A “guide to winter break” is exactly the sort of thing I wish I had found, three days into every single winter break.
We know how to survive the holidays with our extended family, but do you know how to survive it with your own kiddos? Winter Break is right around the corner, do you know how you’re creating two weeks of magical memories and fun? And at least some semblance of sanity for yourself?
Some of us will treck off for holiday vacations or to visit family across the country. But for those of us “staying home,” the two weeks of winter break can be stressful! Here’s a guide to winter break and how to make it fun for the kids and you.
Sign them up for a class.
There are classes and camps for everything happening in the winter months and during holiday breaks. There are also Lego camps, cooking classes, dance camps, coding clubs, and passes to your local trampoline park (all great things to be asking for as gifts from Grandma and Grandpa!).
For moms of littles, register them for a day at a Park District Camp! Yes, these things exist and they are AWESOME! For an insanely cheap rate, you can send off your K-5(ish) kiddos (ages vary by Park District so check yours) for an entire day of crafts, activities, sports, and all kid things day camp. I do this for one day during the break but it’s a lifesaver. Plus they serve lunch and snacks!
If this is out of your budget, find a friend and do a kid swap. Have her drop her kiddos off at your house first thing in the morning for breakfast and holiday movies in PJs so she can have a few hours to herself. Then drop yours off later in the day at hers for pizza making (or ordering), an outdoor activity, a Lego building competition, or just more movies. Because isn’t that what we all remember doing for hours on end during our holiday breaks from school?
Make friends with local influencers.
Skip the “typical” event guides and recommendation sites about the things you should do. Most of them are just push sponsored content and make you scour through a yellow page-like listing of area businesses. I LOVE small businesses and am happy to support but no, thanks.
Instead, I like to make friends with Instagrammers and Bloggers who are moms and already talking about unique things going on in the area. And by “make friends” I mean, comment on a few posts and then send a quick DM asking for a recommendation. I reach out to those with 25k or fewer followers and ALWAYS get a response back. They are so happy to help!
Yes, this is a little more “hands-on” and may require you to sweat a little, but why not? You know that the fistfuls of chocolate chips you ate while baking cookies aren’t just going to magically disappear, right?
Go on a hike or bike ride together, explore a wooded area, find an ice skating rink in town, or even go skiing! Even in the MidWest, I can find some small ski hills within a few hours that would make for a great family day trip. And a cold-weather hike is an invigorating workout. If you’re local to Chicago, here’s a great list of some fun local areas to explore.
You could also create a scavenger hunt in the yard. If you have older kids, have them make up the rules and items to find. Reward them with hot cocoa and a movie snuggled under the blankets when they return. They can also bring the outdoors inside by building forts or setting up tents and sleeping bags and “camping!”
Hit the museum(s).
Museums are generally pretty busy during the holidays. But what I noticed with the larger ones is that it’s usually the ticket line that’s the biggest issue. The museums are HUGE and we rarely run into a crowding issue. The line to purchase tickets, on the other hand? YIKES.
Pro tip: buy a membership online before you arrive to skip the entry lines at the major big-city museums! Usually, this gets you straight to the front of the line (or at least in the shorter Members-Line). If you’re paying admission for at least two kids, membership is usually always worth the investment even if you only return once more.
Take a road trip.
Head out of town for the day to explore a new area. You don’t even have to go far. Walk around the downtown area, peak into the shops, have lunch or coffee at a local spot (even a different Starbucks can be fun). This can be easily turned into an adventure for little kids. Pro tip: start at a play space or local library and sprinkle in stops for treats and snacks. Can you turn this into a scavenger hunt?
I love taking my daughter to an adorable play space, Waterlemon, in downtown LaGrange and then walking through town, window shopping and exploring. It’s NOT close to our house but it’s an adventure to get there and then spend some time in town. During the warmer summer months we like to stroll through the neighborhood admiring pretty house and pointing out our favorite flowers. No matter the weather, we always end up at Blackberry Market for lunch.
For older kids, consider heading into the nearest “big” city. Surprise them by asking them what they would like to do and then do it! Or come up with something silly like trying three different deep dish restaurants in one day to determine who really had the best pizza in Chicago or heading to a park normally only popular in the summer (waterparks excluded obviously, lol).
