Two unusual types of uncluttering

When you think about uncluttering, you probably think about the stuff or the papers in your home or office. You may also think about uncluttering your calendar or your relationships.

But here are two different types of uncluttering I’ve read and thought about recently.

Uncluttering your hotel room

Designer Karim Rashid was recently quoted as follows in an article that Mark Ellwood wrote for Bloomberg:

The hotel industry loves to fill rooms up with things, which comes from the idea that a hotel room is an extension of your home. But for me, it’s too much stuff, too much clutter. If I’m going to spend three days in there, I need to be really free and able to think. I take every piece of paper, every note or book, and put it in drawers to hide them. I don’t like visual clutter. And in the bathroom, too — there’s a crazy amount of stuff they shove in there.

I read this and thought about how I do almost the same thing when I’m in a hotel room with such amenities. Everything I won’t need — the TV remote, the magazines, and most other hotel literature — gets put away somewhere so I won’t see it in the coming days. I stash away the excess pillows, too.

Uncluttering the meals you’re cooking


Ailbhe Malone wrote on the BuzzFeed website, “The secret to making a good pasta dish is to respect your ingredients. I know this sounds a bit cheffy, but that basically means: Don’t throw the kitchen sink in.”

You’ll find countless lists of 5-ingredient recipes, which can certainly make preparation easier. Also, limiting the ingredients may mean that you buy fewer ingredients that get used in one recipe and never again, so they sit around just taking up space.

But Malone seems to be thinking more along the lines of food writer Christopher Hirst, who stated in the Independent, “My favourite food involves the least possible culinary intervention — dishes where the quality of the ingredients is allowed to speak for itself.” Uncluttered dishes have benefits beyond saving time, money, and storage space — they often taste wonderful.

As noted chef José Andrés says, “Simple ingredients, treated with respect … put them together and you will always have a great dish.” I took a brief look at his tapas cookbook, and I saw many recipes that adhered to this principle.

The writers advocating for these uncluttered recipes aren’t saying that more complicated recipes don’t have their place, but rather than simple ones can be outstanding, too. When I think back to some of my most memorable meals, it’s often the ones with a few high-quality ingredients, well prepared, that come to mind.

Do you unclutter your hotel rooms? Do you like uncluttered recipes? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Getting organized for barbecue season

For those of us living in the northern hemisphere, the warmer weather is upon us and that means it’s time to enjoy a few barbecued meals. Whether you’re going to grill vegetable brochettes or beef steaks, here are some tips to help you prepare your favourite meals in an organized way.

Prepare your barbecue

Before you get your first meal ready, it is important to check your barbecue and give it a good cleaning.

If you have a propane barbecue, check all connections and hoses for leaks using soapy water. Replace any hoses that are cracked and/or leaking. Clean ports with a brush to remove debris. Remember, blocked portholes can cause fires. For charcoal barbecues, remove any charcoal, clean out all of the ashes and ensure the vents are clear.

Grease is flammable so make sure you clean grease buildup from the cook box and grease tray regardless of the type of barbecue you have. Also, look for thin or rusted through spots in the cook box. That could be a sign that it is time to replace the barbecue.

It is important to clean your grill at the start of the season and between uses. Choose a bristle-free brush for cleaning your grill. Experts recommend that people throw out their wire bristle brushes because of the danger of  bristles coming loose, sticking to the grill, transferring to food and accidentally being eaten.

Here are a couple of videos with detailed cleaning and maintenance tips for gas barbecues and charcoal barbecues.

Collect your barbecue tools

Many barbecues have a series of hooks attached to the frame where you can hang your grilling tools such as meat fork, basting brush and tongs. If you don’t have pre-installed hooks, you could add some magnetic ones to your barbecue or install a pegboard system on a wall that is close by.

We live in an apartment block and we’re not permitted to have barbecues on our balconies. We have common barbecue area near the swimming pool. A utensil caddy with a handle is ideal for carrying cooking utensils back and forth to this barbecue area. Marinades and sauces are transported in a condiment basket.

Healthy cooking

Thermometers are essential for ensuring food is thoroughly cooked (to kill any nasty bacteria) but not overcooked – no one likes to eat burnt foods.

The ThermoPro TP03A Digital Food Cooking Thermometer is inexpensive and very easy to use. It provides a fast and accurate readout of the food’s temperature. My favourite thermometer is the iGrill Mini. It is magnetic so it easily sticks to the barbecue frame (or my stove). It connects via Bluetooth to my iPhone so that I can see the temperature of the food even if I’m not standing right next to the barbecue.

