Simplify Holiday Traditions

Simplifying Holiday Traditions - Under the Monkey Bars blog

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” But is it?

The holidays create so much extra stress layered on top of already busy lives. We search for the perfect gifts, decorate to the nines, angst over the perfect holiday card photo, host and attend numerous holiday parties. It’s exhausting!

The holidays always overwhelm me. I try to carry the sentiments of gratitude and mindfulness from Thanksgiving into December, but it’s not easy with such a long list of To Do’s.

I only started to feel the spirit of the holidays the other day when I snuggled up on the couch with my monkeys to watch the TV special Yes, Virginia There is a Santa Claus. You know that feeling that swells up inside you and fills you with hope and joy? There’s not much in our crazy world that does that anymore.

After the show was over, Sweet Pea was struck by the tangible example of how one person can truly make a difference — even a little girl. Virginia’s letter to the New York Sun impacted the whole city. One article in the paper lifted spirits, fostered giving, and created holiday cheer.

It’s amazing how hope can change us. At a time when our world is suffering from strife and anxiety, we must cherish every moment of peace and love. Seeing the world through a child’s eyes often simplifies problems. While watching an uplifting holiday movie will not bring us world peace, it can spark sentiments needed to create change.

As parents, Don and I have been through ten years of holiday traditions. Some traditions are fleeting and only last through certain ages, while others carry on from year to year. Our Christmas this year will be very different from our first Christmas as parents in 2005.

In the early years, we went overboard on absolutely everything without even realizing it. We’ve simplified our traditions so that we can spend more time together and feel more relaxed. We still decorate our tree, send cards, play holiday music, and exchange gifts. It’s taken me ten years to realize that the Christmas spirit will thrive in our home whether or not I spend hours upon hours preparing for it. Keeping it simple allows this time of year to be truly wonderful.

One of our favorite holiday traditions is the twelve books of Christmas. It not only fosters a love for reading, but it also builds our home library. I collect books for the girls throughout the year, stocking up on used books at the Great Old Book Sale at the Newburyport Public Library and buying the rest at bookstores locally.

We give each little monkey a basket of wrapped books as a countdown to Christmas. The girls choose one book per night to open until Christmas Eve. The excitement lies in deciding which book to choose and seeing the number of books in the basket decrease. We’ll curl up by the Christmas tree to read the new books together before bedtime.

Books have always played a large role in our holiday traditions. On Christmas Eve, we read Twas The Night Before Christmas in front of a roaring fire. I’ll never forget the first year that each of my daughters read the whole book themselves. It was truly magical. We cherish this Holiday tradition most of all.

This holiday season, welcome new and old traditions to foster holiday cheer without the stress. I hope your holidays are magical and the most wonderful time of the year for you and your family.

Kids Art

Kids Art - Under the Monkey Bars blogDesk + Hutch :: Pottery Barn
Desk Chair :: Pottery Barn
Task Lamp :: Pottery Barn
Office Storage :: The Container Store
Clipboards :: Target
Kids Art :: Bean + Sweet Pea
Wall Color :: Ben Moore Bennington Gray

Little Van Gogh’s create a ton of artwork. I’m always looking for a better way to manage, store, hang, and admire the monkeys’ masterpieces. Sunday it all came together and I finally managed to tackle the kids art situation in the playroom.

For $12, I picked up 6 composite clipboards at Target. I love how the natural color of the clipboards almost blend into the wall. There are tons of options for clipboards if you don’t like the composite. The monkeys absolutely love that we can quickly swap out the artwork. In fact, this is likely the 20th display we’ve created.

We also re-organized the desk since it hasn’t been properly cleaned since before school started. Our new system from the Container Store works really great so it didn’t take long to sort through a few paper piles and put away crayons, markers, and pencils that were in the wrong place.

I’ve had such an organization itch lately. It’s probably good timing before all of the holiday decorations emerge and the house becomes even more cluttered. In January, I’m going Marie Kondo on this house. Hold me to it!

How do you hang kids art at your house?

Halloween Traditions

Halloween Traditions - Under the Monkey Bars Blog

Our city of Newburyport is magical in October. The air is chilly and crisp. Leaves crunch against the brick sidewalks as you walk through the city streets. Crowds of people with hot beverages in hand pop into shops and restaurants.

Halloween is our favorite family holiday, mostly because of where we live. We trick-or-treated in Newburyport’s South End long before we lived here — even at the very house we live in now. With houses so close together, this city is the perfect place to trick-or-teat for kids of all ages. Little ones don’t have to walk far to fill up a bag of treats, not to mention it’s safe and beautiful.