Packing for a trip with your kids ranks pretty high on the list of “stressful mom tasks.” It’s right up there with juggling multiple birthday parties in one day or “two kids in two different sports in two different towns happening at the same time.” A capsule wardrobe can fix that!
Like most moms, I leave the packing of my own clothes to the very last minute and bring whatever fit in the space left in the suitcase. This means I end up wearing a hodgepodge of clothing that, while I like, doesn’t really look right together. Having a suitcase packing strategy can make or break a trip. But, before you roll your eyes and think I’m going to overcomplicate and Marie-Kondo-this for you, have no fear. The strategy doesn’t entail using packing cubes or putting every outfit into a Ziploc bag in advance.
How you put the stuff in your suitcase is totally up to you. But before you can get to that step, you first have to determine what you should even pack. The solution? Create a capsule wardrobe for travel!
But, how do you chose what to bring? I met with Meghann Vander Baan of MVB Style to shop my own closet and help me pack for an upcoming trip! Here’s where we started.
Think about what activities you will be doing on your trip.
This is a class MVB tip that I just LOVE: dress for where you are going! First, I had to identify where we would be going and what we would be doing on our trip. While my husband and I would maybe get a chance to go on a date, our trip would mostly be hanging out in a city-like atmosphere with the kids, sight-seeing, walking (a LOT), exploring, and eating delicious things. I didn’t need dressy clothes or shoes but items that made me feel pretty and put together but also comfortable and functional. So basically just like every single other day of my mom life.
Identify a few items you really love and make them the basis of your capsule.
Knowing the types of places we would be going and activities we would be doing on our trip, I started to pull things from my closet for my capsule travel wardrobe. I started with a long-sleeved leopard print dress, a long cardigan, a pair of moto leggings, a cable-knit sweater, and dark skinny jeans. These are pieces I regularly reach for already and know how to mix-and-match.
Except that, on a trip, you don’t have access to your entire closet. So how do you mix-and-match with limited selections? Here’s where a little time spent planning will make all the difference.
Layout a favorite piece and think about how adding an item could create a new look.
I started with the leopard Reese Dress, an absolute fave and closet staple of mine from Sonnet James. Using this as a base, I started to play around with different ways to wear it. It could be worn alone with heels for a dressed-up look or, on this trip with kiddos, flats or booties. I had at least 2-3 ways to wear my dress.
So what did I decide to pack? The long cardigan and moto jacket (more options to wear both below!), and a long-sleeved tee (easy to pack and takes up minimal space. ALSO, my pro hack, this can double as a pajama top after you’ve worn it out!). Outfits 1, 2, 3 were done! Now, rinse and repeat this process.
Back to the closet and the items I had pre-selected: Spanx moto leggings and a pink cable knit sweater. Together they made a great single outfit (#4) but I could repurpose both so easily too. The sweater would pair with jeans (#5) and the leggings were great under a sleeveless sweater dress/tunic. (#6)
The dress could be worn with tights and the long cardigan for a cozy and comfortable Outfit #7!
My final “must pack” piece was a pair of dark denim jeans. I have a LOT of favorites but ultimately settled on a high waisted pair from Evereve, The Barbara from Hudson and these black Spanx jeans! (Outfits #8 and #9!) Both would be a great staple that I could wear multiple ways which means they would make for lots of stress-free outfits on the trip. I firmly agree with the advice that you should have one amazing pair of jeans you LOVE and look amazing in. It’s worth spending the little extra on, I promise.
Identify the “filler” pieces you need to buy but stick to classics!
A quick jaunt to Target or Amazon will usually get you everything you need but stick to the classics. If you’re looking to maximize your space and bring as little as possible, this isn’t a time to bring trendy pieces. I found a great pleated sweater skirt in blackberry, from Target, which I plan to pair with a leopard tee and tall boots, adding a jacket or sweater to change the look (Outfit #10!). I may even try it over the leopard print Sonnet and James dress I mentioned above. (Outfit #11!)
Finally, think about the completer pieces you need (also an awesome MVB tip!) Usually, this will be a belt, pair of shoes, or jacket. In my case, I decided on a pair of black Nike Quest sneakers and a casual skirt that could be paired with tees and sweaters and tall boots.