Using the same plates and utensils for raw and cooked meats may transfer harmful bacteria to your cooked foods. Always wash your dishes in hot, soapy water after they have been in contact with raw foods. Check out these food safety tips for barbecuing.

Are there things you do to make your grilling experience more organized and productive? Please feel free to share your tips with other readers.

Organizing the recipes: choosing categories

Thanks to Neven Mrgan, I recently discovered the cookbook Made in India: Recipes From an Indian Family Kitchen and its three ways of organizing recipes.

  • Standard table of contents, with entries such as starters and snacks, vegetables, meat, fish, sides, breads, desserts, etc.
  • Standard index, with entries such as cauliflower and cinnamon, followed by the recipes using those ingredients
  • Alternative contents, with categories such as midweek meals (30 minutes or so), cooking in advance, party food, and low-fat.

This got me thinking about all the many ways you might want to categorize recipes, including:

  • By meal: breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack
  • By meal course or type of dish: appetizer, main course, soup, salad, dessert, etc.
  • By main ingredient: chicken, fish, eggs, etc.
  • By dietary restrictions: gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, nut-free, etc.
  • By holiday: Christmas, Lunar New Year, Passover, Thanksgiving, etc.
  • By preparation time: quick recipes vs. time-consuming ones
  • By status: untested vs. old favorites
  • By cooking method: outdoor grill, slow cooker, etc.
  • By source, such as your grandmother or Bon Appétit magazine
  • By part of the world outside of your own: Indian, Italian, Korean, Thai, etc.

And of course, you might want to subdivide these. Desserts might be subdivided into cakes, pies, etc. Indian recipes might be split by region within India. And you might want to know which recipes use a specific ingredient even if it isn’t the major one.

So how do you ensure you can find the recipes you want when they could be filed so many different ways? This is fairly easy if your recipes are stored on your computer, tablet, or smartphone — perhaps in an app such as Paprika or Evernote. Depending on the software you’re using, you can either add multiple tags or place the recipe into multiple categories. If you’re setting up your own categories or tags, it helps to consciously create a master list so you don’t wind up with unintended duplicates. Also, a master list can help ensure you don’t overlook a categorization you’re going to wish you had later.

Alternatively, your digital solution may just involve using the search function to find the recipes you want, such as the ones that use a specific ingredient that you happen to have on hand or all the gluten-free appetizers. Just be sure that each individual recipe includes the key words you’ll be using when you do your searches.

If you’re organizing in binders or recipe file boxes, though, you’ll need to choose a primary organizational scheme that serves you best, day to day. You can certainly combine two or more — for example, you may have one binder for untested recipes and one for those you know you like, with each binder having the same categories inside.

I concur with the contributor on the Chowhound website who wrote, in reply to a question about organizing recipes:

It really depends on how you think. I arranged my binder according to how I categorized each individual recipe in my head. For instance, my Chinese food section has all sorts of stuff that would otherwise cross several different categories (vegetable, main dish, pork, chicken, et al), but since I think of all those recipes as “Chinese”, then that’s where they go.

And for the secondary categories, you could decide to emulate the Made in India cookbook and create lists of recipes that fit into the secondary categories that are important to you. You could also make copies of a recipe page or card and file it in multiple places, but that can get cumbersome. For example, if you wanted to note something you changed when making a recipe, you’d need to note it in multiple places.

Finally, no matter how you categorize your recipes, you can always re-organize them if the categories you create don’t quite work for you. As with most organizing solutions, we often don’t get it exactly right on the first pass.

A simple way to reduce decision fatigue in the kitchen

Today we welcome guest post author Ryan McRae, who is the founder of the website TheADHDnerd, a blog dedicated to helping people with ADHD be more productive, successful and not ruin cast iron pans. He’s written a little guide based on this article if you’d like learn more.

I get overwhelmed easily by choices. I can’t head into a clothing store and look at seven walls of jeans. I can’t choose between 20 flavors of ice cream. My brain just seems to wear down, overloaded by the decision fatigue.

Even cooking meals, I look at with dread. Chop this, pre-heat that, sauté this thing over here. Ugh. Can’t do it. Recently I’ve fallen in love with something that helps me greatly reduce the choices.

Cast iron pans.

