10 Family Systems and Routines That Work for Us

Welcome to the March Carnival of Natural Parenting: Natural Parenting Top 10 Lists

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have shared Top 10 lists on a wide variety of aspects of attachment parenting and natural living. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.


In a class I took on Positive Discipline awhile back, one concept really resonated with me. “Let the Routine Be The Boss” involves creating routines or procedures around specific parts of the day, or frequently encountered situations, to avoid conflict or power struggles before they begin.  This allows you, the parent, to not be the “bad guy” constantly repeating requests or  nagging to get your agenda accomplished — the routines simply become “the way it is”, a part of the day accepted and understood by all — something you work together to do.  Kids, and frankly, most of us — love and thrive on routines, and over the past few years we’ve stumbled upon or actively created some in our family that help shape our day and point us in the right direction.

Meal planning: For me, meal planning is generally pretty simple — I map out the weeks meals (usually just dinner, though I strive for doing lunches, breakfasts, & snacks too!) on Sundays if possible, or whenever I can get to it (some weeks, this is never, but I try!).  I plan using our fairly plentiful pantry of staples and extra freezer, so I am often just shopping once a week.  I write in a fair bit of flexibility, coming up with a list of meals but not always assigning each one a day so that we can meld the meals to our moods and schedule.  Having a written reminder of what I am serving each day eliminates so much stress — as well as keeping us from sliding into bad food habits.

Emma's birthday dinner -- she got to choose the menu this day!

Creating a Feeding Division of Responsibility:  This meal planning carries over into how we approach eating and feeding with our kids, as well.  Awhile back I read a book about feeding (Child of Mine by Ellyn Satter) one thing in particular resonated with me:  in our family (beyond the infant/early toddler ages!), there is a division of responsibility with regard to food.  We, the parents, are in charge of choosing WHAT foods are offered, and WHEN and WHERE they are served, our children decide for themselves IF they will eat, and HOW MUCH.  That means in our house, we generally don’t cater to specific food requests, or feed a child any time she asks.  The girls get what Lonnie or I serve, which is generally what is on the meal plan (on paper or just in our heads).  Snacks and meals come fairly often and are very regular (Emma and I are both sensitive to low blood sugar), but it’s not a free-for-all.  Otherwise, I’d be making or cleaning up after one kid or another all day long!   As with anything, we are flexible depending on the circumstances and try hard to keep in mind everyone’s preferences, but having a plan and policy in place has helped SO much with food badgering, picky eating, and cleanup around here.  Sooooo worth it!

Containment Works!

Cubbies: About a year ago, I purchased some shelves with cubbies for our cramped entryway.  The collection of coats, shoes and bags times 5 were out of control, and I knew there had to be a better way to contain the chaos.  The unit we bought has a 4 by 2 arrangement, so each girl now has two cubbies, a open top one for coats and sweatshirts, a bottom one with a pull out basket for shoes (I also have two cubbies for most often used shoes, Lonnie puts his in his office down the hall).  There are also two fabric tubs on top of the cubbies where I put my bags and purses, items that are heading out (library books, mail, shopping bags, items to be delivered to someone, etc).  I try to hang my coats in the hall closet, but they admittedly also pile up here sometimes, too!

Once we had the cubbies, I created a few routines around it that help so much.  Each time we are heading out, the girls are responsible for going to the cubbies to pick out their own shoes and coats. I try to keep out of it as much as I can, as they can be really particular about the clothing choices!  When we return, they are SUPPOSED to take off shoes/coats and put them in their place before doing ANYTHING else.  We are still working on that one, admittedly, but they do accept this one as law and when I point out a coat or stray shoe on the ground, they will usually return it without complaint or nagging.

One of the only photos I have of our toy rotation tubs!

Toy Rotation:  I SWEAR by toy rotation, this helps me SO MUCH each and every day!  The concept is fairly simple:  we do not keep all our toys out, or all in one place.  I keep some things in tubs or on shelves in the basement, some in activity bags that are not out all the time.  Each day (or every few days), I trade out some toys or manipulatives for others, so that the toys stay fresh, and the girls stay interested and engaged with them.

