Packing for summer camp so a messy boy can keep it together

Say you have a son of middle school age. He’s smart, funny, and fascinating, but keeping his things organized isn’t his strong suit. Let’s call it a struggle.

How do you help a kid like this enjoy his first week away from home, and ensure that his belongings make it back with him?

Two things made our summer camp packing successful: a carefully conceived plan, and straightforward access to what he needed when he needed it with hanging organizers that provided great visibility and a primary suitcase with strategic compartments.

Rolo in bathroom - 1

Rolo bag: one solid solution for summer camp organization

First, I checked in with my son. Did he have any thoughts on how he wanted his stuff to be packed? Did he want to do this job? Did he want or need help?

Response: mostly crickets. He was happy to let me plan, and he agreed to cooperate with whatever system I devised.

Using a packing list

I adapted the camp packing list by cross-checking it with my usual travel list for DS. I also reprinted it in a format that I thought my child could reference more easily when he re-packed to come home.

The major improvements I made to the generic camp list were specifying garment colors (e.g., he knew to look for dark blue fabric if he wanted pants) and item location within the bag‘s various pockets.

DS’s jobs included:

  • check that everything he wanted to bring was listed
  • select items from his wardrobe that reflected personal expression (graphic tees, mostly)
  • carry the clothing from his wardrobe to where I was packing
  • try on everything I asked him to (he just keeps growing!) without complaint so I could confirm fit and appropriateness of individual items
  • pay attention to the walk-through I gave him about where he could find each type of stuff (information I also added to the packing list)

One large suitcase with strategic compartments

My first decision was to try to get everything into one large rolling duffel bag. Arriving at camp is fairly chaotic. Having only one item to keep track of would be best.

I opted for a bag with a flat bottom compartment beneath the more voluminous main section. All of his sheets and blankets (three warm ones suggested for northern Minnesota) could be compressed into the base of the bag. I made sure DS understood that he could unzip this one compartment and make his bed completely.

The boy can live in the same stinky outfit for a week if he wants to, but his parents can’t bear the idea that he might lie awake shivering every night for that long.

Providing trivially easy access to his bedding, his bug spray, and his toothbrush was my top priority.

Don’t sweat the small stuff: organize it!

Toiletries were organized in a large hanging kit bag made by Eagle Creek.

Eagle Creek kit toiletries - 1In addition to hygiene items, I opted to pack his flashlight, extra batteries, and pencils in this case. I thought he was more likely to find them here than to rummage through the exterior pockets of his large bag. Also, a boy his age doesn’t need many toiletries.

Small items are much easier to find against the Eagle Creek kit’s neon green and grey interior than in the duffel’s black nylon depths.

After those basics of health and hygiene, my next mission was to ensure he changed at least his socks and underwear every day. It’s camp. He can (and should) get dirty. My parenting job here was to help him understand the limits of how dirty (within socially acceptable limits), and how to keep track of it for himself in the woods.

Visibility and easy access to key items of clothing

Solution: our Rolo bag.

I’ve written about the Rolo bag before, specifically, for use in the limited confines of an Amtrak train sleeper compartment.

Camp has a couple of similarities. Space is limited with kids filling bunk beds in small cabins. Stuff spilling out onto the floor can be easily lost, though it will be obscured by others’ possessions instead of mechanical equipment at camp.

Rolo rolled - 1

The Rolo bag isn’t large. Packed and rolled, it will fit within my usual carry on travel bag, a Tom Bihn Aeronaut 45.

I used the Rolo as an interior organizer within the big duffel. Trousers in my son’s size don’t fit efficiently, but it was ideal for separating socks and underwear (the two narrow bottom sections) from t-shirts (middle) and camp-appropriate insect repellent/UV blocking shirts (top section.)

Once his cabin was assigned and found, DS only needed to unzip the duffel, take out and unroll the Rolo bag, and hang it in the locker-sized cubby assigned to him. He could easily find fresh next-to-the-body clothes each day. Visible through the mesh fronts of the pockets, he also had a reminder of the most important items to change.

Packing cubes keep clean clothes at the ready

I used packing cubes for the rest of his things: trousers and shorts, warm layers, accessories. He never took out his swimwear or “dress up” outfit, but he did wear the rest of his clean pants. He found his rainwear when he needed it.

From a mother’s perspective, the way that we planned and packed worked very well.

After camp, I asked my son how this system worked for him.

Putting plans to the test in the field

It turned out that his bunk was reassigned an hour after I’d dropped him off. I had helped him make his bed and unpack in the first room, so he had to re-pack everything. He didn’t find it hard to get his things back into the duffel and moved across the campus on his own.

That was a great test of how well we packed, if annoying for my son.

My son felt the Rolo bag was the single most helpful item for keeping him organized. He would prefer to have all of his clothing packed using this (or similar) bags next time he’s on his own.

Since I also really like the way the Rolo bag packs, I’ve ordered a similar Red Oxx product to expand our hanging/rolling packing options in the future. The Red Oxx Big Bull Roll-up looks like it will excel at organizing smaller items, but I expect it to create a larger roll at a heavier weight due to the Red Oxx philosophy of seriously overbuilt products.

I’m looking forward to testing the Big Bull Roll-up, comparing it to the Rolo bag, and reviewing it here in the next few weeks.

Need vs. nostalgia: what do I really want to carry?

While the topic of downsizing, “right” sizing, or minimizing one’s possessions is a vast and multi-faceted one, it is also something that constantly surprises me by inserting itself into my life, unbidden. It isn’t always obvious where these questions will pop up.

I am not aiming for minimalism. I do recognize that I struggle with some types of possessions. Who owns whom? I also believe firmly in frequent self-reflection about assumptions, and modern consumer culture offers so many “necessary” items to question.

I examine my life. It keeps it worth living. (Apologies to Socrates. Sometimes I can’t resist the low hanging fruit.)

Today, we pulled the tent out of storage. We are prepping for upcoming camping trips, and I wanted a dry run, test-fitting the packing of some new equipment with the old. Don’t be surprised when I write about tents and sleeping comfort in coming weeks.

Amongst the random outdoors items on the camping shelf was a plastic shaving mirror with a hanging hook. Not tiny, but sized to view one’s face, I bought this mirror before my first overnight in a New England campground. If memory serves, DH and I were merely dating, and we went to a Connecticut state campground with some of my work friends. This would be about 20 years ago.

At that stage of my life, I owned a sleeping bag, but no other camping equipment. DH had a tent, I think, and we went to a liquidation/warehouse store to buy some outdoorsy odds and ends. We didn’t go with much more than a minimal structure (tent), sleeping pads and bags, and a scant few dishes and items for cooking meat directly over flame.

I didn’t want to have very much camping “stuff.” I had a notion that time outdoors could be spent with more joy and less unloading, and I wanted to do the experiment.