When I got my first cast iron pan, I made the biggest rookie mistake and put it in the dishwasher. It came out all rusted and gross. Alas, I had ruined it. (I would have recovered it had I known how, but I was not educated enough in the world of cast iron pans.) When I want to figure something out, I go all in. I got to work researching how to use these things and I found this video.

I’ve watched this video at least ten times. It explains how to use cast iron pans, season them, and take care of them. Now for the past two weeks I’ve reduced what I’m cooking down to two rules:

  1. Cook in one of the two cast iron pans that are on the stove (one for eggs and one for bacon, for example.)
  2. Roast it. I’m a fan of roasting right now: chicken, vegetables, and more vegetables. I simply look up how to roast something and throw it in. Now everything I cook has to wind up on either a cookie sheet or a cast iron pan.

Chop it? In the pan or on the sheet. Unwrap it? In the pan or on the sheet. Cook it? In the pan or on the sheet. There are several benefits to this method.

I’ve been eating much healthier now and bringing my lunches (and dinners with my schedule) to work. Also, the clean-up has been super easy. I simply wipe out the pans when they cool down or give them a quick scrape (if they get bad, I season them.) I use parchment paper on the cookie sheets so it takes no time to clean them.

I found that I looked forward to dinners and the preparation. It also made my shopping list much shorter. I highly recommend picking up a cast iron pan and getting started. You’ll enjoy it and find you have a more relaxed experience when it comes to preparing and cooking food.

Choosing food storage containers

Re-organizing your kitchen and putting all of your baking supplies such as flour, sugar, cocoa, etc., into canisters will make it much easier to find what you need when you need it.

Here are a few recommendations on selecting the right type of canister:

  • Square shaped canisters take up less room in your cupboards because they use all of the available space.
  • Transparent canisters let you easily see when you’re running low on supplies.
  • Over time, canisters made from certain plastics can absorb food odours so those made from stainless steel or glass may be preferred.
  • Containers should have an airtight seal.
  • The opening of the canister should be large enough allow you to easily scoop or pour the contents.

Choosing the right size

Canisters are sized in volume units such as ounces or millilitres, and baking supplies are measured in weight units like pounds or kilograms. Here are some tips to help you choose the right size of containers.

  1. Determine how much of each item you will be storing. Do you buy flour in 10-pound bags because you bake lots of bread, or do you only buy a one pound bag, just enough to make the occasional Béchamel sauce?
  2. Convert the weight amount of the item into a volume amount. The OnlineConversion website can convert weight to volume for many types of foods in US, UK, and metric units.
  3. Ask yourself how much of an item you have left before you buy more. Do you wait until you have absolutely none left, or is there some remaining? Whatever amount remains, add it to the quantity that you regularly buy. For example, if you usually have a cup (0.25L) of flour left over and you normally buy a 2.5kg (4.74L) bag, you will need to purchase a canister that will hold about 5L in order to accommodate all of the flour you have on hand.

This process may be a bit tedious for some. For those who would like a short-cut, Tupperware has created weight-to-volume charts for its Modular Mate container sets in both US measurements and metric units. The USA Emergency Supply website has a weight-to-volume chart for larger quantities of food items.

Agrihoods: rich whim or affordable future?

In a recent post, I talked about chef-sharing services where instead of having to cook, someone can order home-cooked meals. While it could reduce the need for and cost of a kitchen, it doesn’t quite go with my earlier premise of a new minimalism where the cost of ownership increase so much that only the top 1% of the population will be able to indulge in non-shared ownership.

In Detroit, Michigan, a new initiative has begun – the first fully urban agrihood creating produce and fresh air for a whole neighbourhood. Before going into details, let’s review exactly what an agrihood is. The website This Slow Life quotes NPR which describes an agrihood as:

…development-supported agriculture, a more intimate version of community-supported agriculture – a farm-share program commonly known as CSA. In planning a new neighborhood, a developer includes some form of food production – a farm, community garden, orchard, livestock operation, edible park – that is meant to draw in new buyers, increase values and stitch neighbors together.

Up until recently, agrihoods have mostly had the look and feel of a hipster’s alternative to a golf course. All around the U.S., communities are cropping up where developers sell the concept of getting back to nature to families who want to participate in the alimentation cycle of the family. As the NPR quote suggests, these predominantly rural communities are developed with an eye of drawing in new buyers. It’s consumerism masking itself as environmentalism. And while there is nothing wrong with that, it doesn’t address the issues of increased food costs and decreased corporate food quality.

