Musings on children’s birthday parties

Next week is my son’s first birthday. To celebrate this event, I’m making him a Dinosaur Train cake and some homemade orange popsicle flavored ice cream, both treats my husband and I plan to consume in significantly larger quantities than what my son will. (He’ll likely wear a good portion of his servings.) We’re not having a traditional party, but we’ll video chat with grandparents and cousins when he opens (rather, when we open) the gifts they generously sent to him. We might go to a park or the zoo if the weather is nice.

My expectation is that his second birthday celebration will be similar to this and he won’t start having parties with friends until he’s at least three, four, or five years old — whenever he requests a more standard party. Until then, we’re keeping things as low key as possible.

Before I became a mom, I never understood the lavish parties parents in my area throw for their kids. I’ve heard of some events that easily cost parents thousands of dollars, and guests to the party end up leaving with bags of goodies more valuable than the toys they brought for the guest of honor. I know I won’t ever throw a party like this for my son (sorry, kiddo!), but I’m at least starting to understand why parents do.

As a parent, you want the world for your kid. You want your child to be liked by his classmates, you want your child to be happy, and you want to celebrate his life. A basic swimming party with hamburgers can easily cost a hundred dollars — spending 10 times more once a year on a birthday party wouldn’t seem like such a big deal, especially if you’ve got the disposable income to do it. Research even shows that experiences make you happier than physical possessions.

My parenting philosophy and budget don’t include renting elephants, night clubs, and cruise ships for my son and 100 of his acquaintances, though. I’m more interested in teaching him to appreciate adventures than extravagance. I want him to respect people more than glamor and glitz. And, I hope he learns that the things that matter most in life don’t usually come wrapped in shiny paper with bows.

I don’t judge the parents who go all out for their child’s birthdays — for all I know, they’re teaching their children the same values I’m hoping to teach mine, just with the addition of a really great party once a year. A simple party is what works for our family, however, and I hope my son won’t be an outcast or disappointed by our decision when he’s old enough to know what a party is. If we stay in this area of the country, his birthday might regularly fall on the last day of school, which he might even see as party enough.

An uncluttered liquor cabinet in time for New Year’s Eve

With only five days left before New Year’s Eve, many people’s minds are already turning to their next round of celebrations. I’ve already started to think about the holiday — what resolutions will I make, what silly hat will I wear to the party, and what specialty drink will I have?

In the celebratory spirit, I thought it might be appropriate to talk about keeping an uncluttered liquor cabinet. Similar to traditional food pantries and linen closets, most liquor cabinets have a bad habit of things going into them faster than items coming out. Before you know it, you’ll find you have three open bottles of vermouth, two dripping bottles of Rose’s lime juice and another of the grenadine, and five bottles of the exact same type of gin. (Well, at least this is what I found lingering in my liquor cabinet.)

Start by pulling everything out of your liquor cabinet and setting it on your dining table. Group like items together — shakers with shakers, vodka with vodka, etc.

Now, evaluate what you have. Unless you are a serious socialite, you probably don’t need to own three martini shakers or nine bottles of rum. Pull out any excess or expired pieces. (Expired? Remember that vermouth is made with wine, so after a few months lingering open in your cabinet it starts to taste “off.” I haven’t found evidence that it’s actually bad for you, but its flavor is definitely shot by the time it’s been open for a year. Bailey’s can curdle, and some sweet liqueurs will fade.)

Pour down the drain any liquor past its prime. Freecycle or Craigslist extra bar utensils (now is a great time to do this as other people are gearing up for their NYE gatherings). And, start calling your friends throwing end of the year parties to see if they might want to take extra bottles off your hands. Either that or decide to throw a party yourself to work through the extras.

When putting bottles of liquor back in your cabinet, consider these storage tips from the article “What is the Shelf Life of Distilled Spirits?“:

Tips for increasing liquor shelf life:

  • Keep opened bottles sealed tightly. Use the original cap, a replacement cork or the wine corks that also take the air out of the bottle.
  • Never store liquor with speed pourers unless you’re using them, these allow air to get inside the bottle.
  • Avoid exposure to extreme heat or cold. Also, keep your liquor cabinet away from an exterior wall.
  • Avoid bright, direct light.

Similar to how you sorted items on your dining table, return items to your cabinet storing like things with like things. Put shorter bottles in front and taller bottles in back so that you can always see what you’re storing.

