Life Hacks for Families with School-Age Children

It feels like our family life is a series of life hacks: time-saving tricks that make the impossible seem doable again. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if these life hacks stopped working. Which balls would be dropped? Which basic needs would no longer be met? Well, fear not, because these life hacks are still working nicely. Here are some of our favorites; may they also inspire you to lead a simpler and yet more fulfilling life.

A note about our family: We have two kids, ages 9 and 12, and two working parents. So, most of these hacks are geared toward families with school-aged children. I hope this post inspires other contributors to write about their life hacks for different age ranges and experiences. Also, readers, I’m sure you have lots of ideas, so please add yours to the comments. We have grouped our tips into housekeeping, cooking, and studying.

Housekeeping Hacks

Spacing out chores. The hardest thing about cleaning house is that it takes time away from things we would rather be doing: learning, adventuring, or just resting. The best way I have found to get things done is by spreading it out. If you were to look at my calendar app for any given Saturday morning, you would find several small chunks of time blocked out for chores like changing the sheets on the beds, mopping the kitchen floor, and cleaning the toilets. In the notes, each item lists a frequency: weekly, monthly, etc. The goal, when the chore items pop up on the calendar, is to get them done that same weekend. As the kids get older, chores are a team effort. I’m telling you, listening to your kids work together to put a fitted sheet onto a wiggly mattress is priceless. Once the chore is done, the event gets rescheduled for the next week, month, etc., and that is a satisfying feeling. Sometimes, however, life happens—travel, illness, work, etc.—and some or all of the chores get bumped to the next weekend. You just change the date on the item and the world keeps turning. This is not a foolproof system, but it helps get chores done more consistently without having to remember how long it’s been since you cleaned something.

colorful clothesNight owl appliances. Does your dishwasher or washing machine have a delayed start feature? We have gotten in the habit of washing dishes and clothes in the wee hours of the morning. It’s nice to not have to listen to the machines doing their jobs, but still wake up to clean dishes. The washing machine finishes just before wakeup; then, the clothes go in the dryer and stay fresh—no front-loader funkiness. Did you that some electric utilities actually charge less for energy use at off-peak times? Here is San Antonio, CPS Energy’s Reduce My Use program will show you what a difference you are making by shifting your appliance use on heavy demand days. Be kind to the grid by avoiding running appliances between 3:00 P.M. and 7:00 P.M. on hot days.

Cooking Hacks

Fire-and-forget appliances. We will make room in our kitchen for a few uni-tasker appliances that do their jobs very well and get used over and over again. Our favorite thing is when you can press START and then walk away. The Instant Pot is a great example of this; see the links at the bottom for some posts with delicious recipes to try. Other favorites are the hard boiled egg cooker and the popcorn popper (my son’s favorite breakfast), as well as the steamer. Related: Our oven has a delayed start feature; recently, we put a chicken in the oven to roast, set it to start an hour later, and then went to the bookstore; we came home to the delicious smell of roasted chicken, almost ready to serve. Home cooking is so much easier when you don’t need to stand and stir or flip something. I know this limits our recipe options, but there is a season for everything, and this is just not our season for stir fry. (On special occasions, however, I will stand around and flip bacon.)

brown eggsMeet-me-halfway lunchbox prep. Teaching kids to take care of themselves sometimes means building a scaffolding for them and then gradually taking down the pieces until they are standing tall on their own. That’s how we manage lunchbox packing. Our kids know the basic template for a balanced lunch: main dish, fruit, veggie, starch, dairy. They know where to find those things in the fridge: meatballs, pasta, carrot sticks, snap peas, blueberries, strawberries, cheese sticks, the aforementioned hard-boiled eggs. Or to look in the pantry for bread, peanut butter, honey, crackers, etc. We used to peel the eggs and put each one in a baggie on the top shelf; now our son can peel his own eggs. We still heat up the meatballs and pasta before putting them into the food jars, but as our son gets older he will learn to handle hot foods safely. Packing one’s own lunchbox is a good life skill and an opportunity to learn natural consequences—there is no one else to get mad at when you forgot your spoon and could not eat your chili.

making a peanut butter sandwichStudying Hacks

Self-service school supplies. Kids get more independent about their homework as they get older. We repurposed a DVD shelf into a station for on-demand school supplies, including notebook paper, crayons, index cards, and colored pencils. There is also a movable basket with pencils, erasers, scissors, sticky notes, a glue stick, a compass. Having these materials close, near the kitchen table where homework is done, reduces interruptions and distractions. Even after homework is done, the kids come back to these supplies for crafting and writing letters. (Hey, their mom is a writer, and they like to write, too.)

child's drawing on yellow paperDry erase wall calendars. As kids get older, their time horizons expand, and they want to know more about what is happening in their lives. Our kids are getting in the habit of checking the big dry-erase wall calendar in the kitchen. We use the yearly calendar—in fact, we just busted out the one for next year—but other folks get good results with monthly or weekly planners. We keep several colors of dry erase markers in a cup next to the calendar. When they want to know the next time they get to sleep over at grandma’s house, they can just look at the wall calendar. It’s also a helpful tool for reinforcing good habits: give yourself a star for every day you met your goal, whether it’s going for a swim or practicing your dance moves.

Library book depot. Library books have a home base where they hang out when they are not being read. Having a book depot makes it easier to find the library books when due dates roll around. As with chores, we use an electronic calendar event as a reminder about when books are due and when to pick up books on hold. Thankfully, the San Antonio Public Library is experimenting with not charging fines for overdue children’s books. However, we still try to stay on top of it, to make sure books get used and stay in circulation.

colored pencilsMaybe these life hacks are not going to change the world, but they do help keep things running smoothly at our house. What tips would you add to this list?

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Inga Cotton
Inga is passionate about parent-driven education: helping parents be the best advocates for their children, finding the right schools (or homeschooling resources), and enjoying San Antonio's variety of arts and cultural events for families. She was born in California but has called Texas home since high school. She works part time as a lawyer and also blogs at San Antonio Charter Moms. Her eight-year-old son, F.T., and five-year-old daughter, G.N., attend a public charter school in the heart of the city. She married a techie and is a bit of a geek herself.