How to Finish the Housework With a Toddler

With an 18-month-old running around, it is harder than ever to finish all the housework to keep our happy home humming.  After a few months now of being a stay-at-home mom, I think I finally figured one of the secrets—accepting that there’s always another chore that could be done and choosing to prioritize the list alongside other ways I like to spend my time, including writing or relaxing!  

James’ salary allows us to afford a professional service every 3 or 4 weeks to help with the deep cleaning.  Without that luxury, it would certainly be harder to manage, and I’m very grateful for the “clean house smell” they leave us with each time. I’ve also been trying out different chore schedules to optimally take care of the rest of the must-do’s.  We like our home to be generally straightened up each night before we go to bed and “not obviously dirty.”  To us, that means toys and laundry put away, no dirty dishes in the sink, and no piles of dog fur collecting in the corners at the end of each day.  Other families have different bars for tidiness than we do, but that’s what works for us.  It allows us to enter a welcoming and refreshed living space each morning to enjoy the day.

To accomplish this without feeling like we’re constantly cleaning, I’ve begun settling into daily and weekly patterns to get the housework done around other priorities, like playing with Louise, writing this blog, crafting or even relaxing with some TV (yes, watching TV is sometimes a priority).  

Laundry

As Louise gets older, it seems like the laundry keeps expanding.  I think spending more time outside with her running around and playing in the dirt also has something to do with it.  Oddly, staying home more because of COVID-19 has reduced my and my husband’s laundry thanks to James’ more casual Zoom attire vs. office attire (though it’s added far more to the kitchen workload!).  So, these days, I have about 6 loads of laundry per week, and I usually split it over two days, typically Mondays and Thursdays.  That way, the work is more manageable on the given days, and I’m not having to wash, dry, fold, put away every day of the week.

Our laundry strategy is fairly simple and evolved from me wanting to get items into the washing machine as quickly as possible when it’s time to get a load going.  When my husband and I first got married, we were both working professionally and tried to split housework somewhat evenly.  I hated vacuuming and cleaning bathrooms and he hated laundry, so I began doing both our laundry, and he took care of the floors and bathrooms.  James also notoriously would spill something on his shirts regularly.  On the weekends, when I was getting ready to do the laundry, I found the prep work took 15 or 20 minutes to get a load of clothes into the wash, because I first had to sort the whites, darks, and colors, and find any stains for spot treatment before I could start running the machine.  I thought there had to be a better way!

The tradeoff is that our (not large) closet now dedicates floorspace to 4 hampers lined up in a row, but it is so worth it.  There’s a hamper each for darks, colors, whites, and specialty articles/delicates.  More importantly, James knows that if there’s a spot for special treatment on an item, we hang it over the front edge of the hamper, while no-stain items go fully into the basket.  On Mondays, I usually do our colors and darks, as well as the baby’s laundry.  When I start a load, all I have to do is spot treat the already-identified stained clothes and then hit start on the washer.  No more sorting or searching, so getting a load going only takes a few minutes.  As a result, it’s much easier to do with Louise tagging along observing or playing in the next room.  I do the same thing an hour later to switch to the dryer and start the second wash.

Naptime is perfect for folding our clothes from the couch once they come out of the dryer—and is just as productive while watching some TV!  I do Louise’s laundry last and we fold it “together” in her room after her nap.  Lou can play in the clean pile of clothes and over the coming months and years she’ll (hopefully!) learn how to help sort the clean clothes and fold and put away too.  If I’m folding our clothes while she’s awake, she’s started to help by carrying folded pairs of socks, one at a time, from where I’m sitting over to the hamper, conveniently placed on the other side of the room to maximize the time she’s distracted while I fold everything else.

On Thursdays, I take care of whites, specialty clothes, sheets/towels, and dog bedding that needs to be washed.  I don’t wear a ton of white clothing (you know, baby…) so the main clothes in that hamper are James’ undershirts.  We invested big by getting him ~18 shirts that he cycles through, and since that’s primarily what fills the whites hamper, I can do that load only every two weeks.  Similar with specialty clothes, especially post-COVID where there are far fewer reasons to put on our dressy or professional work clothes.  For towels and sheets, I include baby Lou’s sheets and towels when I do the rest of her laundry.  It helps fill up the load of what is otherwise just her tiny clothes, and it makes it so that our sheets and towels usually fit together in a single load.  The dog’s bedding is washed all by itself, on hot, with double detergent!

The Kitchen

Kitchen chores include so much more than just washing dishes, but with our whole family staying home all day, every day, there are increasingly more dishes to be cleaned.  After I finish washing and look around, there is always at least one more dish to be taken care of, whether it’s the baby’s water cup I spot on the other side of the room after I finish drying my hands or James’ coffee mug that’s still in his office.  I’ve accepted it.  That dish will still be ready and waiting to be washed the next time I wash dishes, so I don’t need to stress about getting every dish done every time.  Instead, I (or sometimes James in the evenings) wash dishes about three times a day.  