Also, check out the fun book Ultimate Guide to Spirits and Cocktails. Have fun starting the new year with an uncluttered liquor cabinet!

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Don’t forget! If you’re in the Chicago area, join Erin and some of the Unclutterer staff at The Book Cellar on Monday, December 28, any time between 4:00 and 7:00 p.m.

An uncluttered holiday gathering

If I were hosting a holiday meal this year, it would probably involve lots of steamed and pureed vegetables, baby cereal, and maybe — if my guests were lucky — a few bottles of wine. Thankfully for the people in my life, my new-parent brain is not responsible for hosting any holiday gatherings.

Before sleep deprivation, when I would throw a dinner party of any kind, I kept three principles in mind:

  1. The gathering is about creating joyful memories with guests.
  2. Going overboard typically makes people uncomfortable.
  3. Simplicity=sanity

Regarding the first principle, good conversations are often all it takes to create joyful memories with guests. If you’re in a kitchen, removed from your guests while you cook and work the party, you’re not creating memories with anything other than your oven. Plan and prepare your meals ahead of time, have a bakery or restaurant fix the most time-intensive items, or invite people over for only one part of the meal (like appetizers or dessert).

The second principle is true in most situations. If you are stressed out and things are “too perfect,” usually your guests pick up on the tension and never feel welcome in your space. Invite people fully into your home, let them see that you’re human and that you care more about them being comfortable than recreating an idyllic scene from a movie or magazine.

The third and final principle is also true in most aspects of life. You can’t drive yourself to the point of exhaustion when you keep things simple. Only having a few, important tasks on your to-do list will keep stress levels low and your priorities (the first principle) in check.

Good luck, and I hope your holiday gatherings are a success!

Suggesting disposal

Professional organizer Scott Roewer sent me a Christmas card this year with an uncluttered message printed on the inside of the card. After the seasonal greeting and his signature was the phrase:

“This card expires January 2, 2010, at which time it should be recycled.”

Scott got the idea from Jill Revitsky, a professional organizer from Pittsburgh, who produces a line of greeting cards for organizers. On the inside cover of each of her Clearly Noted cards she includes the phrase:

“This card is good for one week — Then you have my permission to toss it!”

Unfortunately, I’ve already mailed my holiday cards, so I can’t do something comparable this year. However, I’m definitely going to add a similar sentence to my cards in years to come:

“You should immediately recycle this card or run the risk of it turning into a monster that will eat your arm.”

Okay, so maybe not exactly that, but you get the idea.

Organizing a party pantry

I was recently given a copy of the book Simple Stunning Parties at Home by its author Karen Bussen. In the book, Karen suggests organizing a “party pantry” so that “when it’s time to throw a dinner party or a wine and cheese night on the spur of the moment, I look [to it] for design inspiration, and I pull together all the elements I need.” She lives in a small New York City apartment, so her party pantry isn’t large or cluttered. She recommends a “small closet, a cupboard in the kitchen, or an antique hutch — whatever works for you.”

One of the reasons I have committed myself to living an uncluttered, simple life is because I want to be able to enjoy time with those I love. Being able to invite friends and family over to the house on a moment’s notice is important to me, and an uncluttered home makes this stress-free and simple. Having an organized party pantry makes these surprise events even easier — and so I’m working to create one in my kitchen.

In addition to the obvious tableware, Karen suggests having snacks and condiments with long shelf lives in your party pantry. I’ve always struggled with knowing which types of snacks work well as appetizers or finger foods, so I found this list extremely helpful (from page 23):

  • Packaged plain breadsticks
  • Jars of olives, pickled jalapenos, stuffed grape leaves, and roasted sweet peppers
  • Pistachios and mixed nuts or trail mixes
  • Dill pickles
  • Bottles of my favorite pasta sauce and a few types of past
  • Boxes of crispbreads and crackers
  • A variety of unusual chips (root vegetable, pita, tortilla, and others)
  • Dried fruits (apricots, cranberries, cherries, and golden raisins)
  • Plain microwave popcorn
  • Dried Italian sausages and salami
  • Biscotti and other cookies

Obviously, you wouldn’t need to keep all of these items in your party pantry. Rather, this is a list of possibilities for things that are good to store and serve. It is also fun to finish the rest of the jar or box of snacks after your guests leave. My mouth is watering just thinking about this list.

