(RealSimple.com) -- It's 9 p.m. Do you know where your life is? Wake up, go to work, crawl home, wrestle dinner onto the table, crash. Wake up, carpool, run endless errands, tuck the kids in, collapse into bed yourself. Whose weeknight is it anyway?
Weeknights can be a blur of activity and last-minute chores, but a few tips can free up your time.
Meet three women who have reclaimed the last hours of the day for themselves.
1. How a mother of four gets it all done
Home: Glenview, Illinois.
Family: Married, to husband Todd, with four children.
Job: Part-time consultant and database manager.
We have a lot of mouths to feed, so we always make extra dinner and freeze it in one-, two-, and three-person portions. That way I don't have to start from scratch every night. If we didn't do this, we would eat plainer foods without much variety. I go for simple and scalable dishes -- like pasta instead of sandwiches -- because it's easier to throw more in the pot than to make four individual items. Since my kids aren't too picky, I try to introduce new things with the old favorites. The rule is they have to eat a certain number of bites before saying they don't like it. In most cases, they like it and eat the rest.
How I switch gears: I turn myself off multitasking mode at 5:30 so I can focus on one thing at a time. I shut down my computer and stop answering the phone.
Streamlining secret No. 1: Each time we use up a grocery ingredient, I write it on my shopping list, a five-by-seven-inch index card I print from an Excel spreadsheet showing the aisles in the grocery store. With a fully stocked pantry, I can always put together a five-course dinner at a moment's notice.
Streamlining secret No. 2: The phone in the kitchen -- and the ones everywhere else in the house -- have headsets so I can have my hands free at all times.
Streamlining secret No. 3: I buy as much as I can online: books, toys, clothes, food, prescriptions, gifts, plane tickets, office products, home furnishings. I switched to Web shopping when we got a high-speed connection. I know my brands and just stick with them.
6 p.m.: Feed the kids dinner.
7 p.m.: Eat dinner with my husband, Todd, while the kids play. (He gets home after they eat.)
7:30 p.m.: Help Todd bathe the kids and put them in pajamas.
8 p.m.: Read to Roxane and put her to bed.
8:45 p.m.: Read to C.J., Nate, and Hank.
9 p.m.: Clean the kitchen.
9:30 p.m.: Eat ice cream while reading the Wall Street Journal, bake, talk on the phone.
11:30 p.m.: Bedtime.
2. How a full-time mom reclaims her night
Home: Santa Barbara, California.
Family: Married, to husband Paul, with two daughters.
Job: Stay-at-home mom; trustee of the Marymount School, Santa Barbara; board member of the Susan Love Breast Cancer Foundation; executive-committee member of the Cade (School) Parent Organization.
Ten years ago, when I left my full-time job directing on-air promotions for ABC to be a full-time mom, I didn't think I would need a Filofax or to-do lists or even a desk at home. I thought it would be a snap. How hard could it be to manage a carpool? Hard!
To get a handle on my children's hectic, homework-jammed evenings, I keep extras of everything they might need for projects: binders, construction paper, poster board, notebooks, pens, markers, glue sticks. I also make sure to have a stash of slice-and-bake cookie dough in the fridge and brownie mixes in the pantry. (It doesn't have to be gourmet or expensive.) That way I'm always prepared for bake sales and last-minute requests to take something special to their class. Nothing will ruin an evening faster than "Oh, Mom, I need two dozen cookies in the morning."
How I switch gears: Dinner is our transition time. The kids start homework in the kitchen while I'm cooking. On the nights we come in late from sports practice or other events, I make it really easy and fun. We have "breakfast as dinner" night and eat eggs, bacon, and toast. The kids love it.
Streamlining secret No. 1: My life is a series of Post-it notes. The girls leave me messages everywhere: what they want for lunch the next day; if they need something for school, like a permission slip; and when they need birthday presents. I can never remember who wants what, so the notes relieve me of some of the burden of being Supermom.
