How to be a good housewife: the lost art of Home Economics

Home Economics ClassI’ve tried baking chicken.

With my first chicken, I was going for “crispy” but ended up with “dry beyond chewing.” Next time I was going for “juicy” but ended up with raw. As I watched my husband pick his food for a good piece here and there, I had this terrifying thought:

“My poor husband, I’m starving him to death!”

See, the last three years before getting married, I lived with my mom. She took care of everything at home while I happily indulged in working. Cooking, cleaning, or grocery shopping – it was all up to mom.

But now that I’m married… there are no more meals that magically appear on the table come 8 o’clock. No more groceries that magically pop in the fridge. And – sob! – definitely no more clothes that magically wash-dry-iron and fold themselves in my wardrobe.

So here I am: 28, married, pregnant, and clueless about how to manage our home. And GOD what about when the baby comes – will I starve him/her to death, too? Will his/her room turn into a pigsty because mommy can’t keep a house? Will the other kids at school make fun of him/her* because mommy didn’t learn to separate the lights from the darks?

*Update: this post has been sitting as draft for a week, and meanwhile we found out – it’s gonna be a little GIRL, everyone! :)

* * *

HOUSEWIVES NEED A SYSTEM

I’m not exactly a “housewife” – I have a full-time job, I teach dance classes, and write a blog. But I still have to do typicall housewife chores.

We’ve already established that I’m a terrible housewife. And I’m not bursting with desire to learn, either. Here’s what I tought while doing the dishes the other day:

“Time spent for household chores is… lost forever. I wash dishes every day and I have no visible result for my effort other than clean dishes, which just get dirty again tomorrow and then they get cleaned again tomorrow. I spend an hour housekeeping each day, and the next day, and the next. But there’s no visible end to it!”

I sighed, dipped my sponge in the liquid soap again and started on a greasy pan. (We had had fried meatballs for lunch.)

“Yet with the remodeling we’re doing to get ready for the baby, it’s different. If I spend 1 hour a day working at it, it will be over in a month, and I’ll have a visible result for my efforts. Also, there will be an END to it. Or if I was spending 1 hour a day at the gym – within a year, I’d have a killer body!

But household duties – it’s like those stupid hamster wheels! You just can’t go anywhere.”

Lost in such dark thoughts, I had almost surrendered to the gloomy perspective of serving a life sentence of doing dishes with no change of parole. It wasn’t until I finished wiping off the kitchen table when this revolutionary thought enlightened me:

“THOU CAN’T RUN AWAY FROM HOUSEKEEPING, BUT THOU SHOULDST MINIMIZE THE TIME WASTED ON IT. BECOME GOOD AT HOUSEKEEPING.”

So I did.

* * *

COOKING

I came across the term “meal plan” in one of Trent’s posts . I googled “how to make a meal plan for a week” and opened all the first-page results in browser tabs. I found meal planners, advice on clipping coupons, prep work the day before… okay, this wasn’t going to work.

I’m actually pretty good at finding the root cause of a problem, and now was a great time to use this superpower of mine.

My main problem with cooking was that… I suck at it. I can only make a few simple meals, and anything above fried eggs scared the bejeebies out of me. So no point in downloading recipes and creating complex meal plans that I was never going to actually use.

Instead, I made a list of things I could (and was willing to) cook. I put them in groups: soups, salads, meals with meat, veggie meals, desserts, others. Each group had 5-6 items, and the whole thing looked a little like a restaurant menu. (A really limited one, yes, but it would work.)

Then I showed it to my husband. He laughed (ouch!), looked at me, then cracked up again.
“You’re so cute,” he said and kissed my head.
“Yah,” I said, “so this is what we have to work with.”
He laughed again. “O God,” he said, “I hope you’ll add a meal or two in it as you go, right?”
I played offended. “Why, of course I will! Geez!”

And I do want to add items to the menu, because it’s already getting boring. BUT FIRST, I plan on doing this menu until I can cook it on autopilot. I want it to become a habit, and optimize that habit to perfection. I will cook it until I memorize all the ingredients, prep work and procedures.