You see, I grew up going camping by my parents’ rules. Let’s just describe them as people who like their stuff. We went camping in our Volkswagen bus, and it would be stuffed to the roof with equipment for every eventuality. After my dad bought his boat, that, too, would be loaded to the gills.

Arriving at a campground meant being late (due to lengthy loading times), suffering whisper-yelling in the dark about holding the flashlight still while Dad attempted to erect a tent he couldn’t see, and discovering it is possible to put things in the “wrong” place on a tiny patch of land on which you’ve never before set foot. Setting up camp was stressful!

It seemed like there was probably a more enjoyable way to start an otherwise wonderful vacation, and I am happy to report that my way does work better for me.

Most of my simplifications involved ditching kitchen equipment, but, then, I don’t cook for pleasure. I didn’t even attempt to replicate most of the specialized equipment deemed vital for the camping trips of my childhood, but I did buy this plastic mirror. I’m not sure I’ve ever used it, but I’ve diligently hung it near the tent in every campsite since.

Today, I’m wondering why? Why the mirror, in particular?

Mirror camp - 1Because we always brought a certain plastic mirror on my childhood camping trips. It would be unthinkable to leave it behind (it would need to be replaced locally if it weren’t present.) That was (and is) my parents’ approach to their various habits of stuff. I think my dad used their mirror for shaving, but my husband has a beard, so no similar need exists.

Why did I buy a mirror, when I didn’t buy a small table, folding chairs, a Coleman stove, or so many other things? Why does the mirror still get packed, even appearing on my camping packing checklist? Why, holding it in my hands today, contemplating it long and hard enough to prompt the effort of a blog post, do I still think a mirror belongs in my camping kit?

I sincerely do not know, but, upon reflection (ahem!), it will probably continue to join us on all of our family car camping trips. It feels right, somehow, to include it, and I can’t see any harm in having it along.

When I approach minimalism, realize that I am coming from an upbringing better described as “maximalism.” There are some comforts gained by having everything at hand, just in case, and there are costs to that habit. I try to be aware of both, and weigh them appropriately for different situations.

Sometimes, some items are more accurately analyzed by feeling than thinking. That’s a problem when it leads to hoarding garbage and living amongst impassable piles of stuff, but it’s usually fine when it refers to a personal treasure providing a sense of abundance, or preparation, or even simple nostalgia for the beholder.

I’m going to claim my little mirror as the latter.

Do you have any “magical” items that you routinely pack for certain kinds of travel? I’d love to hear from anyone else who’s found such an unlikely talisman in their otherwise sensible packing list!

The ideal souvenir: evocative, a little frivolous, but not useless

Is a souvenir always a mass produced tchotchke made in China, probably being sold by a franchised gift shop sending its profits out of the community?

That’s common today, but it’s not the only form a memento can take.

Should I bring anything tangible home from my travels, or are memories sufficient?

I don’t have to; I don’t always!

Nevertheless, a well-chosen souvenir can whisk me from daily life back to vacation bliss in an instant, for an instant, if it’s something I wear or use.

Bring a piece of your travels home with you

The ideal souvenir for me is very probably different than yours. That’s okay—great, actually! I’m always ready to advocate for people to assess their own needs and wants and try to ignore cultural noise arguing for random consumption without self-reflection.

Know thyself, and consume accordingly.

I’m not a minimalist, however. I admire austere spaces with their stark beauty, but I revel in a home built up with layer after layer of color, texture, and conversation-provoking oddities around every corner.

I do strive to purge what I don’t need or love, but my heart is large and my love knows few bounds. My tolerance for stuff is high, so long as the resultant collection reads “joyful exuberance.”

But I travel often, and usually with my kids.

If you’ve ever been to a store with children, you’ve probably observed their magpie like attraction to anything for sale.

In a kitchen store, they want tongs for squeezing a sibling’s ear from across the room. In a pharmacy, requests roll in for pill boxes with bright colors or a folding cane because… how cool is that? You can pretend to be infirm, and then hit your sibling from even farther across the room!

My kids have lots of nice stuff, but I’m not a parent who regularly gives in to this kind of begging. We don’t impulse buy toys. If we like something, we make a note, go home to consider it, and return to make a purchase. I’m trying to help them ignore the modern siren call of instant gratification.

From their toddlerhood, I’ve made and enforced strict rules about how one behaves in stores. This includes the rule that we will abandon a shopping trip, immediately, if behavior crosses a line that negatively impacts others, no matter how inconvenient to me and my agenda. Asking once is allowed; begging is against the rules.

Still, they will sidle up and ask—usually politely, often bubbling with enthusiasm—at every shopping opportunity. Souvenir shops are places I try to avoid.

Souvenirs for the kids

My approach to family souvenirs is to find something that we can enjoy now (during the trip) and continue to use at home. In Hilton Head, we bought a folding kite to fly on the wind-swept beach. Now, the kite lives in our beach bag.

Travel board games or small toys that meet my usual criteria for quality have been picked up on other vacations. Ideally, it will be something tied in to the location we’re visiting, but sometimes it’s enough to recall a trip when we take out a game to play:

“Remember, we got this on that rainy day in Seattle. We played in the hotel lobby by the fireplace and ordered the pizza with the spicy sauce…”

Even a Lego set or mass produced kit can evoke a special place or time. The Lego Space Needle set was purchased at… Seattle’s landmark building, the Space Needle. A Lego set with a camper was bought, and built, during our stay at a rustic fishing cabin.

More often than I would expect, my kids remember clearly when and where a toy came from. Taking this approach has worked pretty well for me thus far.

It’s not a given that a new toy will show up on a trip, but it isn’t out of the question if a rainy day or a need for quiet time presents itself in combination with a fascinating kit or object.

Souvenirs for myself

If I’m strictly honest, I’ll admit to the occasional toy bought for Mommy, too. We might have picked up another modular building to add to our family Lego display during our recent road trip. It’s entirely possible that I assembled a Parisian Restaurant as soon as the vacation laundry was done.

Lego Parisian Restaurant - 1

Much more often, I’m looking to avoid extra stuff to carry home from a trip. Usually, I acquire an inch or more of paper memories. Brochures, maps, and books are weaknesses I won’t deny. But, unless we’re on a road trip and there’s lots of room to store things in the back, I find shopping bags and bulky souvenirs stressful.

I plan what I carry on a trip. It feels wrong—even dangerous—to add items willy-nilly whilst en route.

My most successful strategy has been to purchase accessories as souvenirs, or, less often, items of clothing. These are things I can wear (i.e., use), and, when I do, I’m reminded of where they came from. It’s like a self-powered generator for joy.

A linen scarf, sewn by a bearded man

linen scarf from Ohio - 1Wear the scarf? Now my neck is warm, my outfit is complete, and my heart recalls a wonderful shop run by two bearded brothers who don’t offer wi-fi but do offer a hand-crafted, multi-level indoor tree fort in the back of their cafe to entertain the kids.

