Tips for busy homemakers

I received an email from a reader asking me about my homemaking schedule, and what advice I can give someone whose organizational skills aren’t her strongest point (ahem… like myself *smile*).

In homemaking, there are no rigid rules, and I’m certainly far from being able to call myself a pro! Besides, things change all the time and, as good as schedules are, sometimes we need to modify them, or even let go of them for a season, to do what is best for our families.

Having said that… I do have a system of sorts, and while it isn’t perfect, it works. I’m a morning person, which means that my energy level does a sharp dip in the afternoon, so I try to concentrate all the major chores (laundry, dishes, beds, animal care, garbage disposal) as well as any cleaning in the morning, so that the afternoon can be dedicated to more relaxing pursuits; often I schedule my cooking for the afternoon as well, and sometimes I make dinner preparations in the morning (defrost meat, chop up vegetables, etc) and just toss everything into the pot or pop it into the oven in the afternoon.

But some people aren’t morning people; if you feel you have more energy or free time in the afternoon, you might want to make the morning a gentler time, and gradually pick up speed as the day comes along.

I cook for my freezer, provided there’s freezer space. That is to say, I make large batches and freeze them in separate containers, so that convenient-sized portions can be defrosted at need. I also freeze bread a lot; I put it in the freezer when it’s still warm, and it tastes just like fresh when defrosted.

I have an erase board which I simply love. It’s placed in a convenient location in the kitchen, and contains several columns, such as shopping list, weekly cooking plan (which I try to come up with at the end of every week), project list, and list of things to research/write/check. Whenever I get something accomplished I erase it from the board, and it’s so rewarding!

There are also many websites with organizational tips for homemakers, and some of them offer samples of printable schedules. I’m sure that, even if it takes a little time, you can work out something that is right for you and your family.

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Nothing Special

I was always one of the top students in my class; I grew up hearing how talented I am, how I’m capable of doing anything I put my mind to. While I was studying for my degree, it was the same – I kept hearing how intelligent I am and how much is expected of me. Yet even then, I already felt the pull of my heart to be a wife and mother, and shortly after getting out of university I was blessed to meet a man who appreciated a wife who works in her home and cares for the children.

The few years that followed were some of the most intense of my life. I’ve had two children spaced close together, and many months were a blur of sleep-deprivation and constantly changing diapers. I’ve mostly gotten into stride now, so much that the addition of a third baby to our family went relatively smoothly, and I’m able to enjoy my life with my children, however…

… I had to step down and confess that I’m nothing special after all.

It was a humbling realization.

Am I doing important work? Yes. I’m raising my children and providing a safe haven for my family. Am I spending my days in a worthwhile, productive way? Yes (well, at least I try). Am I irreplaceable for my children? Yes. Flawed and imperfect as I am, I am the only mother they have. Would I trade what I do for anything else? No.

But still, I do just what women all over the world do. I take care of my children and the house, I clean, I cook, I do the laundry… I’m doing the same work countless generations of women always did. I can no longer pride myself on some very expertly written paper that got top grades, or on a lecture I gave in front of a professional, interested audience. There’s no applause, no impressed audience, and no financial benefits. Today’s achievements consist of cleaning the stove, mopping the floor and reading a chapter of Pippi Longstocking to my children.

This led me to re-evaluating my worth, based not on what I managed to do (which someone somewhere can do better, no matter how hard I try), but on my being what I am… a wife and a mother. Like any woman, in the sense of what I do, but uniquely important from the perspective of my family and precious as a child of G-d.

Mostly this has been a process of shedding layers of pride. This is no longer about my talents, my expectations, my ambitions, my capabilities… it is about taking care of others, humility, and lots and lots of prayer. This may sound like sacrifice, but it isn’t really, because my journey is shaping me into a different person, one I like a lot better, and also one who is a lot happier and has a much truer sense of self-worth and dignity.

Just being home

I think the best, most effective, and most enjoyable way to save money at home actually isn’t about pinching pennies, or utilizing the contents of our freezer and pantry to the utmost efficiency, or saving electricity and water (although all these practices are good and valid, of course). It is simply staying home, as opposed to running/driving about.

Of course, we all like to go out sometimes. Day/field trips, visits with family/friends, even shopping trips are fun – but it’s all about the proportion of time spent in vs. out (by “in”, I also mean on your lot – in your garden, on your deck, on your sun roof, etc, not necessarily in your living room).

It is really quite straightforward: when you are pleasantly occupied in your home, instead of browsing shop-windows, for example, you have less temptation to buy stuff you don’t really need. Also, you don’t waste money on gas.

Of course, this means you have to put in the effort to make your home a place of fun, enjoyment, wholesome activity, family togetherness, usefulness, comfort and recreation. And there is really no limit to all those things, even in the smallest, most humble home.