CLEANING

You know how some people are really messy at the office? Their desks have piles of folders, outdated post-it notes stuck to their monitors, and a dozen pens (only half of them work).

Once in a while, the crazy bug bites them and they clean out their desk neatly. It suddenly features lots of clear space, folders are color-coded, and wow – they even sorted through their pens!

But in a week or two, stuff starts piling up again and soon they are back to the messy desk.

I’m just like that, only with my home.

* * *

I don’t have a problem with cleaning the house once a week. I have a problem with keeping it clean on a daily basis.

And no, I have no affection for cleaning. I just want to get it out of the way as soon as possible. I’ve never been one of those women who somehow enjoy the time spent cleaning like they have nothing better to do. (Turns out, some really didn’t! Spotless home = boring life?)

We have a saying in Bulgaria that goes, “Put a lazy man to work, then watch and learn”. Since lazy Rya hated to clean, I desperately wanted to find the bestest, fastest, laziest way for it. Here’s what I’ve found:

1) Have lots of storage space

…because if you don’t, you’ll have clutter, and clutter is the #1 enemy of easy cleaning.

Our little kitchen has no storage space. I have one small cupboard and that’s it. There are zero shelves on the walls.

Because of that, I don’t have enough clear surface. Our small kitchen table hosts a salt shaker, pepper shaker, vinegar, soy sauce, some hot peppers, and napkins. The top of my washing machine (also in the kitchen) hosts an oval bowl with sweets, and next to it we have fruit, cornflakes, or 0.5L Cola. My one and only cupboard has a huge 10L tube of water in one corner, a microwave in the other corner, and it also holds our bread, cooking oil, spices, and stretch foil.

So whenever I want to do a “quick” surface wipe… it’s not so quick.

Now that we’re remodeling, I’m constantly nagging my husband to build me rafts. (Although I know nagging isn’t exactly a husband-changing behavior.)

2) Have proper tools & products

There were too many times when I spent double the time – and effort – just because I was trying to wash the dishes using the cheapest sponge and product. With time, I learned that it pays to get a more expensive and puffy sponge along with a more concentrated product. Seriously, it cuts the time in half.

But having proper tools doesn’t always mean you have to use expensive tools. Old cotton clothes or sheets make good dusting rugs. You can cut old towels to smaller pieces and use them to soak up spills. And some even say white vinegar is a great universal cleaning solution – I have yet to try this.

Of course, I’m not all about buying the cheapest stuff. Today I plan to go hunting for a good mop to clean our new laminate floor with. I don’t care how much it costs – I just want a mop that will last years, that will be easy to clean and comfortable to use. (My husband bough our current mop from a cheapstore. In less then a month the mop was rag-ish and bleeding rust.)

CREATING A SYSTEM FOR HOME ECONOMICS

In home economics, cooking and cleaning are the two most time-consuming tasks because they have to be done daily. But there are other tasks, too – washing clothes, ironing, shopping, filing receipts, and just general organizing.

We’ve somehoe handled housekeeping so far, but even with my husband’s help, we barely keep our heads above water. We were too busy to sit down and think of a system for all those household tasks, so instead we’ve been doing it on a “deal with it later” basis. Like this:

Husband: “Paying the power bill at the cash office is a real pain! We spent 20 minutes in line.”
Me: “Yeah. We should set up online banking.”
Husband: “Great, let’s do that.”
Me: “Sure… later. Let’s go for a coffee first.”

Or like this:
Me: “Honey, what do you want for dinner?”
Husband: “Whatever you make.”
Me: “Fine. I only need a salad, so unless you tell me what you want, salad’s all you get.”
Husband: “But I don’t know what I want… uh, just… figure something out!”
Me: “(Sigh) We should sit down and make a meal plan once and for all.”
Husband: “Sure… later. I want to watch the news now.”

I know… it’s sad.

* * *

Saving time is much like saving money. If you implement something little into your routine – something that saves you 15 minutes a day – it will multiply itself over 365 days. And since I’m likely to keep cooking and cleaning for the next 50 years (almost 20 000 days), that’s HUGE!