The Well Lancaster OH - 1

Lancaster, Ohio eatery, The Well

The brother with the shorter beard? He made the linen scarf himself. Oh yeah, and they serve a kale salad that my children agreed tasted good!

I think those guys are wizards…

A purple leather bag proudly bearing Roots Canada’s beaver logo

My purple handbag? Made in Canada, near the urban Toronto Roots location where I purchased it. I only own two nice leather bags. I’m not a purse junkie. This one, however, was the perfect dark purple color, just the right size, and had exactly the arrangement of pockets I’d been looking for.

I saw it in the window as I wandered around Toronto’s snazzy shopping district, finding my way to a theatre for a matinee. I paused. I yearned. I went to my show, but came back and entered the shop before returning to my hotel.

It felt like fate. My memory of the acquisition plays in my mind like a slow motion falling-in-love montage from a sappy film.

I’ve never regretted buying this bag.

I don’t shop recreationally in my everyday life, so purchases like these become vivid memories. The tangible results? They’re wearable triggers to enjoy them again.

If I find myself stopping by Target for clean socks while traveling, that’s a failure. I’ll need to plan better next time.

But, coming home with an accessory, or a hand-knit sweater, preferably locally made?

That’s my ideal souvenir.

Fly or drive? Mode of travel and its impact on planet, wallet & joy

Are you a road tripper or a frequent flier?

I chose to drive from New England to northern Minnesota last month. Five of us were scheduled to attend summer camp there, so the endpoints were set: home, and Bemidji, MN.

I elected driving over flying for many reasons, but a consideration for my summer vacation’s environmental impact was on the list.

RoadTrip round trip mapYou can read the more conventional road trip story by clicking Part I or Part II if you want to know more about why and how we made this journey. You could also read about my carefully thought out wardrobe for the trip!

I live within reasonable driving distance of a major airport, so convenient flights abound. Minneapolis-Saint Paul (MSP) is four hours south of Bemidji, which also hosts a regional airport of its own (BJI.) The camp offers a fairly priced shuttle from BJI, and a costlier, less convenient bus all the way to MSP.

The particulars of this trip were not decided by availability of choices. We had our pick of several decent options, if we were willing to pay for them.

Environmental impact of flying vs. driving

Here’s an article from Yale Climate Connections that presents a pretty balanced picture of the complex question: is flying or driving better for the planet?

Similar discussions on the New York Times and at ThoughtCo draw similar conclusions: it depends, a lot, on how many bodies are in which type of car.

Calculators like those mentioned in the articles shine some light on how I assessed this aspect of my choice to drive, not fly.

For my van, with four to five average travelers on board, it’s pretty clear even before running the specific numbers that we opted a reasonably environmentally friendly mode of transport.

Passenger count varied from five (5) during the home to camp phase; four to six (4-6) headed from Minnesota to Ohio; and just my two kids and myself (3) for the final 750 miles from Ohio to New England.

Using the BeFrugal Fly or Drive Calculator for the first, best documented leg of my trip, I can estimate that I saved 4318 lbs of CO2, or, stated differently, that I generated only about 25% as much CO2.

A difference that great is likely to hold up in spite of the controversy about how some of the underlying statistics are generated.

Financial cost to drive vs. fly

As for cost in the traditional sense (dollars and cents!), it also appears probable that I made a better financial choice. That scenario could be very different for a trip involving only major airports where competition keeps prices down.

Bemidji (BJI) is by far the most convenient option when this camp is in session, especially for flights arriving the day of, or the day before, camp sessions begin. Availability is also quite limited for those popular flights.

I used airline miles to buy a rewards ticket the last time I visited Bemidji. The cash price was not one I would willingly pay to suffer in economy class.

The same BeFrugal calculations I showed above reflect as many of my actual costs as I could input into the tool—like actual airfare to BJI researched months ago during the planning process and my preference for a higher class of hotel than the calculator assumes—though some numbers were not user adjustable.

Once again, I’m confident that my actual cost savings were at least as good as the tool predicted. We made a few more frugal choices:

Coffee cup travel mug - 1

  • We carried healthy food with us and avoided overpriced “convenience” snacks.
  • We refilled our reusable water bottles (and my coffee cup!) at the hotel each morning.
  • Aside from one nice steak dinner, the kids actually voted for affordable stops like Subway for sandwiches.
  • I used Gas Buddy to plan fuel stops in the less expensive state when there was a choice, and I knew what a ballpark “good” price was for a given area.

Minivan as economical people mover

I checked the average MPG (as calculated by the van itself) after each of the three major stages of the trip. We averaged 26 MPG from New England to Bemidji, 28 MPG from Bemidji to Ohio, and 27 MPG from Ohio back home.

That’s spot on with published numbers for my van, and really admirable performance for a large vehicle that comfortably seats a crowd.

My typical MPG around town in the van is 18-19, but that’s driving in crowded suburb of a major city.

We needed to stop for gas about 1.5 times per day with that fuel economy. The human passengers required vastly more frequent stops to empty their “tanks” than the minivan required filling up with gasoline.

Gas prices ranged from a low of $1.98 per gallon to a high of around $2.50 per gallon at a toll road service plaza.

I didn’t leave my planned route to seek out the cheapest gas, but I did stop at Costco stations whenever they were well located. I prioritized convenient stops over price, but didn’t find any prices particularly onerous. They almost all hovered just above the $2 mark.

But, have I mentioned comfort?

Minivans are more comfortable than modern planes

We carried a full load of luggage in the back (up to the headrests, which you can read more about here), and each of us had at least a mid-sized “carry on” up front. We had a small cooler stocked with cold drinks and produce and a dry snack bag of equivalent size.

The kids were annoyed by my insistence that all electronics be invisibly stowed for every (shockingly frequent) rest break, but they didn’t have to struggle to climb out of the van due to cargo in the passenger area. Space in the vehicle was well utilized, not overstuffed.

No passenger was forced to sit with his body touching anyone else. Leg room could have been an issue with a similar load of tall adults, but it wasn’t a problem for a group composed of children and young teens.

Being kids, they often did touch each other, or sit with heads together, but that was voluntary.

All of this descriptive information is provided to make clear: all of us were seated more comfortably than we would be in a modern, coach class airline seat. Most of us had significantly more legroom and personal space than one gets in a domestic first class seat.

Convenience is another factor

I don’t want to give the impression that this was my only consideration when planning this trip. Modern life is complicated, and we all make trade offs between convenience, cost, and conscience.

In my case, every point I’ve made in this post up to now has been predicated on one simple reality: I had time to take this trip.

My primary work these days is caring for and educating my children. That means most of my time can be planned according to my own wants, needs, and preferences. Most of what I do, I can choose where I want to do it.

Even so, time was our biggest constraint for this road trip.

