My series on how to simplify how we use our homes starts with the ‘heart of the home’, the kitchen and its dining area.  Not all kitchens are big enough to include a dining room table, but many have some form of dining area, such as a breakfast nook, or else the kitchen flows into the dining room, especially in more open plan homes.  The heart of the home is where the majority of family time and activities takes place. 

A group of anthropologists from the Center on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF) at the University of California, recently published their research into the home lives of 32 families in Los Angeles in a book called ‘Life at Home in the 21st Century’ (Arnold et al, 2012).  This fascinating piece of research found that the kitchen or the space adjacent to the kitchen that includes a table was the most intensively used space in the home.  Since we lead similar lifestyles, this is no less true for South African families.  It is in this space that a whole range of activities take place including: meal preparation, dish washing, laundry, homework, craft projects, reading the newspaper, working on a laptop, sorting mail, paying the bills, charging cell phones and other electronic devices, and even watching TV.  The kitchen/dining area is therefore one of the key spaces for family interaction and activity.  Families gather here to maximise their time together while the parents do the necessary chores and children complete their homework. It is also here that the next day or week’s schedules are discussed and arranged.

Clearly, conducting so many activities in a one concentrated place has the potential to create a clutter challenge, as each of these activities involves the use of various items that have a tendency to pile up on the kitchen table and countertops.  Here are some suggestions to manage these activities without this central space descending into cluttered chaos:

  • Create zones to manage activities and items, within the space that you have available, the most important being:
    • A large calendar or whiteboard with every family member’s daily activities recorded, to enable the family to coordinate their schedules and to prepare for the day ahead.  Chores for the kids can be included in this area.
    • A central storage area for school bags, sports bags and equipment, preferably near the back door.  You can use storage cubbies or hooks on the wall. If you don’t have sufficient space, get your children into the habit of taking their bags to their rooms so they don’t clutter up the floor or kitchen table.
    • A dedicated multi-plug cell phone charging area. Keep this away from food preparation areas where steam and liquids can cause damage.
    • Create a homework supplies storage area next to the table. This could be a shelf or two in a sideboard or dresser.  Daily supplies can be stored in a stationery caddy (an open plastic DIY caddy serves this purpose well) and placed on the shelf when homework is done and it is time for dinner.  Leave a spare shelf for putting away longer term homework projects.
    • Store your daily table linen and cutlery in the same sideboard or dresser close to the table to make it easy to access and put away. Do not overfill these spaces. Store less used items elsewhere if you don’t have enough space here.
    • Keep a waste paper bin and a recycling bin near to the table so that paper items can be thrown away immediately you are finished with them, e.g. newspapers and mail.
    • Create a mail sorting area in a corner of the kitchen. Near the phone and with some stationery (e.g. notepad and pens) is a good idea. Establish a mail sorting routine where you deal with your mail immediately, throwing away all unwanted items into the recycling bin, and stacking items to be dealt with in a dedicated area.
  • Establish routines for homework time and meal time.  To prepare for meal time, set out a routine for clearing the homework items away into the nearby storage area and/or school bags, putting the school bags away, and setting the table. Likewise after meal time, routines for clearing the table, stacking the dishwasher or washing the dishes will mean that the kitchen table space is once again available for other activities.
  • Make sure that you have adequate lighting above the table for homework, reading, work and bill paying activities.
  • Find an alternate space for longer term craft or hobby projects somewhere else in the home.  This central family activity area is too important a piece of space to be hijacked by big long term projects.

This core area of the home has been referred to as the family ‘command centre’. It is the space from which the family is launched into life every morning, and where it reconnects and recharges every evening in preparation for the next day.  I hope that these suggestions will help your family to enjoy your time together in the heart of the home, and to manage all life’s demands more easily. Next time we will look at the how the kitchen can be organised more simply and efficiently to make meal preparation quicker and easier.