Minimising stress in the run up to Christmas

You’ll know from my recent posts that I really do love Christmas, from decorating the house to luxuriating in the simple pleasures and find the month of December to truly be the most wonderful time of the year.

However, it can’t be denied that it is also the busiest time of year for most people and can prove stressful to juggle the demands on your time, feel that you’re keeping on top of things and have everything ready for the big day.

Below are some of the strategies that I adopt and find that they help to reduce the potential stress at this time of year. They won’t necessarily all be ideas that you want to follow, but hopefully a few will appeal.

Declutter

One of the most stressful aspects of Christmas for me personally is the influx of stuff into the house, especially kids’ toys. They already have so many toys but it’s understandable that relatives want to treat them to new toys for Christmas presents. I aim to have a decluttering session specifically for kids toys in early December, as this is a good opportunity to dispose of broken toys or donate toys they no longer play with to charity shops. It is also a chance to spot toys that need replacing and could prove good things to buy them as gifts. When relatives specifically ask for ideas of what the children would particularly need I can then mention ideas based on what I’ve noticed needs replacing for them or else I try to suggest days out or experiences as an alternative to toys. For example, my eldest daughter has been desperate to visit a climbing centre about 45 minutes drive from our house. So her grandmother is purchasing her a gift voucher to go to the climbing centre as her main gift. I know that she will be over the moon with that experience gift and on a selfish note I am relieved that it will be one less object to find a home for. See my post on decluttering here.

Start shopping early

It sounds dull and geeky, but I always keep a spreadsheet of what I’ve already bought for people gift-wise and note ideas of what to buy individuals on it. I tend to keep an eye out year-round for gifts that would perfectly suit a recipient and snap them up as I see them, as I’ve learnt the hard way that leaving it all until December can mean that I don’t succeed in finding the kind of personal gifts that I aim to give people. This has the added bonus of spreading out the cost of Christmas gifts and takes the pressure off finding so many gifts for people in December. Now, I appreciate that this is a little too late to be of any help this year, but you can always be on the lookout from early next year for suitable gifts for next Christmas.

Get organised with Christmas Day hosting purchases

I have hosted on Christmas day ever since we had our first child, because it means that both sets of grandparents get to spend time with their grandkids and also our house is the largest so accommodates everyone without it being too much of a squeeze. It pays dividends to plan ahead if you’re hosting on Christmas day- and yes, you may have guessed that I recommend another spreadsheet to list all the foods to buy, as well as other related items eg crackers, napkins, turkey foil etc.

Ask guests to bring an specific item each to take the pressure off- I find that often they offer to do this anyway. Also, I aim to buy a Christmas food item a week in my grocery shop from early November onwards to spread the cost and hassle, especially as there are often special offers on and it spreads the expense a little. Obviously this only applies to foods which can be kept in a store cupboard rather than fresh foods but still applies to many items such as soft and alcoholic drinks, cranberry sauce, Christmas pudding and cake etc.

Don’t be afraid to cut corners on Christmas dinner

I firmly believe that Christmas should primarily be about togetherness.  I am more than happy to adopt as many time savers as possible to get to spend more of Christmas day with my young kids rather than slaving away in a hot, stuffy kitchen and make no apology for this. If people want gourmet cuisine, I suggest that they book themselves into a hotel on Christmas day rather than spend it in my home!

Here are some of the corners that I cut when cooking Christmas dinner for my family:

We have never bothered with starters. Even as a child growing up, my mother (who is an excellent cook) never made starters and because there are so many types of food for the main course no one ever goes hungry. In fact, we often struggle to find room for dessert even after just a main course. So don’t feel pressured to include extra courses that aren’t necessary.

Despite turkey being the traditional meat here in the UK, I have bought 2 large free-range chickens for Christmas dinner in recent years. We prefer chicken anyway as it tends to be a little less dry than turkey, and it is very affordable to buy free-range meat (which I prefer to do where possible) which would be hugely expensive if it were free-range turkey at this time of year. Our oven is only a small, standard oven so to maximise the space in it I have sometimes cooked the chickens in slow cookers on Christmas day itself, or cooked them in the oven on Christmas day morning, then sliced up the meat after cooling it quickly then found that adding hot gravy to it during the meal means it tastes fine (and not cold at all). It’s a pressure removed to know that the meat is cooked already leaving you to focus on the side dishes.

I’ve become a convert to frozen vegetables year-round and am happy to use them on Christmas day, too. Honestly, vegetables are frozen so quickly than minimal nutrients are lost (probably fewer than fresh ones that have been lingering around for several days before use both in supermarkets and in the home). There is no waste with frozen vegetables because you simply remove the exact quantity required from the bag and they have the added bonus of being ready prepared for you (eg sliced carrots, small broccoli florets) which is a massive time saver.

