Arsenic hour and toddler meltdowns

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Arsenic hour is that late afternoon time period where the short people in the household tend to have their meltdowns. Slightly hungry in the lead-up to dinner, tired from a day full of stimulation and unable to display the self-control necessary for “keeping it together” until dinner is served, young children (especially toddlers) tend to struggle during this time and easily tip over the edge. So how can we, as Mothers of young ones, structure our day to minimise the conflict and stress that is often experienced during arsenic hour?

Start by looking at your overall day. Who is in charge? You or your child? Who is making all the choices? Evaluate your overall day in light of this and see if some or much of the conflict is simply caused by you trying to get a reluctant toddler to do something they do not want to do after making their own decisions for the majority of the day. (See “choices” for a fuller explanation.)

Look at your routine. Do you have a flexible structure to the day with a good flow of events? It should include a mixture of time with Mum, time with siblings and time alone, physical activity, quiet time, structured play times etc. (See “routines” for ideas of what to include throughout your day.)

What time are you serving dinner? Are you expecting your young child to wait until Dad comes home in the late evening and trying to feed them when what they really need is to be getting into bed? Family meal times are a priority for us and very important, but if you husband is home later than is practical, consider feeding your toddler early and bringing them back to the table when Dad arrives for finger foods, a snack or a healthy dessert so that they can participate with the family. The bonus with this is that all your mealtime/manners training can be done on-on-one with the toddler, leaving the family table free from conflict.

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Bathtime can be difficult if left until after dinner. There has been seasons when I have bathed all the younger children at around 4.30pm when they are still coping relatively well and are unlikely to get into conflict situations. I can then pop them at the table, in the highchair or on their mat, with a suitable activity to keep them usefully occupied on a worthwhile task while I am free to finish dinner prep and serve them their meals.

Do not test your obedience levels during this time. What do I mean by this? Do not give directions to your toddler and expect them to obey. Rather than say, “Junior, go and get into your highchair please,” simply walk over to Junior, take his hand and cheerfully state “It’s time for highchair activities” as you walk hand in hand with him to the chair, pick him up and pop him in. When it is time for Suzie’s bath, rather than say “Suzie, go and get your PJ’s and go to the bathroom”, you grab the PJ’s and walk little Suzie to the bathroom, undressing her and plopping her in the bath. Don’t forget to give a 5 minute warning before making these announcements.IMG_7743

Having a good routine throughout the day, coupled with these practical suggestions will help make this time as enjoyable as any other period in the day.

Other posts you may find helpful:

Getting dinner on the table

Activities to make for babies and young toddlers

Playdough for toddlers – no biscuit cutters please!

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Hospitality V’s Entertaining

Are you hospitable or do you like to entertain? At first glance it seems like the same thing but it really isn’t at all. There is a difference between showing hospitality and entertaining.

Setting out to impress others, to have everything perfectly presented, to give a favourable impression – that is entertaining. Showing hospitality is bringing others into your home, making them feel welcome, comfortable and relaxed. Hospitality is sharing what you have willingly and joyfully. It doesn’t necessarily mean fancy or spectacular, but it does mean loving.

I have read several life stories from people who grew up with a crowd of visitors around the table for Sunday lunch. Their parents made it a habit to invite friends, family,  missionaries or travelling speakers, the new family at church, someone living away from family or an elderly person without transport into their home each week. I love the idea of my children being exposed to many different people and experiences within the safe environment of our home and having the opportunity to serve and show hospitality themselves to the extent that they are able. To hear the stories and experiences of a missionary at home on leave, to listen to a pastor talk about his experiences, or show friendliness to children from another family – what valuable and inspiring life experiences they would gain.

With a new baby and 5 other young children, I have to face the fact that having a mob of people around every weekend is difficult right now. Getting the house tidy and preparing a nice meal is not always easy to do. Especially if I am trying to entertain. But I can show hospitality. We can invite a family to stay for dinner after bumping into them while we are out, call someone for an afternoon drop-in and simply sharing what we already have prepared or have friends come back after church for a slap together lunch or even take-away pizzas to share at the park together. We can all show hospitality regardless of our situation and it is biblical that we do so – God tells us to do it!

When I really get down to it, most of the reasons why I do not show hospitality is because I am actually aiming to entertain. I feel the need to make sure the house is perfectly spotless, the dinner is fancier than usual (and complete with entrée and dessert) and the table-ware is coordinated. The children must look and act perfectly and for that matter, eat with wonderful manners. If I can take a step back and get past my pride, most of the reasons why I don’t go ahead and ask someone around can be quickly overcome when I simply seek to share life with others, rather than impress them.

Here are a couple of practical tips to help make hospitality more doable.