What snacks and supplies do you have on hand for unexpected guests? How do you organize your party pantry? Tell us about your setup in the comments.

Need motivation? Send an invitation

One of the most fun ways to motivate yourself to unclutter your home and/or office is to invite someone to visit. Whether you decide to throw a party or just ask your cousin over for tea, it’s nice to have a reward for getting your space into shape.

During the fall and winter, I often nest. Stuff comes into my house, but it’s difficult for me to get equal amounts of stuff out of it. My solution is to throw a holiday wine and cheese party every year. I have to clean out the refrigerator to make space for the hors d’oeuvres, I purge all the clutter in the house, and I make sure that everything I own has a “home.” I also call in a service a few days in advance to help me get all of the nooks and crannies that usually get overlooked a good cleaning. Then, after all of my hard work, I get to celebrate my orderly space with my friends.

When I worked in a traditional office, I would set up a meeting time with my boss and invite him/her to my space. The day before the meeting I would dust, go through what was on my bulletin boards, and get my office into its best state. Sure, my boss came by my office every day, but he/she didn’t usually spend more than a few seconds relaying information to me. The sit-down meetings were motivation to really improve my office.

If you’re looking for a push to get you uncluttering and organizing, check your calendar and send an invitation.

Electronic invitations save time and money

Love them or loathe them, electronic party invitations are very convenient. To me, they are what you use when a paper invitation is too formal for the event (drinks with friends, coworker’s birthday celebration in the conference room), but you want people to know that you put some level of planning into it (ordered an ice cream cake, spent all day Saturday cleaning the bathrooms in your apartment). They save you time from having to pick up the phone and call every one of your friends.

E-vite has been the standard electronic invitation system that people adopted. There are a lot of color and theme options, people feel comfortable clicking on an e-vite link from their e-mail, and it doesn’t take a computer programmer to figure out how to use the service. But, I’ve never looked at an e-vite and been impressed from a design perspective:

It’s busy. Everything on the page is competing for my attention. (Although, I do like this new Clothing Swap Party invitation template. A great idea for a party.)

A new player has jumped into the electronic invitation market, and it is MyPunchbowl. It has all the same features as Evite, and the added benefit of the invitations actually looking like invitations.

There is less clutter on the invitation page, it’s obvious where to find information about the party, and it integrates with a number of electronic calendar systems. There are other features, like potluck planning and gift registry information, that are nice. But, to be honest, I just like the uncluttered look of the invitations. (And no, I didn’t really have a botox party.)

Both Evite and MyPunchbowl can save you time and money when you want to invite people to a casual event.

(Thanks to Erin Kane at RealSimple.com for introducing me to MyPunchbowl.)

All-in-One Card Stamp

Ji Lee, creative director for Google Creative Lab, created an “All-in-One Card Stamp” to make card sending simple.

Why buy many cards for different occasions if you can have an “One Card for All Occasions Stamp”? It saves time, money and headache.

I wholeheartedly agree that it saves time, money and headache, but I don’t know how my specific group of loved ones would respond. I think they would laugh the first time they received a card from me, but on second and third mailings it would start to wear thin. Utilitarian? Yes. Solution for everyone? No.

Still, I like it’s practical nature and that Ji Lee was thinking of ways to reduce clutter. What are your thoughts? Uncluttered and cool, or over-the-top minimalist?

(via NotCot)

Displaying holiday greeting cards

Recently, while my wife was reading an issue of Martha Stewart Living, she found an easy and creative way to display holiday cards using ribbon and a hole punch. In our current home, we don’t have mantle space for the cards we receive, so, rather than cluttering up a table or other flat surface, my wife decided to implement the idea she found in the magazine. (The picture to the right is the result.)

Apartment Therapy recently posted a question from one of their readers about displaying holiday cards. They feature a couple of options from Pottery Barn. These options cost $50 while my wife’s only cost under $6. The option my wife implemented displays the cards while keeping them out of the way. It is also cheap and, most importantly, simple.

How do you display holiday cards in your home? Feel free to add your ideas in the comments.

Real Simple’s Holiday Blogathon

RealSimple.com, the website that accompanies Real Simple magazine and that I write a column for every Tuesday and Thursday, is currently featuring their Holiday Blogathon: 26 Days of Tips. The series features informational posts from fashion, food, organizing, and decorating bloggers — most of whom are not regular contributors to the Simply Stated community.

