4 Tips for School Breaks That Won’t Break YOU!

Are your kids off from school this week? Mine are! Our elementary schoolers are off this whole week. We had parent-teacher conferences today, and then it’s “Camp Krispin” for the rest of the week!

Anytime our kids are out of routine, we can expect the usual Big Feelings to get even bigger. I find that too much “together time” lends itself to increased sibling strife. Whining, attention-seeking behaviors, and general neediness increases with each passing day, and for good reason: kids thrive in structure and predictability. While “going with the flow” might work for you, I can almost guarantee you that it does not work for your kids.

Over the years, I’ve learned what I need to do ahead of time to ensure that school breaks don’t break me. There are four things that I start thinking about and planning the week beforehand to foster a flourishing family environment and help my kids (and me!) have a great break.

#1: I’ll say it again: KIDS THRIVE IN STRUCTURE AND PREDICTABILITY.

Having a Vacation Routine is paramount! Keep routines as normal as possible during breaks. If your kids have a morning routine on school days (and they absolutely should!), keep it as consistent as possible. Getting dressed, eating breakfast, and having some place to be are very helpful in maintaining a sense of structure and consistency.

In our house, routines are a big part of our lives. Thanks to Positive Parenting Solutions, I’ve learned how essential Morning and Bedtime Routines are, and we maintain ours whether or not school is in session.

As for our Vacation Routine, the day always has the following components: meals at normal times, the kids have to be dressed before breakfast, there is some kind of outdoor activity, there is some sort of indoor creative activity (often it’s painting or some other art/craft), there is some sort of afternoon snack, and there is a movie.

I recommend actually writing the plan for the day down and posting it for your kids! If you don’t do that, at the very least, tell them what to expect for the day, with the understanding that things might shift a bit. We emphasize that this is “THE PLAN” for the day, not “THE PROMISE.” The plan might change, but here’s what we’re aiming for. I promise you, it makes a huge difference when the kids know ahead of time what’s coming at them.

Which brings me to…

#2. HAVE SOME PLACE TO GO EVERY DAY.

I know it sounds like a lot of work. I love the idea of lounging in my pajamas all morning, sipping coffee and listening to podcasts. But that doesn’t work for my kids. When we do that, they begin to ramp up and then spiral down into super unpleasantness. Have some place to go by 10:00 AM every day. A playground, the zoo, a walk in the neighborhood, a movie, a museum, a hike, whatever — it doesn’t have to cost anything and it doesn’t have to be fancy or far from home. For us, a picnic and playground are part of our normal routine. It gets the kids up, out, and moving, which is so good for all of us!

#3: PLAN ACTIVITIES.

Sometimes my kids can “just go play.” But often, they can’t. I find that it is very helpful to have activities planned that will keep them creatively engaged throughout the day. Usually, I can dip in and out of the room when they are doing these things—I have to get them started and often have to pop in to help out, but these are things I can also be doing other things (cooking, cleaning, editing, etc.) simultaneously. Some of the activities I have planned for this week include:

  • Painting (I got these easels and these canvases from Amazon and will have a Painting Party at some point this week. Bonus is that these paintings will then become Christmas gifts for grandparents!)
  • Collage-making (I’ve been saving National Geographic Kids, Sunset, and other magazines for them to cut and paste. Bonus: this is great for our kids who need extra OT help with fine motor skills—woot!)
  • Sculpting. This one’s messy, so gird up your loins. But I bought clay like this at Michaels and the kids LOVE making things with it. Once it dries you can easily vacuum up the pieces.
  • Indoor Hide and Seek. This is what I bust out when everyone starts to really grate on each other’s nerves. When the bickering starts to peak, I launch a game of hide and seek. It is a sure-fire winner every time.
  • Board Games. Uno (OK, I know that’s a card game), Race for the Treasure, Outfoxed, Sequence for Kids, Settlers of Catan, and BINGO are some of our favorites.
  • LEGOs. I’ve become savvy to the fact that I can’t say, “Go play with LEGOs” and expect results. However, if I set up a LEGO party on the dining room table, with bins easily accessible and front and center, two of my kids will sit and build for at least an hour or more. I have most of our household’s LEGOs in plastic drawers on wheels. I can easily wheel them out and then wheel them back into the boys’ bedroom (where they live most of the time) when they’re finished.
  • Playdates! I find it really helpful to plan to meet up with other kids or even to host an additional child for a few hours to break up the monotony of siblings being together 24/7.

For the record, sometimes I plan all these things, and the kids start playing something totally independently (Spy Academy, Zombie Apocalypse, School, and Family are their favorite made-up games). But it is absolutely essential for me to have a plan in case they are struggling to play well together. Again, being off routine and having too much together time are often a recipe for our kids to struggle.

