Not a unitasker: The waffle maker

Back in July, the editor of Waffleizer.com messaged me and asked if I wanted an advanced copy of his new book. I responded with an enthusiastic “yes!” And then, in August, Will it Waffle? arrived.

Ever since, I’ve been trying out different recipes from Daniel Shumski’s book, and am now a devoted fan. My family loves the meals I’ve made from it, too, which says a great deal because they’re a bunch of picky eaters. The Zucchini-Parmesean Fritters are their favorite. (Its paperback list price is $14.95, but Amazon has it for less than $12 right now and the Kindle edition is less than $10.)

The premise of the cookbook is that when used only for waffles, your waffle maker is a unitasker, and people should typically avoid unitaskers. But, since a waffle maker is the only way to make fresh waffles at home, Shumski sought out ways to turn it into a multi-tasking appliance. His was a noble quest, and it’s refreshing that he succeeded. The cookbook contains more than 50 recipes to create on a waffle iron.

As you might expect, there are a handful of sandwich recipes in the book. A waffle maker and a panini press are quite similar, so this section of recipes is to be expected. (Not to say they’re boring recipes, because they are quite delicious. Family favorites are the ham and cheese melt with maple butter and the Cuban sandwich.)

What’s most impressive to me about the book are the recipes that you wouldn’t expect — for example, chicken fingers, wontons, crispy kale, tamale pie, pizza, soft cell crab, and steak. And, unlike in other preparations, most of these recipes don’t require consistent monitoring. You put the item on the waffle iron, set the timer, and simply wait until the item is done cooking. You’re free to make sauces or side dishes or set the table in the meantime.

Based on your model of waffle iron, cleanup afterward is also extremely convenient if your waffle iron has removable plates that can go in the dishwasher or a non-stick coating you can wipe down with a damp cloth and be done with it. I like easy, and all of the recipes I’ve tried and their cleanup were a breeze.

One of my favorite sections of the cookbook is about creating your own recipes for the waffle maker and, specifically, the listing of what won’t waffle. Foods requiring a lot of moisture, like rice, won’t work in a waffle maker and neither will things that have a lot of butter, like shortbread cookies. Then, obviously, foods like soup are out of the question. But, I was surprised by how much is able to be waffled and am glad Shumski provides this encouragement for creativity.

If you have a waffle maker and you’re interested in transforming it from a unitasker into a multi-tasker, check out Shumski’s book Will it Waffle? Then, start thinking about the other small appliances in your home and how you can put them to use in multiple ways.

Nine questions to help unclutter your recipes

For people who like to cook, it’s easy to wind up with overflowing recipe files. While this may be more of a problem for those who keep paper files, even those who keep their recipes in a digital format can get overwhelmed at times.

If you would like to unclutter your own recipe collection, the following nine questions may help you to reduce your number and better organize those you wish to keep:

  1. Does this recipe fit with the way I eat? Our food preferences change over time, so our recipe collections should evolve, too. You may also have health reasons — your own, or those of family members you cook for — that lead you to change the type of recipes you cook.
  2. Does this recipe call for things I don’t have? If a recipe calls for a number of ingredients you don’t normally use, the recipe might not be one you want to keep. The ingredients may be hard to find or just things that will linger on your shelves, unused, and taking up space. (Of course, sometimes trying a new ingredient is a fun adventure. If you are feeling adventuresome, buy the smallest container of that ingredient you can.)

    I’ve also found that if a recipe calls for a tool I don’t have and wouldn’t use regularly, such as a tajine, I’ll probably decide it’s not worth keeping unless I can readily borrow that tool from someone else.

  3. Does this recipe take a long time to prepare? Sometimes, a time-consuming recipe is worthwhile — for a special occasion, perhaps. If the recipe will make many servings and it’s something I can refrigerate or freeze for future use, that helps. But some recipes just don’t seem worth my time, and I let them go.
  4. Is this another recipe for something I already cook? If you have a favorite recipe for brownies, do you need another one? For some people, the answer may be yes. But, if you know you’ll always choose your old reliable recipes, you can get rid of the others.
  5. Am I keeping this recipe purely for sentimental reasons? You may have recipes you want to keep but never intend to cook: recipes inherited from your parents, for example. In such cases, you may want to store the recipes with memorabilia rather than with recipes you do use for cooking.
  6. Alternatively, does this recipe bring back unpleasant memories? If a recipe is strongly associated with a person or an event you’d rather forget, you may want to ditch the recipe.
  7. Am I keeping this recipe because I think I should prepare it? Maybe a friend or a health practitioner gave you the recipe. Or maybe you have some other reason why you think you should prepare this recipe. I’m giving you permission to stop should-ing yourself, and let the recipe go if it’s not one you want to make.
  8. Have I kept this recipe for months or years without trying it? If you have many such recipes, you may want to create a plan where you try some of them on a regular schedule: once or twice a week, perhaps. If you don’t plan to ever make it, you may want to let it go.
  9. Why am I accumulating so many recipes? If you subscribe to numerous magazines for the recipes, maybe it’s time to reevaluate at least some of these subscriptions.

