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How to Keep Your Car Clean With Kids – From a Mom of 5!

My husband and I have spent years traveling for his job with our 4 (now 5!) kids. My car has been in such a sad state that if it had been paid off, I probably would have opted to burn it instead of clean it. Over the years, I’ve found some amazing tips and tricks to keep a car clean even with a large family. Let’s tackle how to keep your car clean with kids!

Related:  17 Best Toddler Toys for Road Trips (from a mom of five!)

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Now how to KEEP your car clean implies that it is actually clean to begin with.

If your car is a complete disaster like mine was, you’re going to have to go through the nightmare of cleaning it first.

Car Cleaning Tips

1. Take everything out of your car. Everything. Dirty clothes, random toys, all the miscellaneous items that have found their way into your car.

2. Take off any car seat covers and throw them into the wash. We always air dry ours, but follow the manufacturer instructions on the tag.

3. Vacuum – if you have a shop vac, now is the time to bust it out. If not, go to a car wash and use their free ones.

4. Wipe down everything. Use car upholstery wipes if you have them, if not, damp paper towels work almost as well.

5. Finally, wipe down the windows, inside and out.

Starting with a clean vehicle is the best way to motivate you to keep a clean car.

I’ve discovered the easiest ways to keep my car clean are just to stick to the simple tried and true methods below.

I’m a busy mom. I have five kids ages 8 and under. If these car hacks can help us, I’m confident they can help anyone.

Car Cleaning Hacks with Kids That Work

The biggest game changer EVER for keeping my car clean has been keeping a handheld vacuum with me at all times.

This is the exact one we have and it stores perfectly under the passenger seat.

It is rechargable and I usually vacuum while my husband pumps the gas. 

It’s just a habit now.

While my husband pumps gas, my kids and I round up any trash that has accumulated in the car.

This might be food wrappers or random baby wipes from them cleaning up their own messes.

Never go to a gas station without using their garbage can.

When purchasing car seats and booster seats, make sure to choose one with seat covers that are easily removable.

Limit Toys in the Car

If you limit what can come in the car, you limit what you will eventually have to take out of it.

Our 8 year old LOVES legos, but when he brings his smaller creations with him, someone ends up breaking them.

I end up with lego pieces everywhere, including in the sliding mechanism of my minivan.

If you spend a ton of time in the car, maybe you have some toys that you actually keep in the car.

We keep a few baby toys in the back of the passenger seat and a few fidget toys the kids pass around.

Everything else we keep at home.

Should You Let Your Kids Eat in the Car?

The most obvious answer to this, assuming you want a clean car, is a resounding NO.


We basically live in our car.

I am writing this as we drive 8 hours home from Key West, FL. I have already given my kids food in their carseats today.

It isn’t whether they eat in their carseats that makes the biggest difference, it’s WHAT they eat in their carseats.

You can go ahead and make a hard and fast rule that no one is going to eat in your car, but on a long roadtrip, that all goes out the window.

When you’ve already stopped to pee three times, it’s way less appealing to stop again for lunch.

Instead, limit what your kids can have. 

We try to never let them have anything sticky to eat. Instead, we give them snacks that are “crumb” issues instead.

I portion out little plastic bags with snacks in them and hand them back when asked.

We only ever drink water in the car except for rare occasions that we get smoothies somewhere.

Water is super easy to clean up should anything spill.

Car Cleaning Hacks with Young Children

One tip that has come in handy for us about a million times is to use diapers to soak up big messes.

Messes are going to happen. Our 3 year old made pretzel soup in her cup holder with her pretzels and water.

If this nightmare happens to you, use a diaper to soak up all of the liquid. This makes for a much less disgusting clean up process.

Don’t bombard your car with tons of cleaning supplies. All we keep with us are Walmart bags and baby wipes – which we were bringing anyway.

These cover a multitude of sins and don’t add a ton of unnecessary clutter.

One thing out, one thing in. If you let your kids bring any toys to the car, they absolutely must come in when you get home. 

Get in the habit of checking the third row on a regular basis, if you have one.

Ours turns into a dumpster fire in no time flat if I don’t stay on top of it.

I don’t even know who is smuggling things back there but I still have nightmares over some of the things I’ve found back there.

Good Habits That Will Keep Your Car Clean

  • Check that third row on a regular basis. Seriously.
  • Keep a trash bag in the car at all times.
  • Never pass up a gas station trash can.
  • Do a quick sweep every time you bring in groceries. You’re already carrying stuff inside. Fill one of those empty grocery bags with any random stuff and bring it in too.

Developing these habits will go a long way to keeping your car cleaner.

Things We’ve Tried That DON’T Work

Cute little bento boxes for snacks.

I love them for trips around town but NOT for snacking in the car.

They usually have extra trays and just get left in the car. It’s more you have to remember to bring in. Plastic bags are the way to go.

Trays. Same thing. They’re just in the way.

Small trash bin. This ended up just falling over. Then I got a hanging one. That just got in the way. We keep a few plastic shopping bags in the center console and use them on long road trips.

They have also come in handy many times for blow outs and random stomach bugs.

You can’t think you can buy your way into a decluttered car.

It doesn’t make sense to buy a lot of stuff with the hope that it will somehow give you less stuff in your car.

Every family car gets gross simply because we let kids get in there.

If we’re going to keep these kids, we’re going to keep getting messes and we need to just find simple ways to keep up with the messes they create.

How to Prepare for Roadtrips with Kids

If you have a family road trip coming up, the only two things you need to do to figure out how to keep a car clean with kids is plan ahead and stay dedicated.

Plan snacks that only leave crumb messes.

Keep window wipes in the glove box for when sticky fingers find the windows.

Keep plastic grocery bags under one of the seats.

Don’t forget to bring that cordless vacuum.

Manage Expectations

Finally, try to manage your expectations for what counts as a clean car with young kids.

My husband and I have this discussion often.

If it were up to him, our kids would never eat in our minivan and it would always be spotless like a new car.

The truth is, kids are messy.

With messy kids comes a messy car and finger prints on the windows.

There are easy ways to help keep your car managable, but this is such a short chapter in our lives.

It’s not acceptable to have a dumpster on wheels rolling down the highway. I get it.

But it’s also not reasonable to expect your car to be perfect. 

Try the tips I’ve laid out here, do your best, and let go of the rest.

Life is about the journey. Try to enjoy the ride – even if that ride is sometimes in a messy car with sticky windows and French fries under the seats.

clean car with toddlers