I shamelessly use gravy granules and Paxo stuffing mix, packet mix bread sauce (bread sauce is the best component of the Christmas dinner for everyone, surely?), as well as ready-bought desserts. Personally I believe the difference in taste is so small that it is not worth the significant extra time it would take for me to make my own from scratch. I have nothing against ready-prepared or frozen Yorkshire puddings and roast potatoes, either, although I don’t use them every year.

Organised gift wrapping 

I loathe wrapping gifts and must admit that it’s my least favourite aspect of preparing for Christmas. I find it easiest to start at least a week or so before Christmas day, spread the task it over a few evenings, with a Christmas film on and a glass of something nice. Use a tape dispenser and sticky Christmas labels for name tags for speed. A friend once told me that for family she just wraps and scrunches coloured  tissue paper sheets around each gift then pops them in a gift bag, so doesn’t need to worry about folding and taping which sounded a good idea, although I have yet to try it.

Do you have any of your own tips to share to reduce the stress in this busy month? Please do share them in the comments below.

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How to declutter

Decluttering: How to Start

Don’t you find that you feel better when your home contains less rather than more ‘stuff’?

Owning a surplus of personal possessions may be considered a first world problem, but anyone feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff surrounding them would agree that it can affect their quality of life nonetheless.

Having an excess of personal possessions makes it difficult to contain things in their designated storage spaces and leads to a disorganised environment. See my recent post here on organising your home.

Not everyone has too much clutter

Incidentally, a large percentage of Europeans on the continent reside in modest apartments so tend to have to be more organised and selective about what they allow through their front door in the first place to enable their compact homes to stay feeling chic and comfortable. I certainly noticed that the homes of Italian friends I made whilst living there were pretty tidy and not overly cluttered.

Fortunately, I have never been much of a hoarder and find it relatively easy to let go of most unnecessary items. However, when I read about minimalist living, I realise I’m far away from living a minimalist life. I follow Joshua and Ryan known as ‘The Minimalists’ on their blog at theminimalists.com. It’s all very inspiring reading, if a little extreme for me- one family I read about decided to stop giving any Christmas gifts, even to their children. I know for certain that this would go down like a lead balloon in our household!

It’s amazing how the ‘stuff’ gradually invades our home though, slowly disordering the previously cleared cupboards, drawers and furniture tops. Once or twice a year I tend to treat decluttering and organisation as a project, setting aside time to work through the rooms in turn until I am satisfied that they are pared back to a level I am comfortable with.

How to get started on decluttering

It’s easy to become blind to certain hotspots of clutter that build up in our homes, simply because they are there so much of the time that we cease to notice them. I always remember a great tip that Fiona Ferris suggested in  in one of her wonderful blog posts  is to take a photo of the rooms in your house so that you can view it in an objective way. Trust me, you will soon spot the clutter hotspots in the photos and be motivated to sort them out!

When Marie Kondo’s book ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up’ launched in the UK, I couldn’t resist buying a copy and devoured it all practically in one sitting. Marie has a wonderful way of explaining why it is important to fight the clutter and describes in clear detail her recommended methods of decluttering. When I read it at the time, it did make perfect sense. Her approach is to gather all similar items from around the house together, eg books from all rooms should be brought to one location, then sorted individually by handling each one and asking whether it ‘sparks joy’. If the answer is negative, the object should be discarded.

Although this all made sense in theory, I found it just didn’t work for my family in practise. I found it overwhelming to have a huge pile of books, or clothes or whatever all taken from their usual storage area and felt pressure to get the job done as quickly as possible to restore the order and with young children there are fewer opportunities to get this done, as well as frequent interruptions. I prefer to concentrate on a room at a time and realistically this often means just one cupboard or drawer at a time. Doing it this way gives you an instant boost when you stand back and admire the perfectly organised drawer or cupboard (or is that just me…?). I don’t necessarily remove everything from an area either, but still try to touch each object and make a quick decision as to whether I should keep or discard it.

‘But it might come in useful one day…’

One of the most common stumbling blocks that makes us hang on to items is the thought that we might need them one day, even if we already have plenty of them already. I think it was in Marie’s book (though could be incorrect on this) that I read you can make the deciding rule be: if the item would cost £10 (or equivalent currency) to replace if you ran out, then let go of the excess items you hold. Bear in mind that you are unlikely to have to shell out up to £10 very often on these items in reality if you are contemplating getting rid of them at all- most likely you won’t ever even notice they’ve gone.

I used to have stacks of hand towels, some past their best or really not to my taste, but hung on to them ‘just in case’ I needed them one day. Well, after I read that rule it made it far easier to give myself permission go ahead and get rid of the extra hand towels- I only have five in total now, two of which will always be use in our two bathrooms. It sounds silly, but looking at the clear, uncluttered storage basket where I keep my hand towels gave me a great feeling after I decided to get rid of the extra ones.