Refrigerator cleaning and organizing

Having a clean and organized refrigerator can help save you time when planning what to eat for meals and money on groceries. We’ve talked about organizing your refrigerator before, but there are additional suggestions that might help you to save even more time and money.

Start organizing your refrigerator by removing all of the food. Toss anything that is no longer edible or is past its expiration date. Place the food you intend to keep in a cooler with a few ice packs to keep it cold while you work.

It is important to clean and sanitize your refrigerator. Cleaning is the process of removing food and grime from a surface. Sanitizing is the process of reducing the number of microorganisms (germs) to a safe level. If the surfaces in your refrigerator are not clean, the sanitizer will not have a good contact with the surfaces and it will be impossible for the sanitizer to kill germs. Also, some sanitizers, such as bleach, react with organic matter (food) and will be less effective if the surface is not properly cleaned.

Remove the shelves and scrub them with warm soapy water. An old toothbrush can be useful to clean out small cracks and crannies. Rinse the refrigerator parts well and dry them with a clean towel. Clean and dry the inside walls of the refrigerator as well.

A diluted bleach solution (1 part bleach, 4 parts water) or sanitizing wipes can be used to disinfect the shelves and racks as well as the inside of the refrigerator.

Clean the outsides of bottles and jars before returning them to the refrigerator. Not only do gunky bottles make a mess, bacteria and germs love to grow in the mess. Remember to clean the outside of the refrigerator as well, especially the door handles.

When returning food items to the refrigerator, think about what is used most often and what is used least often. The foods used most often should be put just inside the door to minimize the length of time the door is open. This may save on energy bills but also reduce meal preparation time, as the foods used most often are closest to where you need them.

Group similar condiments together in baskets. By putting all the salad dressings in one basket you only need to grab that basket from the refrigerator and place it on the table when you make salad for dinner. Small baskets prevent small items from getting lost in the back of the refrigerator. You can also use baskets to contain small round cheeses, cheese slices and cheese sticks, mini yogurt containers and soy sauce, and ketchup packets for lunches.

It is a good idea to group leftovers on one shelf. Use clear plastic containers to store leftovers so it is easy to see what is in each container. Label the leftovers so that family members will know how long the container has been in the refrigerator and when it should be thrown out. A piece of masking tape and a marker make it easy to label containers, so keep these items handy.

Refrigerators are designed to keep foods cold enough to prevent food spoilage. The temperature of your refrigerator should be between 32ºF and 39ºF (0ºC and 4ºC). Freezer temperature should be 0ºF (-18ºC) which stops bacterial growth.

Use a specially designed thermometer and adjust the refrigerator dials to ensure that you’ve reached these temperatures. It may take a day or two of adjusting your refrigerator dials to ensure you’ve achieved the correct temperature.

A few more tips…

  • Clean out the refrigerator before grocery shopping — you’ll be able to get a better sense of what you have and have space to store what you buy.
  • Dispose of old leftovers just before trash day — you won’t smell up your kitchen with the odor of rotting food.
  • If you keep raw meat in the refrigerator, ensure that the drippings do not fall on fresh produce or already cooked foods. If you do not have a “meat drawer,” store or defrost meat on a plastic tray that you can remove and easily clean and disinfect.
  • Use a corner cupboard organizer to stack plates of food and maximize vertical space.

If your refrigerator is organized it is much easier to clean. Remember: Clean refrigerators are healthy refrigerators!

Inspiration Friday: Spice storage

It’s Friday morning and my brain is already convinced it’s the weekend. As a result, I’m just going to throw a little inspiration your way and set off to find some pie (it is Pi day, after all: 3/14).

Today’s inspiration comes from The Wall Street Journal, which includes a profile of chef Nick Kokonas’s home in the article “A High-Powered Home Kitchen in Chicago.” Gastronomy aficionados will enjoy the article, and anyone with a home kitchen will drool over the corresponding photographic slideshow.

