CamelBaks Aren’t Just for Hiking and Biking

20111105_030Here’s a Creative Solution: use a CamelBak anytime you want access to water but don’t want to carry a water bottle.  A CamelBak is like a backpack with a water “bladder” (reservoir) and a straw that many people use for hiking and biking.  Instead of carrying a backpack with a water bottle, fill the reservoir with ice, top it off with water, and you’ve got cold water all day:

  • At the zoo
  • While walking and touring a new city
  • At the pool or the beach – hang it on the back of your chair and pull out the “straw” when you want to drink.
  • Walking around an amusement park or Disney
  • At a kids sporting event

You can get CamelBaks in all shapes and sizes.  The most popular (and the one my husband and I have) is the Camelbak Mule, which comes with a replacable 100 ounce reservoir.

You can get a larger backpack if you need, but the storage space on the Mule is fantastic.  Moreover, when everyone has their own CamelBak, everyone carries their own stuff.  Which brings me to the kids…

On our first family camping trip, we were astonished by how much the kids loved our CamelBaks, but our packs didn’t fit them (too uncomfortably large), so we were pretty excited to find the Kid-sized version.  The CamelBak Mini Mule fit the kids perfectly. It’s got a kid-sized backpack and a 50 ounce reservoir.  The kids stay more hydrated when they use their CamelBaks, and they can carry their own stuff (snacks, maps, hats, etc.) in the little backpack.  You can find them online at Amazon, LLBean, or in stores like REI.  The Mini-Mule prices range from about $49 – $89, so definitely shop around.  We asked the grandparents to make the Mini-Mule their Christmas gift to the boys, which was a win-win: not a toy, and it lasts for years!  (Note: the Mini-Mule is very rugged, but occasionally, we do need to replace the “bite valve.”)

On our Summer travels this year, we used the Camelbaks when we hiked a couple of trails in the Adirondacks.

Lake George

I really wish I had thought to use them when we walked the Freedom Trail in Boston.IMG_2295


They were perfect for our walk on the Great Wall of ChinaCamelbaks on teh Great Wall

So whether you’re into hiking and biking or just being a tourist, I think CamelBaks are a great Creative Solution.


How do you clean the CamelBaks?

Empty out the water (suck out whatever’s in the straw. too), stuff the inside with paper towels, turn it upside down, and let it dry out for a couple days.

IMG_0002They also make “Cleaning Kits.” But we’ve always just air dried them… I mean if you aren’t responsible about drying them mold/mildew grows and you have to replace the reservoir.

Travel Mugs

I am an avid hot-tea drinker, averaging 4-6+ cups a day (a tea snob, really, but that’s another post).  I’m also a frugal problem-solver.  I’ve been making (and carrying) my own tea in travel mugs for a while.  But I’m also a little on the clumsy side.  And I spill things A LOT.  So I needed a Creative Solution for a Spill-Proof Travel Mug.  


The Contigo Travel Mug is truly one of my favorite things.  People who have them rave about them in cult-like fashion.  I have four of the 16 ounce travel mugs; my husband has two.  I drink twice as much tea as he drinks coffee.

Why I love Contigo Travel Mugs:

  • They do not leakIMG_0623
  • They are dishwasher safe.
    • The lid is 100% dishwasher safe.  No valve to clean or gasket to worry about ruining.
    • It’s recommended that you hand wash the bottom so that the color doesn’t chip off the mug.  Notice the chipped paint on the red mug?  That’s from 2 or 3 years in the dishwasher, which doesn’t bother me at all.  So putting the whole thing in the dishwasher may affect its aesthetic beauty, but not its function.
  • They keep hot stuff hot for a really long time.
  • They also keep cold stuff cold.
  • Sometimes we like to bring an adult beverage to the pool in the summer… or the park… or wherever… and in the Contigo travel mug offers a multi-faceted Creative Solution on this front.

Amazon has them in a variety of colors, so when I prepare my different varieties of tea, I know which flavor is in which mug.  And/or (gasp!) how to tell the difference between my tea and my husband’s coffee.  The lids are also color coded, so his coffee stained lid doesn’t ever touch my lips.  

