I’ve basically given up on ever “getting it all together.”
And, surprisingly, as I get older and watch our family life shift from that of a young couple with babies and toddlers to the doorstep of middle age with a couple tweens and everyone school-age (if one counts preschool) and no more diapers, I have settled in more and more to the notion that our home is more of an artist’s loft or a laboratory than a showroom or magazine spread. I have gone from thinking that some day all the projects will get accomplished and the wish lists of renovations and furnishings will be paid for and purchased and we would get There (you know, There…the place of Pinterest boards and the American Dream, our castle in the sky that we build in our daydreams while we wash dishes or fold laundry or sort through paperwork) and have come to embrace the reality that something will always be broken, in need of repair, torn or shabby, smudged or dirty, and coming apart at the seams.
And it’s okay.
However, despite my epiphany that I can go on existing as wife and mother (and even flourish!) in a less-than-perfect environment, it doesn’t mean that I’ve given up on my ideals, thrown in the towel, or laid down arms in this fight for Order and Beauty in the home. More than ever, I am committed to the idea that we can and should nurture our families through meals on the table, clean and comfortable beds, piles of fresh laundry, books read by a roaring fire, objects of art on the walls, music drifting through our rooms, a place for everything and everything in its place. And over the course of this grand, ongoing battle I’ve learned a few things and collected a few tricks up my sleeve. These are completely random, in no particular order. They have been passed on to me by friends, family, blogs, articles, books and experience, but I will try to provide a reference where appropriate.
1. White Sheets and Fitted Only (for the kids)
I’ll be honest. Years ago, when my sister-in-law told me she didn’t use flat sheets at all, I thought it was strange. I suppose most new ideas that aren’t a part of our experience seem strange to us at first. But somewhere around the third kid mark I realized that it was not only crazy and unnecessary to wash an extra sheet, but my kids were getting frustrated trying to learn to make a bed whilst making that slippery, extraneous sheet behave. I found sheets in corners, sheets coming out from under the bedspread stretching out into the room several feet, wadded-up sheets under spread-up bedding. Now, with just a fitted sheet and a bedspread, it’s easy for them to make their beds and less laundry for me. Being children, their bedding has to be washed occasionally anyway, so the fact that their bedspread is in direct contact with their little selves doesn’t really phase me. Why white? So that all the sheets can be washed in one load in hot water, and so that extras can be put on easily without concern about pink sheets being the only option available when one of my boys needs a change of bedding!
Along the same lines:
2. White Socks
When a friend told me that she bought all her children white Hanes socks (the sizes are distinguished by the color of the Hanes logo on the toe end of the sock), I saw a potential end to the dramatic saga of the Missing Match to My Favorite Socks. At the time we had family that really enjoyed giving our children fun, colorful socks as gifts, and nary a one of those pairs of socks were the same. At all ends of the color spectrum, socks could be found in every one of my laundry loads, and finding a match (or, as the case may be, not finding it), because the subject of many a morning fit. Add to that the time investment of matching socks while sorting and putting away laundry, and you can easily see how a couple packages of the same white socks for everyone in the family solves a huge problem. Just grab two socks from your drawer. They will match, I guarantee. We follow a similar rule for my husbands black socks for work, in that when we buy new socks we buy a lot of the same ones, so that a match is more easily found.
For those of you with children for whom the removal of all their colored socks is a violation of their self-expression, you are in luck! Mismatched socks are still a trend (just pray it’s one that lasts!).
3. Micro-Session Freezer Cooking
When I half-heartedly began to peruse Crystal Paine’s eBook on Freezer Cooking, I really wasn’t expecting to find much help in getting healthy and affordable meals on to the dinner table each night…mostly because I really, really don’t like freezer cooking. I had tried it out a few times and found myself completely exhausted, with a messy kitchen and a slew of meals in the freezer that didn’t heat up well and tasted all the same. I also had a hard time figuring out how to store things properly so that they could be easily reheated. Add to that the fact that I actually enjoy cooking meals from scratch, and the whole idea just really wasn’t appealing
One of the things I loved about this book was the various approaches to freezer cooking. The other was the detailed explanations on everything from preparation to how to flash freeze, wrap, store and reheat.
An idea tossed out in the book was “micro or mini sessions” of freezer cooking. For me, this translated into taking 20 minutes out of my day now and again to brown several pounds of ground beef, separate into quart size freezer bags and label for meals such as chili, tacos, or pasta with meat sauce. I began purchasing extra produce for a particular meal (see number 4) and prepping that ingredient for two or three batches instead of one, such as sautéed kale or leeks for Tuscan Soup or Bacon Brie Quiche. The extra veggies, when cooled, are packed up in a freezer bag and labeled for a meal. I even discovered from this book that I could “freeze a mix”! So now I have corn muffin mix in freezer bags, ready for milk and eggs and oil, saving me extra minutes and hassle. I have cooked and crumbled bacon, sliced and browned chicken sausage, cubed grilled chicken, and halves of artisan baguettes all prepped, labeled, and ready to go.
Though I still have to assemble and cook my meals, I found that this little “nudge” in the direction of dinner preparation was all I needed, and I still retain the enjoyment of tying on my vintage-style apron, throwing on some Sinatra and cooking up a storm in my kitchen.
