All Systems Go

Back in the old days, when we only had one kid, it was easy enough to maintain many of the spontaneous behaviors of our prior DINK lifestyle. For example, we could decide what to have for dinner based on what we were in the mood for at the moment, and even pop into the grocery store on a whim if we were missing an ingredient. Because Gloria was a consistently good sleeper with an early bedtime, we had our evenings to ourselves and could use the time however we liked. It was relatively easy for one of us to disappear in the evening for a yoga class or to meet up with a friend. We even had significant free time to devote to this blog, as evidenced by our careful documentation of Gloria’s first two years. Looking back at that time, I now believe that it doesn’t take much in the way of planning or lifestyle adjustment to manage one child — you may need to adapt your schedule, but you can get by without being terribly organized.

It’s when you have two kids that things get chaotic (and now we have three – yikes!) Kenny and I, having spent enough time managing software projects, zealously believe that the way to counter chaos is with systems. Until I reflected on it today, I didn’t even realize quite how many systems we had devised for managing our household. And given that we still feel like things are out of control much of the time, we likely need more! Here are a few useful systems we have in place:

Meal Planning and Recipe Storage

Over the last couple of years we have tried out several different apps in search of the best meal planning solution. At first, we used a shared Excel spreadsheet, with a new copy-pasted tab for each week. This was a bit cumbersome and had no tie-in to a recipe list, so we were always on the lookout for a better solution. At some point we switched to’s meal planner, which was an improvement, but its user experience left much to be desired. In June of 2014 Kenny found Pepperplate, and it has helped improve our workflow considerably.

Pepperplate is a web-based meal planning tool and recipe database, with a simple and intuitive UI. It supports automatic recipe import from all of the major cooking websites, which makes it easy for us to keep all of our recipes in one place. When filling out the meal planner, recipes from your list auto-complete as you type. Apparently the site also generates shopping lists, although I’ve never used that feature.

It’s easy enough to have our nanny help with meal prep if we just give her the login (although of course it would be nicer if Pepperplate supported recipe/meal plan sharing rather than compelling us to share our password).


To be sure, even with good tools in place, meal planning is still a chore. Perhaps better tooling could make this a bit easier; for example, I could imagine a Pepperplate feature that pre-populated all of our breakfasts based on past meal plans, or at least an easy way to schedule “recurring” meals. But the fact of the matter is that coming up with new and interesting meal options – that kids have any probability of actually eating! – is just hard. We dread meal planning every week, but we do appreciate having everything organized in a planner rather than our heads, and the ability to look back at past weeks helps us avoid repeating menus too frequently. Planning meals a few days in advance also helps us avoid extra trips to the grocery store (although realistically I’m there every other day anyway). We must be doing something right here, because our kids are generally enthusiastic eaters, and they consume a good variety of (mostly) healthy foods.

Grocery Lists

There are a few different grocery stores where we regularly shop. For each, we have a shared shopping list in OneNote – which we can easily check and update from the OneNote desktop app, OneNote online, or our phones. Our Trader Joe’s list is especially long, so I’ve organized it by aisle of the store. When we run out of something at home (or as a part of meal planning), I fire up the OneNote app on my phone and uncheck the relevant items. If I have time to make a quick run to the store but not to inventory what we have in the house beforehand, I can ask Kenny to update the list while I’m en route and then I just sync it up when I get there.

I know there are numerous apps for shared shopping lists as well, but I haven’t found any of them to work as well as this simple workflow.


School Lunches

Every night after the kids are in bed, we spend at least an hour in the kitchen washing dishes and making lunches. Apparently there are some kids who are happy to eat the same lunch day after day. Not mine. It turns out that if even one item in Gloria’s lunch is the same as something she ate yesterday, that item always comes home uneaten. Micah seems to be developing the same insistence on variety.

So we’ve developed a repertoire of different healthy foods that our kids like to eat from different food groups (vegetables are the hardest, but as they’ve gotten older we’ve found there are some veggies that they will eat). We’ll send each kid 5-6 different items, each packed in reusable containers. We collect each kid’s containers in a bin marked with his/her name in the refrigerator the night before, and then in the morning each kid’s bin gets emptied into a lunchbox.  We try to reuse leftovers as much as possible, and when we’re putting away leftovers after dinner we usually make a couple of lunch containers to use later in the week (but not the following day – they won’t eat it until two days later at earliest).

Sample lunches for a day at school: Gloria’s on the left, Micah’s on the right

We try to make their lunches as similar to each other as possible when we can

To make things easier, we’ve also started compiling a list of the items we typically send in school lunches, organized by category: Dairy, Protein, Starch, Veggie, Fruit (our school is pescatarian and nut-free so we have to be creative on the protein options). In theory, throwing a lunch together should be as simple as choosing one item from each category. This is an optimization that we haven’t had a chance to test much yet – but I can only imagine that it’ll help!

In-progress list of school lunch options

Kids’ Schedules

This past summer, with the plethora of camps and other childcare options we needed to string together, simple facts like where the kids were supposed to be at a given time got too complex to keep in our heads. Fortunately this is a problem that is well-supported by calendaring systems. We chose to use a Google calendar for Gloria and Micah’s schedules – we chose Google because it has flexible sharing rules and its calendars can be easily synced to any smart phone. So it was no problem for me to create a calendar that Kenny and I could both edit, and my Mom and our nanny could sync to their iPhones.

Now that the kids are back in school, their schedule is only nominally less complicated. The shared calendar is still extremely useful for tracking school holidays, ballet class, gymnastics class, and one-off activities like birthday parties.