So it is absolutely worth it to invest some time and effort up front to eventually find the optimal way to do housekeeping. Once you find that way, you work it into a habit, and once it’s a habit, it’s off your mind. You do it without thinking. You do it without wasting any of your limited willpower.

How do I know what will work? I don’t. I’m not gonna waste time creating theories in my head, or reading long “silver-bullet” help lists online. I’m just going to try a few things, see what works and what doesn’t.

Sounds like a plan*, huh?

*Note to self: remember to also train husband to use new system

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4 thoughts on “How to be a good housewife: the lost art of Home Economics”

  1. Looks interesting, Rya.
    Here are some useful tips :

    When you start cooking open Skype and ask your mother how she makes the dish exactly. Pay attention to details and write down everything.

    I have asked my mother for recipes for few cakes, white beans, pizza and some other meals and she’s very responsive. Sometimes there is a small trick like ‘knead the dough for the pizza until there are bubbles when you cut it with knife’.
    Remember to ask for exact measures and timings. “Bake on medium oven until it is ready” just won’t do. What is medium oven? How long should it take on average? Most housewifes don’t know these things usually, but they usually can make a good guess “At about 180C for 40 minutes and test with a toothpic if it is ready”. This is much better.

    Especially the timing is important – if you have a timer on your oven this is best. I set the timer and after that I forget about the meal, because the timer turns off the oven. This gives me the ability to do something else during the time. Sometimes I even go out and when I return the meal is ready and warm.

    As for the cleaning – well at least you can do it once a week instead of doing it everyday. The result is quite the same and the effort is seven times less. Usually the woman is the one that wants the house clean. If you are ok with dirtier house, then your husband will be probably ok, too. You can ask for help of course – I don’t like cleaning the floor, but I am ok with washing the dishes (I love warm water on my hands).

    For the online banking. Register at epay. This is the most comfortable way for managing bills – it sends you an email when a new bill arrives for you and paying the bills takes a minute or two at most. Epay does not charge taxes for borika(maestro,mastercard) cards, but takes a percent of transaction from visa/visa electron cards. Your bank may take a tax for the transaction as if it was completed on POS or ATM. Most banks have online banking, too or even a system for paying the bills. However it’s not so good, because the bank takes the amount for the bill out of your account automatically. This is not good if you decide to delay the bill until you have your salary for example.

    About the kitchen cupboards. Make them 90cm high rather than 60. This adds one raft. It’s too high? – No problem it’s the ideal pace to put things that you rarely use. Then you’ll have more storage for the more common things.

  2. Raya, get yourself one of those Britta filtering pitchers. Then you can ditch the 10 litre tube and save time/money on buying water from the shop.

  3. Hi Andy,

    Actually, I was just thinking of it today. There are Brittas on sale this week. But I want to calculate how many litres are processed by one filter and compare the cost per litre.

    A pitcher would definitely be more comfortable for everyday use though.

  4. Haha, all men need specific instructions! :) Unfortunately my mom never works with exact measures. She uses things like “handful” or “pinch” or “I fill my green tea cup up to that point where it chipped a little after you dropped it that summer” :)

    I agree that a timer is great. But my 30-year old portable oven (“Rahovets”!) doesn’t even have temperature marks, let alone a timer :) I could buy a timer but to me, remembering when to turn off the oven is no problem.

    Cleaning the house just once a week? No way. I can let it go for two days, tops, and then I just HAVE TO dust and clean the floors. I don’t know why we get so much dust. I give it a bigger cleaning once a week, but that’s no replacement for the everyday activities.

    I use E-pay since maybe 2009, and we created a new account soon after we started living together. Now we pay all our bills online, it is a huge time-saver. Not to mention how much easier it is to keep track of bills.

    It’s so cool that you don’t mind doing dishes! I HATE doing the dishes, but unfortunatelly my husband does, too :) If I have to spend half an hour nagging him to do it for me just to watch him to a half-assed job, I prefer to just do them myself, ha! :) But that’s okay, because he helps with other stuff around the house.

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