When shelter in place first began, some days just flowed: I was super productive, homeschool and work were in harmony, and the house was even (passably) clean. And then there were the other days: the kitchen overwhelmed with tiny bowls from my daughter's third snack of the morning, our laundry basket spilling over into other parts of the house, and abandoned pieces of paper for art projects scattered throughout my makeshift classroom in the living room.
Part of my stay-at-home mom journey has been to seek out efficiencies so I can enjoy actually spending time with my kids rather than always doing chores.
Allow me to geek out on the stuff that's working for us. Please share any tips for us in the comments, too!
Set a schedule and designate spaces
The biggest thing that sets our day off right is a predictable schedule and places to get everything done. If you haven't already, create a daily timeline for children and colleagues. Is it working? If not, make adjustments.
Find a place for everyone to do their work
We tried having our “classroom” in a few different spots around the house and ultimately landed at the dining room table. It is separate from my husband’s makeshift office above our garage. So when we go to school, he goes to work, and it makes the morning transition easier and predictable for everyone.
Set a loose schedule for the day
My daughters also have a set daily schedule that includes exercise, learning, quiet/nap time, and free time. Daily schedules don’t have to be complicated. When working from home, my coworkers are most understanding if I block out a few hours here and there for family stuff.
With that said, I’ve also set a schedule for eating. That might sound overboard, but the sheer volume of food prep and dishes was getting unruly. If my daughters don’t eat breakfast, I’ve set the expectation that they will have to wait until morning snack to eat again. Even my one-year old now understands this basic concept. Don’t worry, nobody is being deprived, there are still three meals and three snacks per day, but I have more control of how many times I’m digging through the pantry and doling out plates.
Which brings me to the hard-won lessons we've learned in the kitchen.
Kitchen tips that are working (for now)
With everyone home all day, the kitchen now feels like a restaurant. With a little bit of advanced planning, we can reduce the daily onslaught of food prep and dishes.
Double what can be doubled
Some of us are baking more during shelter-in-place. I've read there is actually a shortage of baking yeast! When we're making a batch of cookies, pizza dough, or whatever creative project my child has discovered, we double the recipe and freeze it. Freshly baked cookies next week without having to wash the mixer, counters, floors, measuring cups, and our dough-covered faces? Sign me up.
Doubling down on doubling my recipes
The same doubling trick goes for entrees. When possible, I aim for something uncomplicated that can freeze and save my future self from meal prep. This no-boil pasta bake is my go-to for an easy dinner that can also be doubled for freezing.
We’re vegetarian and, inevitably, I’m always cutting vegetables. When I’m making a vegetable-heavy dinner, I will cut extra veggies, pull out a few extra containers, throw in some greens (whatever we have on hand) and toss in the extra vegetables. Later in the week when I’m scavenging for a quick lunch, I’ll grab one of my ready-made salads and top it with some cheese, nuts, and dressing. These salads definitely beat eating the leftover oranges from my daughters' plates. I've also noticed with the predictable schedule, there has been less food waste at mealtimes. My hypothesis is that my kids are actually hungry because they can’t eat willy nilly anymore. Either way, it’s been a win-win.
Stocking up on our favorite food
We like to order takeout deep dish pizza from Zachary’s or Little Star. They both offer online ordering for touchless payment. Plus deep dish pizza warms up nicely for lunch the next day. Farmer Joe's Marketplace off Fruitvale has been well-stocked with a more manageable line than some of the larger chains. Find other curbside restaurants and creative East Bay food sources.
Strategizing in the war on dirty dishes
Predictability is key here. My best tip for reducing dirty dishes is to use the same ones every day for meals and snacks. Then each of us is responsible for our own set of dishes to optimize clean up. My oldest daughter uses the same unicorn bowl for breakfast and she’s responsible for getting it in the dishwasher before we carry on with the morning. Sure it might be boring, but it helps create a routine with chores for little kids.
Chores, AKA “family help time”
Putting away school and art supplies
If your children can walk, they are old enough to pitch in with chores. To minimize the overall pileup of art projects and craft supplies, I like to keep things corralled in containers. We keep a stash of school supplies next to the dining room table for easy access. In the evening before bed, everyone pitches in to clean up, and we tuck in the supplies for their nighttime rest. I can proudly say my one-year-old sings the cleanup song like a professional. It takes five minutes if we all pitch in, and the next morning we start the day with a clean slate.
To optimize our family laundry, I try to do it all in one day (of course, there are always exceptions when I can't quite finish everything in one day). But I do laundry on Monday only. If something isn’t in the dirty clothes basket by then, it will have to wait until next week.
A few more optimizing tricks
Depending on where you are your own parenting journey, these may seem like commonsense or total revelations. I do know they streamline and optimize my time, so I can be more relaxed overall:
- Set it and forget it (appliances). Just like having Laundry Monday and Taco Tuesday every week frees up brain space, if any of my appliances allow it, I schedule them in advance. Our pre-programmable Roomba runs every day at the exact same time when I’m outside with my girls getting exercise. My dishwasher also runs every night at 9 pm. My house isn't exactly cleaning itself, but I am so thankful for the appliances that do more than their share. Pro tip: Costco usually has the best rates and rebates on iRobot Roombas with scheduling.
- Make time for self-care We already know that exercise, sleep, and nutrition keep our immunity, strength, and mindset in a good place, but squeezing it in is HARD. I I sleep in my running clothes a few nights a week so I can run first thing in the morning without procrastinating. I wake up before my kids, even if it’s just 10 minutes to get my head right.
- Set it and forget it (finances). I streamline boring administrative tasks with automatic bill pay and automatic contributions for my children's education funds.
Ask your family how to make things better
Solicit feedback from your children to empower them. What do they like? What are their new ideas? Involving my kids helps them feel invested in this new life stage. You might be surprised by some of their recommendations on how to improve your family’s daily rhythm. My daughter wanted to do circle time in the morning, reminiscent of her preschool’s morning circle time. It’s so simple and so lovely. She leads a song and asks how each of us is feeling in the morning. Then I set expectations for both my girls before we tackle anything else.
Stay flexible. You can do this!
Optimization is not about speed, but about efficient decisions that in return give us more freedom. Get unstuck, create a little more time for ourselves to do whatever brings us joy, peace of mind, and reduce stress at home. Order, predictability, and efficiency bring balance to life when everything else has been upended.
I’m surprised to report we’re all now living in our house differently – more efficiently – than we were a month ago. As a family, we had to recalibrate. I was forced to rethink and reduce the amount of work it took to keep things running smoothly. I think of this stay-at-home experience as an opportunity to optimize my family's flow. I’m a big fan of optimization and finding ways for things to run more efficiently in my daily life. In return, I have a little more freedom with my day. I hope my tips help you do the same.
[Photos by Julia Gidwani]