By Sandra Gordon
Getting yourself out the door on time on weekday mornings is tough enough. But with kids to manage too, it’s a recipe for multitasking madness. Besides getting them up, dressed, showered, groomed and fed, there are lunches and snacks to pack, teacher notes to write, permission slips to sign, backpacks and homework to gather, and socks shoes matches to find.
In short, there’s way too much to do, which gets compounded the more kids you have. Even if you’re organized, the best-laid plans can go awry, when, for example, your preschooler has a meltdown or your grade schooler wants to skip breakfast.
The good news? It gets easier as kids get older because they can take on more morning responsibility. The trick is to establish healthy habits and to get into a manageable drill that you can gradually delegate. What’s preventing you from getting everyone out of the house in the morning without going crazy? Here are top tips from mom experts who’ve found solutions to common morning time traps and sanity snatchers.
Time Trap: Searching for backpacks, mittens, coats, homework, your purse, car keys, your cell phone.
A.M. Advice: Create a staging area, a.k.a. “command center,” preferably near the door you exit from the most, for storing key items. A mud room is logical place, but if you don’t have one, “Make your own version,” says Allison Carter, a certified professional organizer. Carter made her command center near the back door with a bench, baskets, and wall hooks. On top of the bench go her kids’ backpacks. The hooks are for coats and totes, and the baskets for shoes. Mine is a mud room for outdoor gear and shoes and a butcher block kitchen cart in the kitchen for backpacks, lunch bags, homework and school permission slips. Yours could be a similar combination or even just the dining room table.
Within your command center, designate a spot for specific items so you and your kids can grab things in an instant. Then train everyone to put things there, as in: This is where your backpack goes when you come home from school. Your command center can also have off-shoots. Audrey Cohen, a mom of 7 and 9 year old girls, for example, stores everyone’s socks in a community basket behind her bedroom door. “It was my solution to one of the most frustrating parts of our morning: finding matching socks,” she says.
Sanity snatcher: You’re too rushed in the morning to get it all done.
A.M. Advice: Do what you can the night before. “That’s when you have time to think the next day through,” says Jen Singer, author of Stop Second Guessing Yourself—The Toddler Years. The night before, fill out permission slips, locate library books that need to be returned, write any notes to the teacher and have your kids pack their backpacks and take their baths or showers. Check the weather forecast and have your kids set out the next day’s outfits, too. You can also pack snacks, make your child’s lunch and set the table for breakfast. Also, set the stage for events that don’t happen every day. “My kids have piano lessons on Tuesdays, for example, so it’s their job on Monday night to gather their piano books and put them on the front seat of my car so I don’t have to remember them when I’m flying out of the house on Tuesday morning,” Singer says.
Don’t go it alone. “Get your kids invested in the process with age-appropriate tasks,” says Mary Robbins, a licensed clinical social worker. Your goal: To train your kids to eventually get themselves ready in the morning without much, if any, help from you. Your preschooler, for example, can pick out her own clothes, especially if you give her choices, and put her shoes and coat away. As your kids get older and better at each morning task, add another to the mix. Grade schoolers can also pack their own lunches, snacks, and backpacks. To make sure they keep up the good work, “Reward or praise them for acting so responsibly,” says psychology professor, Linda McKenna Gulyn, Ph.D.
Don’t bail your kids out if they forget something. “We have a rule that once a year you’re allowed to forget your saxophone and I’ll bring it to school. But after that, you’re on your own,” Singer says. Not bringing forgotten items to school lets kids suffer the consequences and teaches them to remember, she says. Use a white board in the kitchen as a reminder center or encourage your older kids to set reminders on their phone.
Time Trap: Your child sleeps in, which leaves no time for breakfast.
A.M. Advice: Get your child up earlier. If your child would rather sleep than eat, wake him up 15 minutes earlier to make time for this important meal. Studies show that kids who eat breakfast can concentrate more effectively and do better on tests. They also have healthier diets. “Breakfast eaters have a higher fiber, vitamin and mineral intakes and consume less cholesterol and sugar,” says Elizabeth Ward, M.S., R.D., author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Feeding Your Baby and Toddler. Meanwhile, emphasize how important breakfast is and be a role model. “If you’re not eating breakfast yourself, it’s going to be hard to get your child to value it,” she says.
The ideal breakfast contains protein—meat, beans, eggs, or dairy (protein contributes to satiety), whole grains (for fiber, vitamins, minerals and disease-fighting phytochemicals), and a fruit or vegetable, Ward says. Think oatmeal topped with almond butter and raisins or fresh berries.
Sanity Snatcher: Your child won’t eat breakfast because she says she’s not hungry.
A.M. Advice: Make up for it at snack time. “Anything kids eat before noon counts as breakfast,” Ward says. Just make sure the breakfast/snack is nutrient dense. A whole-grain bagel, string cheese, and a Clementine fit the bill (grains, protein, fruit), so does a hard-boiled egg with a small whole-wheat roll and an apple. (Boil eggs the night before.) Sorry, Goldfish crackers and fruit roll-ups don’t make the cut.
Go off the grid. Some kids just aren’t wowed by traditional breakfast foods like whole-grain cereal, whole-grain Eggos, or eggs. But, there’s no rule against having leftover pizza with a glass of 100 percent juice or even half of a turkey or tuna sandwich with a glass of non- or low-fat milk. “One of my kids eats homemade chicken soup for breakfast,” says Laura A. Jana, M.D., a mom of three and the author The Toddler Brain. But keep the general breakfast formula in mind: protein, whole grains, and a fruit or vegetable, so your kids still gets a balanced meal. Talk to them about what a balanced breakfast is so they can eventually replicate it for themselves.
Don’t be a sweet slacker. If your child will only eat sugary cereal or sticky buns for breakfast, she has been trained to know these treats are coming, says Ward. To make breakfast healthier, start cutting her sugary cereal with Cheerios or another low-sugar, high-fiber option. Look for cereal with less than 4 to 5 grams of sugar per serving and 4 or more grams of fiber and introduce better options, such as instant oatmeal made with skim or low-fat milk instead of water and dried fruit or a sliced banana or an apple. Also, stop buying tempting treats or designate a specific time when your kids can have them. “I buy very few sugary cereals but when I do, it’s served for dessert,” Dr. Jana says.
Time Trap: Your kid is a slow morning mover.
A.M. Advice: Establish a consistent and reasonable morning routine. “Although they might resist it at first, children thrive on structure,” Dr. Gulyn says. Make a morning-routine poster for your younger kids and put it in a common area, such as on your fridge. The poster should outline the order of tasks such as dressing, eating breakfast, putting on shoes and socks and brushing hair and teeth.
Use pictures to convey the message if your kids are pre-readers. Allow extra time. If your child still dawdles even with a set routine, move his wake-up by 15 minutes instead of trying to get him to conform to your schedule. Also, make sure he gets to bed early enough so he’s more apt to be up-and-at-‘em in the morning. “Children ages 5 to 12 need 10 to 11 hours of sleep each night,” says Dr. Gulyn. Preschoolers need 11 to 13 hours of shut eye.