How to be Grateful During the Holidays -- and All Year Long!

Got gratitude? Of course! There’s nothing like gathering with loved ones around a bountiful holiday table to make us count our blessings. But giving thanks shouldn’t be something we practice once a year; it should be a vital part of our everyday life. Studies show that gratitude can actually improve your health by strengthening your immune system and making you more resilient in the face of crisis.

Researchers at the University of California, Davis, found that adults who have a grateful disposition are less stressed and more energetic and optimistic than those who do not. Being grateful is good for kids too: Children who practice grateful thinking have more positive attitudes toward school and their families, according to researchers at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

So how can you cultivate a grateful disposition every day? “Make a conscious choice to be to more grateful,” says Philip Friedman, author of The Forgiveness Solution: The Whole-body Rx for Finding True Happiness, Abundant Love and Inner Peace and a licensed clinical psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, Penn.

Here’s a four-step plan to help you (and your family) develop an attitude of gratitude all year ’round.

1. Start a family gratitude routine.
It’s easy to jump on the complain-train when things are going south, and it’s tough to find the good in a less-than-perfect day. But counting the positives will pay off, so start a new family tradition, suggests Erika Oliver, author of Happy Crap: Unleash the Power of Positive Assumptions and positive approach coach in Kalamazoo, Mich. Every evening, have everyone in the family share three good things about their day -- and do it before you start griping about work or traffic jams.

You’ll soon see that there are plenty of large and small blessings to choose from: You finally connected with a hard-to-reach client, your 8-year-old aced her spelling test, your husband ran into a college pal on his morning commute. Says Dr. Friedman: “If you practice gratitude every day, after a while it becomes second nature.”

2. Find the sunny side of your stresses.
Build your gratitude skills by looking on the positive side of your daily frustrations. Instead of thinking, “I hate all these work deadlines,” tell yourself, “I’m exhausted from work, but I’m blessed to have an interesting job that pays well.” Rather than sighing because you have to rush from a kids’ playdate to a holiday party, say, “It can be stressful having such a full schedule, but we’re so lucky to have all these good friends!”

Consciously shifting your mindset will make it easier over time to be a thankful person. Best of all, it’s contagious. When you maintain a positive attitude, you’ll attract upbeat people and experiences.

3. Be thankful for things that haven’t yet happened.

It’s great to show gratitude for the blessings you have today. Now go one step further by picturing all the good things that still lie ahead, suggests Friedman.

Once a week, close your eyes and imagine that you’re standing on a carpet of gratitude. Then imagine that you’re walking down the carpet past all the wonderful experiences that await you: a dream job, your wedding day, the birth of your child, a trip to Paris. By thanking the universe for blessings in advance, you’ll develop a sense of gratitude even when things don’t seem to be going your way.

4. Go public.
Don’t keep your thanks to yourself! Post a gratitude statement as your status update on Facebook or Twitter every week. Examples: “I’m grateful my son got the teacher he wanted for 4th grade. He can’t wait to go to school in the morning!” or “Just enjoyed some yummy risotto. I’m so happy my husband is a great cook!” As Friedman notes, “Your Facebook friends will like and comment on your status, reinforcing your gratitude attitude.”

Photo Credit: @iStockphoto.com/sjlocke

Family Room Clutter Busters

Your family room or living room is the one place your whole clan comes together to hang out. And, as such, it’s probably the default dumping ground for everyone’s stuff. If your family is like most families, that means clutter and disorganization.

But you can transform this room from the messiest area in your home to the organized, relaxing family haven you desire. Here’s how: 

1. Get rid of what doesn’t belong.
Think about the function of the room, says Lorie Marrero, author of The Clutter Diet and founder of the Web site ClutterDiet.com. How do you use the space? Most people use family rooms to watch TV and movies, listen to music, read, talk, play games and play with toys.

Start by going through each item with that in mind. Keep what fits and move out what doesn’t. That means board games, magazines and DVDs are in; backpacks, a briefcase, mail, keys, cold medicine and other miscellaneous items are out.

2. Sort your stuff.
Focusing on the stuff that you decided to keep, sort everything by how often you use each item, advises Marrero.

Things your family uses daily or almost every day (magazines, remotes, toys, etc.) should be easily accessible. Items you use a few times a month (playing cards, scrapbooks) can go out of the way in a cabinet or drawer. Gather anything you rarely need (holiday decorations, your grandmother’s tablecloth, old report cards) into storage bins and send them off to the garage, closet, attic or basement.