Some basics do stay out most of the time, but even with those I find if I move them to a new location, or combine them with other toys or even put them in a new container, the  girls jump into them with renewed interest.  Some toys or activities are not part of the regular rotation at all, and get pulled out for special times (travel, the car, doctors office, etc) or particular location (this game/activity stays in your room, you can play with it when you want to be by yourself, or during quiet time). The “novelty factor” that this creates helps with independent play a TON, and is often all I need to turn around a grumpy mood or break up arguing siblings.

Up/Down Bags and Baskets — okay, this is mostly an organizational one for me, but I’ll toss it in here as well.  Since we have a three story house, it’s easy for clutter to build up waiting to go back to it’s proper floor.  Awhile back I instituted a decorative basket on our main front stairs, that fills with stuff to go up or down (jammies, cups for the bathroom, toys, barrettes and hair things, etc).  On the closed door to the basement stairs, I hang a zippered bag that holds things to go downstairs (often toy parts needing to get put back with it’s set, or items for our storeroom).  This is such a little thing, but it’s really helped me!

Turn Taking: This obviously applies mostly to families with more than one child.  It used to be that Emma was the only chooser or do-er of many fun things during our day, but as the younger girls have gotten older, they deserve a chance too!  For some things, we do a straight forward rotating system —  Emma, Elsie, Delia — like for choosing who goes with us for one-on-one outings on the weekends (usually shopping or errands, ha ha).

Another time the girls get to “choose” is  for TV — Oh, the drama that ensues when all three girls shout out (or argue over) their favorite shows!  For awhile I tried to keep track based on the basic rotating system, but I could not for the life of me remember whose turn it was. I recently switched to a two day system that works GREAT, as we often watch 2 times a day (in the AM when I’m showering and in the PM when I’m cooking dinner). One day, it’s Emma’s and Elsie’s days to choose  (the two “E”s), the next day it’s Delia and MY turn to choose.  For some reason, this much easier for me to remember, and putting myself in the rotation is awesome because I get to introduce new shows I’d like them to watch OR I skip it and we don’t watch at all.  There is another way of doing all this that I’ve heard about from a triplet mama — having a “kid of the day” that gets to choose (or help with) EVERYTHING for their day, which is very intriguing to me.  But, I am not ready to commit to that, at the ages my kids are at.  Maybe someday!

Yep, we have assigned seats now in the car

Assigned seats –– In a similar vein, this helps with car and table drama.  Each kid has assigned seats in the car, as well as at the dinner table.  The car seats rotate every month or so for the little ones (they both want the far back, usually) but Emma has a different carseat that is her own, that never changes.  At the dinner table, we’ve recently instituted assigned seats that last for two weeks at a time.  So far, so good (it helps that we have a large calendar RIGHT next to the dinner table).

Timers – I recently got this great visual timer — the Time Timer — that has really helped my girls and me at various points in our day.  It’s a 60 minute timer that works by showing how much time remains before some sort of transition or event happens.  When the red runs out (and a very quiet chime rings), our time is up.  I use it for clean up time (clean up will happen in X minutes, or let’s clean for X minutes!), meal time (lunch will end in 40 minutes, so you can play with your silverware/talk/sing, but make sure you are done eating by then!), getting ready to leave the house, and  quiet time (Emma generally rests for 30 min in bed with stories, then can be up playing with toys in her room for the remaining 30 before coming down on her own).  Regular timers can also work for this stuff, of course! And then there’s our nightlight on a timer, which I love for helping with nightweaning and to0-early-bird wakeups!

Daily schedules — Though we don’t have a written down schedule, our day does have a flow to it, that we stick to fairly rigidly.  We didn’t have this so much with just one child, but with three young ones, it really, really helps! For me, as well as them!  What we’ve lost in spontaneity, we’ve gained in predicability, which for us right now, is worth it.  All three girls generally know what is going to a happen next in our day, and while there is some variation (especially in the mornings), they KNOW that some things will always happen — meals, playtimes, naps, bath and bedtime routines.  Nap/quiet time is a given, not up for discussion, ever.  TV times are fairly set in stone, too, so if it’s not one of those times, they know not to ask for it. Family dinner happens every day (I know we are lucky to have this!) and is a great way to reconnect and start the transition to bedtime…

Bedtime routines —  I cannot say enough about how important this has been for our family!  Oh how I have struggled at times with three challenging sleepers, but I feel like the sleep and bedtime routines we have been working on since Emma’s early toddlerhood (as we were planning for Elsie and Delia’s arrival) have served us so well, and it’s hard now to imagine our lives without them!  Every day is the same (boring, I know!), dinner, cleanup, baths or playtime, teeth, jammies, stories, nursing for E & D, and into bed.  Blackout shades, white noise machine, and lullaby music is the same every night as well.  We pretty much always start and end at the same time, too with us leaving their rooms by 7-7:15pm.  This has not always been the case — for a looooong time we worked on it, in different ways and bit by bit, to get to where we are.  But for us, the repetition of both the timing and order, every single day, has paid off, big time.