This is where the Detroit project is different. Developed by the Michigan University Farming Initiative, this urban agrihood isn’t a new development – it’s a redevelopment of one part of a highly urbanized area. There’s no interest in drawing in new buyers – the MUFI agrihood will feed 2,000 households for free.

And not only that, it will use an abandoned building (which Detroit has a surplus of) to create a Community Resource Center that will teach nutritional literacy and address worries of food security.

By being run by volunteers, the program greatly reduces the cost of food for those who live around the farm.

I sincerely hope that this project has phenomenal success and begins to become not a one-off curiosity, but a model for sustainable urban redevelopment not just in American cities, but urban centers around the world.

Perhaps they will even become popular in my own city in the north of Spain, where any piece of open land gets claimed by some gardening-loving local who grows his or her own vegetables, raises chickens, and maybe makes their own cheese from a few goats. In fact, there is one right below my bedroom window with sheep whose baa-ing gently wakes me up in the morning.

Wouldn’t it be lovely to see neighborhoods of apartment dwellers starting to come together to fill up the roundabouts with vegetable plots and mini volunteer-run orchards?

How about where you live? Can you picture an agrihood redevelopment happening in your neighborhood? Maybe even in place of what’s currently a big-box supermarket?

Getting rid of the kitchen: social media dining

Unless you’ve been sitting on top of a mountain meditating the last five years, you’ll know the term food-porn: the exhibitionistic display on social media sites of everything we eat. I’m guilty of this, especially when it comes to the food we make at home. We love to cook and we love to share what we cook, and not just in our Instagram accounts. We also love to have people over for dinner and often when some service we use regularly does a great job, we take a cake or perhaps homemade donuts to them as a token of our gratitude.

In my search for examples of a non-ownership world, I’ve discovered a network of sites taking social media dining to the next level, like an Airbnb for meals. You join an online community, find home-based chefs in your area and look at what they are offering. You order your meal and arrange its pickup or delivery. You get a home-cooked meal without having to pay the price of a personal chef.

At first glance, this service doesn’t seem much different from the rest of the take-out options we have, but if you think about it, a home-based chef doesn’t have the high overhead a restaurant has. Nor does the home-based chef have to market; she just needs to be a member of an online community. Plus, in the majority of cases, a home-cooked meal is going to be a lot healthier than one you can get as take-out.

There is of course, one major problem with the service: in most places, it’s illegal to sell food that has been prepared in a home kitchen.

According to the digital news outlet Quartz.com, however, some U.S. states are looking to change that. California, for example, is looking at introducing a new category to its food and safety regulations, allowing home kitchens to prepare and sell food.

So, what does this mean for a non-ownership world? Back in the early 2000s, a friend of mine moved from Toronto to New York, where she said that her kitchen was so small and the local supermarkets so expensive that she found it more practical and economical to have a binder of local take-out options and only prepare breakfast at home. I’m pretty sure that if a social media dining community existed back then, she would have tossed out the take-out menus and would have enjoyed home-cooked meals on a daily basis.

Think about it… if you only had to prepare breakfast, you wouldn’t need a large kitchen. A kitchenette would be sufficient really, saving on space and energy costs. You wouldn’t need a large fridge, or even an oven. A combination microwave and grill would cover your needs. A coffee maker and a small stove top would round out all the appliances you’d need. One or two cupboards for dishes and glass. Someone dedicated to the social media dining lifestyle could pretty much do away with a kitchen altogether.

In many large cities, like New York, space comes at a premium. Put the kitchen in a walk-in closet and you have more space for living, perhaps an actual dining room, instead of having to perch on the edge of the sofa, hoping not to spill anything on the fabric.

Finally, many of those who are going to inherit a non-ownership world – the teens and twenty-somethings – have no idea how to cook and next to no interest in learning to do so. For them, social media dining has all the benefits of living at home without having to wash the pots and pans afterwards.

If you want to give social media dining a try, check out one of these communities – they might have someone in your area ready to cook for you: Josephine, MealSurfers and Umi Kitchen.

Do you need to toss those old items in your pantry?

In the U.S., there’s no federal law regarding food product dating, except for infant formula where an expiration date is required because the nutrients decline over time. Some states have additional requirements for products such as milk and eggs.