3. Ditch DVD and CD cases.
One of the quickest ways for a room to look and feel neater is to transfer discs to CD wallets or binders and get rid of the cases by either recycling them or donating them to charity. This way, you convert many shelves of storage or display space to just a few inches, and your CDs remain accessible. In fact, it’s even easier to find the CD you need.  “Because you flip through binders like a book, it’s easier to find specific discs,” says Marrero.

4. Clear the coffee table.
Because of its prominent spot in the room, the coffee table can amass clutter and make an otherwise tidy room feel disorganized. Here are some ideas on how to deal with the messy inhabitants:

  • Move magazines. Magazines and catalogs can easily pile up. Place them in a basket in a corner, instead. It serves as a natural “limiting container,” says Marrero. “When the basket is full, it’s a visual reminder to clean it out.”
  • Rein in remote controls. A universal remote is an extra expense, but what you spend to turn four remotes into one, you’ll earn back in sanity. Also, give it a designated home: Attach the soft side of Velcro to the back of the remote and stick the rough piece to the side of the sofa or another easy-to-reach, hidden spot.

5. Tidy up toys.
Some people think that all toys can be thrown into one place, but if you want to stay organized, that might not be the best strategy. “One big toy box encourages kids to dump the whole thing out,” warns Marrero. And then what do you have?  Clutter city! Instead, store toys in small containers by type -- one bin for dolls, one for blocks, one for games, and so on. And skip lids if possible. “Using open bins means that kids can just throw things in, making cleanup easier for everyone,” says Marrero.

6. Corral your cords.
A mess of exposed electrical cords is just that -- a mess. Fish cords through the back of furniture and use Velcro cable ties or even garbage-bag twist ties to bundle them. “That way, they don’t become a giant octopus,” says Marrero. Attach label stickers on the ends so you can unplug one electronic without the guessing game.

7. Stay clutter-free.
Once the room is organized, keep it that way!

  • Stop collecting stuff. “Try to prevent things from coming into the room in the first place,” says Marrero. Unsubscribe from magazines you rarely read, and buy music or movies online instead of getting them in discs. And, before you buy anything new, ask yourself, “Where am I going to store this?”
  • Think beyond the family room. If items like backpacks and mail keep showing up, give them a permanent home elsewhere. Create what Marrero calls a “destination station.” Hang hooks by the door for keys, put a basket in the hall for mail and give purses, backpacks and shoes space in your mud room or hall closet.
  • Straighten up on the spot. “Organizing is about decision making,” says Marrero. It’s easy to put an item somewhere “just for now.” But doing so instantly creates clutter. The rule: Put items away as soon as you finish with them, and find suitable homes for new things right away.
  • Enlist your family’s help. Talk about maintaining the order, then post a checklist reminding your kids that they have to put away toys, homework and other stuff before they can watch TV. Or set a policy that everyone spends five minutes before bed to get organized -- folding blankets, putting back the remote, picking up socks and so on.

Healthy Brown-Bag Lunches Your Kids Will Love!

With the stresses of another new school year, packing a healthy lunch for your kids can feel as tough as a final exam. But don’t give up and reach for the PB&J just yet. There are plenty of healthy school lunch ideas to tempt young taste buds.

The keys to any healthy school lunch are portion size and variety, says Jill Kammerer, a registered dietician at Tampa General Hospital in Tampa, Fla. Because portion size varies by age, weight and activity level, Kammerer suggests visiting the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Choose My Plate site for suggested menu plans and calorie requirements. Once you know how much your children should be eating, try these tips to find a good mix of lunch choices they won’t trade with their friends.

Stay Balanced

A healthy lunch should have a mix of protein (meat, beans or nuts), vegetables or salad, fruit or 100 percent fruit juice, whole grains (rice, pasta or bread) and dairy or vitamin D-fortified soy products.

Get Your Child’s Input

Ask your child to help plan her lunches for the week, or take her grocery shopping and encourage her to pick something new. Suggest themes, such as Spanish-food week. “If they feel involved, they’re more likely to eat it,” Kammerer says.