By far, my favorite part of the profile is the peek into Kokonas’s spice storage cupboards:

Image by Callie Lipkin for The Wall Street Journal.

How do you store your spices? I’m thinking I need to completely redo my spice storage this weekend. It looks nothing like this. Sigh. Thanks to chef Kokonas for having such an inspiring kitchen.

What’s in your junk drawer?

Many people seem to have a kitchen junk drawer, and these drawers hold a wide variety of stuff. If not in the kitchen, the drawer full of random stuff might be in a utility room or a hallway or a desk. Usually, they’re filled with a few things you need but those things could be surrounded with clutter.

Most items found in junk drawers can be classified into a few categories:

True junk

Becky Harris at Houzz.com wrote that she got rid of these things recently from her junk drawer:

  • Eyeglasses with hideous frames from about 20 prescriptions ago
  • Hardened Liquid Paper (I don’t even have any use for Liquid Paper anymore)
  • 5 sets of Delta Airlines headsets
  • 6 inches of carpet tape, which is perhaps enough to use on a dollhouse area rug.
  • Packaging and headphones for every iPhone and iPod I have ever owned, including some that are no longer in my possession.

An online discussion at Chow.com of junk drawer contents inspired someone else to do a cleanout. She got rid of these items, among others:

  • Halloween cookie cutters (I never really make shaped cookies)?
  • a blunt breadknife with a melted handle

If you take the time to remove the pure junk, you can then consider giving your junk drawer a new name. Laura Gaskill suggested the “really useful stuff” drawer in a post she wrote for Houzz, organizer Monica Ricci calls it the utility drawer, and Becky Harris calls it the catch-all drawer.

Random useful stuff

As commenter Nicole wrote on Be More With Less:

I organized my former junk drawer a few years ago and now it’s the useful drawer. I keep markers, scissors, tape, little screwdrivers, chip clips, that rubber thing you use to open jars, and the manuals for my small appliances (rice cooker, for instance) in there.

Other common things include batteries, binder clips, coins, coupons, gum, hair elastics, matches, postage stamps, reading glasses, receipts being held onto until it’s clear the items won’t need to be returned, rubber bands, sticky notes, and a tape measure.

Some of that random useful stuff might better be kept somewhere else — you probably shouldn’t keep any papers in the junk drawer, for example — but that’s a personal choice.

Memorabilia

The Junk Drawer Project asks participants: “What is your fondest memory surrounding an object in your junk drawer?” The answers show that many people choose to keep bits of memorabilia in their junk drawers.

Marie Irma Matutina said: “I have a bunch of new and used birthday candles, some with glitter, some are alphabets or numbers and they remind me of all the great parties, get togethers and gatherings I’ve had over the years with really great friends.”

And Leah Jackson said: “A birthday card from my mom that I can’t seem to get rid of.”

Other people mentioned cards and candles, too.

Odds and ends

I relate to Michelle W., who said this in another discussion of junk drawer contents: “My junk drawer is full of things I am hiding from the cats — rubber bands, bread bag ties, hairbands, etc.”

And then there’s Randy, who said the oldest thing in his junk drawer is a harmonica. “It just feels wrong to get rid of a harmonica, so it sits there mocking me because I never learned to play it.”

Your individual junk drawers

Erin Thompson, who maintains The Junk Drawer Project, was interviewed by Jillian Steinhauer about the project:

I started asking my friends about their junk drawers and quickly realized that the way that people curated their own junk drawer totally made sense for their personalities. I am finding that you can learn a lot about a person by way of their junk drawer.

What might your junk drawer say about you? If you don’t like the answer — or if your junk drawer just isn’t working right for you any more — maybe it’s worth spending a bit of time to make a change.

Uncluttering expired canned goods

When cleaning out your kitchen pantry, there is a good chance you’ll find cans of food with date stamps like “Best By 04/2013.” What do you do with those cans?

You may want to keep them.

Obviously, if the cans show signs of problems — bulges, dents along the seams, etc. — you won’t want to keep them. But if the only concern is the date, the food might be safe to eat. As the FDA says, there are surplus grocery stores and food-salvage stores that specialize in such products — and if you buy carefully, those foods can be fine.

The USDA explains: “A ‘Best if Used By (or Before)’ date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.”

NPR interviewed John Ruff, president of the Institute of Food Technologies, who had a lot of interesting things to say on the matter, too.

