12 Cleaning Secrets From Busy Parents

Staying at home has upended our cleaning routines. Here’s how these parents have tweaked their housekeeping routines to fit.

October 14, 2020
Photo by Weston Wells

A Full Plate is a column about family life and the home by contributing writer Laura Fenton, who explores the intersection of sustainable living and home design through a mother’s eyes.

I keep a tidy and organized home, but the actual cleaning has always been something that I’ve needed to summon the energy to tackle. So I really had to muster up my cleaning courage when my home started getting dirtier a whole lot faster this year, with us at home more and eating most of our meals in, instead of out.

In the beginning it felt like we were cleaning all the time. But as we’ve settled into our new routines, I realize that’s partly because we’re cleaning more frequently albeit for shorter bursts of time. I’m still looking for a routine that really works for our new-new normal, so I polled my friends for their advice for managing mess. Here’s what’s working for me and my community of parents lately:

1. Only make one mess at a time.

“We have a rule to not make another mess until one is cleaned up,” says Crystal Nielson, a designer and blogger, whose home was featured in my book The Little Book of Living Small. She notes that her kids do best with cleaning up when they know the exact spot for things to get put back. (Creating a designated home for each toy is up to you, Mom and Dad). “My husband and I even apply that rule to ourselves when we are in the kitchen,” Crystal says. “We always clean up before getting anything else out so we are not in a giant mess.”

2. …but do cut yourself some slack.

For me, that means postponing the breakfast dishes. By the time all the coffee is finished and my family has eaten, it feels like it’s practically lunchtime, so I often let the breakfast dishes wait (especially on days when my son gets to go to school and I can work uninterrupted!) and clean up as I am prepping lunch. This may not seem revolutionary, but for someone who never left dirty dishes in the sink, it’s been a big habit shift.

3. Do short, focussed sessions daily.

Erin Feher, founder of Represent Collaborative, says she can’t concentrate when the house is a mess (I know the feeling!), so she’s started a new habit of setting a timer for fifteen minutes after her kids are settled in with their schoolwork. “I let myself clean to my heart's content,” she says, “But once the timer goes off, I need to move on to my work, no matter what. Thankfully, she says, “Our home is small so if I focus for 15 minutes, I can't get it into pretty good shape.” I can attest that the timer method is surprisingly effective: The key is not to get distracted!

4. Tidy together as a family.

Once every two weeks, we take a couple hours on a Saturday to do the deep cleaning all together—and we get our kid to “help” (he loves vacuuming and using spray bottles). This was never possible when he was a toddler because at least one of us needed to be supervising him. Cookbook author Jenna Helwig does the same thing every Saturday morning, and she says she has been pleasantly surprised by how well her fourteen year-old has taken to it, “Rosen is responsible for their own small room—changing and washing their sheets, dusting, and vacuuming. Miraculously, they often decide to do some decluttering while they’re at it! Just last week they filled up two large bags of books.”

5. Clean while the kids play.

My friend, the decorator Jourdan Fairchild, confesses she’s started cleaning the bathroom while her three-year-old daughter is in the bathtub. “Sink, vanity, mirror, toilet—however much I can get to,” she says. “I can chat with her and knock out a chore that I otherwise put off.” (I am 100-percent stealing this idea!) My son really wants me to play with him these days, since he gets so little time to play with other kids. I have figured out that I can say I’m “playing” vehicles or trains, when I’m really sorting toys back into their proper bins.

6. Invest in pro tools.

Sometimes a good tool really helps. Tracy Pendergast, founder of Daisy Made, tells me her family invested in the Dyson V7 Trigger Cord-Free Handheld Vacuum Cleaner, which is basically a super fancy dust-buster (Crystal Nielson’s husband Taylor is also a big fan of the cordless Dyson). “Being able to suck up the aftermath of kinetic sand or snacktime without hauling out the big vacuum has been worth every penny,” Tracy says, noting that it’s also great for car seats. Etienne Fang, founder of Having It All, and her husband Jason Ring used to splurge on a weekly cleaning service, but since social distancing restrictions have been in place, Jason now cleans the floors in one step(!) with the Bissell Crosswave, a cordless vacuum mop.