Make Healthy Swaps

Create your own nutritionally superior versions of packaged meals. For instance, instead of buying prepackaged deli lunches -- which are both pricey and high in sodium and preservatives -- go to the deli counter and get slices of lean roast beef or turkey and low-fat cheese. Add whole-wheat crackers, and your kids can make their own mini-sandwiches!

Try Variations of Old Favorites

Take a break from peanut butter in the classic PB&J and use almond or cashew butter instead. Both of these are equally high in protein, and almond butter is also rich in vitamin E. Or put your child’s favorite lean cold cuts and cheese in a tortilla for a quick wrap; slice it, and you have fun-to-eat pinwheels. Spread tomato sauce in a pita pocket and add shredded low-fat mozzarella and veggies for a lunch pizza.

Watch for Added Sugars

Fruit cups are often packed in sugary syrup, and fruit strips are usually “fruit” in name only. For healthy school lunches, choose fresh fruit or fruit cups in natural juices to keep.

Go Fresh

“Get them used to things that are fresh,” Kammerer says. “The younger you start, the better.” Let your kids dip raw vegetables into reduced-fat sour cream jazzed up with spices, or have them choose fresh fruits and nuts for a homemade trail mix.

Make Them “App”-y

Kids love to nibble, so a lunch of appetizers should be a hit. Try baked pita chips with hummus or fresh salsa, cheese cubes and frozen grapes.

Pack Smart Sweets

Flavored gelatin, low-fat pudding, a homemade oatmeal-raisin cookie or graham crackers will all satisfy your kids’ sweet tooth without an excess of fat and calories (save the cupcakes for class parties!). But, adds Kammerer, “If your child is overweight, fruit needs to be the dessert.”

Have Fun with Presentation

Divided plastic containers can help if you have an eater who doesn’t want certain foods to touch. Colorful plastic wrap instead of a resealable plastic bag is sure to bring a smile. And be sure to add a riddle or an “I Love You” note once in a while -- it’s a perfect no-calorie surprise!

Photo: Corbis Images

The Dirty Truth About Kitchen Germs

What would you guess is the germiest thing in your house? The trash can? The toilet? It’s actually -- gulp! -- the kitchen sink. In fact, the entire kitchen is a hotbed of bacteria, according to a study by the Hygiene Council, a group of global health experts. The room plays host to half of the top 10 germiest areas in your home, even though most people say they regularly clean the kitchen.

“The potential for bacteria is so high in the kitchen because you bring in uncooked meats and produce that can introduce E. coli, Salmonella and other bacteria,” says Dr. Charles Gerba, who holds a doctorate in microbiology and teaches at the University of Arizona. “Cooking kills the bacteria, but handling it increases the risk of spreading germs to other foods and surfaces, like the sink and countertop.”

Fortunately, getting rid of your kitchen germs is a snap. Here are the top five germ-prone areas -- plus quick tricks for cleaning them.

1. The Kitchen Sink

In most drains alone, there are half a million bacteria per square inch, says Gerba. “Everything gets tossed in the sink -- raw food, scraps, dirty dishes,” he says. “Plus, it’s constantly wet, which creates the perfect environment for bacteria to grow.”

Banish the bacteria: Simply spray your basin and drain with disinfectant every night after cleaning up the dinner dishes. No need to wipe!

2. Sponges

The thing you rely on to clean your kitchen may be sabotaging your efforts. “If you use a sponge to wipe a bacteria-containing area and then use it to wipe countertops and other surfaces, you give germs a free ride around your kitchen,” explains Gerba.

Banish the bacteria: Designate one sponge for washing dishes and another sponge or cloth for wiping surfaces. Toss sponges in the dishwasher with a regular load at least once a week (or whenever one touches raw food). Microwaving a sponge for two minutes also kills bacteria.

3. Cutting boards

Cutting boards are big germ hangouts. Why? “First, you use them to prep things like raw chicken,” says Mary Findley, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Green Cleaning and owner of Mary Moppins cleaning products. “And second, knives create tiny grooves that trap bacteria and make them hard to clean.”

Banish the bacteria: To prevent cross-contamination, use one cutting board for meat, poultry and seafood, and another only for produce. Wash them after every use: Glass and plastic boards can go in the dishwasher, but wood cutting boards need to be washed and dried by hand. You can also apply mineral oil to wood boards every month or two, which helps seal crevices and block bacteria, says Findley.