  • Plan ahead I try to have meals, desserts and fancy bread cooked and frozen that can be reheated when I want them. With the quick addition of a fresh salad, dinner is on the table.
  • Train the children to set up All the children can play a part in helping to set up. If they regularly do the same job for visitors you can train them to do it well and then simply ask them to do it with out supervision once they know how. Many hands make light work.
  • Have a house cleaning system Whether it’s a little bit each day or all at once on Saturday morning, everyone pitches in to get the house looking clean and tidy so that an overwhelming job is not ahead of you when you decide to ask people around.
  • “Visitors Coming” Scramble. Assign quick tidy-up the house jobs and practice doing them regularly so that when someone calls to tell you they are in the neighbourhood and want to drop around you can muster the troops and tell them it’s scramble time! Everyone dashes off to do the most important surface tidy jobs that make the house look vaguely presentable in the 10 minutes it takes for the visitors to arrive. That might be checking the condition of the toilet, cleaning off the kitchen table and bench, floor tidy-up or whatever else is likely to most need attention in your house. Even if the visitors are in the driveway before you know about them, you can have an emergency scramble. It’s amazing what can be done in the one minute it takes for people to get from the driveway to entering the front door if the children know what they are trying to achieve.
  • Train children to be hospitable. Teach them to ask visitors what they would like to drink, to carry a tray of nibblies and offer it around, write down tea and coffee orders, offer to take coats and bags etc.
  • Feed young children ahead. While we usually try to have everyone eating together, if the meal is going to be much later than usual it often works better to feed the younger children at their usual time. When the adults sit down to eat they can then choose a couple of extra fingerfood items or perhaps eat their dessert. Hungry, demanding toddlers do not make showing hospitality easy. If the meal I am serving to the guests is likely to be unpopular with the little ones, I simply have something else in reserve for them, even if it’s just toast. I try to make sure that the whole meal is child-friendly so that we can all enjoy it, but there are times we want to serve those spicy curries that I know the kids will not eat happily. I am not going to have a battle over food in front of company if I can help it.
  • Ask your visitors to help. In almost all occasions visitors are more than happy to help while you are getting the meal sorted out. Holding a baby, chopping up the carrots or any other small task is easily done and for someone who may be feeling a little bit unsure of themselves, it gives them something to do,  takes off the pressure and makes them feel at home.
  • Accept visitors’ offer to contribute to the meal. When we have a slap together occasion and people ask what they can bring, we usually say bread or softdrink or something similar, knowing that they can easily swing past the bakery or corner shop on the way over. With more advance warning, I might ask them to bring a salad, knowing that it’s the last minute preparation that can be difficult for me to do.
  • Visitor menu. Make a list of quick and easy meals (complete with sides and desserts) that you can throw together quickly and easily from ingredients you usually have on hand. That self-saucing pudding that takes 5 minutes to throw together goes on the visitor menu list and can be prepared without fuss at the last minute.
  • Have a visitor rotation. Perhaps designate one weekend a fortnight for family, the following weekend for friends, new people from church etc. We find family very easy because they are extremely relaxed, will help out when here and are happy to share whatever we would normally have. I still try to make it a little special, but when we’ve organised nothing ahead, I can still have family stay at the last minute with no idea what we are going to have and not find it a big deal. We’ve all made it clear that eggs on toast will do if that’s all there is! Asking people over every weekend (other than family) is too big a load for us right now.
  • Don’t forget date nights. Your husband should be your priority so don’t forget to plan special nights with him (See stay at home date night ideas here.)
  • Picnics. In fine weather, meeting other families at a park takes off the pressure of needing to get the house respectable. Picking up a couple of hot chickens on the way and making salad and rolls or many other very simple picnic ideas makes this an easy option.
  • Pot luck dinners. Having everyone bring a part of the meal is an easy way to have large groups around without the expense or hassle of cooking huge meals. Everyone contributes and all you have to do is provide the meeting place and accessories.
  • BBQ’s. An Aussie cliché but so easy. Everyone brings their own meat and we provide the salads. If many large families are coming, we ask them to bring a salad or dessert to share as well. I can prepare the nibblies, salads or whatever we need ahead and the men are happy to stand around chatting while they cook it on the day, leaving me free to feed a baby or look after the guests.
  • Small children timing. We find it easier right now to get together for breakfasts, morning & afternoon teas, or in the afternoon followed by an early dinner. Avoiding nap times and getting the children to bed at a reasonable time stops us having to suffer through over-tired children who are unable to get their responsibilities and school work done for the next 3 days.
  • Theme meals are easy to put together. A bring a pie night is fun (sweet or savoury),  soup and rolls lunch (I do soup, everyone else brings fancy bread and stir-ins for the soups), fondue (I do the sauce – including dessert fondue – and everyone brings a plate of food to dip), salad and rolls, make-your-own pizza, hamburgers, gourmet hot-dogs,  or whatever else suits your fancy and is easy to prepare.

Getting dinner on the table

Highchair time at our house – 3 in a row!

I like to cook for fun. It’s enjoyable to potter around testing new recipes and trying them out on friends and family. I don’t so much enjoy having to get dinner on the table at short notice, with a bunch of hungry, cranky children getting on each other’s nerves as we battle through “arsenic hour” as I have heard it termed. So, how do I get a nutritious and delicious meal on the table on time every day that will please everyone from the baby, right up to Dad? Well, to tell the truth, that’s almost impossible – with 8 people sharing a meal on a nightly basis, someone is bound to disagree with the delicious part! However, let’s concentrate on the nutritious and “on time” part. We haven’t eaten cereal for dinner yet, although baked beans on toast is the equivalent as far as I’m concerned and we’ve had that a few times!

There are some practical ways that I have gone about structuring my days and time so as to make this touchy time of the day run smoothly and happily for all of us and still have a nice meal on the table. Strategies have changed over time, depending on the ages of the children and what time my husband is due home, but here are some of the ways we have structured the late afternoon period that have worked for us in the past.

Flexible routine. Having a routine running throughout the day makes a big difference at the end of the afternoon. If the children have spent too much time together, especially unstructured time, they will invariably be at each other by the end of the day. A good balance of time with me, with each other, time alone and indoor and outdoor time, all work together for a smooth afternoon. More on routines here.

Feeding toddlers and/or babies early. I prefer it when we all eat together, but there are seasons when that is just not viable. The was a time when 4.45pm was like a “switch” for my toddlers. Happy before, exceedingly cranky afterwards. My options were either to feed them a large afternoon tea earlier (and have problems at dinner with them not wanting to eat well) or to simply give them their main meal earlier. When the rest of the family came to the table they were given some finger food or perhaps fruit or dessert to enjoy with us before moving on to a highchair activity while we finished up. This allowed them to still be a part of the family, I could focus on feeding them and training table manners away from the family mealtime and enjoy my meal relatively peacefully later on.

Baths. Everyone preschool aged and under (i.e. all those who require my assistance during bath time) are all bathed around 4.30pm rather than after dinner when everyone is tired and likely to be fractious and uncooperative. Bath time is then an enjoyable experience for all and bedtimes are not held up if I am caught up feeding a baby or dealing with unexpected circumstances.