We couldn’t leave any earlier due to school schedules for some of the participants. We had to arrive at camp by the scheduled date and time. Without another driver in our crew, my health risked becoming a factor by limiting the number of hours in the day that could safely be spent on the road.

Family fun factor & reasons for sharing

Every time I write a post on Really Wonderful Things describing how I did something, it’s because I hope that information proves useful for a reader somewhere.

If I made a mistake, perhaps you can learn from it. If I came up with a clever idea, I hope it works for you, too.

This post is my attempt to break down how I decided to drive instead of fly to Minnesota with a group of four kids destined for summer camp. It also details why I think this was a good choice, environmentally, and economically.

The trip was also a lot of fun, almost all of the time, which is something about which I haven’t written much yet. That’s a factor—the family fun factor!—that really matters to me.

My kids are going to remember this trip. My temporary charges are now much better friends of mine as well as to my boys. We worked together and accomplished a goal. All of us learned something. We saw corners of America that were new to each and every one of us.

It’s hard to run the calculations for the value of the fun factor, but let’s just agree that it’s high.

Vacations can be the “busy season” at work for Mom

I love to travel. I also revel in the fine detail work of crafting intricate itineraries. Planning a trip brings me as much joy—maybe more!—as setting out on the adventure itself.

That said, for a stay at home parent like me, taking a vacation is often the greatest challenge of my “job.”Welcome Signs montage

I create opportunities for my working spouse to relax

After all, if my husband is coming along, he’s taking rare time off from his demanding career. One of the divisions of labor that we’ve agreed to, in our partnership, is my assumption of responsibilities for vacation planning.

Also, DH is a homebody, so most trips are my idea. If his role isn’t a relaxing one, he won’t want to travel the next time. My family would lose out if my husband just stayed home.

I believe studies that suggest there are health benefits to travel, especially when a trip is well planned.

The kids need to see their dad with fewer distractions, stepping outside his comfort zone, and with more time than usual to spend with them. DH benefits by seeing the kids blossom in a new environment.

Plus, I miss him like crazy when we leave him home alone.

I want to give my overworked husband a relaxing break from his daily stresses. That’s a loving gesture on my part because I like doing nice things for the man I love.

It’s also good sense for a spouse who doesn’t generate income. I am protecting our financial future by allowing the partner who brings home the paycheck to unwind a little.

My husband’s success is due largely to his creative mind.  He should also get credit for his hard work and specialized skills, but many people can and do work hard and complete advanced degrees. Few of them manage to push scientific boundaries in new directions as he does. A refreshed intellect generates better ideas.

OH hill - 1

View from the highest hill in Ohio within city limits

Parenting work is complex away from home…

Some vacations offer reduced efforts in the realms of housework and feeding the family. My favorite thing about staying in a hotel is walking into an immaculate room with nothing on the floor!

And eating in restaurants? It’s hard to say how much I enjoy dodging the washing of dishes and the wiping of sticky counters. My admiration for those who work in food service borders on love and devotion. I hate most of these tasks, and I’m so grateful to those who are willing to do them for me.food - 1

But, though these jobs take up plenty of time at home, they don’t comprise the bulk of my effortful work as a parent. They are necessary, but not particularly complex or demanding. Even at home, when I want a break, I can hire a house cleaner or take the kids out to eat.

The really challenging requirements of parenting relate to its most vital goal: raising small people into fully-formed adults.

A few examples:

  • Assisting a unique individual to maximize his own potential
  • Negotiating the complexities of relationships between growing personalities
  • Helping them—but not too much!
  • Guiding them—but encouraging them to seek their own paths
  • Keeping them safe—but allowing them to take enough risks to fail, to learn, to try again

Most of these tasks get harder on vacation!

With all the predictable routines of daily life gone, we experience the thrill of something new. This has a cost of anxiety about the unknown. Using myself as an example, I know that I lose my cool more rapidly when I feel anxious. I don’t blame the kids for doing the same.

My job is to keep my own composure, and offer enough strength of will to help the boys do the same. Or throw an upset child a lifeline that he can use to drag himself back to equanimity.

We grow when we are challenged. Changes—even positive ones—create challenges. Travel promotes growth, but it is rife with challenges, small and large.

gazebo - 1Preparing my family for a trip is part of my “job description” as a stay at home mom. It’s a task I enjoy, and one I do pretty well. It’s not a burden.

…and it remains complex upon our return

That said, when we return from a really great vacation, I’m typically exhausted. Sometimes I even fall prey to “leisure sickness” (or something like it), succumbing to a cold as soon as the work of vacation preparations is complete.

Last month, for example, after a whirlwind road trip with a van full of boys and a week of family camp supervising the full crew, I “enjoyed” ten days of respiratory illness and coughing of the oh-my-aching-stomach-muscles variety.

It hit me the day after I returned the borrowed children to their parents and got my oldest settled for a week of sleepaway summer camp. This was the week that I was scheduled to enjoy some down time with my own mom while the men (and DS2) went fishing. And God said, “Ha!”

Beyond the physical, returning home after weeks away comes with an emotional let down, too.

“The trip I planned for months is over?”

And then there’s the housework

I will have mounds of laundry to wash, snack foods to re-shelve in the pantry, suitcases to search for stray socks and hitchhiking bedbugs, mail to peruse and respond to…

In other words, life goes on, and so does my work. I’ve even made more of it by going away.

But, I have learned to plan for at least one quiet day upon our return. When asked, I give the date we’ll be home as a day later than my plan. That final “vacation day” gives me a chance to nudge our life back into order.

I don’t schedule early appointments for a few days after a trip. I plan to sleep my fill until my body’s ready to resume the usual routine.

I’ll order groceries from Amazon Fresh or a similar delivery service if possible. There’s usually a pizza night right after a trip.

I do what I can to ease the transition. I accept what I can’t change as a cost of the new experiences gained. I let the post-vacation let down run its course and give myself permission to have mixed emotions.

I help the kids process their own transitions, too, from jet lag to lost toys to keeping in touch with new friends in faraway places.

“Mom, what time is it in Minnesota?”

And, in the middle of all this, I usually spend at least a few minutes daydreaming about what might be our next big adventure—between loads of laundry, that is.laundry.jpg

Road Trip! New England to Minnesota Part II: a mom, four kids, 1633 miles, and two hotel rooms.

2.5 days, 26 hours, 1633 miles

If you missed my introduction to this road trip, click here for Part I

In a nutshell, I will be the lone driver bringing four children (my two sons and two friends) from New England to summer camp in Minnesota. School lets out Friday; our camp session begins Monday afternoon. This will be an efficient, not leisurely, journey.

I enjoy road trips, but I wish I could take one without beginning in the over-crowded American Northeast. I used to have a 7 mile commute that took 50 minutes because of traffic and poorly designed roads. Actually, I believe cows designed those roads, so maybe I should be less critical of their engineering prowess.