Amazon offers single 16oz mugs for $20, single 20 oz mugs for $22   or a two-pack of the 16 oz for $38.95.

Tea Caddy

IMG_0620So because I’m me, I have a designated little tote to carry all my tea mugs.

I use a cute, fun, and functional “Littles Carry-All Caddy” from ThirtyOne for $12 (plus shipping; and you can get it monogrammed if you’d like).

If you’re interested in this handy little tote, may I recommend my friend Stephanie, who is a ThirtyOne consultant.


I have a few of these Carry-All Caddies… One hangs on a hook by my back door with all the sunscreen and bug spray bottles.  When we went camping, we used one to hold the toilet paper, towel, and handsoap as a “bathroom caddy.”  They’re just the perfect size and shape.

Getting Rid of Stuff

Do you have stuff that you know you should get rid of?  If so, then this Creative Solution is for you.

My cousin Theresa messaged me the other day: a truck was coming to take her donations, and she asked for any words of wisdom.  What I admire about Theresa is that she is really grounded in her reality.  So as I offered suggestions for…

  • How to determine what to keep
  • What to consider selling
  • How to develop practices to keep up the donating

…she knew right away what would and wouldn’t work for her.  So as I offer my Five Suggestions for Getting Rid of Stuff, feel free to adapt them into your own Creative Solution.

Tip 1: Visualize the Space You Want

Start with the space you have.  

  • What is your current storage solution?
  • What is working for you?
  • What is not?

Then, visualize the space you want: less clutter, less stuff you don’t need, more space to give attention to the stuff you really use and love. Let that vision be your guiding principle.  

Tip 2: Adult Clothing 

When you have limited closet space, it’s a good idea to rotate through a seasonal wardrobe.

Storage Bins

I use two 18 gallon plastic Rubbermaid bins – one for my husband and one for me.

When I change seasons, I get excited about being able to wear certain clothes. Changing seasonal wardrobes is a really good time to set things aside to donate.  The three criteria that I use are:

  1. If I don’t LOVE it, donate it.
  2. If it doesn’t fit right (and doesn’t have the reasonable expectation of fitting for a long time), donate it.
  3. If I don’t actually wear it, donate it.

Storage Hangers

One way to determine what you actually DO wear is to turn all your hangers around so the hook is hanging backwards. Once you wear it, turn it right side (hook facing in). After a while, use that “unworn” criteria to prompt you to donate.

If you’re nervous about donating something that you “might need one day,” then get a special “purgatory” container that stores clothes and shoes for no more than 2 years. If you haven’t worn it in 2 years, it’s probably not gonna happen. Get rid of it. In years and years of doing this, I have only regretted one decision (donating a pair of black flats).

Storage BasketsI purchased these baskets from Michael’s to increase and organize storage space in my closet.  I like how tall they are… lots of stuff can get thrown in there.  I also like that they are opaque, so I can’t see the stuff (so my closet looks very neat, clean, and organized).  My “purgatory” clothing container is the middle basket on the top shelf.

Tip 3: Kids Clothing

Determine a place for “kids-clothes-that-don’t-fit” so that as they inevitably grow and you notice something not fitting them, it gets removed from the wardrobe rotation and put into the donate (or hand-me-down) pile. Lots of kids will toss what they don’t want to wear (or what doesn’t fit) into the laundry (so it’s not in the closet/bureau as an option). Some kids (like mine, for instance) need to be disavowed of this practice.  We also have a bin for “ruined” and “not-my-favorite” clothing that should be used as “art smocks.”

On their closet shelves, I have a variety of bins, including one for outgrown-clothing and another for art smocks.  When you constantly have a designated place to store these items, it takes a lot of the prep effort out of donating/off-loading the stuff.


Under-the-bed storage is also an option for donations-in-waiting.  We use our under-the-bed storage for the kids’ out-of-season and will-fit-into-this-size-next-growth-spurt clothes.  Pro-tip: measure your bed height before buying one of these.