I know many of these systems (or routines, philosophies, etc) are pretty specific to our own unique family circumstances, and obviously won’t work for everyone!  But I do think the concept of putting systems and routines in place, and “letting the  routine be the boss” can really, really  help, especially in families with young children or multiple children.   This has all been a gradual process for us, and we are far, FAR from finding our way through it all, but it’s a start!

What are the family routines that work best for you?  What parts of the day or parts of the house are most challenging for you?  Please share what works (or doesn’t) in your household!


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28 comments to 10 Family Systems and Routines That Work for Us

  • Wow, you sound like one busy mom!
    I’m still struggling to establish a bedtime routine for my daughter. Thanks for sharing yours.

  • You have some great ideas! I especially like the timer and the cubbies. I only have 2 kids, one who is still a newborn. I can see how these ideas become more and more important as your kids get older and as you have more of them.

  • This post is inspiring and is probably going to send me into another nesting frenzy! We are having our third child in a month or so. Right now I struggle most with snacks and meals. I feel like I’m constantly trying to think up healthy things my kids are willing to eat, and ALWAYS running after a snack for one of them. I think we are going to have to start offering reasonable choices and just let them refuse to eat it if they want. They are getting so picky! Toy mess is an issue too. I recently cleaned out the bottom of my linen closet to store toys that come in sets of little pieces. It drove me nuts to constantly be picking up all the dozens of parts of ten different toys, so now they can only take out one toy set at a time. This has helped a ton. We also do toy rotation, and this reminds me I need to rotate now. I find it’s a good time to go through the “vacation” toys and purge a few while they’re not on the radar. We are busy around here getting ready for the birth, but I’m going to have to bookmark this for later!

  • Great ideas! I especially like the idea of rotating available toys.

  • I struggle with establishing stable routines with my 8 month old son (probably because I keep forgetting to implement them) and so I think trying out some of the things you suggest will help me a whole lot. Especially meal planning! There is nothing more stressful than not knowing when or what you are going to eat. Thanks for the great ideas!

    • Kristin

      Meal planning really does cut down on stress, and isn’t that hard if you just sit down and do it (I am saying this while not actually having a plan yet this week! Though I do have a plan for tonight!).

      Also, when my first daughter, Emma was 8 months, I’m pretty sure I had NONE of these in place! Though when Elsie and Delia were 8 months, some were, but we were still just coming out of the fog, then. These things do take time, but are worth it as they enter the toddler and preschool (and beyond) years!

  • I am going to have to try your meal planning techniques with regard to curbing the picky eating/all-day eating habits Mikko’s picked up. He asks for different things all day long and eats maybe 2 bites at most of everything.

    I love the timer idea, too. I need to try that out, because our biggest battles right now are with transitions. Oh, and bedtimes. Yes, we need to work on that, too. As you said, with one child it’s one thing, but since we’ll be adding another soon, I’d like things to progress a little more smoothly.

  • Tat

    You are so organised. I’d love to be able to plan our meals for more than two days in advance. I’ve tried a few times, but things never end up as planned.

  • My first is only 7 months, but I have bookmarked this for future reference. Great ideas!

  • I really need to get back in to menu planning. It really does make things easier.

    I’m going to steal some of your other ideas too! I’ve found that routines really help with our day going smoothly.

  • I’m bookmarking this post! I feel like I’m losing some of these battles (not to put a negative spin on homelife, but sometimes I do feel like I’m “losing it” somehow!) and I only have one child—what will happen when my second comes along?

    I’m interested in hearing what the basic toys are that don’t get rotated (or at least not on a daily basis). Are they special dolls? Blocks? Color crayons? (Trying to guess…)

    • Kristin

      I feel like I am losing sometimes too, don’t worry, I think we all do!