Keep accessories simple and also classic.
Finally, when putting the finishing touches on an outfit, you’ll be tempted to pack ALL of your amazing jewelry. Don’t!
Pick a favorite pair of earrings that will look great with every outfit. For me, that means a gold pair of hoops like these or these. I’m leaving my statement necklaces at home (ok, maybe bringing JUST ONE) and choosing a thin gold one that also goes with everything.
Layout your clothes and set them aside right away.
This one might be the most difficult for me to follow but I’m committed! Once you’ve created your capsule travel wardrobe put all of the clothes to the side and leave them there until you’re ready to pack! You’ll be tempted to continue to wear your favorite dress or jeans but this will only cause you to rethink your choices when you have to gather everything up again.
You’ve done the hard work and thought things through, don’t undo all of your hard work! In fact, create a list of your outfits on your phone so you don’t have to think about what to pair together each day!
And there you have it. Mom’s wardrobe is officially packed in advance! Now you have ample time to tackle the second impossible task of packing for travel: limiting toiletry items.
I’ve given up entirely on weekend meal prep. It sucks up so much time and I find it really hard to focus after a week of work. The last thing I want to do on the weekend is to work on home or family “stuff.” I do minimal cleaning, laundry, and cooking and that’s exactly how I like it.
But we need to eat so, I’ve made meal prep one of my weekly tasks. But during the week. Especially with the addition of a monthly Friday Freezer Meal day.
The goal each month is to make about 10-12 freezer meals that I can use throughout the month. I pull one or two out of the freezer on a Sunday night and automatically have at least 2 dinners and several lunches set for that week! We usually have pizza on Fridays which leaves me with only two nights of meals to have to plan.
This week, I’m assembling five easy recipes and making two bags of each to give me ten meals for my freezer.
We often host Thanksgiving but, a few years ago, I broke the bad news to my family: we would no longer be making a turkey on Thanksgiving. Like EVER again. And, so far, skipping the turkey has become our favorite Thanksgiving traditions.
I waited for everyone to throw mashed potatoes at me but, to my surprise, there was a collective sigh in the room. “Oh thank God,” they unanimously chimed. “We haaaate turkey!” And henceforth, no turkeys have been had at our Thanksgiving table.
You see, we, like everyone else across the country, had been struggling with turkeys for several years, spending endless hours perfecting brine recipes (wet or dry? Bag or no bag?) and cooking styles (fried? Spatch-cocked?) only to be disappointed time and time again. Dry and overcooked on the outside and still a little frozen or too pink in the center. I don’t know if the turkey was entirely to blame each year but we’re no dummies. So each year, it was a lot of work with little to no reward.
The kicker was that we were buying GOOD turkeys! None of that Butterball “from the grocery store” peasant crap. Pffft.
No, our turkeys were read bedtime stories before slaughter. They were organic and free-range, pastured and cage-free, they were magical turkeys from special farms that hand-fed them gourmet food, etc., etc.. Read: they were expensive as hell.
I remember the last pasture-raised “gourmet” turkey we roasted and when I pulled the forever-plug on turkeys for Thanksgiving.
About an hour into the roasting process, the kitchen began to have a slight, off-putting smell. I couldn’t put my finger on it at that moment but it was sort of… fishy. I sniffed and sniffed and walked around my house like a bloodhound, trying to discover the culprit. Was it a spoilt sippy cup or a can of lord-knows-what accidentally hidden in a toy bin?
Eventually, it was time to gather at our table and enjoy the feast we had slaved over for days. We passed the potatoes and green beans, roasted veggies and cranberries, and carved the turkey into glorious golden pieces. I took one bite and immediately wretched.
My eyes are watering a little even writing about this experience.
It wasn’t exactly like eating a piece of fish but… well, it was enough. I couldn’t touch it and that night, $125 of turkey was thrown into the garbage. I was officially never cooking a turkey again.
You’re welcome little turkeys.
I’m not entirely sure how we figured it out, but my husband later discovered that pastured turkeys at the particular farm we bought from, a great farm where we routinely purchased other meat, were supplemented with a small-batch of feed that contained vitamins and supplements… that could sometimes make the turkey meat taste and smell fishy.