Unclutterer’s article “Six Stress Busting Holiday Tips” is today’s entry for the series. All of the posts have tips and tricks to help you survive the season, and here are a few of my favorites:

Contact the people on your long or short list and ask how they might feel about putting a cap on holiday spending this year. — SavvySugar

My Rubbermaid containers play double duty as an ever-so-clever hiding spot for presents. Picture this … you bring out all the bins, decorate like crazy, then place them back in the garage in an easy-to-reach location. When you get home from holiday shopping you quietly and quickly transfer the gifts to the empty bins (so sneaky). — Krista Colvin

Give the gift of yourself this year. Create a gift certificate that entitles the recipient to quality time with you. Make Grandma dinner. Give your kids a movie night with Mom. Promise your husband a date. — Kimberly Petro

Keeping holiday decorations uncluttered

Decorating for the holidays? If so, you may want to look over some of the tips below to guard against over cluttered decorations. Adding seasonal decorations to your home can increase your home’s clutter if you don’t take steps to remove items in preparation of the decorations.

Explore the tips and feel free to add your own in the comments section:

  • Replace everyday items: When decorating your home make sure you remove everyday items that are being replaced by holiday decorations. It is a good idea to place your everyday items in the boxes that usually hold your decorations. That way you know right where they are and you can easily put them back when removing you decorations after the holidays.
  • Don’t put all the presents under the tree: If you have family or friends that don’t come to visit, you should probably keep their presents in a bag in storage. So when you go to visit them you can simply grab the bag and head out the door to play Santa.
  • Donate or discard unused or broken decorations: Reader John sent us this suggestion last year. If a decoration isn’t being used, then it shouldn’t be stored for another year.
  • Beware of over decorating: Decorating for the holidays can go a bit far. If you go too crazy, then the decorations will lose their appeal and clutter up your space. Sensory overload is not a good thing when it comes to decorating.

Preparing for holiday house guests

They are coming over for the holidays, and they are bringing more than just presents. That’s right, your relatives along with their kids, their stuff, and lots of stress! However, you can be prepared! The following tips will give you some simple ways to get yourself prepared ahead of time:

  1. Clean off your dining table today! I don’t mean the night before, do it today (or at least start). Start finding a permanent home for each item that has accumulated on your dining room table. Chances are the same items end up there again and again because they don’t have a permanent home within your home. Involve the whole family as most of the time, clutter on the dining table belongs to more than just one person. Once you have the table cleaned off, put a centerpiece on it, or something out of the ordinary to make sure it does not accumulate stuff before your dinner party.
  2. Get the dishes ready. If you need to borrow or use special serving dishes or holiday dishes, start taking them out now or borrowing them and get them washed. Use the dining room table as a staging ground to keep them until the holiday.
  3. Clean the house room by room. Pick a room each day or a few rooms each week. Or schedule a special session with your normal cleaning service.
    Don’t wait until the night before everyone arrives to start cleaning.
  4. Take inventory of your guest spaces. Can your guests sleep on your pull out couch or in your spare room comfortably? Does the room need to be cleaned? This is a great time to get your guest items organized, and to throw out and donate any unnecessary items that have found their way into your guest spaces.
  5. Create a friendly environment for your guests. Lay out guest towels, bathrobes, magazines, mints, maps (for your out of town guests), and water for your guests. Provide your guests with enough information so that they can enjoy your geographic area without assistance from you. Make sure they are familiar with phone and Internet access at your home as well.
  6. Be prepared to spend time with your relatives. Do your cleaning and preparation ahead of time so you can spend time relaxing and visiting, and not in the kitchen. If your relatives will be around for a number of days, consider making dinner reservations at a local restaurant so you can take a night and all relax together.
  7. Ask your guests if they have any special dietary needs before they arrive. This will help you avid any last minute trips to the grocery store.
  8. Have any gifts wrapped and ready to distribute before your guests arrive. They are lots of fun to shake and look at for the kids in your family. This will also allow you to spend time with your family instead of locked up in your bedroom wrapping presents.
  9. Remember to enjoy your company. Sharing your home can be stressful, but by cleaning and organizing in advance, you can have a relaxing time visiting with those you love!

Bonnie Joy Dewkett is the owner and operator of The Joyful Organizer. She offers professional organization services to help you organize your home and your life.