Streamlining secret No. 2: There are a gazillion birthdays. If I'm in a bookstore buying something for myself, I always stop by the children's section to buy an age-appropriate gift to have on hand for my children's friends. I do the same thing in music stores and bath stores. This minimizes after-dinner dashes to the mall.
Streamlining secret No. 3: A lot of parents are anti-TV on school nights, but since I worked in television, I love it too much to forbid my kids to watch it. If there's something special on, like the Essence Awards, we TiVo it and watch it on a night when they get their homework done early.
My perfect night: Now that I have a teenage daughter, I have a built-in babysitter for my younger one. One night, when Paul was out of town, I decided to take advantage of that and do something I'd never done. The girls had already eaten and had their showers. It was 7:30, and they were doing their homework. The Paul Taylor Dance Company was performing at a local theater, and I hadn't seen them in years. A little voice inside of me said, "Do it." I bought a single ticket and went to the show alone. It was so wonderful.
6 p.m.: Start dinner while Kendall and Jordan start their homework.
7 p.m.: Dinner.
7:30 p.m.: More homework. I sit with Kendall if she needs help.
9 p.m.: Bedtime for Kendall. While I'm putting her to bed, Paul likes to talk to Jordan about what she's reading in school.
9:30 p.m.: This is my quiet time. I spend time with Paul, read a book, watch a favorite TV show that I've recorded, or catch up with a girlfriend on the phone. I like to have phone dates at least twice a week.
3. Find time by dividing labor
Home: Austin, Texas.
Family: Married, to husband Patrick, with two sons.
Job: Part-time newspaper editor.
My husband and I both realized early on that getting the kids to bed at a set hour was a priority so he and I could spend time together. Since I work four nights a week, our evenings are precious, even if we just crash on the couch and watch a DVD.
Usually we alternate putting the kids to bed and making dinner. If it's my turn to put them to bed, Pat will call out, "Are we shooting for 8:20 or 8:30?" so he doesn't grill the salmon into oblivion. If I've tucked the boys in, I'm then greeted with cold Chardonnay or a nice Merlot. After the kids are asleep, we can finally have uninterrupted adult conversation. We've been so consistent about bedtime that our kids almost always sleep like little logs, which means we can have couples over for a quiet dinner and save money on baby-sitting.
How I switch gears: Having a wineglass in my hand in the evening helps. It's nice to be drinking out of a grown-up glass after being surrounded by sippy cups.
Streamlining secret No. 1: You have to look for economies of scale -- like when Joe was old enough, I started throwing him in the bathtub at the same time as Adam. Our routine involves a strict policy: only one book at bedtime. That helps us to avoid getting sucked into "Oh, just one more story!"
Streamlining secret No. 2: You have to be a team when it comes to children's bedtimes. It won't work if one parent is firm and the other is a pushover. We've been rigid about the routine since they were infants. Still, we're always fine-tuning; it's a work in progress.
Streamlining secret No. 3: Evenings are obviously less stressful if the day has gone well. We bought extra car seats so that we have two in Patrick's truck and two in my minivan, which gives us flexibility in case one of us can't get away from work to pick the kids up.
My perfect night: I would love to always have the time to take an early-evening get-away-from-it-all run in my hilly neighborhood. Then I'd take a long, relaxing shower before playing with the kids.
6:15 p.m.: Feed the kids at the kitchen table.
6:30 p.m.: Pat and I play with the boys, do puzzles, read, dance.
7:40 p.m.: Round up the kids for bed.
8 p.m.: I bathe the boys and oversee the bedtime ritual while Patrick mans the grill.
8:20 p.m.: Have a glass of wine.
8:30 p.m.: Dinner.
9 p.m.: We gab on the couch or patio. Sometimes we watch a DVD.
10:30 p.m.: Patrick goes to bed. I read on the couch, then go on to bed at about 11.
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