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Time budget as crucial as your financial one

By KATHERINE SNOW SMITH
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 22, 2002

It is 9:30 a.m. So far today I have wrapped the teachers' presents. Then I made breakfast and lunch for my daughters. Next I dug deep in the dryer to find clean socks for both. I beamed proudly while watching my older daughter's Christmas play at school. Then I raced to my other daughter's school to drop her off 30 minutes late. Then I picked up a Christmas present for that same daughter.

When I arrived home I fed the dog, who met me at the door hoping for a walk but resolved to get nothing more than his breakfast two hours late. I now have an hour and a half to work before I pick up my younger daughter early so that I can get to a doctor's appointment at 11:30 a.m.

Not a bad morning at all, but certainly a hectic one. Even with my husband unloading the dishwasher, retrieving the backpacks from under the beds, and usually taking one child to school, it seems every minute of the day is packed with some task. And I only work part time. But the days won't be so busy next year you see, because I am simplifying my life.

My New Year's resolution is to spend more quality time with my family and less time stressing out about all I have to do. I think a lot of parents have the same goal. To keep this one big, very general resolution I need to make a lot of changes in day-to-day living. For more than a month I've been asking other parents what they do to cut back on all the extra things they do or to make the things they have to do easier.

Here's what they said along with some things I'm already doing myself.

Making meals, especially dinner, easier is a great time saver and life simplifier. The less time we spend preparing a meal each night, the more time we have for eating that meal together, doing homework, or believe it or not, just playing with our kids for some of that crazed 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. window.

My next-door neighbor has been getting Thai takeout every Tuesday night for several years. It's the same order every week, she calls it in as she leaves work and her husband picks it up on his way home. Not matter what, she knows she has one night covered with no preparation or clean-up to worry about.

Anything you can have on hand already made helps greatly. Some parents cook a casserole on Sunday afternoon when there's more time, then eat it a couple nights a week when there's less time. Another friend said if she takes the time to cook a casserole, she makes two at a time. It doesn't take any longer and then she has twice as much food ready to go when she needs it.

A few months ago I was outside with my kids drawing with sidewalk chalk around 6 p.m. This isn't as idyllic as it sounds: The chalk was pilfered from my next-door neighbor who was inside enjoying Thai food with her family, my husband was out of town for the fourth night in a row, my 3-year-old was crying because she couldn't draw princesses as well as her older sister, and I was dreading cooking some kind of dinner all three of us could eat.

My 5-year-old daughter had run inside when her younger sister started crying. A few minutes later she called out the front door: "Mommy, your troubles are over. I fixed dinner." Picturing a river of spilled milk and crushed crackers all over the house, I feared my troubles had actually just begun.

But to my delight she had three plates on the table with a slice of fresh bread and strawberries on mine and hers. My younger daughter had a yogurt drink sans strawberries because she doesn't like them. We all had little plastic bowls with a handful of cereal and spoons. The heavy gallon of milk was not spilled or even poured, but placed on the table so I could handle it. The best part was, the cereal box was put away. The bread bag was put away. The strawberry container was put away.

So we sat down and that was our dinner. Ever since then I've declared one night a week in our house cereal night; it doesn't get much simpler than that. It's not the healthiest meal, but once a week they aren't going to starve.

I've also freed up some of the time I spend cleaning up or getting my kids to clean up by hanging hooks all over our house. They are in both girls' rooms, the bathrooms, the playroom and the pantry. Even when the youngest of children can't fold clothes or manipulate tall or heavy drawers, they can work a hook. We use them for clothes, book bags, pajamas and more so it's easy for them to put things away and put them on all by themselves. (You can get a row of four or six pegs nailed into some wood at craft stores. I've found mine already painted at T.J. Maxx for $5 to $8.)

We all know that simplifying your life means prioritizing and cutting out stuff you don't have to do. Many parents say they let their children do one after school activity at a time. I dropped swim class and gymnastics in November so we would have nothing extra going on during the holidays, which are exciting and busy enough without extra activities. When we resume any extra stuff, it's going to be Saturday morning classes. You can find Saturday classes of karate, gymnastics, ballet, violin and much more at city recreation centers. This way, instead of cramming something "fun" in between school, homework and dinner, it can fall on a Saturday when there's a lot less going on.

There are ways to save time in the bathing department, too. One friend of mine takes the shampoo outside if her kids are playing in the wading pool or helping wash the car late in the afternoon. She has them shower with the hose on the spot. Other parents take a baby as young as 2 months old in the shower with them, which saves time and water. Another mom told me she lets her son pick one night a week when he skips his bath, which gives them extra time to read together before bed.

A lot of parents gain a few extra minutes each day by giving their children more tasks to do by themselves. One friend taught her kids to make their own lunches two years ago when her youngest son was four. They can spread peanut butter and jelly or slap ham and cheese slices on bread. They add a yogurt cup or apple, bag of chips and stick a couple cookies in a zip-lock bag. If they make it the night before she just keeps the packed lunch box in the refrigerator overnight. Sometimes they do it in the morning.

Another mom has her young kids make their own breakfast of cereal and fruit.

"But how do they manage that heavy gallon of milk?" I asked. Easy, she buys small quarts designated for the kids' cereal.

One sure fire way to not simplify your life is having another baby. But simpler isn't always better. The extra work I'm taking on in three weeks when our third child is born will be well worth it for years to come. But I will be taking three months off from writing Rookie Mom to make the initial shock a little more manageable. Thank you so much for reading this year, and I'll be back soon.

-- You can reach Katherine Snow Smith by e-mail at Oliviachar@aol.com; or write Rookie Mom, St. Petersburg Times, PO Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

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