Road trip overview

Google still thinks we should fly. Or possibly make a run for the Canadian border? Google Maps clearly doesn’t appreciate a good old American summer road trip.

We have an advantage setting out on a Saturday. We shouldn’t meet rush hour traffic anywhere, unless Eau Claire, WI (Monday’s starting point) has an unexpectedly vicious traffic problem.

Day 1: Massachusetts to Avon, OH

Saturday. 10 hr 20 min, 687 miles.

The kids might be tired from their end of the year party the night before, but they can sleep while I drive. (Cue Melissa Etheridge: You Can Sleep While I Drive) As the only driver, it’s critical that I begin the trip well rested.

Our target departure time is 6:30 am. Loading the van Friday night means very little last minute prep work is required. I’ve even laid out the boys’ clothes so they will have no decisions to make.

Babushka (grandmother), who lives downstairs, asked if she could make the kids breakfast. This was an easy sell, leaving me free to get myself ready, grab the cold snacks from the fridge, then load everyone up and go. 

I become less sociable as I become more goal oriented. My husband likens my behavior during travel to that of a commanding general leading her army into battle. The niceties suffer.

We packed lunches to avoid eating too much overpriced junk food early in the trip. I thought having something packed by their mom might also ease the twins’ transition from her care to mine. We will make pit stops as needed, and will require one midday fuel stop, but intend not to make a long stop until our dinner time arrival at our hotel.

Massachusetts & New York


Driving the Mass Pike (I-90 toll road in Massachusetts) or the New York Thruway (I-90 toll road in New York State) offers an almost identical experience once you’re past any urban traffic close to Boston. The road is long and straight. Exits are few and far between, but service plazas are evenly spaced, have clear signage, and offer everything you need if nothing of special interest. These are efficient roads as long as traffic is moving.

Pennsylvania & Ohio

One passes through a tiny corner of Pennsylvania on this route. I think you spend less than an hour in the state. You get your first glimpse (westbound) of a Great Lake here. If I tell you that you pass through a city called Erie, PA, can you guess which Great Lake that is? 

There’s nothing else that sticks in my mind about driving through this state along I-90.

Ohio is memorable for having very clean, comfortable Rest Areas and more law-abiding, courteous drivers than most other eastern states in which I’ve driven. Beyond that, I’m usually fixated on getting to my next stop as I pass through here. 

It’s a stretch of road that is inoffensive enough that I have little to say about the experience.

Night one: Cambria Hotel & Suites, Avon, OH

Our estimated time of arrival is 6:30 pm. Taking 12 hours to drive for 10.5 sounds about right, factoring in rest, fuel, and meal breaks, but I’m not sure whether my usual estimates will apply with extra kids in our party and no second adult to wrangle them.

Our hotel for the first night in Avon, OH is the Cambria Hotel & Suites on Detroit Road. There appear to be many restaurants to choose from in the immediate vicinity, and we expect to enjoy a sit down dinner before settling in for the night. 

The Cambria brand is part of Choice Hotels group. Choice properties include EconoLodge, Comfort Inn, and Rodeway Inn, amongst others. I’ve stayed at a number of these, but I hadn’t even heard of the Cambria brand before booking this one based upon location and room availability. 

I have a Choice Privileges membership (rarely used), so I will earn points for this stay. Joining these programs is almost always free, and usually awards at least some minimal benefit in addition to the points, which may or may not add up themselves to a redeemable award before they expire. 

I believe Cambria is Choice’s top tier brand, but the price was competitive with a local Holiday Inn and other brands with which we have more experience.

This stop is placed to make our first day the longest travel day by a few minutes. I prefer to do a little extra driving on Day 1 to create a hedge against later delays.

I chose the Cambria Hotel & Suites over other Cleveland area lodgings in part because it is next door to a Costco with a gas station. They also had a suite available (sleeps 6) with 2 Queen beds plus a Queen sofa bed in a semi-private nook. (Remember, two of the kids I’m traveling with are teens who aren’t relatives.) 

I also prioritized hotel rooms with fridges for this trip since we carried perishable snacks and extra (frozen) water bottles in a cooler.


Access to Costco gas stations is restricted to members. Their prices are almost always amongst the very best in the area. I’m also confident in the quality of any product Costco sells. While their low prices often result in long lines, I expect we can avoid waiting by getting gas late Saturday or early Sunday when the Costco store itself is closed. This strategy is very successful at my local Costco location.

Day 2: Avon, OH to Eau Claire, WI

Sunday. 10 hr 10 min, 639 miles.

I’ve driven cross country from coast to coast at least four times before, and usually on the more northerly routes of I-90 and I-80. My least favorite stretches are almost always between Chicago and the Indiana-Ohio border. This is an area that often has heavy traffic. I’m not looking forward to this piece of the trip.

Since we’re crossing this area on a Sunday, I don’t need to time our arrival at major cities to avoid rush hours. If our first day felt very successful, and because we will experience a one hour time zone change that lengthens the day, I expect to allow the kids some extra time in the morning. I estimate we’ll depart from our hotel in Avon, Ohio by 8 am.

Indiana

Indiana, as far as I can tell, is always doing road work on their stretch of I-90/I-80. I find it really aggravating to pay for a toll road in poor condition. I have no recollection of facilities here, so they are either nonexistent or not very impressive. Perhaps they were just overshadowed by frustration from sitting in traffic due to road work lane closures.

Illinois

Illinois (at least in the Chicago area) doesn’t offer pleasant roadside Rest Areas. They are basically just gas stations with large convenience stores attached. Drivers there also tend to be aggressive and rude, and I’m saying that as a resident of the Boston metro area, where the term Masshole is considered a badge of honor to some. 

Tolls around Chicago still require frequent stops for payment of small amounts in cash–a system Massachusetts had twenty years ago when I arrived, but has since been replaced with a quicker, more convenient all-electronic system.

Speaking only for the experience of the long distance road tripper, I call this stretch of highway in Illinois the “land of lying liars” because of repeated bad experienced with posted signs indicating facilities that are impossible to find or closed. 

I like visiting Chicago by train. I’m unlikely to ever stop in the Windy City with my own vehicle.

Wisconsin

I believe this will be my first time driving in Wisconsin, though I’ve visited friends and family in Oconomowoc and Wisconsin Rapids in years past. 

My expectation is relatively pleasant and easy driving once we’re past the Chicago urban area. At least in the parts of Wisconsin I’ve visited, I saw decent roads, low population density, and polite people.

Night two: Holiday Inn Eau Claire South I-94 , Eau Claire, WI

Our estimated time of arrival is 7:00 pm. That’s 12 hours of driving time instead of 11 due to crossing zones from Eastern into Central time where Indiana gives way to Chicago. This allows about 1.75 hours for rest, fuel, and meal breaks.