In fact, I can predict that around 3:00 each day, my kids will start to struggle. (They don’t call it “The Witching Hour” for nothing!) They will be getting tired, they will have been together all day, and they will be grating on one another’s last nerve. That’s when I have the most structured activity, like painting, or give them a movie while I make dinner.

And last but not least is…

#4 SET REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS.

If you have more than one child, it’s going get loud! It’s going to get crazy! Everyone is going to need to practice their deep breathing and mindfulness and trips to the Calming Corner—ESPECIALLY US PARENTS! This is when it is more important than ever that we set our intentions for the day and take time to pray and welcome help from on high. Our ability to model patience and restraint when the volume is turned up and the tantrums are turned on will play a huge part in how the kids handle their dysregulated moments. Being proactive with structure and anticipating (and planning for) the harder parts of the day will make all the difference.

This is how I handle school breaks and vacation days. How about you? What helps your family flourish when you’re off your usual routine?

Top Photo by Allen Taylor on Unsplash. Bottom Photo from my Instagram Feed.

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The Power of “Special Time” With Your Kids

My kids and I are in Virginia with my parents right now. 

Every summer, we come for out about four weeks. It started a few summers ago, when my husband was doing some major renovations on our house. We needed to be out of the house for many weeks, so we came to Virginia. My husband joined us for part of the time, but mostly the kids and I enjoyed summer at my parents’ house and came home to a beautifully renovated home!

One of the best things about spending this chunk of time with my parents is that, with their help, I am able to devote more one-on-one time with each of my kids. Whereas back in Seattle, I have to arrange for short shots of attention for each of my kids, here I can take them one at a time for longer stretches.

Today, I took my four-year-old out for lunch. We parked at a shopping center and I let him pick the place. We got our food and I let him pick our seats. He chose to sit outside at a little cafe table.

After only a few minutes of sitting there with our food, my son noticed a stink bug on the ground under our table. I would have totally missed it, but he spotted it and pointed it out. For the next forty-five minutes or so, we followed that stink bug as it crawled around on the ground and then, eventually, up the window of the restaurant. He and I would return to the table to take a bite of food and then head right back to “his” stink bug. We studied it up close, talking about it’s amazing little legs, and how fast it was moving and how cool it was that it could walk right up a glass window. We also talked about how cool it would be if we could climb up walls like a stink bug, or like Gecko (from PJ Masks). We laughed together and allowed our imaginations to go wild together. 

It was so much fun.

My four-year-old is the youngest of our four children. He has watched many children come and go from our home, and he has handled it incredibly well. But he has to share my divided attention most of the time, so these one-on-one times, which we call “Special Time,” are precious to us both.

I wanted to share this today to encourage you to do what you can to give your children small chunks (15 minutes or so) of your undivided attention every day, and to make arrangements for longer chunks (going out for lunch, to a movie, out for ice cream, or—one of our favorites—to a thrift store’s toy section) on weekly or bi-weekly basis.

When you do, keep these things in mind to make the most of your Special Time:

  • Look for ways to empower them (they get to choose the game, restaurant, seats, movie, etc.) 
  • Put your phone away and out of sight so you can practice “fully present parenting” (except maybe to take a photo of “his” stink bug!) 
  • Engage them in conversation at their level. Click here for some Preschooler Conversation Starters. Click here for some older child conversation starters.
  • Treat them to a small gift. Perhaps a toy from the thrift store or a coin for a candy machine. I routinely say “no” to those coin-operated M&M machines, so when I hand him a quarter and point to the M&M machine, you’d think he just won the lottery!

All children need attention, opportunities to be empowered and deep connections with their caregivers. But children in foster care need this even more. I cannot emphasize strongly enough how far this practice goes with kids who have experienced trauma and neglect! If you practice “Special Time” with your kids, I’d love to know what that looks like for you! Please share below!

5 of My Favorite Easy Vegetarian Dinners

I’m a big believer in meal planning. It saves time, money, and—above all—my sanity when I’m trying to feed my family well in the midst of parenting four children in three different schools, running my own business, and being in grad school!

Having a few go-to meals that I can either prep ahead of time or whip up in a heartbeat are life savers during our family’s busiest seasons. Here are five of my favorite vegetarian options:

TACO BOWLS (VEGAN).