NOT thankful for that.
Now, you don’t have to have a dramatic FISHY TURKEY story to cancel the bird on Thanksgiving. But consider making the holiday your own. Are you just mimicking what everyone else is doing? Have you actually thought about if you like eating or making any of the food you’re serving? If you’re going to spend three days cooking something, might I suggest smoking a brisket or dry aging a tomahawk steak?
The point of Thanksgiving is to spend time with the people you love. To gather and to celebrate gratitude. The food can be important too as long as it’s something you actually enjoy. Serve sushi if that’s what makes you happy or start your own festive meal tradition (honey ham anyone?), the point is that YOU get to choose what is best for you and your family.
Looking back on the holiday in our family, I think we always sort of did our own thing for Thanksgiving. I grew up in a Polish family so Thanksgiving was always a little foreign to us. We never served pie or green beans or sweet potatoes. We had stuffing but it was made without breadcrumbs and there was never any gravy. We served Polish salads and pickled herring. Pierogi and sometimes even lasagna.
We would sit around for hours talking and eating until all the uncles were drunk and everyone had enjoyed thirds. And then out came dessert and we did it again. We never played football and barely paid attention to when someone finally turned it on. We most certainly never ran a turkey trot.
One year, I actually convinced my family to take a walk to the park after dinner. But as our family parade stepped out onto the sidewalk on that brisk afternoon and we started to shuffle like the stuffed turkeys that we actually were in that moment, I immediately regretted the suggestion. And it was never suggested again.
Growing up, our Thanksgiving meals weren’t gourmet meals. Most of the time they were barely even okay meals. But the day was always warm and full of laughter and we always went back for seconds.
If things are a little nutty for you this season because of the age of your kids, order the meal from a restaurant or host it potluck-style with family members bringing the major dishes. Serve take-and-back-pizzas from Costco and snuggle up for a movie marathon. Eat breakfast all day long and work on puzzles and crosswords in your pajamas. Go on a long bike ride (or sledding if you live in the Midwest like me) and warm up with a cocoa bar and hot toddies.
Turkey may be overrated but the memories of your Thanksgiving traditions won’t be.
The holidays are a lot of fun but can often add a lot of stress to life, even without the spirited family members you only see once a year. (Of course I don’t mean YOU, sister!!)
The stress is especially felt by moms because it’s basically our sole responsibility to create magical and momentous holiday memories that our children will remember for the rest of their lives. No pressure or anything but, don’t effing blow it. Faaaaaack!
Ok. Take a breath. You can do this! It turns out that it’s not that difficult to actually accomplish these said “monumental memories” and it actually doesn’t require a Pinterest degree, a trip to Michaels & Hobby Lobby (although those are usually pretty fun anyway), endless baking and decorating, insane amounts of gifts, biting your tongue at holiday dinners, etc..
Here are seven tips to keeping your sanity over the next seven weeks. Cheers!
1. You are in charge of you.
Repeat after me: I get to choose what we get to do over the holidays.
Say it again: I CHOOSE what we do!
If you hate turkey, don’t serve it on Thanksgiving. If you want to spend a whole day in your jammies with your kids watching movies, skip the party. If Christmas cookies aren’t your jam, make pizzas together (or hell, just order one).
Think about the fondest memories you have in life. What are the things that you remember the most about the holidays? It’s likely that your favorite moments were simple moments: Playing with cousins or siblings for hours. Wearing your pajamas all day and snacking on leftovers. Snuggling on the coach with your parents (who were also in their pajamas all day! Woah!). Driving around your neighborhood with hot chocolate in your thermos, looking at holiday lights.
Just as you would clean out the clutter in your closet, eliminate clutter from your calendar this holiday. If it doesn’t excite you, make you smile, give you peace, respect your family values, etc., JUST. DON’T. DO. IT.
You may be thinking, “That’s great, but Aunt Edna in Milwaukee is going to be REALLY pissed if she doesn’t see the kids this Christmas. We can’t skip that.” If seeing Aunt Edna brings you joy and isn’t a stressor, but all means. But if seeing her requires you driving all three kids up for an hour long visit and that requires you to leave another event (that you and your family really want to be at) so you can do that, maybe you could skip it this year?