Closet 2

Tip 4: Toys

Before any new toys come in to the house (like Christmas or birthdays), have the kids “make room for new toys” by determining which ones they don’t LOVE. Getting the kids involved with donating their old toys to “children in need” is a good practice of charity to get into. I am also a HUGE fan of Craigslist, buying and selling whatever toys I can at more than half the retail value. So, if the kids have a toy that they’d like to SELL and use that $$ to purchase whatever new/used thing, I’m all for it.  I keep a Rubbermaid bin in the garage for Craigslist and garage sale-able items.

Should I sell or can I just donate?” Many people have a hard time with selling items; it creates another time-consuming step.  Here’s the thing: do what you need to do.  I often have more time than money, so buying and selling used toys works best for me.  Find the Creative Solution that works for you.  If you struggle with having the time to offload the stuff, consider using one of the donation places that come to you.

Closet 3

When my kids were younger, I would rotate the toys in and out of the playroom.  You know how kids go through cycles of interest?  They’ll play with it daily and then not touch it for a while.  You know they’re not done with the toy, but it’s taking up precious shelf space.  So, I would store these toys in clear plastic bins in the attic.  Every so often–like every 3 months or so–we’d rotate the toys.  Rotating toys keeps interest fresh.  My kids would act like it was Christmas morning all over again.   And on a daily basis, there was less stuff and more room to play.  If a toy was undesired for a couple cycles, it was time to sell or donate it.

Now that they’re older, we still have some toys (like Lincoln Logs) that are only played with every-so-often.   We’re not ready to get rid of them, but because they’re not regularly played with, they don’t get precious shelf space in the playroom. Toys that have a place in the playroom are toys that get played with daily.  My b-list toys formerly lived in my attic, and are now in a hall closet.   The kids understand that we only have “SO MUCH” space, so we can only have “SO MANY” things taking up that space.

What about saving toys for future grandkids?” I tend not to get sentimental about toys, so I haven’t set aside any of my kids’ old Thomas the Trains for future grandkids to play with.  We’ve taken pictures for memories.  Instead of storing these toys, I prefer to sell them and will happily buy pre-owned toys when that time comes.

If you want to keep certain toys for sentimental reasons, here are some tips:

  • Be realistic about the actual storage space you have; limit the amount of space you’re willing to give to sentimental-toy-storage.
  • Long-Term Sentimental-Storage needs to be out of the way so that it doesn’t interfere with short-term, daily life function.

Tip 5: Trash

Throw out any toys that are broken. Throw out tchotchkes – the crap they get as party favors that never gets played with outside of that 15 min ride home post-party. Just trash it. And never look back.

Some parents attack the playroom or bedroom with a big green trash bag while the kids are away or asleep.  Most note that kids do not miss the broken/crap toys.  Feel empowered to do what you need to do.

However, if you’d like to throw a little Love and Logic into the mix, consider using the enforceable threat: “You can clean the playroom your way [by ___ time/date], or I can clean it my way.”  Demonstrate to the kids that there are consequences of not cleaning: if you don’t pick up after yourself, you lose the privilege of choosing what stays and what goes.

What Works for You?

Do you have a Creative Solution for getting rid of stuff?  Leave a comment and let us know what it is and why it works for you!

LEGO Storage

Organization, containers, storage of things… these are a few of my favorite things!  One of my boys’ favorite things is LEGOs.  This Creative Solution offers suggestions for LEGO organization and storage.

Rather than a “formal living room,” we use this space as the kids’ playroom.  THIS is where they play with toys.  Not in the family room.  Not in the bedrooms.  For toy storage, we use some old bookcases that line the walls.  That’s my starting point.

Now, a reality check.  My kids’ playroom almost always looks like this:

photo 3

It is very,very played in.  Actively.  Always.  By my two boys and their friends.  Let’s be real: organized does not mean “always clean.”  So as I offer these organizational strategies, remember that it’s not going to miraculously translate into a tidy room.  What it will be is a room that should be logical to straighten up in about 20 minutes.