Table activities. For around half an hour before dinner, all the children do highchair activities (some ideas here, here, here and here ), table activities (some ideas here, here and here), mat time (some ideas here, here and here), puzzles or books. There is nobody roving about getting into trouble and plenty of interesting activities to do. I am then free to get the last-minute dinner preparations done.

Sibling time. Sometimes the youngest children are unable to play independently at this time and need someone with them. This is when I assign an older sibling to spend some time with the little ones, reading them a story, playing on the mat with them, helping them with a simple puzzle or something similar. The eldest enjoy the responsibility and it helps build positive sibling relationships. They do not resent this time because it is not something they are required to do throughout the day in a random way or for large blocks of time.

Menu plan. Having a plan of which meals I will be making throughout the week is so important. Getting to dinner time and realising the meat is still in the freezer and trying to come up with plan B on the spur of the moment is never a great way to have a smooth afternoon period. Knowing what I am going to cook means I am prepared and can plan ahead, often using a few spare minutes here and there throughout the day to get some prep work towards dinner done. More on menu planning here.

Night time preparation. While I am caring for babies, homeschooling and looking after several older siblings, trying to fit cooking in during the day can be very difficult. There are usually several months after the birth of a new child when I do all my meal preparation in the evenings. And I do mean all. I set out breakfast dishes and ingredients and cut up fruit, bake or pull out frozen or pantry snacks for morning tea. I do all the peeling, chopping, grating, salad making or whatever other prep is needed for lunch. Dinner meals are pulled out of the freezer, ingredients are put in the slow cooker and veggies are washed and chopped – even to the point of putting the veggies in a saucepan of water in the fridge. It sounds over the top but, especially with the twins, I just didn’t have a moment to spare during the day. Being able to pull the crock pot out of the fridge and flick it on at morning tea time, knowing there would be a hot meal ready by dinner, was such a blessing. Even when things were going pear-shaped, I could throw a saucepan full of veggies on the stove as I walked past. Older children could set out prepared lunch or morning tea for everyone to help themselves if I was caught up feeding.

At other times, I didn’t have to cook at night, I used the time immediately after breakfast to get the dinner made. Everyone is fresh in the morning and it was a good time to get the household chores and dinner preparations under way. Now that I have older children to homeschool, this time is used for our more difficult subjects that require the most concentration, so dinner making is not a possibility.

Instant meals. For days when, menu plan or not, I have nothing ready for dinner, all supplies are frozen solid and my mind is blank, I am endeavouring to build up a collection of meals that are very quick and easy, that use ingredients I can keep on hand in the pantry or freezer without them going off and throw together in a matter of minutes. My rice cooker fried rice is a family favourite and assuming I have prepared my ingredients earlier, can be thrown together in literally 3 minutes. I haven’t timed it yet but I’m going to!! Ideas for nearly instant meals and pantry mixes are here and here.

Shopping lists. As an extra tip, shopping lists are a must to make life run smoothly around here. I have a shopping list pad with a magnet back that lives on the fridge. As I notice we are running low on an item, I immediately jot it down on the list. When I make out the menu for the following week, or check through the monthly menu, I add the items we will need to the shopping list too, after checking through the pantry first to see if we have what I think we have. It stops the random buying of stuff we don’t need and the irritating need to continually run to the shops to pick up one or two items here and there because they have just run out or I thought we had some.

Now the kids are older, they often come and tell me if something has run out or ask for small items like lead refills for a click pencil that we would never in a million years remember to get when actually at the shops. I also have multiple copies of a printed shopping list hanging inside the pantry. This list is all the items I buy on a weekly basis. When we are actually ready to go to the shops, a quick look down the list to cross off what we don’t need and to add the odd ingredients from the fridge list saves time and means we should get everything we need.

More pantry mixes; almost instant meals and snacks

Our latest blessing is 3 weeks old today and while my husband is still on holidays and the children are having a break from school for Easter I have been making up and trying out some more pantry mix recipes. I am loving being able to get a meal ready in a matter of minutes, especially when I’ve left it all too late to put anything fancy together.

My absolute favourite so far is the onion soup mix. I love dip made from a packet of French onion soup mixed with sour cream but I don’t like the additives and nasties that come with the shop bought product. This home-made mix tastes the same as the commercial version and I know exactly what’s in it. There are so many quick and easy recipes that use dry French onion soup in a packet as a base that I had previously crossed off my list that I can now go back and add to my weekly menus. VERY pleased with this one!

Another base that is used in a lot of quick recipes is cream of chicken (mushroom etc.) soup in a can. Another selection of easy meal ideas that I love for the convenience but haven’t been using because of the additives in commercial soup products.  I’ll have to play with the amount of water to add to the mix for cooking because I didn’t factor in the thin soup noodles I added to the mix (I wanted chicken noodle soup in a cup) and they soaked up a lot of the liquid and by the time I served it it was too thick. Taste was still good but a bit gluggy. Still a keeper though as I’m sure with a better water ratio it will be fine.

Layered soup mix in a jar (Friendship soup mix) was next on the list. Again, 5 minutes to put together and pop into the slow cooker. Taste is great but it’s more like a thick casserole than soup. We are going to use it to make stuffed potatoes, put on top of rice and in tacos.

We tried the butterscotch pudding mix and I was disappointed to find that it tasted like a bland custard mix. The kids still liked it though. The chocolate pudding mix is still a favourite but I won’t bother with the butterscotch mix again.

The last one I’ve tried is corn bread mix. So quick and easy; 3 minutes total! Add oil, egg and water to the mix and tip into a cake pan. 15 minutes later fluffy cornbread is ready to eat. This will be great in winter to have with hot soup for lunch. We had it buttered fresh from the oven and it was delicious.

There are many more ideas out there and I will explore some in the future, but I’m done for now. I have several containers of nearly instant meals and snacks just sitting in the pantry and I’m sure these will be well used in the busy weeks ahead.

No (or low) sugar snacks for kids: Morning and afternoon tea snack ideas

I do not remember why the children are eating cereal in their PJ's on the floor! There must have been a reason at the time!