That’s not to say, never see Aunt Edna again. But maybe you make a point to plan to visit her BEFORE Christmas so you can actually spend more time with her and not feel rushed. Maybe you could set up Skype for her so you could “visit” more regularly without the drive. Aunt Edna will miss you at Christmas but she will love that she actually gets extra time to see you overall. And if she’s still mad, well, she’ll hopefully get over it. You did the best you could do.
The point is, can you figure out a way to manage the expectations while staying true to what is important to you and your family. You are in charge of your life and that includes the holidays.
2. Schedule fun first
If you don’t prioritize your life, somebody else will. If you want to have a fun holiday season, put it on the calendar! When are you going to drive around the neighborhood looking at lights with the kids? Are you baking cookies over a weekend? When is that going to be? Do you want to do a movie marathon? Block-off the time. Otherwise, you will wake up mid-December wanting to plan some fun family time only to find out that you don’t have a single free day in which to do it.
Plan the (fun) work then work the (fun) plan! And don’t forget to share your calendar with your significant other or family members. Make you and your family the priority this season and don’t let others dictate how you spend your time. (See #1 above).
3. Plan for indulgence
I’ve said it before but it’s like Halloween officially kicks off “eat all the crap” season. I don’t work in a formal office setting and thank my lucky stars during this time. I would have the hardest time not indulging all day long!
In general, I think planning for indulgence is a great idea, but it’s especially true during the holidays when they could easily become a habit.
Take a look at your calendar and look at what’s ahead over the next few weeks. Are you attending holiday dinners with family? Office parties? Did you manage to snag that Aldi Wine Box Advent Calendar? (LUCKY!) Are you doing a cookie exchange?
Knowing what’s on the horizon, can you create a realistic plan for yourself. Is it realistic that you will attend your office party or a cookie exchange and not eat a single thing? Maybe. But if it’s not, come up with a realistic strategy so you can enjoy that experience without totally jumping off the goal train. Allow yourself to enjoy (and maybe even over-indulge a little) but plan for what the days leading up to and immediately after that indulgence will look like.
Maybe you go the party in the week having already eaten a full (healthy) meal so you indulge less and maybe just enjoy some sweet treats and cocktails. Maybe during the week leading up to the party, you eat clean and eliminate sugar. And, in the days following the party, do the same. Also, put that plan in your calendar!
Maybe you amp up your workouts a little bit (or at least don’t stop doing what you’re already doing!). You don’t have to join a gym but find a way to be active everyday. Take a walk during your lunch break, run around your neighborhood a few times a week, stream a workout video or find a free app for your phone. You could even do a few basic movements (squats, leg lifts, side bends, ab contractions, etc.) while standing in line at the grocery store or waiting to pick up kids from dance practice. Just do something. (See #1, again, about YOU being in control of YOU). And don’t forget to drink a little extra water during this season as well.
The (good AND bad) little choices you make every day add up. Even small things like skipping the whipped cream on a holiday coffee drink, parking farther away from the store, or eating before the party, can make a big impact by December 31.
4. Keep it simple, Martha Stewart.
Buy it in a box, friend. I’m terrible at baking. Too much science and measuring and all the things. Also, my husband and I have zero self-control so I try to keep anything that’s warm and sweet and delicious from ever coming out of my oven or remaining in my house for too long. I swear that we will eat it all before it cools and gets put away.
But I think decorating cookies is fun and my kids love doing it. So I keep it simple. I buy a mix or the “slice and bake” at Target and let the kids bake away. The same goes for elaborate meals. There’s an amazing restaurant in my town (actually several!) that will cook an entire holiday dinner for you to take home and serve piping hot. All you have to do is pick it up, although some probably even deliver. Mind. Blown. I have a 22-month old baby plus two boys that roll around my house like puppies the second I step into the kitchen, no wonder it takes me a week to prepare a holiday meal. SKIP IT SISTER. Order out.
You could even make it a pot-luck. People LOVE bringing their “grandma’s-favorite-secret-special-must-have-on-thanksgiving-christmas-new-year” dish. Let them! (Just make sure they take it with them when they leave, you don’t want all that extra tupperware cluttering your house and good luck returning it to them before Easter).