According to Ruff, most products are safe to eat long after their expiration date. …

That’s because it’s not the food that sat on the shelf too long that makes you sick, Ruff says. It’s the food that got contaminated with salmonella or listeria bacteria, or disease-causing strains of E. coli. And that food might … have arrived in the store only yesterday.

“In 40 years, in eight countries, if I think of major product recalls and food poisoning outbreaks, I can’t think of [one] that was driven by a shelf-life issue,” Ruff says.

Canned food, in particular, can stay safe for a really long time.

And an article by Nadia Arumugam, which appeared in Forbes and The Atlantic, said:

“Foods can remain safe to consume for some time beyond sell-by and even use-by dates provided they are handled and stored properly,” says Dr. Ted Labuza, a professor of food science at the University of Minnesota. … Canned foods and shelf-stable goods like salad dressings, Labuza adds, can be consumed for years beyond their expiration dates. While their quality might suffer — for example, emulsified dressings may split — they will not pose a safety hazard unless contaminated. Apart from baby formula and certain types of baby foods, product dating is not even required by federal regulations.

You might donate them.

Some food banks will accept these cans, and others won’t — so check what the policy is at your local food bank. And, of course, food banks won’t want those damaged or bulging cans, either.

One woman who volunteered at a food bank shared her experience:

I literally, personally had to throw away over 3 huge trash cans, each weighing more than 350 lbs, of dented and expired cans. … What I did learn though was that you can donate expired canned goods up to 6 months from the date on the product.

The Food Bank of Iowa has a list of Food Shelf Extended Dates, listing exactly which “expired” foods, including canned items, it accepts. This same list might also help you decide which products you feel comfortable keeping and using yourself.

You might compost the contents.

I’m no expert in composting, but it seems that canned goods are fine to compost, with a few exceptions. For example, meat and fish products can attract pests, so don’t compost those. Some sources indicate that canned goods with salt may be problematic, too.

You might empty the contents and recycle the can.

Even if you aren’t composting, you could open the cans, dump the contents down the garbage disposer or into a trash bag, and recycle the cans.

You might just throw them away.

Sometimes you may decide to just throw away the cans you don’t want. This is especially true when doing a large uncluttering project, where getting the work done may take precedence over being ecologically conscious. Or, maybe dealing with old food just makes you squirm. As with almost any organizing project, the “right choice” is a very personal thing.

Five steps to keep your kitchen uncluttered

Since the kitchen is one of the most used spaces in many homes (that’s certainly true for mine), it can get chaotic quickly. Still, keeping it organized can be a relatively easy thing to do. It’s likely to be the one room that has the most cabinets and drawers for storing often used items. As a result, it will be easier for you to designate specific cabinets for specific purposes (e.g. baking, cutting boards, spices). That’s not to say that your kitchen will look pristine every day, but you can create a plan to maintain your space that will help you keep it looking neat and uncluttered on a regular basis. The following five steps will help you to get started.

Put things away immediately

You’ve probably heard that you should put things away instead of putting them down. This rule of thumb works well in the kitchen, particularly when you cook often. Putting your kitchen gadgets back where they belong straight away means that you’ll find them easily and quickly the next time you need to use them. Be sure that you designate a drawer (or section of the kitchen) for those items that you tend to reach for frequently. Even if the items are not similar to each other (they don’t all perform similar functions), but you use them in sequence with each other, keeping them together means that you won’t have to search or dig through drawers looking for them.

Organize and clean as you go

There’s no need to wait for a special day to clean and organize your kitchen (though it is helpful to have a day of the week to specifically focus on the kitchen). Use a small block of time or even walk-by moments to remove things that don’t belong or to put away items that didn’t make it back to their storage spot. And, if you have broken items or things that no longer function as intended, remove them immediately. (Are you really going to repair it and will it still work the way you need it to after it’s fixed?)

Keep your utility drawer organized

Your utility drawer can be a functional space that houses things you need (though not necessarily every day) without becoming a junk drawer. And, while it can be tempting to put things in the drawer that you don’t know what to do with, doing that consistently will fill the drawer with potentially useless items. Carve out some time to sort through papers and non-kitchen items instead of filling up your utility drawer with clutter.

Use easy-to-store gadgets

Storing your stuff shouldn’t be like trying to complete a puzzle. Make it easy to do by purchasing collapsible gadgets and tools, like colanders and graters. You’ll get the same function from those items and not have to worry so much about how or where to store them.

The website Quirky.com has created a set of compact collapsible tools that fold and store flat. They’re still in the production phase but you can find similar products at your local housewares store or online.