My children have bottomless stomachs in the morning. It seems like the last bite of breakfast has only just disappeared when someone will be asking me “What’s for morning tea, Mum?” By the time I have planned breakfast, lunch and dinner meals, It’s a real stretch to think of snack ideas on top of that. They are however, very important to the short people I live with and they have failed to catch on to my preferred method of simply having an early lunch. Besides that, the general happiness level drops dramatically and seems to be inversely related to the hunger levels, particularly with the toddlers and girls in the family.

So, this brings me to today’s quest to make a list of healthy, low sugar snacks that don’t fill them up too much and take very little time and effort to prepare. I don’t mind putting in a little preparation ahead of time if they can be kept in the fridge or pantry and simply dished out as the children head outside to play. Even better if one of the older children can get them out for me as I am usually feeding a baby at this time. Otherwise, it’s got to be nothing more taxing than spreading a little peanut butter or it just won’t happen.

I would love to hear your ideas so please leave a comment. Fresh inspiration from other Mothers is always appreciated. Here’s my list so far:

  • savoury cheese crackers (recipe below)
  • celery boats (celery with peanut/nut butter and sultana sailors or cream cheese)
  • apple slices spread with peanut/nut butter and pressed into sesame (or other) seeds
  • juice pops
  • pikelets (I make a huge batch and freeze them in packs of 6. They heat up beautifully in the toaster if I’ve forgotten to defrost them. Nan’s recipe below.)
  • mini muffins (fruit based or savoury cheese and chives etc. I try to have a stash in the freezer already sorted into bags of 6 to whip out on the spot.)
  • mini cheese, pumpkin or plain  scones from bisquick mixture. (Baked ahead and frozen.)
  • banana and apricot bliss bombs (recipe below)
  • bliss balls (I haven’t tried these yet but they are on my “to do” list. They seem very healthy and it says they can be frozen.)
  • lettuce leaves spread with peanut butter, sprinkled with sultanas and rolled up. (Tastes better than it sounds!)
  • crackers with nut butter, cheese, Vegemite etc.
  • sugar free 4 ingredient banana oat bars
  • fruit salad, fruit kebabs or just plain ol’ fruit
  • veggie sticks (crudites) and dip (I love this and so do the older children but the toddlers don’t do carrot and celery sticks so well just yet! I refuse to serve 2 different snacks so this is out for now.)
  • trail mix (We can’t serve this as the toddlers can’t eat the whole nuts and certain other children’s tummies can’t handle too much dried fruit.)
  • air popped popcorn (We were given a popcorn maker as a wedding gift and at the time thought it a very strange present. It mouldered away in the back of the cupboards for many a year until we had a gang of children who loved to scoff popcorn. All of a sudden it became one of our favourite machines. Glad we kept it!)
  • plain rice cakes with avocado, Vegemite, nut butters, cream cheese, cheddar cheese etc.
  • toothpick with cheese and pineapple or olives and cheese
  • milk shakes
  • yoghurt (I use natural with fruit puree stirred through and maybe a dash of honey.)

Savoury Cheese Crackers
250gms tasty cheese
¼ cup butter
1 ½ cups sifted flour
Optional: (In dough) ¼ tspn pepper or chili powder, taco seasoning, pizza herbs, vinegar (salt and vinegar) plain or seasoning salt to sprinkle

 Cream cheese and butter in food processor.
 Add flour gradually and optional flavours.
 Pack dough into a ball (it will be crumbly)
 Divide dough into 3 parts and shape into logs about 3 cm in diameter.
 Wrap each log in waxed paper and refrigerate for at least 3 hours.
 Slice into very thin wafers, sprinkle with seasoning if using and bake at 180 degrees for 12 minutes or until golden.

Source: adapted from Recipe Zaar #108486

Banana & Apricot bliss bombs
2 soft bananas – mashed
8 dried apricots – chopped
1 cup coconut
2 tblspns ricotta/cottage cheese.
 Mix all ingredients.
 Roll into balls and coat in coconut.
 Refrigerate until firm.

Nan’s Pikelets
1 c SR flour (or plain flour plus baking powder)
½ cup soured milk (add 1 tblspn lemon juice and let sit for 15 mins)
3 tblspns sugar
1 egg
1 rounded tblspn melted butter

 Sift dry ingredients and mix wet.
 Slowly add the wet ingredients to the dry, beating with a wooden spoon as you go.
 Cook spoonfuls in buttered frypan over med heat.


Quick food for busy families: Pantry mixes and (nearly) instant meals

With an 11 day old baby in the house, time for leisurely cooking just doesn’t exist. As part of my quest to prepare for our new baby ahead of time, I have a fully stocked freezer full of meals. As much as possible however,  I am saving them for when my wonderful husband goes back to work and I have to face the reality of homeschooling and running a household of 8 with a newborn in the mix.

My latest find to assist with menu planning and being able to throw a meal together in minutes has been pantry mixes. This is a totally new concept to me but I love them. There are so many mix recipes that can be made up in bulk ahead of time and either stored in the pantry, fridge or freezer. When you are ready to prepare the recipe, the addition of just a couple of simple ingredients in no time at all creates a freshly cooked meal or snack.

Today’s lunch (in the photo above) literally took 10 minutes and that includes getting everything out of the fridge, making the cheese scones, cutting up the fruit and cleaning up the mess. My kind of cooking! Not to mention that they are super tasty hot from the oven. As I try each new bulk mix I will blog about the successes so today here is the link for baking mix (bisquick) which takes 10 minutes to put together and sits in the fridge waiting to be made into all manner of yummy things. So far I’ve only used it for scones (biscuits) but there are numerous recipes that use it as a base. (Scone instructions under the basic mix recipe at the “baking mix” link above.)

My other new favourite is a pantry mix for brownies. In less than 5 minutes I can whip up a batch of delicious brownies and have them ready for unexpected visitors, take them for supper when I remember an hour before I am supposed to leave or just make them for the fun of it. The mix itself again takes about 10 minutes to mix up and sits in the pantry waiting for the addition of 3 wet ingredients to turn it into fresh brownies.