Reality check in place, let’s ground ourselves in a few guiding principles:

  1. Location: The goal should be that everything has a place  so that when it’s time to clean up, there IS a place for everything.
    • If kids need to dump stuff out to find the thing they’re looking for, unnecessary mess is being made.  Ideally, I like to avoid that.  So when I suggest “a place for everything; everything has a place,” there is a golden zone of efficiency that we’re aiming for.  Less dumping; more playing.
  2. Self-Sufficiency: The kids should be able to easily find what they’re looking for and put it away themselves
  3. Form and Function:  The storage containers you use matter.  For the most part, I’m going to recommend clear containers that are not too tall/deep.

We have a lot of LEGOs.  Here’s how we organize them:

Loose Bricks

IMG_1075One of the two ways we organize loose bricks is by color.  I bought a bunch of these storage bins at the Dollar Tree a while ago, and have since ripped the lids off each box (I’ll explain why in a moment).  Clear shoebox sized containers should also work for this.  It’s important that the bins are clear so kids can see what they’re looking for without pulling things out.  It’s also helpful to label the name of the contents.  In addition to colors, we have one box for wheels and pieces of vehicle (like steering wheels), another for trees and flowers, and another for doors, windows, and glass.


The second way we organize loose bricks is in one big box called “Random LEGOs.”  This really helps make cleaning up random bricks on the floor quicker and easier.

photo 1 (1)

Why even bother to sort by color?  We have far too many bricks to for us to just have boxes of “Random LEGOs.”  Additionally, sometimes a set will fall apart and my older son–the 7 1/2 yr old Master LEGO Builder–will need to rebuild.  Or while building a set, one piece will get lost.  Have you ever spent an extended period of time looking for a gray piece the size of your pinky finger nail… the one that’s the flat slant… or the square with the u-shape connector that goes sideways, not up and down?  Right.  That’s why we primarily have color sorting… for FINDING those pieces.  Our house rule is once the Random LEGO box gets full, it’s time to sort into colors.

Some criteria for a good “Random LEGO Box” 

♦ A clear box – so if it’s on a shelf, it’s easily recognizable.  Avoid fabric bins.  

♦ Low sides – makes it easier and more functional for smaller hands to reach in, grab what they want, and build.  (Less dumping.)

♦ Large surface area – while you don’t want it to be too deep, you do want as much surface area space as possible.  Way easier to find what you’re looking for.  Avoid shoe-box sized containers… too small.

The most ideal container I have found for the Random LEGO Box is the Snapware Snap ‘N Stack Sqaure Layer Storage Container, 12-Inch by 12-Inch.  I purchased mine at JoAnn’s on one of their regular 50% off sales for $17.49.  It comes with one lid and three latching containers.  (We use the lid and the other two latching containers for keeping their LEGO train sets safe from “rough play” when not in use.)  Like I said, we intentionally limit the Random Box to one bin because that’s the Creative Solution that works for us.  Maybe all you need is one of these for three bins of randomness?  

Pro-tip: if you’ve got regular LEGO builders, do not try to store the lid on the Random LEGO Box.  The kids will rip it off and leave it on the floor.  It gets in the way.


photo 5We have lots of sets.  I’ve got two boys who have basically requested LEGO sets for every gift for every holiday from everyone for the past four years… and spent their own money on sets… and have sold old toys to buy sets…  My boys play with their sets in-tact.  Some kids enjoy building and destroying.  Mine enjoy building and playing with the buildings. It doesn’t matter which ethos your kid employs.  Just organize around their preference.

When a set is not being used, store it on a shelf.  We have added a layer of shelves to the bookcases to make better use of the unnecessary “tall” space.

photo 2 (1)

We have also hung random shelves at varying heights for additional “safe” storage.

photo 3 (1)  photo 4 (1)

Instruction Manuals

photo 1

If you’ve got sets, you’ve got instruction manuals.  Originally, in my “less unnecessary stuff” mode, I’d suggest tossing the manuals after the initial build, and just accessing them (if needed) through the LEGO website.

