Research shows that one of the top struggles for working women is managing their home on top of their jobs. From meal planning to organization to child care to maintenance and repairs to mounds of laundry, it seems like there is always work to be done somewhere. Right after home management and chores, working women said their second biggest challenge was self-care, which we’ll be tackling in October.
At The Inspiration Lab, we know you bring your whole self to work and your whole self home, so if either your work life or home life isn’t going well, the stress will bleed into the other area. To stop the bleeding, this month we are tackling three areas of modern home management: organization, child care and vendors, and meal planning.
We don’t have all the answers for what it means to manage a modern home. We know every woman’s experience is unique, from single women to working moms to retirees. I selected Erin Barbee to headline our Girl’s Guide this month because she is a busy single mom who works as a professional organizer and productivity consultant. Since Erin is single, she is solely responsible for everything in her home life, and due to her daughter’s special needs, she has extra levels of care to provide for her. As you might expect, Erin has developed some tips and tricks for simplifying your home life and getting things in order. Without further ado… let’s hear from Erin.
First, how do you recommend busy families stay organized, especially in small spaces?
To create and maintain organization at home (and also at work), the most important thing to do is to have a functional system that is easy to maintain. This typically looks different from family to family, so what may work great with one household may be difficult to maintain for another. I could really dive deep on this topic, so I’ll just touch on what’s most important.
Start with how you enter and exit your home. Have an established landing/drop zone — this is a place where you will drop keys, mail, and set other items down. A small table with drawers or baskets by the door is a great solution. Keep your drop zone consistent so you’ll never have to look for your misplaced keys or sunglasses again.
Another great solution to keep families organized is to create a command center. This is the information hub of your home. It would house your family calendar, school paperwork to be completed or returned to school, house information for sitters, and even basic contact information like home vendors, neighbors, and family members’ numbers if needed in an emergency.
By having an organized system for doing laundry, storing groceries, and keeping the house tidy, you’ll have places where items can be stored and returned, instead of being left out. Since families are ever evolving, do a home edit at least once a year and sell or donate items that are no longer used.
Finally, get creative with your small spaces — take advantage of vertical space in closets, pantries, cabinets, even the backs of doors. I feel it’s really important to keep your spaces as they were intended to be when you initially got settled in your home. For example, a dining room table should be a dining room table, not a paper catcher, and a kitchen should be a place where you are cooking, eating, and entertaining. If you have to move papers or non-kitchen objects out of the way each day, then you need to revisit your system of organization!
What ways have you organized your mornings to make getting you and your daughter out the door easier?
What works for me is to do as much as possible to get ready for tomorrow the night before. Mornings are hectic and busy, and so many families are pressed for time. By prepping in the evening for the next day, it allows me to be able to actually sit down and enjoy some of the morning time with my daughter, Wren.
On Sundays I plan her outfits for the week and stack them in order, with Monday on top to Friday on the bottom. Getting dressed in the morning for us is a struggle, so just knowing I have her clothes ready to go for the week makes me feel like I have five more decisions already handled. Even selecting one outfit the night before increases your precious morning time for the next day, which is what I do for myself during the work week. And even better, empower your children to do this themselves!
I also pre-pack as much lunch for us as possible by filling up water bottles, cutting up fruit/veggies, and packing dry snacks. Setting out as much of my daughter’s breakfast as possible the night before is also helpful, such as her gummy vitamins, an unpeeled banana, and her favorite muffin wrapped up.
Child care is important to every mom, but as a single mom it is especially critical. How have you found quality child care for your daughter?
This might sound unconventional, but I found the best team for Wren through Care.com when I moved to Wilmington in 2015. I had zero child care resources when we arrived and Wren needed care stat! As a parent of a child with exceptional needs, finding a trusted team of caregivers is extremely important. I set up a profile and, with the help of a trusted friend, interviewed several applicants. I started using caregivers for short blocks of time, first with in-home care only, then out in the community. I was able to see how they engaged with Wren and how she responded to them. Not every person worked out because they weren’t the right fit and that’s okay.
I was ultimately able to find someone I trusted 100% with my child. Together she and I then found more caregivers to be a part of Wren’s team. I had her be a part of the interview and training/shadowing process. As a result, I now have a team of four caregivers (to prevent burnout and scheduling conflicts), who are now a part of our family and whom we love.
For the vendors who take care of your home — the pest company, lawn maintenance, etc. — how do you manage communication with them?
I add their service dates to my calendar so I know when to expect them. For example, if weed control is coming later in the week at 9 a.m., I’ll be sure no one will be at the house or will need to go outside during that time until the pesticide is dry.
Each vendor I work with has a different style of booking and billing — phone calls, emails, regular mail, text messages. It can be a lot to remember! If possible, ask for the same form of communication and payment from everyone. If this isn’t possible, then mark your calendar for when and how payments are due to be sure you’re not late.
Meal planning is something so many of our members struggle with. Some of them are lucky to have spouses who handle the meals, but for those who don’t, how can they simplify this area of their lives? And what are ways to spend less time and money on meal prep?
When you spend less time on meal preparation, you’re already simplifying that process. Find ways to shorten meal prep: Buy pre-cut fruits and veggies, canned or frozen beans, and cooked grains, or use a rotisserie chicken that can be turned into chicken salad, quesadillas, a topping for pizza — there are tons of possibilities.
It may sound obvious, but actually plan your weekly menu. If you have a small household, skip a night or two to incorporate leftovers or when you may eat out.