We plan to eat a nice dinner after we arrive.

I usually don’t take long meal breaks during the day on road trips. After a heavy meal, I get sleepy. I eat lightly at midday while driving long distance.


Holiday Inn and other brands within the IHG group are my default choice when I think a predictable experience will make life less stressful for me or my kids. 

I prefer interesting boutique properties when I’m exploring a new area in a leisurely way. When I want to concentrate on other things, or when I believe the kids will be experiencing some form of travel stress, I appreciate the way a known environment reduces anxiety.

My favorite IHG properties are the Staybridge Suites with their apartment style full kitchens. These often offer two bedroom units (with two full bathrooms) which I strongly prefer to connected standard rooms as a family with kids. 

Connecting doors are designed to swing shut automatically; I want this door open night and day with my kids in the next room. The living room area gives me added space to keep larger luggage centrally located and ready to re-load the next day. 

Even if I don’t plan to cook in the full kitchen, having one gives me the option, and, somehow, the larger fridge makes it easier for me to remember to grab my cold items before we depart. I almost always make use of the dishwasher to give our reusable water bottles and utensils a good clean somewhere along the road on a multi-day trip.


Even during travel with takeout meals, we try to avoid using disposable cups and utensils. Silicone “ice pop” molds keep small utensils clean and are themselves dishwasher safe and reusable.

For this stop, however, we went with a Holiday Inn property. I was using IHG Rewards Club points to pay for one of our two rooms, plus the location on Owen Ayres Court in Eau Claire, WI was in a very convenient spot along I-94. 

I did call ahead and make sure hotel management knew my request for connecting rooms was to accommodate a pair of teenagers. Any decent hotel will work overtime to keep teens near their supervising adults!

Booking a hotel with a full restaurant on site also allows for easy dining if we experience delays or I arrive too exhausted to take the boys out. There are many restaurants very close to this location, however, without needing to get back on the freeway or navigate unfamiliar city streets.

Day 3: Eau Claire, WI to Bemidji, MN

Monday. 5 hr 12 min, 307 miles.

Hopefully, Eau Claire, WI doesn’t have a significant rush hour since we will be here on a Monday morning. Allowing for six hours of driving time today, we plan to depart at 8 am.

Our plan is the head north first and then cut west at Duluth. This puts us on Hwy 53 northbound, then Hwy 2 west instead of continuing on I-94 to Hwy 10. These two options show very similar travel times on Google maps.


My assumption is that going through Minneapolis/Saint Paul on the Interstate freeway carries a greater risk of weekday traffic vs. taking the state highway to Duluth. If I were driving alone, or at night, I would probably take the more populous route because I would feel safer. 

I’m comfortable opting for less heavily traveled roads for daytime driving with several fit teens in my party. I doubt I could loosen the nuts to change a tire by myself these days, but I’m pretty sure the boys could help me do it if the need arose.

I would call AAA first if I had a roadside emergency, but even my backup plans have backup plans. That’s how I roll. Read this if you missed my thoughts on preparing your vehicle for a road trip.

I’m looking forward to this segment of our trip. I’ll be seeing areas of the country I’ve never visited before. I expect much of it will be scenic, and most will be uncrowded. As a transplant from the less populous Northwest region to suburban New England, I positively crave wide open spaces.

Arrival in Bemidji, MN

Monday afternoon, 2-4:30 pm arrival time for camp.

Because the camp allows a 2.5 hour window for arrival, we aren’t allowing much (if any) extra driving time today. We would like to check in as early as possible so we get first dibs on bunks, etc., but not enough to wake up extra early at this stage of a long, intense road trip.

On our first trip to this camp, we opted for airport pickup via charter bus, so I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the roads into the property. I do remember that it wasn’t too far from the Bemidji airport (BJI), and it didn’t seem like a challenging surface to negotiate (for a camp in the woods.)

I also took note of the parking situation for families, considering my options for future trips. This shouldn’t present any obstacle that requires extra time upon arrival.

Quickest whole grain breakfast cooked in a Thermos insulated jar

Breakfast? We don’t need no stinkin’ breakfast!*

Oh, wait… Yes, we do!

Breakfast Thermos cereal preppedYou’ll find many better resources for recipes and cooking all over the internet, but I have one time saving breakfast solution that I want to share.

All of the (very minimal) preparation can be done in advance. The only work you must do in the morning is boil water. For those of us who start the day with a cup of hot tea, this means zero extra time or effort at the busiest part of the day.

Remember that Thermos food jar that I recommended so strongly when I wrote a post with suggestions for packing a waste free lunch?

Here’s another use for that Thermos: a quick and easy hot cereal for a hurry-up-and-wait kind of morning.

Breakfast Thermos cereal ingredientsIn my case, there’s one day every week when I have to get up extra early and rush out the door to take my son to his violin lesson. The lesson starts at 7:45 am, and it’s 20 minutes away. Yawn!

I was getting my son up, fed, and there on time, but I was having trouble fitting in my own breakfast. This simple Thermos hot cereal solves that problem.

During the winter, I often prep several insulated jars at a time. Family members can grab one, top off with hot water from our always on (Japanese style) kettle, and eat according to his own schedule.

I also bring a thermos and containers of pre-measured ingredients when I travel. You can make this simple, filling breakfast with a hotel room kettle or coffee machine, too.

Simple steps:

I hesitate to even call this a recipe.

  1. Start with a clean, dry Thermos. (I fill multiple jars at once, on the weekend.)
  2. Add measured quantities of dry ingredients, to taste. (I’ll specify one blend shortly.)
  3. 30+ minutes before you plan to eat, fill Thermos with boiling water and stir.
  4. Cap the Thermos and take it with you on your commute.
  5. Open and eat!

The longer you wait to eat, the softer the cereal grains will become. My husband likes oatmeal cooked much longer and with more water than I do. Vary according to your tastes.

Rolled oats are edible in about 15 minutes. I prefer a 30-40 cooking time for oatmeal blends. I usually include steel cut oats, and I appreciate that they retain a firm texture at 30 minutes.

Ingredients:

Here are the specific quantities I used to make the hot cereal for my photos today. I want to stress, though, that I don’t normally bother to measure my ingredients at all. This is a forgiving recipe!

  • 50 g Oats, rolled (1/4 cup)
  • 20 g Oats, steel cut (1/8 cup)
  • 10 g Buckwheat cereal (∼1 Tbsp)
  • 10 g Coconut milk powder (1 Tbsp)
  • Brown sugar, maple sugar, salt & raisins to taste
  • 125 mL Boiling water (enough to fill the Thermos, leaving a little space to stir)

I didn’t weigh or measure my toppings, but if you really want guidance, try one spoonful each of raisins and sugar and a tiny pinch of salt.