      Yeah, the stuff that stays around all the time are things like stuffed animals and dolls (baby dolls and dollhouse dolls) and people (fisher price little people). Wooden blocks, train set, basic art supplies, and play kitchen stuff. Some books and games, too. I will admit we do have a LOT of toys, thanks to my mom having stuff from her preschool, as well as me having stuff from my own teaching as well (kindergarten). We could do with a lot LESS stuff, I am sure, and might feel a lot more sane if we purged some….

  • what a great snapshot of your life and so much useful information in there too. We’re big into bedtime routines and I love toy rotation, it works wonders to foster creative play and to keep an interest in toys going for a longer time. Awesome list – you clearly put so much time and thought into this resource…

    • Kristin

      Thank you! Glad it was useful for you! I totally agree about how toy rotations fosters creative play — mixing it up is really important sometimes!

      And thanks for tweeting, too!

  • I love the cubby idea! I just have no idea where we would put one in our entrance way. As far as toy rotation – I am SO bad! I’m one of those “out of sight out of mind” people, and apparently Kieran is too, because he never reminds me to get anything back out. Do you want to just come organize my life please? 😉

    • Kristin

      Ha ha, trust me, there are MANY parts of my life that are not at all organized! Maybe by the time the kids are moving out I will be. But probably not!

  • we have some similar routines. I also have 2 kids so it makes things much easier.

  • Wendy

    Hi! First time commenter and reader :) This was a great post. I really liked the up/down bag/basket. I, too, have a 3 floor house and the collection of stuff that needs to go back to its respective homes can be frustrating sometimes. I also really liked your toy rotation. I need to start this. I keep on meaning to, and then it never happens. One thing that we do, is that we need to get dressed before we head downstairs for the day (bedrooms are on the second floor). I instituted this when my now 26 month old was approx 16 months. We used to go down in our jammies and eat breakfast and then go and get dressed and by this point he would really fight it and it wasn’t pretty. By getting dressed before we go downstairs, he knows it is part of the routine and doesn’t fight it anymore and we are ready to go outside for walks/to the store etc whenever we feel like it. And I totally agree w/ when having 2 kids that routines help a lot. We aren’t rigidly planned, but each of our days follow a similar flow which is really helpful. There is more that I love about this post, but my comment is getting ridiculously long! I’ll be back :)

    • Kristin

      Thanks and welcome, Wendy! I love the idea of getting dressed before heading downstairs! I really need to do this. I am NOT a morning person, and this one is probably hardest for me to implement as all I really want to do is get my tea and cuddle up with my computer in the AM (or just crawl back in bed and hide). Until recently I also had to get us all down eating soonish or my oldest would lose it (blood sugar crash) but now we’ve been leaving a snack on her bedside for early AM so that buys us a bit more time. She can get dressed pretty quickly, too — it’s just getting the toddlers to the potty/diapered/dressed sometimes! I think picking out clothes the night before would help us as well — Emma and Delia are both pretty picky about what they wear so its hard for me to help them with this!

  • This was a great post – I’m definitely bookmarking it as well! I find that the bedtime routine is key – especially if I can keep it up while traveling, it helps ease us into a new place. We are in the process of tweaking it a bit so that Ella (she’s 16mos) is no longer nursing to sleep at night – we nurse for a while and then we rock together. It’s hard to change these things, but I know once the new routine is established it will be good for us all (because then someone besides me could put her to sleep for a change!!) Also, I actually read your post last night and then rotated our toys today (and then came back to comment). I am certainly going to try to implement the meal planning too – overall, some GREAT ideas!! :)

  • Loved this! We do some of these things too. I especially liked the up/down bag; it reminds me of an old “FlyLady” trick to, whenever you go from one room to another, take something from that room that belongs elsewhere. It’s the little efforts that add up. :)

  • […] 10 Family Systems and Routines That Work for Us — See what routines, organizational systems, and parenting approaches work for Kristin at Intrepid Murmurings to help avoid conflict and maintain sanity in a family with three young children. […]

  • […] 10 Family Systems and Routines That Work for Us — See what routines, organizational systems, and parenting approaches work for Kristin at Intrepid Murmurings to help avoid conflict and maintain sanity in a family with three young children. […]

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  • […] 10 Family Systems and Routines That Work for Us — See what routines, organizational systems, and parenting approaches work for Kristin at Intrepid Murmurings to help avoid conflict and maintain sanity in a family with three young children. […]

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