Pick a day of the week to prep or pre-make some meals. By prepping for two meals at once, it will actually save you time in the long run. On Sundays I make Wren’s favorite almond butter banana muffins (with some hidden pureed carrots that I made in a large, sectioned-out, pre-prep batch). I’ve made them so many times that I tweaked the recipe a bit and know it by heart! I freeze a dozen and pull one out each morning to warm up like it just came out of the oven.
Double a recipe and freeze the leftovers. During the fall I like to double recipes for soups, stocks, and one-dish meals and then vacuum freeze them. On a hectic day, I can pull something out in the morning to defrost in the fridge and heat it up when we get back home.
One important tip for those of us living on the East Coast during hurricane season: I am always mindful of how much is in my freezer in case we lose power or have to evacuate in the event of a hurricane. If possible, try to keep your freezer light during this time of year.
Shop in bulk — but you don’t have to go crazy. It’s just Wren and me, so I don’t need 20 pounds of a perishable item. Sometimes I’ll split items in a Costco run with another family or I’ll stock up on easy-to-make freezer meals that I can add fresh ingredients to.
Stock up on items when they go on sale. Grocery stores highlight certain food items at different times of the year. Non-perishables are great because they have a long shelf life. For perishable meat and seafood items, you can always vacuum seal and freeze them (just be sure they haven’t previously been frozen). When produce is on sale, chop and freeze items that are at their seasonal peak. They can be added to dishes in the next season. During summer, for example, tomatoes and corn are at their best. I’ll freeze corn cobs and throw them in stocks and soups to elevate those dishes later on. You can even dehydrate farmers market tomatoes and add them to a marinara sauce later in the year. It’s really a super simple process — you slice the tomatoes and let the dehydrator do all of the work.
There are so many food meal kit services on the market now that meal planning has never been more accessible or easy to do. If you can’t commit to a weekly or monthly subscription, many grocery stores have kits available in the deli section.
For smaller families, go in with another family and split a CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) membership from your local farmers market. CSAs are such a great way to support your local farmers and the community, enjoy really fresh food, and let those ingredients dictate what you eat for the week. It will also drive dinner table conversation about what it means to grow sustainable food and the impacts it has on your community.
Lastly, simplify the grocery shopping experience. For those of you who either don’t like to grocery shop or don’t have time, order online and either pick up or have your groceries delivered. Instead of standing in a checkout line, you can spend that precious time on something you love doing instead.
Do you have a funny home management mistake to share?
After recently moving back to Wilmington, I was in the middle of hosting Wren’s birthday party at our house when the doorbell rang. It was our pest control person coming to spray and I had a houseful of party-goers. This was number one, a direct result of me not double-checking my schedule for the day, and number two, a consequence of input burnout.
I had made thousands of decisions throughout our cross-country move and had just gotten settled in our new home. Everything was new, including needing pest control now that we were back in the South. I wasn’t yet in the routine of what recurring services were happening next and when.
It can be so hard to keep up with appointments. If you tend to be forgetful or are just swamped with coordinating schedules, ask for an appointment reminder via text or phone call. Even if someone doesn’t typically offer a reminder, it will be more beneficial to them to send the reminder instead of ending up with a missed or canceled appointment.
What are your parting words of wisdom for those who are overwhelmed with chores, laundry, and dishes day to day?
Know that you are in the majority and are far from alone! Life is real and we don’t live in an Instagram feed (although it’s so pretty there and I bet it smells nice too). Take the pressure off from feeling like you have to exist in a showcase home (unless your house is on the market; then let’s talk!).
You CAN reduce stress and feel less overwhelmed by implementing a system of organization for your lifestyle and family. If something isn’t working, find out what that is and tweak it. Ask for help. Delegate. Even if your partner or children won’t quite get a task done like you would, guess what? It’s done and you didn’t have to do it. Maybe you can use that time instead to take that bath, go on a run, or finish the next chapter in your favorite book. Be okay that you are doing you, even if it’s just for a short window of time each day.
Erin’s Home Organization Favorites
Here are my top 10 favorite, can’t-live-without organization products to help simplify your everyday life. Don’t forget — always measure before you buy!
Expandable drawer dividers for just about any drawer in your home, including kitchens, dressers, and desks.
Clear, stackable pantry food storage containers are great for non-perishable items.
Glass fridge/freezer food storage containers — please break up with plastic containers, especially if you reheat your food in them. Clear, stackable glass containers keep order in your fridge and prevent a microwave meltdown.
Clear shelf liners stop items from sliding in drawers, are easy to clean if something spills, and reduce the imprints on folded clothes and linens typically stored on wire shelves.
Cabinet shelves for plates/bowls are helpful for easy access and to break up stacks.
Adjustable 3-tier shelf for all spaces — the pantry, linen closet, supply closet, medicine cabinet, etc.
Cabinet pull-outs for easy access. There are lots of options and styles. You won’t know how you lived without them!
Slim profile flocked hangers for closets. Buy all of the same color and style. This will allow your eyes to rest and focus on the garments that are hanging.
Open baskets for the laundry room, pantry, and closets. I LOVE HomeGoods for baskets. They have great prices and styles that typically come in sets of three different sizes. If you need a lot of the same style, you may have to go right when they get a new shipment or look someplace else.
These adjustable five-shelf commercial storage racks on wheels are the most versatile and durable storage shelving for garages and other storage spaces.
BONUS: Check out this label maker… once you start labeling, you might find it hard to stop!