I never measure out my boiling water. I just dispense it until the Thermos is full. I used the scale today just to provide a guideline for anyone who’s unfamiliar with cooking hot cereal from scratch.

Breakfast Thermos cereal water 125 mL

127mL of hot water topped up my Thermos jar

Some people argue that oats aren’t healthy due to high levels of phytates. This is controversial. I love oatmeal and I think the nutritional benefits they provide outweigh these risks, but I have adopted the routine of including some buckwheat grains in every bowl.

I don’t like buckwheat cereal on its own, but I don’t even notice its flavor blended in with other grains.

You can read more about how adding buckwheat might be helpful here. Sometimes, I do soak my oats overnight in an acidic liquid according to this philosophy. Frankly, however, I don’t enjoy the taste of the resulting oatmeal as much, even when I rinse it before cooking.

Barley is another grain that works well when prepared by this Thermos cooking method. I like it combined with oats in roughly equal proportions.

I missed lunch because I was busy preparing this blog post, so I took the completed Thermos full of ingredients with me to after school pick up. I ate the hot cereal about 40 minutes after preparation, and it was just the way I like it: slightly chewy, but definitely, thoroughly cooked.

You can purchase ready made steel cut oats to eat on the go. Amazon’s price for Pacific Steel-Cut Oatmeal is $2.41 per serving when you buy them by the dozen, and this product is packaging intensive.

I calculated my cost per serving using my Thermos method by finding prices for all organic and gluten free ingredients from Amazon.com. $1.31 per serving for Thermos oatmeal is probably on the high side, but I wanted to provide a cost estimate.

My absolute favorite hot cereal is steel cut oats, brought to a boil the night before then left to sit at back of the stove overnight. Re-heated in the morning, these are soft and delicious, but retain the chewy goodness of Scottish oats. Making these requires forethought, and spending a specific amount of time both the night before—and the morning of—the breakfast.

Thermos cooked hot cereal, on the other hand, tastes pretty darn good. It can be made with any whole grains you wish at an affordable price. The minimal time you spend prepping can be done as far as days before you want to eat; the only step that is time dependent is adding the hot water.

I feel strongly that some fat is essential at breakfast if I want sustained energy to get me through my morning. This is why I always include the coconut milk powder in my blend. Powdered (dairy) milk is readily available, and costs less (even for organic) on Amazon than my brand of Coconut Milk.

If you add the boiling water to your Thermos jar first thing, say, before getting dressed, you could just pour in a liquid dose of your preferred milk straight from the fridge after giving the cereal time to cook. Dairy, soy, coconut, or almond milk—add whatever you like.

A personal trainer I know likes to use chia seeds in his hot cereal. I eat chia, but I don’t like that particular crunch in my oatmeal. Try this for added protein and fiber if you like the idea.

Nuts are another great add-in option for extra nutrition, but, if you grind or chop them for this recipe, remember that they will oxidize (become rancid and unhealthy) faster once broken, so don’t cut them up too far ahead of time. If you must prep them early, consider storing your filled Thermos in the fridge until ready to use it.

Storing a prepped Thermos jar in the fridge might add to the time needed between adding boiling water and eating your cereal. I haven’t tried it. Allow extra time if you try this, and let me know the results if you do!

This recipe will work any time you can boil water, then wait half an hour to eat. Just don’t forget to pack a spoon! I keep a Light My Fire spork packed in a silicone “popsicle mold” in my car for just such occasions.

Let’s not talk about how many times I’ve found myself waiting outside the kids’ schools or activities with my meal packed, but no utensils. I’d like to retain a shred of dignity.

Bon appétit!

Breakfast Thermos cereal spoon

*Just couldn’t resist the reference. I had no idea this popularly quoted phrase from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre took its most common form on the TV show The Monkees! Did you?

Summer road trip planned? Schedule a check up for your car now!

It’s a great idea to have a professional give your vehicle a once over before a road trip, especially if you didn’t ace auto shop. According to my mechanic, I’m the rare customer who schedules a car appointment well in advance.

Welcome to Iowa signI was going to include a list of stuff to have them check. There’s a battery, and there are tires and fluids… Then I realized how much I rely upon having an excellent mechanic to keep my vehicle in good operating condition!

I’m planning to drive several thousand miles across multiple regions of the United States this summer, so I scheduled a check up for my van. I made an appointment for the week before our departure date. I did this when I had my snow tires taken off in April.

I asked the scheduler at the auto shop, “Is one week ahead of my trip okay? If you find a problem, will that give you enough time to fix it?”

He said yes, and I scheduled the appointment.

The mechanic also laughed and included this wisdom:

Most people come in the day before a trip. When I find something wrong, they beg me to fix it immediately. I don’t always have the parts or the time!”

Anecdotally, I believe the mechanic.

Yesterday, my husband came home from work and asked what time we’re headed out to visit friends today.

He said, “I’m going to be driving back and forth to that conference next week, and it’s pretty far away. I want to get an oil change in the morning and have them check whether anything is wrong with my car.”

He’s driving out of state to his conference tomorrow…

I had already written the first paragraph of this post.

Coincidence? You decide…

Cue Twilight Zone music

Good lunch in a hurry: less waste doesn’t have to take more time

Sticking with the theme from yesterday of how to pack a waste free lunch, today I’ll shift the discussion to getting a low waste lunch packed in a hurry.

Remember, the idea of a zero waste lunch is to avoid generating unnecessary garbage (usually packaging) to lighten our ecological impact.

Time is of the essence

No one seems to have enough time in her day anymore, and this is at least as true of moms as it is of the general population. Mom has the same 24 hours available to squeeze in caring for herself and her offspring.

Today started off with one of those mornings. It was predictable, and I often employ strategies to reduce morning stress, but sometimes I fail to achieve my idealized solutions.

  • I didn’t pack lunch the night before.
  • I needed to get laundry in the machine this morning so it would be dry by evening.
  • I didn’t prep the breakfast ingredients the night before.

Each of these tasks is quick—taking perhaps 5-10 minutes—but, when added together, there goes my precious early morning tea time. Not the end of the world, but it sets a very different tone to the day.

When I’m not prepared, it takes more work to have what the kids and I call a “good” morning. No yelling! No taking frustrations out on family members. No blaming someone else for the jobs we left undone and are scrambling to complete.

We did manage a good morning, in spite of my poor planning. One reason for that was having strategies in place for a speed-packed lunchbox. I even took a few extra seconds to snap some pictures. We arrived at school with three minutes to spare, though, if I’m honest, that’s only because traffic was mercifully light and I lucked out with every traffic signal on the way there.

Here’s how I packed a lunch so fast.

Main dish straight from a bulk package in the freezer

There were no leftovers ready to go, so DS2 got his favorite treat for a main dish: chicken nuggets. These are the gluten free version from Applegate Farms. He can use a microwave oven at school, so I packed them in a CorningWare 16 oz glass casserole dish. A paper towel and the heating instructions are folded into the dish with the food to make it easier for DS2 or a helpful teacher, to prepare his lunch.