We currently have over 3300 building instructions available online which date back to sets packed in 2002…

To search, enter 4 or 5 digit set number or a keyword e.g. airplane, car or hero.

You don’t have to know the set number… just enough descriptive words for you (or your kid) to recognize the set through their website.

For us, sets break all the time, and it’s a lot easier for my 7 1/2 yr old to be able to grab the instructions book when he needs it.  So alas, we are using them and I must store them.  First I stored all the books in one box.  Now we are at three categories: City, Creator/Technic, and Star Wars/Ninjago/Characters.  We have them in three open lid bins.

A side note about the instruction manuals and LEGO customer service.  If you’re ever missing a piece, you can find the piece part number in the back of that manual where it lists all the pieces.  Then call customer service or use the website.  Sometimes they’ll mail it out for free.  Sometimes you’ll need to pay a nominal fee.


My kids play with mini-figs like they’re action figures.  They. Love. Them.  We have so many that get played with so regularly that they need a place to live.

photo 1 (2)  photo 2 (3)

I am just using an old box that possibly had a Melissa and Doug toy in it years ago.  The separate compartments might be good in theory (if your kid is like me and likes organizing… my boys could care less about that, so they all just get thrown in together).  But what’s most important is that the edge of the container is only a couple inches high.  The kids can see what they’re going for, which means less dumping on the floor.

Ideas Evolving to Meet Needs

My organization of LEGOs has definitely evolved over time as our collection has grown.  Deciding how to adapt these ideas to work for you begins with assessing:

  • What’s your starting point
  • What’s your goal

My goal of a clean playroom needed to be adapted to become a playroom that could be cleaned (or significantly straightened) in 20 minutes.  Every time we encountered an obstacle to that goal, we work on finding another Creative Solution in response (hang another shelf, find another box, etc).  It has evolved, and keeps evolving.

With that said, I hope you find a Creative Solution that works for you!

Tiffins: Unique Lunchboxes

With back to school prep, this Creative Solution is on the environmentally friendly, zero-waste lunch containers called Tiffins.

Traditional Tiffin Lunch Boxes

Traditional Tiffin Lunch Boxes

Tiffins are a lunchbox system from India.  The Discovery Channel has a fascinating clip of the use of tiffins and the complex lunch delivery system in India.  While they come in all shapes, sizes and materials, traditionally tiffins are made of stainless steel, and stack any number of tiers with a self-latching lid.

Top three reasons why I like them:

  • Environmentally friendly, zero-waste: you put the food directly in each tiffin tier.
  • Dishwasher Safe
  • Perfect portion sizes

We are a gluten-free, dairy-free family (which will be the topic of an upcoming post), so our lunches consist of fruits and vegetables.  My boys also like a PBJ sandwich and ants-on-a-log (celery, peanut butter, and raisins).  When I make the lunches, I lay out the tiffins and distribute according to everyone’s preferences.

Our Lunches in Tiffins

Our Lunches in Tiffins

Packed up and ready to go!

Packed up and ready to go!

Notice the stickers?  It is a lot easier to tell whose is whose when they are personalized.  I love it when my husband asks, “Am I the red dinosaur?”  Many stickers will wash off, but I have found that certain clear-outlined stickers from Hobby Lobby will work.  Sure, they’ll fade over time, but you’ll get a couple years out of them.

Stickers with clear background

Use stickers with clear background

Tiffins range in price from $10 to $30+

I have five of these from World Market.  They are only 2-tier, and they are thinner than any others I own, but they are only $10.   Purchased 3 or 4 years ago, only one has broken (the latch on the bottom fell apart… but we still use the top).

Hammered Metal Tiffin Lunch Box | World Market $9.99

Hammered Metal Tiffin Lunch Box | World Market $9.99

We have two of these  Stainless Steel Food Containers: To-Go Ware 3 Tier Food Carrier, purchased from Amazon.  The quality is fantastic, and the three tiers are roomy.  I love that the top tier can be used separately, with its own latches.  My husband doesn’t like the long side arms, and both of my boys complain that the top tier is difficult to open.