Another great benefit of these recipes other than the time-saving factor is that my 8 1/2 year old is quite capable of mixing them up independently. The first time through I keep an eye on proceedings and from then on he is on his own. I slide them into the oven and 20 minutes later we have hot brownies.

I have a huge list of recipes to try that I am slowly working through. Last night I used one of my pre-prepared bags of seasoned rice mix. I had already diced and browned bags of sausages, bacon and chicken and put them in the freezer and stocked up the frozen mixed vegetable supply. We were out in the afternoon and arrived home with no meal ready, a hungry baby and 5 children who needed to get through the shower. All I had to do was dump the pre-measured seasoned rice into the rice cooker, fill with water, add a bag of cooked diced meat and a cup or two of mixed frozen veg and it was  done. Dinner was ready 20 minutes later with less than 5 minutes of preparation required.

We followed it up with some chocolate pudding from our pantry which looked and tasted almost exactly like Yogo from the supermarket “only better” according to the children who raved about it. This one required about 10 minutes to actually cook it (it requires stirring) and a little while in the fridge to cool it down and set but we went off and did our family devotions while we were waiting and came back for dessert. Delicious and definitely a keeper. It could easily be done earlier in the day and served whenever you need it.

I am definitely hooked on the pantry mix idea and will be seeking to have a store of breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack foods sitting at my fingertips for days when I just don’t want to cook can’t do anything else or my older helpers want to prepare a meal to bless us all (and get the rave reviews and pats on the back that always accompany their efforts!)

Routines with a newborn

We now have a lovely updated colour-coded routine on our whiteboard. Of course, the 8th person included in this routine is a baby that hasn’t actually been born yet so things may need some tweaking once the reality hits 🙂 It is however, a very useful exercise to look over my current routine and to plan ahead for the multiple breastfeeding sessions I will need to fit into my day and the interruptions that will invariably come with a newborn.

We will be (and have done with all our children) following a flexible  feed, wake, sleep cycle with our little one which allows me to make a rough plan of approximately where the daily feeds will fall. Of course, some days will not go as planned and we will often have to switch activities that are side by side around to fit a feed in earlier or later than planned. That is where the routine serves us and our family needs, rather than the other way around.

For anyone who is interested, I would be happy to email you a copy if you thought it would be of any help to you and your family. I have been trying to upload it here without success and am sick of fighting with the computer!

Other posts you may like:

Routines: Room time

Amazing things can be created in room time!

At around 18 months to 2 years of age, a toddler is ready to transition to room time instead of playpen time. Having said that, my two and a bit year old twins still have playpen time rather than room time for a number of reasons – space and lack of available rooms being two!  The following are some ideas for how to go about room time. My next post will help you to transition to room time smoothly. (It may be helpful to have a quick read through these posts first: playpen time, toys and starting late, choices)

What is room time? A time each day that is set by Mum when a child plays in their room (or a designated room) for a period of time determined by Mum. Do not confuse room time with a child choosing of their own volition to spend time playing in their room. This is a time chosen by you, with toys chosen by you (or a limited choice for older children) for the length of time chosen by you.

Tips for successful room time: 

  • try to arrange the room so that you can check on the child but they can’t see you.
  • start with 10-15 minutes and work up to longer time periods over several days. Even children who have been contentedly spending an hour in their playpen need smaller time increments to start with. This is a new freedom and you want to be able to praise them for their success in staying in their room and making wise play choices. Once the transition has been made and all is running smoothly you can increase the time again.
  • get the child started on an activity they enjoy before you walk out.
  • do not plan to use this time for the first week or so. Hover nearby, check on children frequently and deal with situations before they get started. Remember, the purpose of the short time period to start with is to finish while it is going well and praise, praise, praise! Do not be tempted initially to extend the time because it is going well and leave it until a problem happens – end on a good note.
  • start when you know you will be able to be home for a few days in a row
  • for young children, consider doing it through the weekend until well established
  • have it at a similar time each day
  • set out the toys you want a toddler to use or provide a limited selection of toys for an older child to choose from – not unlimited access to everything in the room.
  • introduce packing away from first use – demo, help, then independent. Have an easy storage system such as open crates. Sort toys out. One large toy box for everything not a good idea. Toys get lost, pieces are mixed up, toys are buried and forgotten and children can’t be bothered digging through to find what they need.
  • The success of room time depends on the focus and control that you are modelling and teaching throughout the whole day. A child who has too many freedoms and will not obey you during the day will not suddenly obey you when it comes to room time. Using a gate in the doorway can be useful for little ones during the initial transition and takes away the temptation to keep coming out. However a child who is not being trained in obedience will find a way to get out if they REALLY want to, despite the barrier.

 Toys:

  • You may like to keep room time toys only for room time so that the interest level stays high. Alternatively, toys can be sorted into crates for each day of the week or changed on a monthly basis.
  • Have a system in place to put the crates/boxes etc. into. A low bookshelf or cupboard that the child can reach is ideal. A few shelves that are out of reach can also be handy for those toys that are not for general playtime but are saved only for room time or for playing with Mummy and Daddy etc.
  • Clear plastic crates allow you to see contents at a glance.
  • Remove lids and simply have open containers that slide onto shelves. Remember, the easier it is to pack away, the more likely the child will do it without a fuss.
  • Sort toys out into smaller containers of similar sort (as children get older, toys become more complicated and have more pieces – mixing sets or kits with other toys makes it difficult to access.)
  • Do not store toys in draw-string bags, cardboard boxes with lids etc. until the child is able to manage those by themselves. If they have to ask you to take a lid off for them, they will be coming out of their room to do so and/or unable to pack up without your assistance.
Transitioning from playpen time to room time:
  • Put the playpen in the bedroom to begin with.
  • Use a mat or some other kind of blanket/carpet etc under the playpen that will become the designated play area in the room once the playpen is removed.
  • Have the toys sorted out and in the same places you will put them when room time begins without the playpen.
  • Take down only one crate at a time and say every day that this crate must be packed away before another one can come out – while in playpen one crate is all they get, so include enough variety to last the entire session. This means that later there should be a controlled amount of mess – no more than the contents of one crate should ever be out at one time.
  • Pack up with the child to begin with, one kind of item at a time, in a methodical way – remember you are teaching them how to pack up for all those times later they will do it themselves. Say out loud what you are doing, “First lets put away all the cars, now lets find all the books” etc.
  • Once the child is used to helping you, do some together then leave them to finish a set amount. No consequence for not packing up is needed, they are simply not free to come out until it is done.
  • If  there is a lot to pack up, simplify the pile into perhaps one or two kinds of toys – too many items from different containers/kits will be confusing and children often end up sitting there packing away nothing at all. For example, if a box of Duplo is out, along with books and a puzzle, perhaps clean up the books and puzzles for the child and require them to do only the Duplo.