This doesn’t mean you need to have expensive decorations or furniture, or spacious rooms. A welcoming home is cozy and well-organized, without being oppressive to children or visitors (as in, making people wary of touching anything for fear of ruining a perfect arrangement).

A day or two ago, my daughters complained about “having nothing to play with”. Now, if you had seen their room, you would have known the claim was simply ridiculous – because though we’re not at all consumerism-driven when it comes to toys, still, gifts from grandparents and friends, and giveaways, etc, make for quite enough to be getting on with. As a matter of fact, they had a couple of new board games and puzzles they had hardly touched. All these, however, were lost in a jumble of toys all piled atop one another.

So, you need to make books, games, toys, and art and craft supplies easily accessible.

Another point is to create inviting areas for all sorts of activities: reading, drawing, sewing, etc. We have one all-purpose table in the kitchen that serves us for eating, studying, ironing, board games, and all sorts of projects. Being so much used, it’s easy for our table to overflow with stuff. I must be careful to keep it clean and clutter-free, so that when my children want to draw, they won’t need to restrict themselves to the last tiny corner of free table space.

Do interesting things at home and thereabouts. Every year, we make a family project of harvesting, sorting, processing and putting up pickled olives. We currently also have seeds going on indoors, several experiments on the go, our chickens, and always plenty of reading to do. Naturally, in the winter when it’s too cold and rainy, and in the summer on the hottest days, we are more restricted to indoor activities. The spring and autumn are the pleasantest seasons where we live.

The Table

Friday night. The candles are lit, the house tidied, the table beautifully set for ten persons. I’m waiting for my husband to come home from synagogue, while putting finishing touches here and there; I add another set of cutlery, take out the drinks, pour iced lemonade into my lovely new glass pitcher. The guests – a local family we are friendly with – are due to arrive any moment.
They come. After the meal begins and everyone had had something to eat, the six kids we have among us progress to play and get the house good and discombobulated. We adults linger around the table. The conversation flows. Different subjects are discussed, but not work, or household projects; no plans are made. The Shabbat encloses us all in a beautiful, magical circle, temporarily shutting out the cares and worries of the world, allowing us to be duly refreshed.
Then our friends are gone, with a tired baby sound asleep in her stroller. The table is cleared, the children tucked in, dishes are being washed. I reflect with satisfaction on an evening well spent.
Why, then, was I a little reluctant to go through with it in the first place?
Well, there’s the extra work having people over requires of me, of course. A larger variety of dishes is expected when there are guests (also, as a rule, around here people usually bring something with them as well). The table needs to be opened, extra chairs fetched, the cutlery drawer almost emptied, nearly all my dishes used up. Then all of it needs to be washed. And Friday is a day usually spent, for me, in hectic activity, and rather a lot of washing up as it is. I’m tired by the time evening rolls on.

 

However, there is nothing like the gathering of people around a common table. It gladdens my heart. It forges special ties. I know I want this, for my family. I also know that with no pregnancy, new baby or illness, I can reasonably do a lot of things that would otherwise be stretching. I am stepping out of my comfort zone, if only a bit. And that is worth it.

Common breastfeeding misconceptions

The more time goes by on this parenting journey of mine, the better I realize how important it is for every nursing mother and baby to have a pediatrician who is not just supportive of breastfeeding, but thoroughly educated about it – and unfortunately, they seem to be rare.

 

Back in university, I only had one course dedicated to infant nutrition, which emphasized the importance of breastfeeding but didn’t cover many important details such as supply and demand, possibility of poor latch, overactive letdown, distracted nursing, and many other common issues breastfeeding mothers often have to deal with. I know that in medical schools, more often than not even less is learned about this wonderful natural way of feeding babies.

 

Most pediatricians today tell mothers they should nurse their babies – if everything goes smoothly, if no problems arise, and if the baby is gaining weight strictly according to age-appropriate charts. From stories of fellow mothers, many pediatricians have only a vague concept that breasts make milk, and have all too many misconceptions, such as:

 

* It’s very common to have inadequate milk supply.

* A mother’s milk supply can dry up for no reason and it’s normal; it isn’t worth the trouble to check why this happens.

* Whatever a mother does or doesn’t do, it doesn’t affect her milk supply and therefore it’s pointless to try and improve it.

* Each baby needs to eat at such-and-such intervals, and weight gain should be such-and-such number each week.

* Weighing a baby before and after a feeding is a good way to assess how much food the baby gets throughout the day, because the amount of milk a baby gets per nursing session is the same every time.