The heating instructions call for the paper towel when re-heating nuggets in the microwave. At home, I would use the oven heating instructions and avoid the waste, but that isn’t an option for school.

When I’ve included glass dishes in a child’s lunchbox, I make a point of reminding him to be a little extra careful about how he handles it. I suspect that this advice is forgotten before he’s even through the door, but we have had very good results in spite of careless boys and breakable containers.

I’ve been happy with both CorningWare and Pyrex dishes. They are very sturdy. The insulation/padding of a modern, soft-sided lunchbox no doubt helps cushion the glass as well.

Side dishes zip from storage to containers

Here’s another case where I have to own up to my imperfections in the area of less wasteful grocery practices. One of the reasons I always keep “baby carrots” in our fridge is that they go straight from storage to the lunchbox or plate. The value of this ease can’t be overstated when it comes to getting fresh veggies into the lunchbox, and making vegetables a quick grab snack to which the boys may help themselves.

I also have regular carrots on hand that I buy from our local farmers. We use those when we are cooking and prepping lunches and snacks ahead of time in an ideal scenario. But baby carrots are the champions of less than ideal mornings at our house. Cherry tomatoes are really easy, too.

Another corner I cut on a day like today is patting dry the other produce before I pack it in the round stainless steel containers. The U Konserve/Kids Konserve rounds with silicone lids will hold whatever water remains while in transit, but I will probably get a moderately grubby lunchbox back at the end of the day due to dribbles, crumbs, and dirt.

Thank God it’s Friday! We only wash the lunchbox once a week, on the weekend, to maintain some semblance of good hygiene.

Potato chips are a rare lunchbox treat, but, like the chicken nuggets, both popular with the child and super quick to pack. Since he’s getting two servings of vegetables today—one for snack, and one for lunch—it’s a good day for this concession. I’ll avoid anything high in sodium for dinner tonight to make up for the little guy’s salty lunch.

Washing twice as many veggies took less time than choosing and getting out an alternate snack option, like nuts (kept in the freezer) or an egg (which I peel for him at home, thus costing more time.)

The apple wins the award for least packaging needed, but my son may well skip eating it. Sliced apples are much faster to eat, which is why I usually take the time to cut them up when I include them in his lunch. Reducing packaging isn’t necessarily an ecological improvement if it results in wasted food.

I mention this to, once again, underscore how personal all of these choices can be. What works for me may not be ideal for your situation, but I hope my tips generate ideas you can use.

Dessert and drinks are prepped ahead for the week

Both a treat and a beverage were already portioned and ready to pack. I almost always have these prepped for the week on Sunday night.

Sweets for school—except on a rare holiday—are home baked goodies with a healthier profile than packaged products. The blondie I packed today uses whole grain teff and millet flour and a healthy dose of almond butter for flavor and fat content. They taste great, and are helpful for tempting my little guy, who’d rather play than eat during his allotted break time.

My recipe is adapted from one I found here.

Lunch quick pack busy morning - 5

Today’s lunch pack required four U Konserve rounds (medium, 2 small, mini), a CorningWare 16 oz casserole, Nalgene 8 oz bottle, and a Bumkins small snack bag. The apple required no packaging.

My water bottle choice: Nalgene 8 oz rectangular

The water bottle issue is one I’ve grappled with for years. I’d prefer not to use plastic, but I have yet to find a glass bottle that is affordable enough, durable enough, and sized and shaped right for the way I want to pack a school lunch.

The Nalgene 8 oz wide mouth rectangular bottle is the best option I’ve come up with for daily school use. Here’s why:

This bottle fits inside the lunchbox. My younger son, in particular, will not remember a separate bottle. Either the lunch or the water bottle will be lost. I don’t like that option. He could carry a larger lunchbox, but then it wouldn’t fit inside his backpack; once again, he’d be responsible for managing two important items. It’s a recipe for more frequent replacement of expensive, necessary objects.

Also, rectangular dishes use the space in the lunchbox more efficiently than round ones. I tried packing our small Sigg bottles in the same spot, and the bag bulged alarmingly, if it would zip at all. The Nalgene rectangular bottle is the perfect shape.

I was really upset by how the Sigg company handled the issue of its use of BPA in the liners for its otherwise great aluminum bottles. We still use the ones we have, but I won’t be buying more.

I fill six Nalgene 8 oz bottles with about an inch of water on Sunday night. I freeze them all. Each morning, I top off one bottle’s chunk of ice with filtered water and pack it in the lunch. This helps keep the contents of the lunchbox cold, and it reduces the temperature of the water in contact with (HDPE) plastic.

These factors are important to me for food safety reasons and to reduce my child’s exposure to leached toxins, respectively.

When the weather heats up, or if I know the class is taking a nature study field trip, I’ll add a second frozen bottle to the lunchbox. This gives DS2 enough water to stay hydrated, and keeps the lunch chilled longer.

I have frozen ice packs in a variety of sizes which I also employ as needed, but frozen water bottles are sufficient during most of our school year in New England’s climate.

Not all or nothing, just a best effort for today

It’s taken me far longer to describe packing this lunch than it did for me to complete the task. I’ve had years of practice, but it takes more desire to avoid waste than it does talent or skill. A few containers in convenient sizes also come in handy.

More than anything else, I hope that someone reading this who feels like waste free lunches are out of reach can see that this is a process. It isn’t all or nothing. Do what you can manage today, and aim to do a bit better tomorrow.

Here’s a secret: I keep a small shelf full of pre-packaged snacks at the top of my pantry. Why? Because, some mornings, tossing a ready made bag of pretzels into the lunchbox is the best I can do. It doesn’t matter why, and it doesn’t make me a bad person, or a failure as a mother.

Taking even small steps to reduce waste is a fine start. Just keep following those steps up with more. You’ll get to where you want to be.

What do you do on your busiest mornings to get the best lunch packed in the least time? Do you use more packaged goods, or have you got better solutions? Please share in the comments!

Wooden jigsaw puzzles: what was old is new again

I’ve mentioned this before: I love assembling jigsaw puzzles.

Some of my enjoyment of puzzles relates to fond memories of doing them with my mother when I was growing up.

Another element is the sense of well-being I get from assembling all kinds of things. I also like putting together furniture from IKEA, and building Lego sets.

There’s a reason I worked in software quality assurance (QA) for a number of years. I get satisfaction from methodically completing a series of steps, confirming every expectation has been met. I’m weird like that.

So one of my favorite pastimes is completing a jigsaw puzzle.

After almost forty years of doing puzzles, I was amazed to discover a new frontier in this relatively straightforward hobby.

The wooden jigsaw puzzle difference

wooden jigsaw puzzlesI started collecting wooden jigsaw puzzles. Continue reading