Image credits: Quirky

Keep your most used appliances accessible

If there’s a small appliance that you’re not using on the counter, consider moving it to a lower cabinet and put those that you use all the times in an accessible location. You might also want to keep those appliances close to the area that you’ll use them. For instance, it would be helpful to keep your stand mixer near the cabinet with your baking supplies.

How do you deal with refrigerator door clutter?

When Scottish physician, chemist and agriculturalist Willilam Cullen first demonstrated artificial refrigeration at the University of Glasgow in 1748, one has to wonder if his young son had already pasted his drawings to the door of the new device.

Two hundred and sixty-five years later, home refrigerators let us preserve food and collect lots and lots of clutter. Many refrigerator doors put the junk drawer to shame. I’m certainly guilty, and I need help.

At any give time, my refrigerator door holds any combination of the following:

  1. Elementary school art
  2. Tests
  3. Hand-outs
  4. A calendar
  5. Photos
  6. Commemorative magnets
  7. Supermarket flyers
  8. School photos
  9. Phone numbers
  10. Tickets

What started as a toddler art gallery has morphed, Kafka-style, into a horrific creature. To-do lists, permission slips and class photos fade into a single, unworkable mass. How did this happen?

Alternatives to the vertical stack

I’m looking to you, Unclutterer readers. I’ve tried several solutions, but none seem to work. My first was technological. I own an iPad, and I have dreams of it becoming the ultimate kitchen tool. I bought a great refrigerator iPad mount from Belkin with the best intentions. It holds the iPad in place brilliantly. It’s right at eye level and offers my calendar, email, Facebook, project software and even Netflix for when I want to watch junky TV while cooking.

Yet, all I do is end up pushing the paper aside to reach the Belkin holder.

Next, I bought several magnetic baskets from the local craft store. For a while, this worked well. One was for pens, one for scissors and a few others – neatly labeled – for school papers and the like. That is, until the magnets started to fail and they slowly slid down along the door. Down, down, down.

A behavioral change

I realize that no piece of equipment will help me if the core behavior remains intact. There’s a part of me that still believes if these items are in my face, every day, I’ll know where they are and act on them in an appropirate and timely manner. However, the fact is this: the larger and more unruly the refrigerator door becomes, the more I resist going near it. So here are my questions to you:

  1. Do you hang stuff on the refrigerator?
  2. Do you you actively avoid putting stuff on the refrigerator door?
  3. If you don’t use the door as a secretary, how do you keep track of those little items (like permission slips) that need action, in short order?

I’d love to hear about your experiences, good and not so good. To quote Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan: “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”

How many cookbooks do you really need?

It’s been all food, all the time on the television in my house. I’m hooked on food show competitions and I dream about turning into a super cook (a mashup of Aaron Sanchez, Amanda Freitag, and Alton Brown would suit me just fine). I also do my fair share of cooking and I use my phone or tablet to find recipes. Both are super easy to use in the kitchen and don’t take up a lot of space.

And, therein lies the problem. I have several cookbooks that are languishing on a shelf in my kitchen. Since I don’t use them anymore, it’s time to part with them. If you’re faced with a similar situation or have amassed a large collection of cookbooks that go untouched, you might want to sort through them, especially if you find yourself reaching for the same ones all the time.

Getting started:

Gather your cookbooks together

It’s helpful to find out exactly what types and the number of cookbooks you have so you can decide which ones to keep and which ones will get passed on to new owners. That will be hard to do if they’re in a variety of places. So, start by gathering them all together, and then put them in categories that make sense for you.

Here are some ways you can categorize your cookbooks:

  • Alphabetical order
  • Cuisine (Mexican, Chinese, Greek)
  • Author
  • Ease of use (30 minute recipes, advanced cooking techniques)
  • Type (desserts, vegitarian, low sodium, grilling, family recipes)
  • Color and/or size

Decide on a storage location

Have you thought about the best location to store your cookbooks or recipe binders? The number of cookbooks you’ll keep will depend on which ones you use the most as well as storage space available to house them. Ideally, you’ll want to have your favorites close to your kitchen so that you’ll have easy access to them. That might mean storing your most used books on the counter with seasonal or less used books in a separate location (dedicated shelf or cabinet). Test out a few different areas in and around your kitchen to see what would work best based on how you move about in that space.