Personally, I used to find it difficult to part with my children’s countless drawings and paintings and worried I might regret discarding them when they are grown up. This may strike a chord with other parents. I felt guilty getting rid of them, but trying to store them all was proving overwhelming. Then I read about a solution online: take a photo of each little masterpiece, store digitally with a separate folder per child and subdivided into years. Then you have access to them forever, without taking up precious physical space in your home.

Next issue: where to pass on items to be discarded?

Ever since travelling to Kenya a few years ago and witnessing abject poverty with my own eyes, I gained a fresh perspective on waste. It seems rather criminal to throw unwanted but usable items in the rubbish bin (and on to landfill) if someone else can make use of them. Here in the UK, there are several options to pass on unneeded belongings. Charity shops accept clothes, bags, shoes, often books and other items. There is also Freecycle, where you list most types of items up for grabs on a message board for your local area and folk who can make use of it get in touch. For food products with a reasonable shelf life, food banks located in most supermarkets are always glad of donations to pass on to people struggling to afford enough food. Alternatively, you could explore options to advertise items for sale- your local Gumtree website, Facebook selling sites or Ebay are good starting points. For overseas readers, I’m sure you have similar versions of these organisations that you can get in touch with.

Less really is more. Decluttering an area really does result in a great feeling of satisfaction. I hope this post has inspired you a little to embark on organising your own home if it needs doing?

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How to organise your family's home

Organise your family’s home: a place for everything…

…and everything it its place. That’s how the saying goes, and it makes total sense to me.

As our family has grown to having three children, so has the influx of ‘stuff’ into our house. Before having children, when I look back I was quite a house-proud person and most of the time found it fairly straightforward to keep the house tidy and in order. Fortunately, my husband was made from a similar mould and is naturally tidy, too.

However since the number of people living at home has expanded, it has become more of a challenge to maintain order, partly because each of our little people have a certain quantity of clothes and toys, and also because they often seem intent on causing mass destruction to the order of our home. Honestly, it has to be seen to be believed just how much chaos three little people can wreak in a very short space of time.

Anyway, the problem was easily identified, what strategies can we apply to resolve it?

Declutter regularly, especially before Christmas and birthdays:

Making some time to regularly go through your home to declutter is important. Just before Christmas and birthdays are particularly pertinent times to do so, as an influx of even more ‘stuff’ is likely to occur on such special occasions. See my post about decluttering here.

Toy rotation:

When kids have piles upon piles of toys, it can stop them appreciating (or even noticing) all that they have. We have had success with tucking away some birthday and Christmas gifts in high cupboards, allowing the kids to play with the toys left available to them, then periodically changing which toys are hidden away and which ones left out. Even if they are disappointed to temporarily ‘lose’ particular toys, this is usually overshadowed by the joy of being presented with ‘new’ ones. Of course, it’s best to make the child’s absolute favourite toys that they are attached to available permanently.

Ask family for specific or ‘experience’ gifts:

When Christmas or birthdays approach, relatives often ask if there is anything in particular the kids would like. This is a great opportunity to take stock of what they might really like to be given (it will lighten the load of what you have to buy for them, too). Give them the details of which toys, clothes, books etc would be appreciated with details of where to buy from if necessary.

Another good idea is to ask for ‘experience’ type gifts rather than physical items. Examples of these could be local zoo membership, or classes to something the child particularly enjoys such as gymnastics. This will reduce the amount of things in your home to have to store.

So, once you have decluttered and so pared back your family’s personal possessions to a more manageable quantity, you can set about reviewing your current storage arrangements. Cast a critical eye over cupboards, shelves and other storage spaces. Is the space adequate? Could it be moved to a more logical place?  If storage is is intended for kids, are they able to reach and access it themselves?

When you are happy with the storage places, it is time to give them the best possible chance of staying organised. My secret to this is simple yet effective: labelling.

It was my husband who first introduced me to the humble labelling machine. At first, I though it was a little geeky to be honest, but once I saw the possibilities for helping to keep our home tidy I was won over by it. In case you’ve never seen once before, its a small handheld device which you type words into and can then print off a peelable sticker and apply directly onto the surface to be labelled.

You can see below a couple of examples of areas that have been labelled. The first pic is the back of the understairs cupboard door, where hooks at the kids’ height are labelled ‘winter coats’, ‘bags’ and ‘jackets’. For even younger kids who can’t read, you could take photos of the relevant items to print off for them to identify instead. the second pic is a section of one of my kitchen cupboards, where I used old mushroom containers from the supermarket to store small items then labelled them clearly. Doing this makes stuff more accessible and more likely to be used, too, for example photo albums. We have labelled the spines of our photo albums so can clearly see which holidays etc they relate to so are more likely to pull it out and enjoy looking through.

 

I hope some of these tips were useful to you. If you’re interested in buying a label machine, they are available in office supplies store plus on Amazon.

In my next post I will go into detail about how to declutter your home, sharing the methods that work best for me.

I would love to hear any home organisation tips that you have to share, too.