Removing the playpen:

  • Explain that they need to play on the mat or other area you have designated.
  • Remind them of the toys that they may choose from – the same system you have well established while still in the playpen.
  • Initially, continue with the crate system. As children get older and toys become more complicated, begin to slowly hand over the choice to the child eg. you choose 3 items from the shelf, I will choose the rest.
  • Pack away most of the toys in the bedroom to begin with and only have out a few options that the child can choose from. More can be added later.
  • Remove any treasures or irresistible things that shouldn’t be touched.
  • Always have a set place for items. Teach how to pack away every toy as it is re-introduced back into the bedroom or a new toy is added.

Troubleshooting:

  • Try to ensure that household traffic is not passing by the door of a child who is having room time or they will be constantly distracted and more likely to want to come out.
  • Keep activities that sound like a lot of fun away from the sight and hearing of a child in room time. If they love to paint and you use this time for the older children to paint, it is much more difficult for them to be content knowing what they are missing out on.
  • In large families where children share rooms there may not be enough room time rooms to go around. If you are homeschooling and have older children at home, they could perhaps use this time to complete school work and have their room time at a different time of day. I prefer to have everyone in room time together so I get a break therefore we use almost every room of the house. Toddler and baby nappers go in portacots in rooms other than those they sleep in. Middle ages have their own desks and toys set up in separate bedrooms, including their own sleeping room and the baby room. The eldest is the most mobile as his interested are more portable. A crate with wheels makes his Lego set moveable and books are easy to pick up and cart about. Any other project is collected before room time begins and moved to where he will be. This may be the family room or loungeroom or even outside if the weather is nice.
  • Make sure that the toys are age appropriate, interesting and provide enough stimulus to last the whole time. Older children move away from just toys and in my household are given their own desk around the age of 4. We give them a mini set of drawers stocked with all manner of craft and drawing items, scissors, glue, construction paper and all sorts of bits and pieces and they have a wonderful time creating with these every day. Construction toys are pretty much essential for boys and good books are great for all.

Having room time for everybody every day leaves me with a chunk of time every day to recharge and gives the children a much-needed break from each other. They are often refreshed and in much happier moods when they re-emerge. Those personality types who crave time alone are rested and recharged and the more sanguine children benefit from learning to be by themselves and using their time in a worthwhile fashion. The projects the older children get up to are often quite amazing and the time is rarely wasted.

Building Focussing and Concentrating Skills in Toddlers

Patrice Walker was one of the speakers at our big GEMS night recently and she gave an excellent introduction to developing focussing and concentrating skills in our toddlers and young children. She has kindly given me permission to reproduce her notes here and while there is a lot to read, I think they are well worth the time. I have added links to further information or explanations from my blog posts as they relate to what she has to say.

Focussing and concentrating skills are habits and skills which are needed for a lifetime, as they affect all areas of our lives. An impulsive child who is always looking toward what is next rather than enjoying what is in front of them, becomes an unsettled adult, unable to stick with a single task very long. Whether it is in the classroom or workplace, this impulsiveness will often result in work that is poorly or incompletely done. This child or adult will be unlikely to achieve any personal sense of accomplishment or have the confidence to tackle bigger projects; they can be easily discouraged and give up quickly. We can help our children to use all the gifts and talents God has given them, if we help them develop the virtues of attentiveness and self-control.

So, let’s begin by looking at encouraging focusing and concentrating in the toddler years. What will help you most as a parent is to understand the need to manage the freedoms your toddler is allowed, and therefore, the routine and structure of his day.

We know that God has blessed our toddlers with an insatiable curiosity for the world around us. It’s so exciting to see a little one’s eyes open with wonder as they see something for the first time, maybe an ant moving along with a crumb… They lie down on the floor and watch it, maybe pointing with their chubby little fingers or poking it and making “gooing” noises. Very cute, right? Would it be so cute if it was an electrical power-point which had captured their attention? Probably not, and you would be justified in wanting to remove your little one from the danger. While we do not want to suppress the natural, healthy curiosity of a toddler it’s clear they should not be allowed unlimited freedoms to come and go with no guidance; to explore without limits or to touch without restraint. The boundaries that a toddler needs, however, go beyond just the health and safety concerns.

The best way that parents can establish healthy limits for their toddler is by making decisions for them, and setting reasonable physical boundaries. You should make the most of your toddler’s curiosity, by helping them pay attention, focussing and concentrating on what is best for them. That means Mums that you decide who does what, when they do it and where they do it. So you are able to make good decisions yourself, it is helpful to have some order and structure in your day.

It’s important to understand that a routine is meant to serve you and your family. It should give you the opportunity to make the most of the days that God has given us, to do the work that he has appointed for us. Having some structure and predictability in the day provides security for your little ones and helps you use your time effectively enjoying and training your toddler. There are many activities that can be included in your day which give healthy boundaries, use their curiosity and  attention, and will therefore encourage a toddler to focus and concentrate.