Trade books that you no longer use

If you don’t use a particular cookbook because you haven’t seen it, then be sure to keep it visible so that you’ll remember to look through it. But, if it is visible and you still haven’t used it (or your recipe holder) within the last 12 months, it’s probably time to part with it. Consider passing on these cookbooks to someone else by trading them with a friend or selling them. Keeping them will only fill up space that could be used for books that you use all the time.

Use an app to keep track of recipes

Sure, keep your favorite cookbooks that you refer to often, but if you’re only interested in one or two recipes, you don’t need to buy the entire book. There are several web-based and mobile apps that you can use like Epicurious.com, All Recipes, and Cookstr.com to find and keep track of recipes that you’d like to try out. You can also create a notebook in Evernote or Pinterest with recipes you’d like to test. If you don’t like them, you can always delete them. And, if you decide to keep them, you can create an digital cookbook using Evernote Food.

As you unclutter your collection, keep in mind that you don’t have to let go of all your cookbooks. Just be sure that you’re not holding on to the ones that you no longer use or want. Share them with friends and family members and think about alternative options before buying new books.

Simple steps you can take to reduce food waste

Food waste has been on my mind quite a bit lately. Reading the report Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill, recently published by the Natural Resources Defense Council, has fueled my desire to get a better handle on the amount of food my family discards. The NRDC report paints a grim picture of food waste in America:

40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten. This not only means that Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year, but also that the uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills …

One of my first actions after reading the report was to start using Avery Dry Erase Decals on our refrigerator. We write our grocery list on them and use them to track what’s inside our fridge:

My husband and I have noticed a dramatic reduction in the amount of food we discard and we’ve become much better at cooking the foods we buy. There were days when our enthusiasm for cooking and freezing meals for future use got the better of us and we’d make much more than our freezer could store. Now that we’re consistently tracking the food that we make (and buy, too), we’ve figured out the best times to do batch cooking. We’re also better at using up our freezer stash so that nothing gets lost in there.

I’ve also taken an added step of labeling what’s inside the fridge. I’ve discovered that a sticky note with the contents and the date on an item makes food easier to find in the fridge (and therefore get eaten). Once an item is consumed, it’s crossed off or erased from the list. In the beginning, this was a tedious step. But, now that it’s a regular part of our routine, we can easily find what’s in the fridge without rummaging or having to open the container to figure out what’s inside. You might not find this step to be necessary, but for us, it’s well worth it. We’ve also become more creative with our leftovers. When we get bored with eating food as originally cooked, we combine it with one or two new ingredients. Making the effort to use food labels has really encouraged us to eat what we have instead of piling more in the fridge and increasing the likelihood of older food spoiling.

As you begin to think about ways to reduce food waste in your household, it does help, of course, to keep your fridge uncluttered. You might also want to consider weighing the food you’re going to throw out. The chefs at Mario Batali’s restaurant, Lupa Osteria Romana in New York, provided me with a strategy to try. They agreed to put food that was not deemed consumable (expired, spoiled, trim waste, or overcooked) on a scale with special software that calculated its value. By doing this, they discovered that they were able to make adjustments to reduce the volume of food that ended up in the trash can:

Once we begin reducing food waste, we are spending less money on food because we’re not buying food to waste it; we’re spending less money on labor; we’re spending less money on energy to keep that food cold and heat it up; we’re spending less on waste disposal.

This extra step in food preparation can help you determine how much food is actually wasted. As the restaurant staff at Lupa discovered, you probably don’t need to weigh onion skins and other things that you wouldn’t eat anyway. And, you likely wouldn’t need special software to tell you how much food you might be wasting. Even if you didn’t weigh your food and simply kept a journal for a few weeks about the amount of food you threw away, you’d have a good idea of how much food went into your garbage can as well as how much money went with it.

When compared to buying a pricey smart fridge that reminds you what’s inside, tracking your food consumption, adding labels to food containers, and weighing your food are perhaps minor inconveniences. But, these are not the only actions you can take. In addition to using (and sticking to) a grocery list each time you shop, you can also make sure that your fridge is in good working order. Make sure the seals are working well and that it’s set to the proper temperature (between 35 and 38 degrees Fahrenheit) to slow the growth of bacteria. You can also make sure that older food is visible and not blocked by newer purchases.

Five ways to stop food waste

Over the weeked, I watched The Big Waste, a Food Network program featuring some well known chefs like Bobby Flay. The chefs were challenged to make gourmet meals using food that was ready for the dumpster. In my work experience, I’ve noticed that food is often wasted in households where there is no meal planning or system for keeping track of food that has been purchased.