4. The Faucet

After handling raw meat, most people reach for the faucet to wash their hands. But that leaves bacteria behind on the handle. What’s more, germy sponges and dishcloths are often stored nearby or draped over the faucet.

Banish the bacteria: When you spray the sink’s basin, also hit the faucet, the handle and the spigot. Or wipe all faucet surfaces with an antibacterial cloth, says Gerba. 

5. The Refrigerator
The fridge handle sees a lot of action, and all those hands can unknowingly spread pathogens. As for the inside, “the bottom shelf is the worst,” says Findley. “When foods leak or drip from above, they all collect there.”

Banish the bacteria: Wipe down the handle, drawers and bottom shelf before your weekly supermarket trip, suggests Findley. Once a month, take out and wash the drawers with soap and water, letting them dry thoroughly.

5 Things No One Ever Tells You About Motherhood

There’s nothing like firsthand experience to prepare you for motherhood. Seriously. You can read every parenting book on the market, but only being in the new mom trenches -- sleep-deprived and sore all over -- can open your eyes to the realities of your new role.

“We come to motherhood with preconceived notions and stars in our eyes,” says Debra Gilbert Rosenberg, a licensed clinical social worker, the author of Motherhood Without Guilt: Being the Best Mother You Can Be and Feeling Great About It, and a psychotherapist in Oak Brook, Ill. “The truth is motherhood is tedious, repetitive, sometimes even boring and definitely not glamorous.”

Which is not to say motherhood isn’t wonderful (it is!), but it still helps to know all sides of the story. Here, five surprising things no one ever tells you about being a mom -- plus how to cope with them.

You’ll be tired and achy longer than you might expect.
Some new moms are fine a month or so after the baby is born, but most women need eight weeks or longer to physically recover. (And don’t expect to be Beyoncé-slim by then, either.) How long it takes depends on whether you delivered vaginally or had a C-section, how much sleep you’re getting, and how fast your hormone levels settle down.

“Give yourself permission to recover in the time that’s right for your body,” says Rosenberg. And be sure to bring extra ice packs home from the hospital: The pain down there can be excruciating for a week or more, even if you’ve only had a small episiotomy.

Your baby will bore you.

There’s nothing exciting (or intellectually rewarding) about changing diapers and doing multiple loads of laundry 24/7. “If you’re bored taking care of your newborn, don’t feel guilty or think something’s wrong with you,” says Rosenberg. “The early days of motherhood are all about repetitive, tedious work. Babies don’t do much except eat and sleep. Most babies don’t even smile until they’re 8 weeks old, and it can take three to six months before they’re able to connect with you emotionally and intellectually.” Make peace with the boredom, because before long, you’ll be chasing after a toddler -- and toddlers, with their boundless energy and strong wills, are anything but boring!

You will read Goodnight Moon 1,000 times.

So your 3-year-old is obsessed with playing in the kitchen at preschool? Or maybe she insists on hearing the same bedtime story every night or eating grilled cheese sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and dinner?

Not to worry. Preschoolers get fixated on activities, toys and foods for no single reason: Some may want to master a task, while others find comfort in a familiar routine. Sure, it’s oh-so-aggravating behavior, but it’s age-appropriate and most likely won’t mean anything for the long term. When your child is ready to move on, she’ll move on. As Rosenberg explains, “Your child could play kitchen simply because his friend likes to play kitchen -- and he likes his friend more than the other activities that are available.”

You may lose some of your friends.

New moms don’t have a lot of time and energy to socialize. The result? Friendships may get strained -- and not all of them will survive. “Soulmate friends will still be there for you because the bond is based on your connection as human beings,” says Rosenberg. “But playmate friends may not be available until they have kids too, because the bond is based on hanging out together.”

Other moms will drive you crazy.
The playground mother who brags nonstop about her child’s achievements. The school mom who dominates PTA meetings. The playdate mom who turns her kids’ birthday parties into can-you-top-this extravaganzas. You’re bound to run into all types.

What to do? Disengage! Competitive parenting is a sport nobody can win. But don’t become so aloof around fellow moms that your child turns into an outcast. “Be sociable enough so the other mothers are willing to send their kids to your house to play,” says Rosenberg. “But when the competitive talk starts, say, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize it was this late. I have to go.’” And don’t worry; you’ll find nice, laid-back mom-friends too!