This also applies to things you have to bring to a party. Hit up the deli at Whole Foods, snag a take-and-bake pizza from Costco, or use my super-secret-crowd-pleasing-two-minutes-to-make “cream cheese + pepper jelly” appetizer recipe. You get the point. It doesn’t all have to be homemade and Pinterest-worthy.
5. Make lists.
List-makers are giving me a major eye roll right now. Duh, a list. Of course we have a list. But here are a few lists you might not have thought about that can help you survive the holidays:
A list of where you’re hiding presents. While “lost presents” sure do help you get a jump start on the next year’s shopping, it’s probably better to avoid losing them in the first place.
A list of people you’re buying gifts for and what you’re buying (include links if you’re shopping online). Helps you stick to a budget and actually think about each person BEFORE you hit the store. Otherwise it’s like going to the grocery store at 5pm without a list or plan for dinner. You wander aimlessly around and everybody ends up with ugly slippers from Kohl’s. Make a list!
A list of holiday parties where you will have to bring something (white elephant gift, bottle of wine, or an app?). Do you have to bake a dessert? Schedule that in your calendar a few days in advance. Or put it on your “to buy” list when you’re at the store the next time. This list also helps prevent you and your husband from showing up to an “ugly sweater party” that’s actually the following weekend. Not that I’ve ever done that.
A list of coupons and coupon codes that you may use and their expiration dates! It’s also a good idea to calendar those expiration dates in your phone or planner. I can’t tell you the number of times I went to buy the holiday cards online only to be a day or two past the “major sale” date. Sad face.
A list of your holiday decor. This is a list you should make after the holidays because it helps you take inventory of what you have and what you might want to buy next year (or on clearance in January). Maybe you need more artificial tress (I have seven, I’m obsessed) or new ornaments, etc.. If you don’t take inventory at the end of the season you’ll be guessing when you try to make purchases later.
I like to keep a notebook in my purse just for my lists. Some days they are for grocery lists, other days school reminders, and now, during the holidays, entire chapters devoted to holiday planning and preparation. Make the lists customized to you and your life and you’ll see how much they help you survive these holidays.
6. Give yourself a pep talk
For some, the holidays mean stressful and anxiety-inducing family gatherings. And sometimes, you just can’t say no to the “Aunt Ednas” because they are actually your mom or sister or father-in-law and it’s guaranteed that you’re seeing them at the family dinner.
In those cases, I think the best thing to do is to take some time a few days before the event to prepare yourself for the interaction. Can you role-play scenarios with your spouse about how you’ll respond to topics or conversations you know might set that family member off? Can you meditate before hand to clear your mind and put yourself in a calmer and more peaceful state of mind? Can you create a game plan for that moment when you start to feel yourself getting upset or provoked? I find that a huge smile and saying “that’s a great point! Will you please excuse me while I …see if anyone in the kitchen needs help/refresh my glass of wine/use the restroom/getthefuckoutofhereasfastasIcan” is usually enough to deflate the situation, calm me down, and get me far enough away from the toxic conversation so I can collect myself.
Obviously, this doesn’t always work and can be exceptionally more difficult where there is trauma or deeper issues at play. But, if you can just remember that you can only control yourself and your own reaction in a situation, you may prevent the situation from ever coming up or be just better prepared for when it does.
If all else fails, pour yourself another glass of wine and go hang out with the kids in the playroom.
7. Find time for yourself.
Is this even a blog about self-care if I don’t tell you to find some time during this beautiful and special time to stop, breathe, and look around at all of the magic around you? All of the gifts and experiences and cookie and parties are for naught if these next seven weeks fly past in a total blur.
Look at the excitement on your kids’ faces when it snow for the first time. Breathe in that delicious aroma as you cook something special for your family. Hold your partners hand and snuggle up a little as you walk together. Sit by the fire at your house (or at Barnes & Noble if you need to get the hell out of your house) with some cocoa and a good book. Don’t stop doing the things you love.
It’s going to take a little effort and some planning but an incredible holiday season is within reach. Enjoy this special holiday time, mama friends. May peace and sanity be with you.