Before you had kids, planning a day at the beach required little more than deciding which swimsuit to wear and remembering to pack sunscreen. Maybe you picked out a nearby spot for a leisurely late lunch... or not. But now? Like skimpy bikinis and SPF 2 tanning oil, that carefree approach is thing of the past.
"Planning a day trip to the beach with young kids is the equivalent of planning a two-week trip without kids," says Jennifer Lizza, a New Jersey mom of two and the blogger behind Outsmarted Mommy. Between the packing, food prep, and swim/play/rest strategizing, there's a lot of planning involved. How many towels should you bring? How will you handle sand-encrusted lunches—or babies? How are you going to get all this stuff from your car onto the beach?
Take a deep breath, mama—don't get swept away on a riptide of stress. A fun day at the beach with your kids is possible, thanks to these expert parenting tips.
1. Spring for a Pop-Up Tent or Shelter
If your kids are still wee ones, invest in a small tent that folds flat and stores in a zip-up carrying case so your babies have a shady, protected place to take a beachside nap. (Because, really, a big ol' beach umbrella is the last thing you want to be hauling around these days). Trust us: This will make your day that much better.
2. Plan Your Haul
Unless you have more adults than children hitting the beach, you'll need some help getting your gear from the car to the sand. Rolling carts with tough, sand-ready wheels are a smart asset, and some brands, including the popular Wonder Wheeler, feature main compartments made of mesh to allow wet or sandy toys to drain while you walk back to your car.
3. Bring Along a (Washable) Lovey
If your kiddos still take naps, it'll be hard to get them to settle down while they're on the beach -- and who can blame them? The way we see it, you've got a few options: You can be a laid-back mama and skip the nap just this once; schedule beach time around nap-time (no fun!); or borrow this tip from Jessica Matier, the blogger behind Army Wife to Suburban Life and regular beachgoer with her 4- and 6-year-old daughters: Bring along a soft blanket or favorite stuffed animal from home to set them up for sleepytime success. Just be sure that lovey can be tossed into the wash when you get home!
4. Stock up on Shopping Bags
Plastic shopping bags may be an environmental foe, but they're your friend at the beach, and shoving a handful of them into a pocket of your diaper bag or beach bag will save you in any number of situations.
5. Rethink the Beach Blanket
What's the magic middle ground between bulky beach blankets and a row of individual towels? Corrine McDermott, founder of HaveBabyWillTravel.com, knows: "We use an old duvet cover as our beach blanket," she says "It's big, and heavy enough to not blow away, but not overly bulky to take up too much room." Genius!
6. Arrive Early
Timing is everything, particularly when it comes to staking out a good spot at a popular beach. "When my littles were still on two naps, we'd usually hit the beach around 9 a.m.," says McDermott. "Even when they graduated to just an after-lunch nap, hitting the beach early meant we enjoyed no crowds and were indoors by the time the sun was at its strongest."
7. Choose a Spot by the Lifeguard
There's a surprising benefit to being near the lifeguard station, says Matier, who lives near the beach in Sandy Hook, New Jersey. It makes it easier for your kids to remember where you are in case you get separated. Just don't sit directly in front of the lifeguard's chair, says Matier. "They need a clear path" to the water and will ask you to move.
8. Do Sunscreen Right
Get to know the American Academy of Pediatrics' guidelines on sunscreen use, which include wearing hats, sunglasses, and cover-ups, minimizing sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., and pausing every two hours, or after swimming or sweating, to reapply sunscreen of SPF 15 or greater that protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Matier uses a cream-based sunscreen before hitting the beach, but switches to spray sunscreen for repeated applications to avoid the messy mix of sandy skin and creamy sunscreen. Just apply it to your hands first, and then your kiddo's skin.
9. Plan a Beachy "Treasure Hunt"
When your kids tire of building sandcastles (and they will), try this fun trick of Lizza's: Bury colorful items like golf balls, big shells, a shovel, or play fish in the sand in your area, then have them hunt for the hidden loot. "I put one bucket in the center and the kids have fun digging for the 'treasures' while I give them clues from the comfort of my beach chair," she says.
10. Use Baby Powder to De-Sand Baby
Sandy babies and toddlers are inevitable at the beach, but baby powder is your friend if you want to avoid giving your little ones an exfoliating scrub. "You have to let them coat themselves first and accept that they're going to be that way," says Matier. Rest assured that a liberal sprinkling of baby powder on sandy—but relatively dry—bodies will make getting clean(er) a breeze.
11. Establish a No-Touch Zone
Matier has a beach chair with a pocket on the back, and her kids know better than to root around in there. She keeps her phone -- in a zip-top bag -- and other must-have items there and knows they'll be safe and dry, and won't get built into the architecture of any sandcastles.
12. Pack Small Lunch Containers
Bringing lots of foods in individual containers means that if one sandwich goes overboard into the sand, all is not lost, says Matier. She recommends squeezable fruit packs and small portions of cut-up veggies, chips, and other yummies. Pack everything in a larger cooler, and place your cooler behind your chair to help shield it from the sun.
13. Freeze Foods to Save Cooler Space
Who has room for bulky ice packs when picnic basket space is at a premium? "I like to freeze water bottles, yogurt sticks, and fruit like grapes the night before," says Lizza. "I stack the water bottles on the bottom of the cooler. The yogurt and grapes in a baggy go on top of all the food. I don't have to worry about ice, and at the end of the day, you better believe that cooler is light as a feather and completely empty."
14. Keep Keys Secure yet Accessible
If your beach bag lacks a keychain hook on the inside, rig one up by tying a string around a key ring, attaching it to the bag's handle, and dangling the keys inside the bag so they're hidden by other items. This will let you fish your keys out of your bag simply by tugging on the string -- and not by unpacking the whole thing at the exact moment your kids are finally ready to leave.
15. Be Smart About How You Leave
Every parent has felt all the joy and happiness of the day draining away as their kids melt down the moment it's time to leave the beach. "As with any transition out of a fun activity, give lots of advance notice," says McDermott. And stay ahead of the game by corralling your stuff before your kids lose it. "Try to be packed up before giving notice so you can just pick up and go," she says.
16. Keep a Dust Broom in the Car
Keep a soft-bristled dust broom, available at any hardware store, in the car for one last pass at de-sanding your kids' bodies -- and your own feet -- before you buckle in for the drive home.
17. Give in to the Crazy
Don't forget that amid all the prep and schlep involved in getting your kids to and from the beach, the opportunity to sit surfside with your brood is a pleasure. "This will not be relaxing, but it will definitely be fun," says McDermott. "Just enjoy splashing and building castles and don't worry too much when they eat sand. It comes out in their diaper."