I will be explaining some of the activities we have included in our toddler’s days that are useful for developing these skills. Most of these I have learnt about from reading the Growing Families materials and observing the results in families we know who use these principles in their own homes, with their own children.

I’m going to begin with the activity that most toddlers have a “love-hate” relationship with – the playpen or room time. This is a time, determined by Mum, for your little one to have some time to play on their own.  Learning to play contentedly for a period of time without having someone there to entertain him is an important skill for a toddler to learn. Playpen time can be used from a very young age for short periods of time, initially only 10 minutes or so but increased over time, particularly as the little one’s sitting skills develop. We have used wooden playpens, a portacot or sometimes, when space was tight, their own cot. We have also varied the location, depending on the child and our home, but as much as possible tried to make it an area that is reasonably secluded from the rest of the family, sometimes even using a playpen outside.

Playpen time transitions to room time around 18-20 months of age, when the toddler’s room is usually used as his play area. For some toddlers, going from a playpen to a room can be an overwhelming freedom, so a blanket placed on the floor as a visible boundary may help your toddler transition better. I used a quilt my mother-in-law lovingly made for our first to line the base of our playpen and then used that on the floor of their room during room time. Again, beginning with short periods of time, build up the time spent in room time as the toddler develops the skills of focusing and concentrating on their toys.

My children have all learnt to enjoy their room time for up to an hour by the age of two or so. When children are left alone it is amazing to see how content they can be playing with one simple toy after another, undistracted by the other people or noises in the home. I have, at times, had to encourage our other children to leave the little one alone to enjoy their play! Don’t confuse room time with a free play time in their bedroom – your toddler needs to learn to play in his room when you, the Mum, says it’s time to do so, for the period of time you decide.

Playing in his room also doesn’t mean he is able to do whatever he chooses in that time. Mum chooses the toys which should be age appropriate, rotating them regularly, keeping them interesting and challenging. As we know, bored children quickly find trouble! I have found it helpful to spend time showing a toddler how to play with their toys during the day before using it in either the playpen or room time. I’ve also spent time learning about age appropriate toys and activities through books, the internet and talking to other mums. For a while we belonged to a toy library and this was great for exposing us to different toys that were often more educational in nature. They had a variety of toys and activities that were not available in the local toy shop or were beyond the range of our family’s income. It’s also great for those toys which little ones only use for a short period of time.  Another way we’ve found to keep the interest levels high without having to keep purchasing new toys is to swap and share toys with other families. It’s a good way to determine which toys last well and whether the interest in a toy is high enough to consider purchasing it.

It’s important to include some free playtime in your day. This is when your toddler has the freedom to choose what he plays with. It is still supervised because you decide when he is able to do it but it is free time because the child is making the decision about what to play with, based on his interests. This time should usually be short, around 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the age of your toddler. I have found it best to decide where the play is to take place and usually encourage outside play several times a day as it’s important for little ones to have the opportunity to get fresh air and use up some of their never-ending energy. I try to encourage my toddler to sustain his interest in his chosen activity by not allowing them to flit from one toy to the next, leaving a trail of destruction behind them. Limiting the number of choices helps with this. For example, we don’t have all the toddler’s toys out in a huge box to be rummaged through but have several smaller containers of toys both inside and outside. We also teach our little ones to pack up one thing before moving to the next, meaning less desire to “chop and change” and less cleanup at the end of the day.

A structured, focused playtime with Mummy should be a priority for toddlers. Not only do they need your supervision, they need your love and attention. I’ve found that making a time each day for me to focus solely on the little ones really helps them feel loved and secure. Some days the time is shorter than other days and the activities are almost always chosen by me. We might read, play with toys or a game, do crafts, bake together, do a puzzle or so on. I have found with some of our children that spending this time with them early in the day has meant they are more content to play by themselves later in the day. When one of our children was younger they were becoming quite difficult in the early evening, but I discovered that if I spent a short period of time focussed on them in the late afternoon that usual fussy time was much less likely.  This time also provides me with the chance to encourage an older toddler with their attitude or behaviour we’re working on. The Terrific Toddler books by Mel Hayde are excellent resources for how you can build happy, healthy hearts in your toddlers – very practical, positive and encouraging.

A quiet reading or “sit time” is another essential element of our toddler’s day. During this time our little one is either in the high chair, on my lap or next to me on a couch with a few books. Starting with small increments of time, this can be increased as the child matures. Your toddler can learn to focus and concentrate, to love books and to develop the self-control to sit and read what, when and where he is told. This skill can be transferred to many situations outside the home, while waiting at the doctors, queues at the shops and especially at church. We do encourage our toddler to read quietly but this is an enormous task for some so I have found it helpful to concentrate on training our toddler to sit still first. Then, when they can demonstrate that consistently, I begin to train them to sit quietly. Separating the two skills has really helped those of our children who are chattier by nature. I will sit with them reading quietly myself, praising them and in time they learn that it is a quiet reading time. Sometimes, I’ve found that beginning this time by cuddling our toddler on my lap, reading a story to them first or perhaps asking them to find a particular character in a book for an older child, has helped those who have struggled to focus on a book for more than a minute or two. I also choose a quieter time in the day, usually after lunch, as a toddler is starting to wind down for an afternoon rest, sometimes the early evening works well too.

Attending our library’s storytime session was helpful for me in our earlier parenting years. We had an excellent storyteller who had a way of captivating the children’s attention by choosing only the best children’s stories and using her voice to really make the story come alive. I learnt many useful skills that have made more confident reading aloud to my children and also how to help them focus and concentrate on stories and their illustrations.

The virtue of attentiveness is one that can be greatly encouraged by expecting and maintaining eye contact and a verbal response when talking to your toddler. The best way to teach this to your little one is to demonstrate it to them. Show you care about what they have to say by stopping and listening properly to them when you can. This may mean getting down to their eye-level or bringing them up to yours when talking to them or listening to them. When giving an instruction to a toddler, don’t overtalk to them, explaining in great detail every little thing that they are probably not going to understand. You do need to speak clearly and make sure you tell, not ask. This could be as simple as picking up your one year-old and looking him in the eye and saying, “It’s time to go play in your playpen now” and then carrying him there. I would sometimes have to gently but firmly hold our toddler’s chins to encourage them to look me in the eye.