But most commercially produced food items, including shelf-stable items such canned corn, jars of mustard, and packages of pasta, also have date labels: sell by, consume by, use by, best by, best if used before, enjoy by, etc. And sometimes there’s just a date, with no label at all to indicate what the date means.

All of this can be confusing and can lead to food waste. As NPR explained:

Companies use the labels to protect the reputation of their products — they want consumers to see and consume their food in as fresh a state as possible. But those dates often have the perverse effect of convincing over-cautious consumers to throw perfectly good food into the trash.

Now two major trade associations, the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, have suggested that manufacturers and retailers use just two labels (unless laws require otherwise):

  • Best If Used By: Describes product quality, where the product may not taste or perform as expected but is safe to use or consume.
  • Use By: Applies to the few products that are highly perishable and/or have a food safety concern over time; these products should be consumed by the date listed on the package – and disposed of after that date.

The FMI and GMA press releases on Feb. 15 summed up the situation nicely:

“Eliminating confusion for consumers by using common product date wording is a win-win because it means more products will be used instead of thrown away in error,” said Jack Jeffers, Vice President of Quality at Dean Foods, which led GMA’s work on this issue. “It’s much better that these products stay in the kitchen — and out of landfills.”

These are voluntary standards, and you won’t see the new labels immediately, but it’s a move that should (over time) help everyone make more informed keep-or-toss decisions. In the meantime, you can still recognize that a best-by type of date on a non-perishable food item is a flavor indicator, not a food safety indicator. The cans to toss for safety’s sake are those that are bulging or leaking, those that have deep dents, especially if the dents affect the seams, or those with rust along the seams.

If you want to consider donating the items, check with your local food bank or other food donation center as to its rules. My local social services agency accepts non-perishable food up to one year past the “best by” date.

Another note: According to the FDA, that bottled water you’ve stocked up on as a critical part of your emergency supplies will still be safe past any labeled expiration date, as long as it’s in an unopened, properly sealed container. It might have an off-odor or taste, though.

What to do with all that Halloween candy

1610_candy_chemistryIn one week’s time, many of us will find an unwieldy pile of candy on the kitchen table. Or spread across the living room rug. Or even, if your kids are like mine, stuffed inside a plastic pumpkin mixed in with empty wrappers, discarded boxes of less-favorable raisins, and utterly forgotten pencils.

Halloween is almost here.

I love Halloween and I enjoy trick-or-treating with the kids. Heck, I’ll even grab a few peanut butter cups out of their stashes. But as a veteran of the holiday, I know the routine: within a few days, this candy will be forgotten about and left to collect dust. What is there to do with this sugary clutter? Actually, a lot.

Now, before I get started with a list of what you can do with that leftover Halloween candy, a note: I’m not saying, “Take your kids’ candy away!” While I realize that sugary snacks are often nutritionally bankrupt, I also want kids to enjoy the brief time that they get to be kids. If that means scarfing down a Pixie Stick or two (or ten), great. Have fun. In this article, I’m referring to that abandoned pile that becomes clutter. That said, let’s get to it.

Re-use

  1. Freeze your favorites. If you’ve ever asked yourself, “Exactly what’s fun about those tiny, ‘Fun Sized’ candy bars,” here’s the answer. When frozen, they’re fantastic. Put a few in the freezer for a frozen, out-of-sight treat for weeks to come.
  2. Cooking. Whip up some M&M cookies, chunky brownies or what-have-you. My favorite recipe for leftover Halloween candy is Trash Bark. Melt some chocolate, dump in the works and enjoy a holiday bark that puts the peppermint variety to shame.
  3. Transfer it to another holiday. Put some candy aside for an Advent calendar, gingerbread house or piñata filling.

Donate

  1. TroopTreats gathers and ships items needed and appreciated by troops who are serving our country abroad. Help them feel a little of that Halloween spirit no matter where they are with a donation of holiday candy.
  2. Do a buy back! Many business — especially dentist offices — will collect unwanted candy and distribute them to members of the military.
  3. Ronald McDonald House charities gladly accept Halloween candy every year, for distribution among the families of the severely ill children that they serve.

Learn Food Science

Did you know that you can paint with Skittles, practice prediction skills with candy bars or blow up balloons with Pop Rocks? Maybe the kids are strong-willed enough to discover exactly how many licks it does take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. You can do these things and more, while showing the kids how to have unexpected fun with candy. Of course, if you’re enjoying the science and want to explore even more, a kit like Candy Chemistry is a lot of educational fun.