The morning is a blur.  Breakfast and lunch (and Louise’s first snack) don’t create that many dishes each, so I usually wait to take care of those all together once we finish lunch while Lou is playing around me.  Then, in the afternoon, she has some snacks and eventually her own dinner while I begin prepping our dinner before we start her bedtime routine.  The second dishwashing of the day is usually after she finishes her dinner.  It’s not because she makes that many dishes in the meal, but usually after various snacks and her milk and water cups combined with her dinner dishes and my dinner prep dishes, the sink is looking a little busy.  So I take the opportunity to clean up those dishes before we finish cooking our dinner and sit down for a quiet evening.  It also makes our nighttime kitchen clean up easier by having already done the baby and prep dishes.  Last, after we finish dinner, we’ll do a final clean up of our dinner dishes and any final dishes scattered around the house throughout the day.  It’s a lot of dishes, as anyone running a family home knows, but by breaking it into smaller tasks throughout the day, each time of washing dishes only takes a few minutes and, as a result, can be done more easily with Louise looking on and “helping” (my latest approach involves rinsing everything before I open the dishwasher so that I can quickly loading all the rinsed dishes into the dishwasher at once before Louise has a chance to pull them out and scatter them on the floor!).

Tackling the kitchen chores each day and week also includes menu planning, grocery shopping, and meal prep for the adults as well as the baby.  With our fast-growing toddler, it often feels like she eats just as much as we do and usually more of a variety.  Her meals are easy to prepare when she’s in the mood for a scrambled egg, fruit, yogurt, cheese cubes, or deli meat, but we also try to ensure she has the opportunity to try a variety of flavors and textures.  So that means part of menu planning is figuring out what new item she should taste next, whether that’s carrot cake mini-muffins, “fried chicken,” or roast veggie sticks.  And after almost a year of quarantine, our weekly breakfast/lunch/dinner menus are getting a little stale too.  I used to menu plan on Sunday morning, make my grocery list, and then go shopping Sunday afternoon without the little one to get it done faster.  But this quick version of menu planning usually results in a lot of the same favorite (aka tried and true, aka now boring) dishes week after week.  

A new approach I’m trying is to menu plan on Thursday or Friday, keeping a few principles in mind:

  1. Multiple breakfast and lunch options are always in stock to choose in the moment — cereal, oatmeal, yogurt/fruit/granola or eggs/toast for breakfast and deli sandwiches, tuna fish, soup and leftovers for lunch.  
  2. Mix up the dinner protein — there’s always chicken thighs, ground beef and fish fillets, but try to do one meal per week with something different like pork chops, steak, beef roast or a whole chicken.
  3. Limit the complexity per meal — each dinner usually contains a protein, starch and vegetable.  If I’m trying a new recipe for a potatoes side dish, I keep the protein and the veggie simple and familiar to get dinner on the table sooner.
  4. Remember the freezer and the slow cooker.  In a pinch, or if the day gets away from me, there is always homemade lasagna in the freezer that can be thrown in the oven and forgotten.  Or if I know the evening will be busy, I can put something in the slow cooker during nap time and have it ready by dinner.

Menu planning and making my list on a different day than shopping gives me a chance to feel less rushed trying to get out the door to get it done and lets me be a little more creative and organized.  I also keep the grocery list on my phone, so any time we notice we’re running low on a pantry staple, I can immediately put it on the list instead of trying to remember it later.  I haven’t decided whether it’s more optimal to shop with Louise during the week on Mondays or on a weekend afternoon while James is watching her.  I think it depends what I’m optimizing for that particular week.  It is definitely faster and easier physically to shop alone.  But on a weekday, it’s nice to have outings away from the house that Lou and I can do together to change up her days.  So far, the answer depends on how long the list is.  If it’s a full pantry restock grocery trip, it’s better to go alone on the weekend.  If it’s mainly fresh produce and dairy for the week with a handful of other foods to complete our menus, it’s nice to let Louise come along and make an adventure of it during the week.

Miscellaneous Tidying & Chores

As I mentioned earlier, we are very fortunate to have help with the deep cleaning, but there’s nothing like a freshly vacuumed rug that’s no longer covered in dog fur or stray Cheerios.  And although Louise has plenty of toys out while she’s playing, we make an effort to straighten up before we leave that room.  So, if we go from playing in her room to moving to the kitchen for a meal, before we go, we’ll (I’ll) put the books and toys in their baskets and refold the laundry she’s pulled from the drawers.  That way, when we go back up to her room for bedtime, there’s less visible chaos, making settling down to sleep easier.  

A side note on vacuuming—I used to absolutely hate it.  The vacuum was bulky and heavy, and we kept it upstairs even though it was the downstairs that needed more regular floor cleaning.  We recently invested in a great cordless, light-weight stick vacuum which we keep in a somewhat hidden corner of our kitchen.  Now, when I see the dog fur piling up and the housekeepers don’t come for another two weeks, it’s a quick 5-10 minutes around the downstairs to tidy in between the deep cleans.  Louise is fascinated watching and trying to figure out what the machine does.  It’s still not my favorite chore to do (that would be laundry), but it’s far more convenient to take care of now that we have more comfortable equipment easily in hand.

That’s how I try to optimize the housework with our toddler running around.  The key takeaways:

  1. There’s always another chore waiting to be done, and that’s ok as long as I can keep us fed, clothed, and with space to play or work.  It doesn’t have to be perfect.
  2. Do a little at a time, often.  Instead of saving the mountain of an entire day’s dishes for evening (or worse, when I’m ready to go to bed), do a few dishes a few times a day.  
  3. Enjoy the chores I can multi-task with some entertainment, like watching TV and folding laundry or listening to music or an audiobook while doing dishes.
  4. Be intentional about complexity, especially when it comes to meal planning and prep.
  5. Have the right tools readily available to make each job easier.

What tips do you have for optimizing the housework?

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