My monkeys have learned over the years which houses are too scary and which houses give out extra special things. For example on Federal Street, there’s a woman who gives out balloons on Halloween night. As far as the monkeys are concerned, the house with the “Balloon Lady” is a permanent stop on their Halloween route.

What makes that balloon even more special is that you can’t eat it. My monkeys, like many others, have food allergies. They cannot touch, let alone eat, 99% of the candy they collect on Halloween because it could make them very sick or cause anaphylaxis. Bean has Celiac disease and a dairy sensitivity and Sweet Pea has a severe peanut allergy and a gluten intolerance. Between their different food allergies, we’ve never been able to let them eat candy from their Halloween treat bag.

You would think Halloween wouldn’t be much fun for a family with food allergies. I’m not going to sugar coat it; things were tough the first few years. But we’ve created our own Halloween traditions to make it safe and extra special for our little monkeys. I decorate the house almost as much as I do for Christmas. Our family takes a trip up to the White Mountains for some leaf peeping. We carve pumpkins, then bake pumpkin seeds and make muffins. On Halloween night, friends and neighbors come over to share a big pot of chili while the kids trick-or-treat and play in the yard together. It’s a simple celebration that makes these monkeys feel comfortable on a holiday that could be quite scary for them.

I’ve heard that people use the “Switch Witch” to trade Halloween candy for something else. Witches have always been a little too scary for my monkeys. Instead, I just trade them a party bag for their Halloween candy. This year, I’m filling the bag with natural allergy friendly candy, Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty, and some of the non-food items we give out.

Kids collect SO much candy on Halloween. Have you ever thought about giving out something different? We participate in the Teal Pumpkin project, which raises awareness for food allergies by encouraging people to give out non-food treats so that trick-or-treaters with food allergies can fully participate. There are tons of fun alternatives to candy like glow sticks, coins (mostly pennies), small water bottles, witch fingers, pencils, and erasers. Join me in providing a safer, happier Halloween for allergy kids by placing a teal pumpkin in front of your home and giving out non-food treats. There will be plenty of candy handed out on Halloween even if some of us decide to give out something different.  

Get out there and enjoy the magical month of October! What are some of your family traditions this month?

Lunch Box Love

Lunch Box Love - Under the Monkey Bars Blog

Bean + Sweet Pea’s lunch boxes from the other day: Grilled chicken, risotto made with homemade bone broth, honeydew melon, yellow peppers, and carrots.

We’re finally getting into a lunch making groove. After 3 weeks of morning chaos, we’ve got this. So I thought it was a good time to give you some lunch box love.

Whether you’re packing a lunch for yourself or someone else, it’s always an extra thing to do when you’re strapped for time in the morning. Some things can be prepped the night before, others not so much. Personally, I don’t like to make lunches at night. After dinner clean up, I’m kind of done. Plus, the monkeys eat their lunches better when the food is fresh.

Our lunch boxes are full of real, whole foods with nothing processed or out of a package. It’s not easy — but it’s worth it! If you missed it, read my post about cutting out processed foods here. It’s all about getting back to basics and nourishing your body with foods that don’t contain ingredients you can’t pronounce. Real food helps your body feel better and your brain think clearer.

I pack my monkeys lunch boxes with organic fruit, veggies, meat, legumes, seeds, nut butters, and whole grains. We try to keep it simple. The night before school, the monkeys look in the refrigerator to see what we have. They use a clipboard and pencil to write down their lunch and snack orders (seriously – it’s all about the clipboard!). In the morning, they help me with little things like peeling clementines, washing grapes, or writing each other notes (we use napkins!).

It has taken me years to figure out how to really pack a lunch box. It shouldn’t be this hard, right? I’ve finally figured out the secret: it’s all about the products! Here’s a list of things we love and use every day in our lunch boxes:

  • LunchBots stainless steel food containers are the best. We like their divided container (the new lids are awesome!), dip condiment containers, and round containers. The divided containers do leak, but work great for solid foods. Dip and round containers don’t leak. These containers last for years and are virtually unbreakable.
  • Try these silicone baking cups to line the LunchBots and add some fun colors.
  • Use a Thermos hot food jar for soups, mashed potatoes, and chili. While you’re warming the food, fill the container with boiling water. This helps to keep it hot longer. Also, be sure you don’t add an ice pack to the lunch box! Plan sides and snacks that don’t need to stay cold, like a whole apple or dried fruit.
  • Kids Konserve sweat-free ice packs are an excellent investment. We’ve used ours 5 days a week for the past two years and they are in perfect shape.
  • Kids Konserve food kozy is a perfect wrap for sandwiches. Gluten Free bread isn’t the healthiest so my girls only take sandwiches once or twice a week. These wraps last more than a year and serve as a placemat when opened. Think of all the plastic baggies you’ll save from a landfill.
  • Cleanwell pocket size hand sanitizer — because my girls eat lunch after recess.
  • Land’s End class mate soft sided lunch boxes are our favorite. There are so many lunch boxes to choose from and lots of them are fantastic. Land’s End has worked the best for us — especially for fitting in all of these containers!
  • Reusable silverware makes it into the monkeys lunch box almost every day. The girls love these sets from Pottery Barn Kids, and I love that they are dishwasher safe.
  • Lifefactory glass bottles are leakproof. We’ve had the same bottles for at least 4 years without breaking the glass and they look new. I fill the bottles with water because the only juice we drink in our house comes straight out of the juicer. Bottled juice purchased at the store has no nutrition and is full of sugar. Not the best choice for a lunch box! 

All of these waste free lunch products are non-toxic, BPA free, reusable, healthy for your kids and the environment. It’s expensive to buy everything at once. Pick up new products here and there, and always fill the lunch box with love!

How do you pack a lunch box? What works at your house?

A Slow Down Summer

A Slow Down Summer - Under the Monkey Bars

Summer is always a highly anticipated time of year for us New Englanders.

After such harsh winters, we passionately look forward to three months of sun and fun. At times, we put so much energy into making every summer the best summer ever — packing the calendar with places to go and things to do — that sometimes we forget to make time to relax.

Not just a beach day, but time at home to read a book or play a game together as a family. Everyone is so busy that plans and play dates can rarely be made on the fly anymore. Before we know it, September will be here and our precious summer will end.

How did we get so busy? Why do we feel the need to fill every box of our calendar? Why do we schedule every minute of our free time? And, most importantly, how does this affect our children?

As a society, we are so busy and, in my opinion, highly over-scheduled. It seems to create more stress than coping skills for our children. Kids can sense when we’re stressed, and it makes them stress out too. Taking time to recharge and relax makes you more productive and makes the monkeys calmer. Not only does it give kids time to use their imagination, but it gives us as parents time to cross off a few things on our never ending To-Do lists so that we can be calmer and happier…and RELAX too.

I’m a firm believer in a slow down kind of summer. A summer where kids get bored, and then create things to do. A summer where families and friends spend time together. A flexible summer where we feel like we did things we want to do. A few months with lots of open calendar boxes to fill as you go. To me, that means freedom and it helps me enjoy the time more.

But how do we make summer slow down?

I’ll admit that the first few weeks of our summer vacation were rocky. At times, my girls fought like they were in a ring. I questioned myself and the lack of plans and camps on our summer calendar. And even though I felt drawn to it, we really avoided television and electronics.

And then something magical happened. All of the tension started to fade away as I saw more frequent hugs, pretend play, side by side reading with intertwined legs, and little hands helping me in the kitchen. What changed from the beginning of the summer to now? Time.

All it took was time. Time to unwind and just be.

Sometimes it takes us longer to relax, and that’s okay. I’m not saying just sit in the house all day every day. Keep a list of friends to invite over for play dates, as well as museums and places to go for day trips. When you have a free day, take a look at the list together and choose something to do — or choose to stay home and build forts in your pajamas!

So far this summer, the girls have taken one 3-hour yoga class. That’s it. No camps this year. Not only have we saved some money but we’ve also bonded during days at the beach, walks to the Newburyport Public Library, time at the playground, or testing flavor choices at New England Ice Lollies. We’re really looking forward to Yankee Homecoming here in Newburyport this week: sidewalk sales, bed races, and fireworks. Not to mention the waterfront movies and summer concert series.

I know I’m really fortunate to be able to stay home with my girls and be flexible with our time. I truly believe that spending quality time together helps you become closer as a family.

This is what works for us. I’m not an expert, but these little girls I’m raising…I want to be with them. They aren’t doing annoying things to get my attention, because they have it. My girls are funny, sweet, and almost all of the time (nobody’s perfect!) a total joy to be around.

It may not be for everyone, but we’re having a slow down summer, taking time to relax, and enjoying every minute of our Newburyport summer with each other.