7. Push pause on over-laundering.

“I was doing so much laundry,” says writer Katy Elliot, who realized her family was barely wearing some of their clothes before she washed them. So Elliot hung Shaker peg rails in each of her family’s bedrooms. The pegs provide a place to hang those not-quite-clean, but not actually dirty clothes, so they can be reworn and they keep clothes off the floor and chairs.

8. Run the dishwasher every night.

Lindsay Downes, the professional organizer behind A Considered Home, used to wait to run her dishwasher until she had filled every square inch. “But that always happened at different times,” she says. “And then we’d have a meal with a ton of dishes and the dishwasher would be running.” Now she runs it every night before bed and empties it first thing in the morning. “If there’s space at night, I’ll throw in things like our compost bucket, bath toys, or oven grates to fill it up more,” she adds. I’m also taking an everything-in approach to the dishwasher: I used to be much choosier about what went in—hand-washing plastic tops and containers, utensils and the like—but these days? Who has time?

9. Give the kids real chores.

I admire my pal Chantal Lamers and her husband, who gave her kids their first real chores thanks to the pandemic. Chantal’s kids, led by her eight year-old, now clean their bathroom every Friday. (Lamers confesses she chose that day, so she tells them that if they do their chores, they can watch a Friday night movie.) “Also, it does get them out of my hair for 30 minutes,” she says. “It is not perfect, and I often need to do touch-ups but it's been a big help and one less thing on my plate.”

10. Reset your space daily.

Nadim Issa, a dad in Los Angeles, quickly realized that hosting his daughter's remote learning pod required a shift in routine. "The kids tidy up, and once everyone's gone, I'll vacuum the rug to get rid of the “detritus du jour”—tiny snippets of cut-up construction paper, eraser dust, etc." he says. "It really makes a difference to reset the space for the next day.

11. Say thanks for the cleaning we aren’t doing

When the housework feels like too much, I also try to remind myself of the cleaning that’s not happening: The daily lunchbox clean-out at the end of the day, the dishes I used to do at work, the special-care laundry for party and work clothing, and the frantic tidying and cleaning before a playdate are no longer on my to-do list.

12. Try to find some joy in it.

Hear me out! We need every little boost of happiness we can get during this strange time, so if the fancy lemon verbena-scented counter spray makes the nightly clean-up just a little less of a chore, by all means, pay the extra money for some budget aromatherapy. Choose some scrub brushes and sponges that are actually attractive. Maybe listening to a podcast (my husband’s happy-maker) will make cleaning the bathroom more tolerable? Whatever it is, there is likely a small way you can make cleaning a little less dreary.

What's your strategy for staying on top of your cleaning routine? Tell us in the comments.

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Laura Fenton is the No Space Too Small columnist at Food52. The author of The Little Book of Living Small, she covers home, design, and sustainability. Laura lives in Jackson Heights, Queens in a 690-square foot apartment with her husband and son. You can follow her on Instagram @laura.alice.fenton or subscribe to her newsletter Living Small.


Mar October 18, 2020
These are great suggestions. I use the beat the clock 15 minute clean up all the time for clutter, usually pairing it with peppy or encouraging music. I also listen to audiobooks when working on grime or bigger cleanups - an engaging book that I only listen to to when doing those things makes them much more enjoyable.
Sarah O. October 14, 2020
Great article, Laura! I do think you should reconsider your choice of words when referring to your fellow parents. Here's a great explainer from Corinne Rice on why using tribe as a synonym for community is insensitive to indigenous people:
Laura F. October 14, 2020
Sarah, thank you for your careful read and sensitivity. I always appreciate when readers help flag word choices that are outdated/insensitive--we will edit accordingly!
Chantal October 17, 2020
Sarah, Laura, I am touched by this exchange between you two. There’s mutual respect, a kindness in educating, and an openmindedness in being willing to learn.

And thanks for the cleaning tips!
Nancy November 19, 2020
Do you know, Sarah O, that "tribe" is a word in nuse thousands of years ago in indoEuropean languages. Also neither used first nor primarily by it about north American peoples?
We may not even be able to call them indigenous if tge theory of emigration from Asia is correct.
So likely they have no ownership nor censorship rights over the word "tribe. "