There are a few ideas. If you’ve got a great solution that I haven’t thought of, sound off below. And quickly, before I secretly eat the whole stash!

How to organize a beer tasting

It’s Monday and the weather is turning nice here in the northern hemisphere, so I thought it would be fun to talk about an organizing project that isn’t super serious. Specifically, if you’re someone who enjoys spending time with friends over a good beer, this post is for you. With a little preparation you can have an entertaining, informative, and laid-back beer tasting at home.

My love affair with beer started with the yellow American lagers we all know. After these traditional American beers, I ventured out to other styles. The beer that really caught my attention early on was a Bass Pale Ale. What an experience that was: sometimes beer is brown! And bitter! What else is out there?

Today I enjoy porters and stouts, IPAs and bitters, Witbier, and Scotch ale. And that’s part of the fun of beer. It’s varied yet accessible. Casual yet complex. While wine can be intimidating, beer never is. That’s part of the fun of a beer tasting, and having an organized beer tasting is easy.

What to buy

Before you run out to your favorite store to buy beer, you must know your audience. Remember, the idea here is to introduce and try novel styles, but you don’t want to make that an unpleasant experience for your guests.

If your guests typically enjoy the aforementioned traditional American lager, consider lighter styles for your tasting. A lager like Hoponius Union is a great choice. Likewise, you’ll do well with a golden ale like Ipswich Summer Ale or a Born Yesterday Pale Ale from Lagunitas. The idea is that these “crossover” beers, as they’re called, are similar to what your guests like so as not to be a total turn-off, yet different enough to be compelling and interesting.

Conversely, if you’ve got some adventuresome palates on your guest list, adjust your shopping list accordingly. Find something really special to share. Or, maybe go with a themed tasting like “Oktoberfest” or “Refreshing Summer.”

Remember, too, that you don’t want to overwhelm your guests with too many flavors. Four or five options should be all you need.

Serving

Make sure there’s plenty of room in the refrigerator. Most beer likes to be upright and stored at about 45ºF, though there are exceptions. Unless you’re serving serious beer snobs, don’t worry too much about that. Just make sure the beer is cold by serving time.

Glassware can be important, depending on how much you want to get into it. It’s believed that certain glassware can enhance the experience of drinking various styles of beer, by trapping aromas and such. If you want to go for it, go for it. You’ll add to the fun. Honestly, for most beers and the people drinking it, plain old pint glasses will do fine. If you can, avoid paper or plastic cups.

Tasting

I recommend starting with the beer with the lowest percentage of alcohol by volume and moving toward the highest. Additionally, put your hoppiest beers toward the end, as they’re typically strong in flavor and can affect your ability to enjoy more subtle and nuanced offerings earlier in the tasting.

Lastly, have some food on hand. Bread and popcorn will help “cleanse the palate” between brews. Cheese goes well with beer, so a variety of cheeses might be a good idea, too.

Getting home safely

This may be obvious, but you are inviting people to travel to your home and drink alcohol. I recommend finding designated driver(s) and rewarding them with a gift of some sort. This way everyone is safe and the people who do the shuttling are rewarded for their part.

A beer tasting can be a lot of fun and educational. Expand you horizons a bit and try something you typically wouldn’t. Learn about the styles of beer and where they’re from. Finally, understand that a “beer expert” is simply a beer drinker with an opinion.

Become a more organized cook with modified mise en place

Years ago, when I was just a lad, I would watch my dad assemble birthday presents, grills, lawn mowers, and whatever else was not assembled at the factory for customers. He always followed the same organized procedure, which I still use today:

  1. Read the instructions all the way through before beginning.
  2. Lay out each part in a tidy row, ensuring that all required pieces are available.
  3. Identify and locate all of the necessary hardware and/or tools.
  4. Find little containers to hold tiny screws, bolts, and other bits that had the potential of getting lost.
  5. Lastly, make sure there’s enough room to spread out and work.

Only after satisfying all five steps would he begin working. It’s how I do things today, and how I recommend working on anything that has “some assembly required.”