Home Projects

As most households probably do, we have a massive backlog of home projects, many of which have been on hold for years as we try to get a handle on life with small kids. Because Kenny and I are both software people, of course there needs to be proper a proper project management workflow in place. And central to that, of course, is a bug tracker.

For a while we were using Asana as our bug tracker, and it has all of the standard features – creating tickets, assigning them, setting priority, attaching labels, etc. But with a large number of tickets the backlog can get unwieldy, and it was difficult to get a sense of what to work on next. Then I discovered Trello, which my co-workers had been using for our software project for some time before I joined the team. Trello is a nice web-based implementation of a kanban board, and it’s the perfect visualization for our home projects.


Trello’s checklist feature is especially useful, as many of our home projects have multiple sub-tasks. It’s also easy to convert checklist items into full-fledged cards, which is very convenient. Every now and then we make a temporary list of cards that we want to group together to complete during a specific time period – e.g. you can see our “parental leave projects” list above. This isn’t “proper” kanban usage, but it’s useful for us – and Trello is completely flexible so it’s easy to customize it for usages like that.

This Blog

This blog is basically a special case of “home project” for us, and it has its own Trello board. At any given time we have plans for many more blog posts than we can juggle, so everything goes on the “” Trello board to be written later. Some posts are blocked because they require photos that need processing, so we put those in a “blocked” list. Anything we’re working on goes into the “in progress” list. We make judicious use of descriptions and checklists for Trello cards representing blog posts, as we jot down notes on what we want to blog about later. We started doing this when Gloria was about a year old, with one Trello card for each weekly blog post, because we often got behind on writing them but wanted to capture our memories in real time. We alternated who wrote each week, so we assigned ourselves the appropriate cards. Now that we’re doing monthly posts (and we’re even further behind), the same approach still works.


Digital Photos

Kenny and I have fun with a bit of amateur photography – and the kids provide plenty of material. The hardest part is wading through the thousands of photos that we take, choosing which ones are keepers, editing them in Lightroom, and getting them posted onto our Flickr site in a reasonably timely fashion. When Gloria was tiny, we managed to stay relatively on top of this process – but we did spend a significant chunk of time on it. These days, I’d say we’re taking significantly fewer photos (it’s just harder to hold a camera when you need your hands free to wrangle so many kids) but we are much further behind on photo triage and editing.

There are a few small things that have helped us keep track of where we are in our triage/editing process, since we often work on photos in very small time slices and we are frequently interrupted:

  1. When we import photos to Lightroom, we group them into directories by month (months are further grouped by year).
  2. A newly imported month gets a “U” prefix on its directory name – this indicates that it is untriaged/unedited.
  3. When we take a first pass through reviewing the photos for a given month, we rate the photos – LR supports 1-5 stars, but we’ve generally standardized on using 3 for most purposes. Anything we plan to post on Flickr gets 3 (or theoretically more) stars. Anything we want to keep but not post gets 2 stars. Once we’re done with the triage pass, anything with 0 or 1 star(s) gets deleted.
  4. Once a folder has been triaged (but not edited), its prefix changes from “U” to “T” – this means that it’s ready for an editing pass.
  5. Once the editing is done, we export the photos, post them to Flickr, and the “T” prefix can be removed from the directory name. A folder with no prefixes is considered fully processed, and it’s easy to see at a glance which folders still need work based on their modifiers.

We are perpetually behind on photo editing and posting, but at least it’s easy to get an idea of how far behind we are…

Baby Sleep Logging

When I was on maternity leave with Micah, I kept a log of his sleep schedule – all naps and night sleep. My goal was to try to discern patterns from the data, in order to determine the schedule that would lead to optimal sleep for him. I played with a few different baby logging apps, but ultimately found that using OneNote (as we do for grocery lists) was the simplest option. When I went back to work, Kenny took over filling in the OneNote log during the day, and he started including additional details like how much milk Micah drank, which let me know how much I needed to pump. And when Kenny went back to work, our nanny started filling in the log for us. The information that she provided in the log made handoffs easier – I could just check the log for all of the details on his naps and meals. For example, if his naps were short, it was likely that he would need to go to bed a bit early.

I don’t know yet whether we’ll take the same obsessive approach with little Ezra – so far I haven’t been logging his sleep during my maternity leave, but I expect that it will be useful for me to have Kenny do some amount of logging when I return to work in January.

Areas for Improvement

In spite of our plethora of systems, certain areas of our home ecosystem are still rather chaotic. Of course, that’s life with three kids, and we won’t pretend that we can – or even should! – bring order to all of the chaos. But I suspect that implementing systems in a few more areas would help us feel a bit more on top of things. For example:

Keeping our house and kids’ rooms tidy

Things that might help: Toy storage! Getting the kids to pitch in more!

Getting kids out the door in the morning

Gloria has been getting better about dressing herself, washing her hands, and coming upstairs for breakfast when she is ready. This is immensely helpful. The only problem is that she isn’t fast, but sometimes setting an alarm on Kenny’s phone to indicate “start of breakfast” helps motivate her. We need to experiment more with routines like this to see what works – and figure out whether something like an alarm would also help motivate Micah. As it is today, once the kids finally sit down for breakfast we end up needing to rush them through the meal so that they can get out the door before 8. A friend recently suggested a picture chart or checklist so we’ll probably try that and I’ll certainly report back with the results!

Why do we spend an hour cleaning the kitchen every night?

Seriously. Why?


We are hopeful that some of the “areas for improvement” will get addressed during my current (and Kenny’s upcoming) parental leave. And I hope that the areas I’ve detailed above are helpful for other families trying to figure out how to keep some semblance of sanity during the small kid years.

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