evening arrival back home can help keep everything flowing smoothly.
Local professional organizers Lorraine Brock, owner of Get Organized!, and Rochelle Ross, owner of A Simplified Space, offer the following school-year scheduling and streamlining tips to preserve your important family time at home:
Designate a drop-and-go area for daily gear. Use hooks, hangers, baskets or bins. Create certain areas for school work, backpacks, briefcases and phones and set these up each night for the following morning.
- Label a tray or basket specifically for school papers that need to be seen or signed by a parent.
- Create a central homework location and keep it stocked with school supplies.
- Keep the kitchen table free. Use only for meals and family meetings.
- Each night, set up breakfast, lunches and clothing for the following day.
- To help kids pick out their own outfits, make sure clothing is within reach and pre-match items ahead of time.
- For packed lunches, buy large quantities of often-used foods like chips or fruits and pre-bag them on Sunday for the week.
- Teach kids to pack their own lunches but keep staples on hand along with a list of options like tortilla wraps or biscuit sandwiches.
- For older children, set the family up with a smart phone app that links to a common household grocery list so family members can note items when they run out.
- Use a family calendar to keep up with activities and project due dates.
- Print an official school calendar from your school’s web site and mark scheduled holidays and early-release days on the family calendar to prevent surprises.
What does your family do to stay organized throughout the school year? Share your tips and hints here.