When I tell my kids we’re having taco bowls for dinner, they all erupt into a cheer. My family loooooooves taco bowls, and I love serving them! Here’s what’s involved:

  • Cooked rice (white or brown). I cook large batches of rice in my Instant Pot and freeze it in family sized portions—usually 6-8 cups cooked. It microwaves well and is ready in about ten minutes or so.
  • Tomatoes, chopped.
  • Lettuce, chopped.
  • Cilantro, chopped.
  • Avocado, cut into bite-sized pieces.
  • Black beans or pinto beans. I cook large batches of beans in my Instant Pot and freeze them in family sized portions—usually 4-6 cups. I follow this recipe, which is delicious.
  • Shredded cheese (if you are vegan, Daiya makes a great cheddar flavored vegan “cheese.” I buy a lot of this when it’s on sale and keep it in the freezer.)
  • Taco sauce.
  • Meatless crumbles cooked with taco seasoning (optional).

Everyone gets a bowl with a scoop of rice. The rest of the ingredients are in bowls on the table. The kids love assembling their own taco bowls!

CHICKPEA STEW (VEGAN)

I can whip up this simple stew from the blog “Healthier Steps” in about ten or fifteen minutes. (I usually double the recipe for our family of six.) I also make large batches and freeze it, pull it out in the morning and it’s ready to heat up for dinner.

I serve it with quinoa, rice, or another grain (like farrow or barley), which I can cook pretty quickly in my Instant Pot or cook and freeze to thaw out in the morning with the stew.

My five-year-old daughter calls this her “Favorite Stew.”

VEGAN BURGERS WITH CORN ON THE COB

My favorite summer fare! We have some variation of this at least once a week when it’s corn season. I can make this meal in around thirty-five minutes or so. It’s a family favorite as well.

  • Meatless patties. We love these options from Simple Truth. I buy them on sale and keep them in the freezer. For a soy-free option, we sometimes use Carla Lee’s Nut Burgers. (Honestly, my kids are not as crazy about those, but if you need a soy-free option, that’s one to try. I’m sure there are others!)
  • Hamburger buns.
  • Corn on the cob with the husks on (one per person, or more if y’all love corn as much as we do!)
  • Watermelon, whole. You can save yourself even more time and effort by buying watermelon already sliced, but a) I’m too cheap for that, and b) it never tastes as fresh/good if it’s been pre-cut, IMO.

Turn oven to 350. Trim ends of corn husks and place them all directly on an oven rack. Set timer for 13 minutes.

Place meatless patties on baking sheet. When timer goes off, set it again for twenty minutes and place the patties in the oven with the corn.

Meanwhile, put the buns and condiments (ketchup, butter*, etc.) on the table. Slice your watermelon and put it on a platter or in a bowl on the table as well.

When the timer goes off, turn off the oven. Remove the corn and, wearing oven gloves to keep your hands from burning, remove the husks. Pull out the patties and place them either on a plate on the table, or you can plate the buns and patties individually.

BAKED PASTA (CAN BE VEGAN OR VEGETARIAN)

This is a great alternative to lasagne. It’s the same basic premise, but with a lot less work!

  • Cooked pasta (rigatoni works well, but any cooked pasta will do.)
  • Two regular jars or one large jar of marinara sauce of your choice.
  • Vegan meatballs. (I always have at least two bags of Gardein Classic Meatless Meatballs in my freezer.)
  • Ricotta cheese (if you’re not vegan)
  • Shredded cheese (asiago, parmesan, or mozzarella work best. If you are vegan, Daiya makes a decent mozzarella substitute.)
  • Optional veggies: mushrooms, peppers, zucchini, etc.

Turn oven on to 350. Place cooked pasta across bottom of a baking dish. Place vegan meatballs and any veggies you’re using across on top of the pasta. Place dollops of ricotta over the veggies/meatballs. Pour sauce over the whole dish, making sure to cover meatballs and veggies. Sprinkle shredded cheese over that and bake for about twenty minutes.

GRAIN BOWLS (VEGAN)

  • Cooked grain (rice, quinoa, farrow, barley)
  • Avocado
  • Sweet potato, baked in oven or microwave and then cut into bite-sized pieces
  • Black beans (canned or made in Instant Pot)
  • Chopped tomatoes
  • Other optional veggies: shredded cabbage (purple is my favorite), sprouts, steamed broccoli, spinach, sliced or shredded carrots, chopped bell peppers, black olives, artichoke hearts—the sky’s the limit!
  • Vegan Ranch Salad Dressing

This is such an easy and beautiful meal to throw together. It’s the same concept as Taco Bowls, but with different ingredients. Place 1/2 cup to 1 cup of a cooked grain into bowls. Place 1-2 T of avocado, 2-4 T of sweet potato, 1/2 cup of black beans, 1/2 cup of tomatoes, and any other veggies over the grain. Drizzle 1-2 T of ranch dressing over the whole thing. So simple, so nutritious, and so delicious!

These are simple, fast meals that I go to frequently during busy seasons of life. What are some of yours?