Food that is hidden or not stored in an organized way will languish in refrigerators and pantries because it’s difficult to see what you have. When this happens, you’ll likely go shopping for those items and increase your stash. Instead, consider using the five tips below to keep food from perishing or stop it from turning into clutter. You probably use one or more of these tips already, but when combined you’ll make better purchasing decisions and have a greater chance of consuming more of your food instead of throwing it away.

Meal plan

We’ve talked about this numerous times on Unclutterer, so I won’t go into detail. (A good place to start is with our article “Creating a weekly meal plan.”) Just remember that meal planning keeps you from asking “What’s for dinner?” because you know what is on the schedule. If coming up with meal plans is difficult for you because of time constraints, check out services like The Six O’Clock Scramble, which is a program we love so much we have become users and affiliates for it.

Always use a shopping list

Using a shopping list will keep you from making spur of the moment purchases. That’s not to say that you won’t ever try something new (and put it on your list), but when you buy things that you wouldn’t normally buy, you may forget about them, particularly if you make multiple impulse purchases. So, before your next shopping trip, create a list of things that you intend to purchase and stick to it.

Track your stash with an inventory list

An inventory list placed in a very visible area of your kitchen (or on your pantry door) will help you remember what you have so that you can avoid making duplicate purchases. Record each item along with the quantity on your list or use a dry erase board so that you can easily make updates — and don’t forget your leftovers. If you tend to buy the same items, save a digital copy so you can print it as needed. Check out the Pantry Staples List created by Real Simple if you’re having difficulty getting started.

Keep your pantry and refrigerator organized

To keep your food from getting lost in the refrigerator or pantry, group items by category (dairy, beverages, left overs) and place them in the same spot all the time. You’ll want make sure that you have access to your most reached for items and that they can be easily seen. Use containers (like the Clear Handled Storage Baskets) to keep your items organized.

Check food freshness with StillTasty.com

The website StillTasty.com can help you determine if certain foods are still good enough to eat. The site will also tell you the best spot in your refrigerator to store certain items. For example, to keep eggs and milk fresher longer, don’t store them in the refrigerator door as the temperature fluctuates each time the door is opened or closed. For a quick reference guide, check out Hella Wella’s infographic, How Long Food Really Lasts in the Fridge and sign up for food safety alerts from FoodSafety.gov to find out which foods have been recalled.

Dinner organizing advice from 10 large families

Getting a nutritious, warm meal on the table each night for dinner can be stressful. Even though I plan our meals each week, I still look for ways to make the process easier and run more smoothly. For advice on how to reduce the stress, I decided to interview large families to see how they manage the chaos and keep their families full.

The families: I interviewed 10 families with three or more children. Four of the families have three children, three of the families have four children, two have six children, and one has eight children. Ages range from two weeks old to seniors in high school, but all the families have at least one or more children in elementary school. In half the families, both parents work or are in school full time. In the other half, the father has a full-time job outside the home and the mother manages the business of the house. These families live all across the U.S. and they are all two-parent families.

The interviews were surprising in many ways, but what caught me off guard was how often I heard similar responses. I was not expecting there to be as many trends in the answers as there were. There seems to be an art to feeding large families, and all of the families I interviewed are accomplished artists. The biggest trend I found is that mealtime is a focus of the day for these families and dinner is not something these families just want to get through. Dinner is a valued destination and is the one time each day when these families come together as a unit.

