(Parenting.com) -- I remember a recent weekend when we had what seemed like two blissful days ahead of us. No plans whatsoever. No soccer games, no Brownie outings, no frantic trips to the mall in search of a certain type of dancing shoe. Just my husband, Tony, my kids, and me, doing nothing in particular.
Turn a weekend meal into a fun event for the whole family by having the kids help prepare it.
By 10:30 a.m. on Saturday -- after about three hours of hearing "I'm bored; there's nothing to do" -- I realized that weekends without commitments can fall a little short of paradise. They tend to turn into marathon video sessions, with Mom playing referee between bickering sibs.
Of course, kids need periods of downtime. But too many hours of free time can be just as nerve-racking as an overload of scheduled events; instead of feeling refreshed and rejuvenated by Sunday night, you're counting the minutes till Monday morning. The other problem with weekends now that you're a mom: the seemingly endless time-sucking errands and household tasks.
To the rescue! Family-tested ways to get your Saturdays and Sundays to feel longer and more refreshing:
Turn errand time on its head: We've had some of our best family moments cruising through the electrical aisle at Home Depot. If you must run errands on weekends, do your best to make them enjoyable with silly games (Who can find duct tape first? Who can point to the caulking gun?) or a treat on the way home (ice cream is the universal pick-me-up).
Pass the baby: Instead of one parent being on duty for a big chunk (if not the whole) of the day -- and feeling tired and put-upon by the end of it -- try breaking it into short shifts. On Sunday mornings, Melia and Kerry Wilkinson of Baltimore, Maryland, each take their 16-month-old daughter, Casey, for 30 minutes at a time. "It's long enough to get a short project done -- leaf raking or laundry -- while the other person hangs out with the baby," says Melia. "We each feel fresh when it's our turn with Casey, she benefits because she gets a new face every half hour, and we get tons accomplished."
Keep bedtimes early: Instead of letting kids stay up until 10 p.m. on Friday or Saturday (telling yourself "Oh, it's the weekend, let them have fun"), tuck them in at their weekday bedtime. You won't have to deal with grouchy sleepyheads the next day, and you'll have precious time to yourselves. Laura and Rich Hughes of Sewickley, Pennsylvania, pop their four children (Owen, 6, Cate, 4, Meg, 3, and Sarah, 1) into bed at 7:30 p.m. every day of the week. "On Saturdays, we feed them early, get them to bed, and then enjoy a leisurely date with takeout and a video," says Laura. "It's the highlight of my week."
Seize the morning -- for yourself: Recently, I've started getting up before everyone else on weekends. Instead of trying to catch up on chores, I take my coffee and newspaper onto the porch and revel in the quiet time before everyone else stirs. Rising 30 minutes earlier than normal really isn't that painful; plus, the benefits linger for hours. (And even if you dream of lounging in bed on weekend mornings, you know it'll never happen with small kids around.) Parenting.com: Put joy back in your weekend
Be chefs together: Even if small kids can't actually cook, they can set the table, fold napkins, and stir ingredients. Nanci Schwartz of Fruitland Park, Florida, gives her 3-year-old daughter, Cadi, the salad spinner and has her go to it. "She's also helped me make banana bread and even cleans string beans," she says. Older children love making place cards and menus, and waiting tables. The point is, you can make dinner an "event" (even pizza can be jazzed up with the right accessories: candles, kid-produced decorations, ice cream for dessert). And so what if you wind up with lettuce or tomato sauce on the floor? You'll also end up with some laughs and memories -- which is what weekend family time is all about. Parenting.com: Indoor madness: Easing cabin fever
See what fun, free stuff your town offers: "With four kids, even bowling or the movies can cost an arm and a leg," says Jen Kissel of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, mom of Corrina, 8, Brooks, 6, Zane, 4, and Eliza, 9 months. "So we've gotten creative." Some family favorites: touring offbeat art galleries, riding the city subway -- even hiking through area cemeteries. "There are so many old, cool ones around," says Jen. "If the cemetery allows, we do paper rubbings of old gravestones." Parenting.com: Cheap, fast and fun family activities
Try seeing your city or town through the eyes of your children. "We were downtown one day last summer and sat down in an outdoor plaza," says Jen. "The kids noticed that the floor was made of huge black and white squares that made it look like a chessboard. So they spent part of the afternoon playing living chess -- like the 'wizards' chess' scene from Harry Potter."
Find a family-friendly house of worship: There's no place more restful than a beautiful church, mosque, or synagogue -- as long as you're not trying to stifle the squeals of the little person sitting next to you. Laura Hughes goes to a neighborhood church with programs for her children. "I love to sit serenely, with no one touching me or asking for anything," she says. "To listen to an adult message, have an hour to my own thoughts -- it's wonderful."
Send the kids out with the sitter: For a twist on the idea of a date, let your sitter take the kids to the playground or a friend's house while you enjoy an afternoon alone in your own home. Stand there for a few minutes and soak in the silence -- and consider what you used to do for fun before the pitter-patter of little feet. (Hint: Your shower is big enough for two.) Parenting.com: Make over your weekends
Midweek tips for more weekend fun
Bustle before bed: Housework can take a whole Saturday if you let it build up. I used to tackle the kids' rooms on weekends -- and get bogged down by the mountains of toys. So lately, we shoot for a five-minute pickup on weekdays before bedtime, setting the timer to make it more official. And if I present it as a race, the kids are much more willing.
Spread your laundry out: One close friend of mine who has two young kids used to spend a good part of Saturday on laundry. No longer. Now she throws a load in most mornings, and then transfers it to the dryer while she's making dinner that night. It's become part of her routine.
Another time-saver: Use a different bag or basket for each family member. As soon as clothes come out of the dryer, fold them into that person's carrier and take it straight to the right room.
Work where you can: The same friend also found a smart way to make use of her kids' weekday bathtime. Since they're not old enough to be left alone, she just stays with them and cleans the bathroom.
Similar opportunities: Tidy up the baby's room while she's on the rug having tummy time; clean a food cupboard while your toddler is banging on pots and pans; or weed the garden while she's contentedly watching from a blanket on the lawn.
Go out to eat: I'm sometimes just too exhausted to start cooking at 5 p.m., so we treat ourselves to occasional restaurant meals during the week, when we really need it. This lets me arrive at the weekend with my sanity -- and energy -- intact.
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Charlotte Latvala writes a column for Pennsylvania's Beaver County Times.
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