I’ve taken this same approach and applied it in the kitchen, through a modified mise en place. When I’m getting ready to cook from a recipe, I:

  1. Read the recipe all the way through. Just like when you’re assembling a bicycle, you don’t want any surprises once you’ve started. Reading the recipe thoroughly before beginning will identify all the techniques, hardware, and ingredients you’re going to need.
  2. Find and prepare all of the hardware. This step is where you’ll find and locate what I think of as hardware: pots, pans, spatulas, whisks, measuring cups and spoons — all of the tools you’ll need during the preparation and cooking process. It’s no fun to read “stir constantly” or “with a slotted spoon” to find you don’t have a spatula or a spoon.
  3. Find all the ingredients. Locate everything your recipe calls for and get it ready.
  4. Practice mise en place. This is a French culinary term that means “putting in place.” It’s the practice of preparing and arranging ingredients that the chef will need to prepare the day’s meals. But you needn’t be a pro to benefit from this practice. If your recipe calls for 1 Tbsp of butter, a cup of milk, or a diced onion, get exactly those amounts ready before you begin. It’s so nice to not have to stop and measure something as you go. Just grab it and toss it in.
  5. Know where you’re going to place hot items. This step is easy to overlook and not usually included in mise en place, but extremely important. I remember my mother saying to me when I was first learning to cook, “Before you take that out of the oven, think: where are you going to put it?” Put out trivets if you like, clear a spot on the table or what-have-you. It’s all better than scanning the kitchen with a hot pot or dish in your hands.
  6. Can you clean as you go? I’ll admit that I’m not very good at this one. Professional kitchens have a dedicated dishwasher, but most home cooks are not that lucky. If you can clean as you go, do it. If not, designate a spot for dirty hardware ahead of time.
  7. What’s needed to set the table? When I cook for the family, the deal is the cook doesn’t have to set the table. I recommend you work this deal, too.

There you have it: kitchen lessons learned while watching my dad assemble bikes, grills, and more. I hope it makes you a more organized and successful cook.

Holiday preparations you might overlook but will save you time and energy

For those who celebrate winter holidays, December is usually time for family, friends, and lots of preparation. A good amount of what is on your to-do list is obvious: shopping, cleaning, and cooking. But not everything is as obvious, so the following are six items that you might overlook but can still plan and organize for during your preparations. Doing this work now can help your holidays (and winter) go more smoothly.

Make room in the coat closet. Incoming guests arrive with bulky coats and hats that must be stored away during their visit. I don’t know about your house, but our coat closet is pretty full before anyone new arrives. Prepare now by making some room and a few extra hangers available. Also consider, if you live in a snowy climate, guests might arrive with wet hats and gloves and slushy boots. You’ll want to have a plan for where you’re going to put those additional items without making a mess, too.

Prepare bad weather gear. Tell me if this sounds familiar: You need to shovel a mountain of snow, but the shovel is across the yard and in the shed? That situation is not ideal. Before the first flakes fall, I get my shovels, bucket of salt, and scrapers for the car out of the basement and into their winter storage locations. Now, when the snow falls, you can start shoveling right away as all of your equipment will be ready and you won’t have to worry about your guests slipping and falling.

Plan ahead for post-holiday light storage. Holiday presents mean, among other things, an influx of cardboard boxes. If you don’t already have an organized light-storage method for after the holidays, keep a few of those boxes because they’re perfect for storing holiday lights. Break the box down flat and then cut the boxes down into their individual sides. Wrap lights around the cardboard squares/rectangles prior to storage. They won’t tangle and you can even leave a note to yourself on the slab of cardboard yourself: “Kitchen window,” “Tree.”

Outfit an ornament repair center. Many people have an eclectic collection of holiday ornaments, from the inexpensive pieces you picked up on a whim to the old, sentimental decorations with high sentimental value. It’s a bummer when they need repair and it’s a real problem when you’re not equipped. A little glass adhesive, some pliers, a wooden stick or a pin-tool (for applying adhesive), a razor blade, and plastic gloves will serve you well.

Make shelves and food easily viewable in your refrigerator and pantry. There’s nothing like opening the spice cabinet and being confronted with the backs of several dozen little plastic containers. Where was the allspice again? It’s like a memory game, and it’s not fun. Turn everything with the label-side out for easy reference or write on the lids with a permanent marker the shaker’s contents if you can’t see all the labels.

Set tables the night before a holiday meal. I’ve spent a whole day cooking only to notice that, just as the final dish has finished cooking, the table is not set or decorated. Before you hit the bed at night, set the table and save yourself a lot of time the next day. This is a great activity for children, too, if you’re looking for ways to get them involved.

Have a great — and organized — holiday season.