But it wouldn’t be quite so easy and efficient if I hadn’t switched to:
4. The Twelve Meals
I’m a planner. I love lists. And I’m a chef at heart. Recipes? Not really. Just give me a general idea (like Citrus Chicken or Loaded Potato Soup), fresh ingredients, a long stretch of kitchen counter and a sharp knife and I’m off to the races.
I’m a little too good at coming up with delicious meal ideas. And I’m great at grocery shopping.
And that’s about where it ends. Because reality is that I have five children. And I homeschool them. And I have a house to clean and laundry to wash and put away and bills to pay. And the dog has to go to the vet. And I struggle just about every day with health issues.
So oftentimes, that fresh and delicious gourmet meal is never prepared. And then some of the ingredients spoil. Guilt sets in, and it’s pizza for dinner or even worse…everybody fends for themselves, raiding the pantry and eating Cheetos as their main course. (In case my husband is reading this…no, love, there aren’t any Cheetos in our pantry, but the turn of phrase was really working for me. Creative license, you understand).
I’ve tried out various forms of meal planning in the past, basically to no avail. But what they all had in common was too much variety. Wait! Don’t run away! I know that variety is important to us, right? But when you really think about it, when you are on cooking auto pilot, don’t you end up preparing the same meals two or three times a month for your family anyway? Tried and true favorites? The stuff you keep ingredients for stocked up in your pantry?
I had always tried to come up with a list of 30 meals to make over the course of a month. Finally, I decided to choose about twelve meals that fit a template of being tasty, moderately healthy, affordable, and generally liked around our table. I didn’t want them all to be chicken, either. These meals would be put into a permanent rotation every two weeks (allowing for the occasional pizza, leftovers, restaurant meal, or church picnic, etc.) and I would plan them out on the calendar accordingly.
When I had selected the Twelve Meals, I then made a list of all of the ingredients for each, right down to the salt and pepper. For shelf stable ingredients, I stocked our pantry shelves and added those items to my recurring grocery lists on Paperless, the app I use to basically organize my entire life. That way, when making my grocery lists, I will see the item and remember to buy more if needed.
For the perishable ingredients, I stocked my freezer with staples such as ground beef, chicken, bacon, chicken sausage, broccoli florets, shredded cheese, pie crusts, and bread. As mentioned above, I began to purchase and prepare vegetables that were freezer-appropriate, such as the kale and leeks. The refrigerated items with an extended shelf life such as sour cream, wedges of brie, sweet onions, condiments, and sealed containers of dairy such as cream and yogurt can be purchased once a month and stocked for many meals in advance.
That leaves the perishable items with a short shelf life. When all the other ingredients are shelved or prepped and frozen, you’d be amazed how little is left over. I am fortunate to have an excellent and affordable grocery delivery service available to me, and it’s these kinds of items that often end up on that list. Our fresh fruit for the week, milk, sandwich bread (and I even store extra sandwich bread in the freezer when I have room), salad ingredients…and that’s about it. Whether I make a run to the store for these items or send my husband for them on his way home from work, its a short list, a quick stop, and never very expensive.
Are there still days that my plans flop and we order pizza? Sure. Once or twice. But “normal” in our house has now become a hot, nutritious meal, served on time with minimal mess left behind in the kitchen…candles burning and music lilting and peace in my heart because I gave up shooting for the moon and “settled”…settled for variety, flavor, less waste, more time, less guilt, a lower grocery bill, and satisfied smiles around the table.
5. Don’t Take My iPhone Away. Ever.
It sounded like such an extravagance. And I knew I was taking a chance. But I saw how well suited my children’s Apple devices were to how we learn and how our family works. I’m a visual and tactile learner. My phone at the time was failing, a popular service provider was running a deep discount on an older model iPhone, and I was tired of technology that was poorly designed and dysfunctional.
I had no idea the impact such a small piece of glass, aluminum, and electronic components would have on my life and my homemaking.
Yeah, yeah, I know. Handsfree parenting. I hear you, I really do. There are boundaries on my screen time, I promise, as there should be for all of us.
My phone has helped me streamline and organize in ways I’d never dreamed possible. My unlimited service plan is now only $50/month, and the money I save with all the apps that keep me on my toes more than makes up for the $99 I originally spent on the phone. From the calendar and email to the Paperless lists and camera always ready at hand, I have less paper clutter in the house, never miss an appointment, always pay my bills on time, rarely forget something at the store, keep up on blogs, capture more memories with my children, keep track of fitness and calories, have all my recipes at hand with the tap of a finger, track my children’s chores, place Amazon orders, buy groceries, read my Bible and complete my Bible study stored in iBooks, drill my children on their Catechism and memory verses, train for a 5K, fill the house or car with music, listen to sermons, watch a favorite television show, plan a kitchen renovation, send a thank you note (a real paper note!), pay for a tank of gas or a latte, use a GPS, keep track of all of my financial information and balance my budget down to the most recent transaction, pay all my bills, and control the TV when the remote is lost. Not to mention any other thing you can think of that can be done with the internet. And yes, I have even blogged from my phone. And, amazingly enough, I can use it to call or text my Mom!
If I find the time, I will make another list of tips. But I would say that these are my “Top 5″…tricks and shortcuts for keeping our sanity in a bustling house of seven people, all flawed and in desperate need of Grace. I hope this list can spark some ideas for how you can simplify life for your own family!