We also have a LunchBots Uno Stainless Steel Lunch Container (in green).  Pros: great size and shape for a salad.  Cons: leaks pretty easily.




Rome 3-Tier Belly Tiffin

We also have a tiffin that our family calls “The Dalek,” which is a Dr. Who reference.  Several years ago, a friend sold me hers since its design wasn’t working for her family.  My husband loves the size of the compartments, but he hated the cage it comes in.  So my oldest son has claimed it as his.  We have a 2-tier version, which I cannot find on Amazon, so here is the 3-tier version.

Unless we are packing lunches for an outing that involves the tiffins sitting in the car or the sun, I don’t worry about putting them in another container with an icepack.  The fruit and veggies are perfectly fine coming to (an air conditioned) room temp.

Tiffins are a Creative Solution that works well for our family.  While they might be a little expensive at first, their longevity and environmentally conscience design makes them worthwhile.

Snack Containers

Today’s Creative Solution focuses on Snack Containers.

I love containers.  Before I had ever visited the Container Store, I loved containers.  Little drawers, baskets, boxes… smaller boxes inside of bigger boxes… I get very excited.  So this is just the first many posts on organization using different containers.

First up: snacks.  Of course, convenience is important.  But to come to this Creative SolutionI needed to factor in three guiding principles:

  1. I am frugal.  The smaller, pre-packaged snacks are very convenient, but a lot more expensive.
  2. I prefer environmentally conscious solutions.  I’d rather not use disposable, one-time-use plastic baggies.  Rather, I’d prefer to use stainless steel with the kids.
  3. I make an effort to teach my kids (ages 5 1/2 and 7) to be as self-sufficient as reasonably and responsibly possible in any situation.  So solutions that depend on me (and me alone) to make things happen are not ideal.

Our afternoon snack often needs to be something dry and non-refrigerated.  So they get a trail-mix-ey combination of (gluten free) pretzels, raisins, peanuts, and the dry cereal du jour.  I dump the torn/open bags/boxes into (these and these) glass containers from World Market:


But for convenience sake, I need to-go containers in pre-portioned sizes.

So on one of our recent trips to IKEA, my husband asked what I thought of these spice containers, which have a magnetic back.


I had been eyeing these containers for a while, so I asked if we could get a gazillion more. At $7.99 for a 3-pack, he cut me off at four.

So here’s the “advertised” spice rack usage:


We mounted a magnetic strip on the cabinet.  Technically, we could use any metal since the back of the container is magnetic.  But in the end, it was just easier to use the Mini Magnetic Strip from the Container Store because all the hardware was there, the size was right, and at $4.99, the price wasn’t too shabby.

I like being able to pinch or 1/4 tsp measure in spices as needed from these containers.

Notice that the containers are labeled.  We have not one, but two Label Makers in our house and use them All. The. Time.

Brother P-Touch Label Maker

Brother P-Touch Label Maker (10+ Years Old)

The GRUNDTAL spice containers from IKEA worked out perfectly for this Creative Solution: not too expensive, environmentally friendly,  and self-sufficient.  We mounted two Stainless Steel Skinny Strips from the Container Store (@ $7.99 each) on the pantry door, at a level accessible to the boys.


The size of these containers is a perfect portion, and I even have my boys fill their own containers.

I labeled six containers for each kiddo so that (a) they eat from the ones they made for themselves, (b) I know whose is missing, and (c) its obvious which one left their container outside in the grass.  (True story.)

Now, when they are hungry, they can help themselves to a (pre-approved, properly portioned) snack.  It works for us!  How about you? How can you use this to become a Creative Solution for your own household?

Painting Doors

Here’s a Creative Solution for painting doors: cover the knobs and locks with Glad Press’N Seal.

IMG_2246 IMG_2247

I had seen this pin on Pinterest which comes from The Family Handyman

I’ve successfully used this trick while painting around difficult spaces.  Instead of taping, I also tried it on light fixtures and doorknobs.  Works every time!  The stretchy yet sticky nature of the Press’n Seal is perfect for painting.  It adheres to metal and ceramic better than tape and creates a better seal.