Making it look easy

This past Monday was the first week back at school for my husband (a teacher) and my son, who’s in fourth grade. During summers and holiday breaks, my husband does a ton of housework and yardwork, and he takes our son to a plethora of activities, all of which I appreciate as someone with a demanding job (I work in the IT field, and 40 hour weeks are short weeks for me).

When school is in session, however, all that comes to a complete halt. To husband’s credit, he does the daycare pickup and dinner on the nights when I’m working late or at Toastmasters, but I am responsible for 2/3 of the laundry, the majority of the housework, nearly all the cooking and 100% of the morning routine. On Thursday nights and a least every other weekend, I am, for all intents and purposes, a single mom.

Every time a new semester approaches, I panic inside. This year, though, I am determined to find shortcuts, tricks, and outright cheats to make it somewhat easier on myself – and to make myself appear awesome! Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

The 20 Minute Challenge. This was borne out of the realization that, with three of us living in the house, I could get an hour’s worth of work in 20 minutes by making it worth everyone’s while. I thought I had invented this as it pertains to housecleaning, but it’s already out on the interwebs. I run mine as a true competition though, with fabulous cash and prizes a prize for the winner of the challenge.

How it works: Each of the three of us chooses a room (living, dining, kitchen, bathroom) and during the Challenge, we compete to see who ends up with the cleanest living area. Winner gets his or her choice of family activity afterward. We play music during the Challenge, and often will take turns choosing the next song to be played (I have an iPad with a speaker dock and will often pick a song out of my iTunes library or a YouTube video). During the final few minutes, we play the finale of the William Tell Overture. The key is for the Challenge to be FUN. Kids will sometimes lose interest in this, but yelling at them for not participating guarantees they won’t want to take part again. If only the adults end up participating, that’s fine.

Enrichment Night. Alas, I thought this was my own unique invention as well, but a quick Google search proved me wrong. My twist on this is that every participant (on Thursday nights, this is my son’s and my special thing) chooses something he or she wants to learn more about and then just does it. This past Thursday, for example, we learned about  Emotional Freedom Techniques (not your usual topic, but we had a need for it this week). Future weeks may include one or both of us practicing stop motion animation – there’s an app for that – learning Italian or practicing bass guitar.

How it Works: There are more resources out there for learning subjects for free than I have room to list, but some that come to mind are Kahn Academy, MIT, eHow and, of course, YouTube. Simply pick your subject and get started!

Meal Planning. For my family, meal planning typically goes something like this: Saturday afternoon or Sunday night, go to the store, spend about $100 to $120 buying whatever looks good, take it home. Run completely out of food three days later and make an emergency trip to the closest store on the way home and spend another $75 to $80. Go out for lunch and dinner several times that week whenever you can’t come up with something to make or you forget to bring a lunch to work. Repeat, repeat, repeat. I asked Mr Google for help in this area, after being aghast at just how much we have been spending on food for the three of us, and one of the first results was Veggie Meal Maker. For me, being able to “shop” for recipes, adjust the serving size, and generate a shopping list automatically was just what I need (they also have a mobile site, which I used when I went to Trader Joe’s in lieu of printing out the list).

Now, if you’re not vegetarian or want to see what else is out there, a search for “meal planner app” returned over 400,000 results.

How it Works: Review the list of suggested recipes (or browse), drag the ones you want onto the calendar, click “Shopping List” and print to bring with you to the store or pull up the mobile app on your phone while shopping. Last weekend I spent about $130 and got more than a weeks’ worth of groceries. There are no “weird” or hard to find ingredients and the recipes are crowd-sourced, similar to various cooking websites. Each one requires about 5-15 minutes of prep time and 10-40 minutes cooking time. I’ve had delicious foods such as pancakes and Indian curry and have not only saved time and money but I’ve been able to more easily hit my daily calorie budget.

What about you? What are your dirty little secrets for making it look easy?