Another activity which encourages focusing and concentrating is a high-chair or table time. I use the high chair mainly for younger toddlers and a table time for the older ones. During this time the toddler is directed to an activity Mum has chosen in a place Mum has chosen– the highchair or table. Simple activities that will hold the attention of your toddler that don’t require much assistance or preparation from you mean that you can then do other things nearby. I often use this several times a day after meal times and particularly during meal preparation time, as the little one is then not likely to be needing too much of my attention while I’m handling sharp knives and hot food. Good activities for younger toddlers include a few small cars or dolls on the tray or mat, magnetic shapes or letters, wooden puzzles, stacking cups and rings, container of pegs or similar to put in and out. For older toddlers try paper and crayons or pencils, felt boards, play dough or threading activities. All my little ones have enjoyed playing with various kitchen items, mixing bowls, spoons etc copying me if I’m in the kitchen. Again, I start with small increments of time, but gradually, as your toddler develops the power of attention and self control, they can sit and play for increasingly longer periods of time. My good friend, Ang Pascoe has an excellent blog which has an abundance of articles and examples of activities and resources to use with young children. They are mother and child-friendly with lots of photo’s to encourage and inspire. Her blog address is angathome.com.

A few other factors to consider when planning your toddler’s day include deciding the best order of the activities, the transition times and the gender and personality of your child. I’ve found it’s best to keep to a similar flow of activities each day. This encourages the toddler to feel secure in what is expected of him throughout the day. I also think it’s best to alternate activities that our toddler does alone with those that he does with me or other children, those that are quiet with more active ones, and inside and outside activities. Watch the transition times between activities – don’t allow your toddler to wander aimlessly waiting for your directions. I would rather have my little one in the highchair, playpen or a stroller for a few more minutes while I organise what is happening next, than have them getting into all sorts of trouble because I’m not quite ready. I have often played a game with our older toddlers where I tell them they are my shadow, so they have to stay really close to me, this is very helpful during those transition times. I think it’s worth noting that, as a mother of four delightful boys I know very well that God made them all different to each other and also to my two lovely daughters. Rather than compare them, I do my best to accept that God has made each of our children with different needs, strengths and weaknesses. I need to be mindful of that when I’m choosing their activities and training them to focus and concentrate.

Please be encouraged that while it is hard work, it is possible to have wonderful days with toddlers! They can learn many positive skills and attitudes through playing and good direction of their time. The skills of focusing and concentrating are ones that will affect them for life and influence the development of virtues such as attentiveness and self-control. If most of this is new to you, don’t feel overwhelmed but choose one or two things which you can begin with. The small GEMS groups are a lifeline for many mums, myself included, to encourage and equip us by talking through issues and sharing ideas with others on the same parenting journey.

Preparing for a new baby: menu planning

A new baby on the way always prompts me to think about the areas that will need re-organising to make life as easy to maintain as possible. A small amount of preparation now goes a long way towards surviving enjoying life with a new baby after the birth! One area that usually gets tweaked is shopping and menu planning.

Menu planning saves me time: I remember to defrost the meat the night before I need it, I can quickly do a little prep towards dinner when I have a spare 10 minutes and I am not flapping around trying to come up with something to cook at the last minute. It also saves me money: I only buy what I need at the shops, I use what I have before it goes rotten and I am not as tempted to go running out to grab take-away at the end of a hard day. We also eat a more interesting and varied diet rather than dishing up the same old standby meals every week.

I have a bunch of lists and planning proformers that I print out and use to do my planning. They are in Word documents so feel free to print them out and alter them for your own personal use. They are not fancy (most are in black only because I don’t want to use up a bunch of coloured ink every time I print them) but they do the job.

Monthly menu plan. The 3 colour strips per day are for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I do not pre-date the planner so that I can use it for any month without having to make changes. I simply add the date in the corner of each day as I fill it in. I do plan all daily meals, however menus are very flexible and meals often do not match the day that I plan them for.

Weekly menu planner.  7 day planner for all meals plus morning and afternoon tea.

Index for menu planning. I have listed all the recipes I regularly use under meal types so when I sit down to plan a weekly or monthly menu I don’t have to search through recipe books.

Fruit and veggies shopping list. I print this out, cut it into strips, punch a hole in each one and hang them from a string inside the pantry door.  We shop for our fruit and veg separately to our regular groceries and when we want a list we rip one off and tick what we need.

Weekly groceries list. Again, I print this out, cut it into strips and quickly tick off what we need before a trip to the shops. I also have a pad on the fridge where we write items that have run out or are about to run out, or new items we need to remember.

Freezer stock-take list. This stays on the front of the freezer. As I add an item, I write the quantity on the stock-take list (adding a “1” to represent a meal amount) and when an item is removed, I cross it off. e.g. mince 1 1 1, chicken breasts 1 1  etc. This allows me to see at a glance what needs to be re-stocked when I am planning my shopping list, without scrabbling around in freezer drawers. It also helps me to use what I have first, rather than double up or buy unnecessary items.

The other thing I am doing is cooking heaps of bulk meals and freezing multiple dinners so that I have a couple of weeks worth of meals for after the baby comes. I have also cooked a heap of foods (meat balls, pizza, scrolls, sausage rolls, quiche etc) that can be plopped out to defrost with some fresh fruit or salad added to make a complete lunch. These are all cut into single serves so I can defrost only what we need for one meal at a time. Morning and afternoon teas are also stocking up. Again, all cakes, slices etc. are cut into small individual serves that can be pulled out and defrosted in a few minutes on the bench.

I don’t necessarily use these frozen items for straight after the baby’s arrival as my husband has holidays then. When he goes back to work for the first time is when I love the stocked freezer.