 

I’m not saying pediatricians have no clue. They certainly have lots of knowledge, and their advice and opinion regarding a child’s health should be taken most seriously. But – and this is a serious but – don’t be overwhelmed by someone’s authority just because he is a doctor. Western medicine often has an impatient, quick-fix attitude, which is good for acute conditions, but many times displays little knowledge and much arrogance towards treatment of anything that has to do with chronic illnesses, allergies, and nutrition.

 

In certain areas, nurses tend to know more than doctors; or less. I had a nurse tell me that even if breastfeeding is going well, it’s recommended to supplement with formula starting from four months.

 

Many medical professionals have an attitude that can be described as well-meaning but misguided. Be careful and discerning.

Raising chickens for beginners

It’s entirely possible to live a resourceful, frugal, self-reliant life without keeping chickens (or any livestock at all), but I do consider chickens to be a wonderful addition to almost any household. Chickens are useful, easy to raise, and fun. They don’t require a lot of space or much of your time. If you do it properly, your venture into chicken-keeping can provide you with wonderful-tasting fresh eggs, pest control for your yard and even valuable manure. You might even end up with extra eggs and/or birds to sell in season.

 

Not for the faint-hearted

 

A warning about raising livestock – it might take a lot of investment in time and money before these ventures begin to pay off, especially if you run into unexpected trouble. All the chicken owners we know have had their flock demolished by a fox, a mysterious disease or a stray dog at least once. Most goat owners lost does and/or kids because of a kidding that didn’t go as it should have, or else had to pay a large vet bill. These things are heart-wrenching and highly discouraging, apart from the cost. However, it is possible to minimize your chances of disappointment; more on that later.

 

Which breed should I choose?

 

It depends on what you want to get out of chicken-keeping. The most popular reason for keeping chickens is eggs, but some people raise their own meat birds, and other focus on heritage breeds and hatching chicks for sale. For eggs, I recommend sturdy reliable egg-layers such as Rhode Islands, Plymouth Rocks or Sussex.

 

If you plan on breeding your own chickens, you must, of course, have a rooster. If you’re only interested in eggs, a girls-only flock will do. I personally love roosters – they don’t just add a dashing colorful splash to your yard, but add order to a flock and protect the hens.

 

Of course, cross-bred chickens will also provide you with eggs. Currently that’s what we have, actually, but I’m on the lookout for some good-quality heritage breed chicks, and that’s what I think you should keep if you possibly can. The costs are the same (feed, housing, etc), but the birds you have are more valuable. If you have extra chicks to sell, you can get a higher price for pure-breeds.

 

There’s a wealth of information out there about various chicken breeds. Once you start researching, you’ll be hooked. Whatever you choose, only buy from a reliable breeder who will sell you healthy birds and won’t try to pass cross-breeds as pure-breeds.

Cooking simply

I have come to the conclusion that cooking isn’t really very challenging – unless you specifically aim at gourmet recipes, of course – if you can almost always be assured of almost all ingredients, or at least, if it’s only a question of putting something on your next shopping list.

 

It isn’t very difficult to make a good dinner if you always have a chicken or a good part of beef.  Salmon steaks are pretty hard to ruin, too. And your baked goodies, soups and pasta will almost always turn out well with plenty of butter, cream and cheese. And it’s really easy to make fancy desserts with copious amounts of whipped cream and chocolate.

 

It’s a lot more of a challenge to create a variety of healthy, tasty, satisfying meals from the simplest, most economical ingredients. If you use vegetables and fruit in their season, when they are best (and cheapest), things become even more interesting.

 

My mother-in-law cooks, and has always cooked, soup almost every day – mostly meatless, sometimes enriched with the bony parts of chicken or turkey. Her lentil soup and split pea soup are especially beloved. A bowl of such thick, savory soup is a meal in itself. I don’t cook soup nearly as often, but nevertheless we hardly eat meat during the week – or if we do, it makes for a supplementary part of the meal, such as bits of chicken breast with stir-fry veggies, served over noodles or rice.

 

Much of the meat I cook these days is made in the form of a stew with a lot of rich sauce that can be spooned on rice or pasta or soaked up with bread. For example, last Thursday I made beef stew. On Thursday evening, we ate couscous with some of the liquid part of the stew. On Friday night and Saturday we ate the beef. On Sunday I took what was left of the stew – mostly liquid and little chunks of meat that fell apart – and cooked it with some leftover rice for a few minutes. This made an excellent lunch, and a total of four days’ worth of meals – not too bad.

 

There was a time when bell peppers were so cheap that my husband brought home great full bags of them, and I made stuffed peppers almost every week. Then came a time when peppers got so expensive we did without any for maybe two months in a row. Nowadays I have just enough for fresh salads. Having any vegetables at my disposal at any time would be more convenient, no doubt, but there is also something nice in not having something, and looking forward to a time when you can have it again, and enjoy it all the more.

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