Trends

  • Eat together. In 8 of the 10 responses, the entire family eats together at the dining table at least six nights a week. In one family, dinner is at 4:00 p.m. so the family can eat together before the kids go off to practices and lessons. The father of this family goes to work at 6:00 in the morning so he can be home by 4:00 for the family meal. Another family gives kids high-protein snacks after school to keep them from attacking each other before dinnertime at 7:00 p.m., when everyone is finally home from work and after-school activities. Irrespective of when they eat, these families place a high priority on dinners together. Most sit down to dinner around 5:00 p.m. Six of the families reported sharing breakfast together, too.
  • Eat at home. The children eat at home, and they eat food made at home. One family said they do pizza delivery six times a year for their kids, but that was the only mention of restaurants in the entire survey.
  • Weekly meal planning. All families reported doing some type of meal planning. Whether it means they plan meals based on what the local butcher and stores have on sale (almost all subscribe to the weekend paper to get coupons and sale announcements), build meals on what the CSA delivers or what is in ample supply at the farmers market, scribble meal ideas on the back of grocery lists, or use a formal meal-planning chart — they rarely fly blind. None of the families do monthly meal planning.
  • Prepare ahead. The majority of respondents said that some meal preparation is completed earlier in the day. Vegetables might be chopped or casseroles are assembled or items are put in the slow cooker or meat is defrosted hours before dinnertime (usually while preparing breakfast). In three families, fathers make their lunches and their children’s lunches for the next day while the rest of the family cleans up after dinner.
  • Shopping at more than one location. Not only did families report wanting to get the best deals, but they also want to get the best food for their dollars. Almost all families reported to buying only hormone-and-antibiotic-free meat (when they eat meat), relying on farmers markets for produce during the summer, and eating as little commercially packaged food as possible. This meant that grocery shopping didn’t happen in one weekly trip to one store, but to many locations to get exactly what they want. All families reported that the majority of shopping is done on the same day each week, but that one or two “quick trips” are made to pick up additional items later in the week.
  • Very little meat. More than half of the families said they only eat meat a couple times a week. Although cost might be part of the reasoning for this decision, health concerns and freezer space were the reported motivations. None of the families interviewed is strictly vegetarian.
  • Everyone eats the same meal. None of the families make entirely separate meals for picky eaters. A few families said they make extra portions of favorite foods for picky eaters that they freeze so if one food at a meal is refused, there is an alternative on hand. However, the child is responsible for heating up this side dish on her own and can only do so if the leftover is available. In families with children with food allergies or intolerances, the whole family follows the special diet. One responder said she tries to incorporate two new main dishes into the meal plan each week. She does this to introduce her children to new foods and new flavors, but pairs the entrees with favorite side dishes in case the meal isn’t a hit.
  • Teaching opportunity. Seven of the families responded that mealtime is also a great time to teach life skills, like organizing. Their children are involved in cooking, planning, cleaning, and even creating a food budget and shopping. One mother occasionally changes the serving sizes on recipes to have her kids work the math problems.
  • Divide responsibilities. Again, 8 of the 10 families reported that all family members help in the mealtime process. A young child sets the table, an older one slices vegetables, a third child grates cheese, one sweeps the floor after dinner, one rinses the dishes, dad loads the dishwasher, etc. In only one family do children sit and do their homework while mom and dad prepare the meal. In this family, the children are responsible for cleaning up, however.
  • The head chef. Mom is usually in the role of head chef, but sometimes it is dad and sometimes it is an older child. Irrespective of who it is, the head chef is responsible for coordinating what responsibilities each person in the family has for that night’s dinner. This coordinator doesn’t do all the work, but rather makes sure all the work surrounding mealtime is completed. One family explained the head chef’s role as being similar to a conductor’s role in an orchestra. Who will be head chef for a night is determined during the meal planning stage.

Additional advice

  • One family doesn’t use formal serving dishes, just puts the pots and pans right on the table, to save on dishwashing later.
  • Once a week, one family eats off china dishes and pretends to be dining in a fine restaurant, complete with dress code. This isn’t really organizing related, but I found it interesting nonetheless.
  • In a family with six children, favorite meals are rotated into the plan at one a week, so it takes eight weeks but each family member gets their favorite meal six times a year. Favorite meals are tracked on the central family calendar.
  • One family makes double portions and freezes half for a meal they’ll eat in a week or two.
  • Surprisingly, the only two families that relied on make-ahead services like Dream Dinners were the two families that eat in shifts and not together. Both of these families also only have three children. My guess is that price is a factor in using these services, and that they are too expensive for very large families to use on a regular basis.
  • One mother writes what the family had for dinner on a family calendar and then reviews the calendar when meal planning to make sure one food doesn’t get into heavy rotation.
  • One family has a no complaining rule and anyone who complains about the meal has to wash all the dishes by hand even though they have a dishwasher. Again, this isn’t really organizing related, but I thought it was a fun rule.
  • Only one responder mentioned making dessert each night. Dessert doesn’t seem to be a regular part of large family meals, at least for the families I interviewed.
  • I didn’t ask this question, but six families reported mom and dad go out on a date night on the same night each week. On these nights, the children still typically eat a meal prepared at home, but they eat together with a sitter or grandparent.

The responder with eight children (her oldest is only 12) summed up her mealtime perspective with a nice catch phrase: “Keep the majors major and the minors minor.” For her, the major is sitting down to a meal with her family each night. The minors are missed ingredients and foods that didn’t turn out exactly right. I believe this perspective and the insights listed above can help all of us, regardless of family size, to reduce the stress surrounding mealtime.