Clean Car Challenge: 7 Ways to Keep Your Ride Yuck-Free When You Have Kids

By Kelle Hampton

There’s been a running joke in our family for the past several years that if my car ever careened off into the wilderness, we’d be able to survive off what we found inside it for at least three weeks. Crumbs off the floor, forgotten water bottles hidden under the passenger seat, extra clothes for a number of occasions, books for boredom, toys for entertainment, and shoes upon shoes upon shoes. That’s not even counting the weird random items that could come in handy in an emergency–broken pens, a phone cord, a frisbee, a lens cap, a rubber band loom hook and a doll boot. I’m sure those could be MacGyver’ed into a cooking stove, a small engine or at least some kind of smoke signal to summon help. The point is, keeping my car clean has been a real challenge for me–something I’ve blamed on having kids. I realize though, I’m more at fault here. I’ve chosen not to make a clean car a priority…until now.

I recently traded in my old SUV for a minivan (pause for Minivan Club high five!), and the first matter of business upon bringing it home was committing to keep it clean. OK my husband suggested it, but at least I enthusiastically agreed to the challenge. I don’t know, maybe it was the thought of picking up my daughter from school car line and not lunging to conceal piles when teachers walked her to the door that actually excited me. Either way, I was committed, and I knew I’d need a new game plan.

So, how are we going to do this?

1. A Designated Place for Stuff

Fans of impromptu adventure, we’re notorious for proclaiming random road trips or beach excursions which invite us to throw a bunch of junk in the car–junk that’s easily left behind once we’ve arrived back home from our exhausting adventure. One way to combat this problem is to keep “junk” we regularly use (car trip entertainment like books and lap games, sun block, kid sunglasses and hats, diapers and wipes, and snacks) in the car, designated to one area like a bin or tote. We found a great canvas bin that now holds all of our car gear, and it fits nicely behind the front console, so everything is easily accessible both for the driver and the back seat passengers. Another great way for combating floor accumulation is…

2. Clean Up Every Night

Easier said than done, cleaning the car after every trip is really the only way to tame the car mess beast. After coming home from errands or a long adventure, the last thing I want to do is haul three kids into the house and head back out to clean the car. However, a quick car clean-up doesn’t have to be a big ordeal. Asking everyone to grab two things might be all it takes. Lately, I’ve cut myself some slack when returning home from running around, but have made myself head out to the car before bed to clean up the day’s mess. It’s so much easier to attend to small daily messes than letting them accumulate and facing a full car clean-up a week later.

3. Hold Kids Responsible

Take this less as Miss Hannigan and more “Hey kids, want to help?!” A lot of my car mess has to do with things the kids insisted on dragging along for a trip–the dolls, the coloring books, the click-clack shoes. If they’re old enough to insist on taking something to the car, they’re old enough to be held responsible for taking it back inside the house. That goes for backpacks, lunch boxes and library books too. Don’t forget, kids also love a fun challenge or contest, so cleaning up the car can easily be turned into a game: Who can pick up the most stuff? Who wants to wipe down the dash? How many pieces of trash can you find? I only wish this worked for adults who hate housecleaning.

4. Frequent Vacuuming

If you rely on the fifty cent vacuum at the car wash, you probably won’t get around to cleaning your car floor as often as you think. Our central vacuum in our garage makes frequent car cleaning easy, but if you don’t have a good car vacuum, you can find one online in the $20-$50 range. Kids love vacuuming cars–make it a weekly job for them.

5. Limit Snacks

Our life demands too much running around to make a “no snacks in the car” rule, but I do realize that with a little thought, I can choose snacks that won’t ruin the interior of my car. Sticky snacks (like fruit snacks or cereal bars with jelly) can melt and become embedded in car upholstry, peanut butter smooshes, and juice stains. By keeping bags of crackers in the car and bringing a water bottle or spill-proof cup on our trips, our car stays cleaner (and we’re less inclined to grab fast food when someone’s crying that they’re hungry). Choosy moms choose clean snacks.

6. Keep Cleaning Supplies in Car…and Designate a Trash Bin!

Designating a place for garbage in our car has saved us a lot of mess. We now have a lined basket that tucks beneath one of the back seats. In addition, we keep upholstry cleaner (for that unexpected milk bottle leak or sick child accident), a rag and some clean-up wipes in the trunk to quickly attend to messes.

7. Make It Fun

After all the heat I’ve taken on having a messy car for so long, I’m turning the tables and having fun with this new challenge. My kids are in on the new goals, and I’ve had “Clean-Off” contests with friends to see whose car stays clean the longest. Text a picture of the interior every Friday to a best friend to hold yourself accountable, ask your kids to keep you responsible–do whatever you have to do make the job fun.

Is keeping a car clean with three kids actually possible? Time will tell.

Take the Car Clean challenge with us, and implement some of these strategies this weekend! How long can your car last?

About the Author

Kelle Hampton is a writer, photographer and speaker. Her blog post about her daughter's Down syndrome led to the writing of "Bloom," a New York Times bestselling memoir. Hampton has contributed to "Parents," "Parenting," "Martha Stewart’s Whole Living," "Good Housekeeping" and NPR’s "All Things Considered." She shares photography and journals about life and motherhood on her blog Enjoying the Small Things.