Ask Unclutterer: Food storage containers

Reader Carla submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

After too many episodes of struggling to find a top to match a Tupperware in my mother’s kitchen I’ve decided to buy her a new set of food storage containers. Can you recommend the best type of food storage containers? The requirements I’d like to fulfil are:

  • a few different size containers all with the same interchangeable lids
  • stackable
  • high quality

I seems to be difficult to find all of these qualities in one product. Do you have any recommendations?

Food storage containers, until recently, were some of the most ridiculously designed items for the kitchen. Additionally, they easily stained, warped, and lost their lids like socks lose their mates in a dryer. Research now shows that some were even made of plastics that leeched chemicals into the food — yummy!

Thankfully, food storage containers have advanced quite a bit in recent years. Today, if I were replacing my food storage containers, I would buy Rubbermaid’s Easy Find Lid Containers. They’re BPA free, the lids all snap together and to the bottoms of the containers so you don’t have a giant mess in the cabinets, and many of the lids can be used for different-size bases. Plus, $11 for 24 pieces won’t be too painful on your pocketbook.

I know that not everyone loves plastic storage, but based on your qualifications it’s pretty much the only option available to you. There aren’t any glass or stainless steel brands right now that have interchangeable lids (at least not that I have found). Also, they’re not usually stackable. If any of our readers know of a brand of glass or stainless steel food storage containers that hasn’t yet made it onto my radar, please share that information in the comments.

Thank you, Carla, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column, and good luck taming the kitchen clutter!

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

How to maximize coupon savings

Yesterday we came across this amazing YouTube video of a Good Morning America segment profiling Kathy Spencer, who runs How to Shop for Free. By using a few techniques highlighted in the video, she manages to feed her family of six for less money than you probably have in your sofa cushions right now.

Here at Unclutterer, we were wondering how much of Kathy Spencer’s shopping involves buying unneeded items just because of the savings, so we did a little digging and found this an eHow article by Spencer in which she addresses that particular issue:

People always say why get something if you don’t need it, or say I don’t need 10 jars of peanut butter. My answer to that is if you don’t need it someone else will. I did not need the 6 diabetes monitors that I picked up at CVS while shopping with Inside Edition but I got them because I will be donating them to my local Council on Aging, a lot of people have diabetes and don’t test regularly because they can’t afford the meter.

If you’re willing to actually make an effort to find a good home for such “deals,” then it’s probably not a bad thing. If not, you should probably be much more critical about whether you really need something that’s on special.

It’s actually quite surprising to see how much money you can save with a little planning and effort. We tried out some of Spencer’s tips yesterday at our local Harris Teeter and managed to save about 30% off our total bill.

And if you need a way to organize your coupons, check out this Unclutterer post from March on repurposing brag books.

A simple Thanksgiving solution

Thanks to Asha at Parent Hacks, I have stumbled upon a simple living suggestion that I will use this Thanksgiving.

Until yesterday, I had no idea that chalk wrote easily on matte-finish oilcloth. The concept is so basic, yet its implications have my head spinning. I’m no longer trying to think of ways to decorate my Thanksgiving table, entertain the kids during mealtime, or am worried about a centerpiece — I have my solution:

Simply buy enough solid-color, matte-finish oilcloth to use as a tablecloth for your dining table. With either regular chalk or chalk pens, write guest names next to their plates. This replaces any need for place setting holders.

Additionally, you can write menu ingredients next to platters, draw seasonal designs down the center of the table, and give young guests chalk pens to play tic-tac-toe and draw pictures with during the meal.

Matte-finish oilcloth is extremely inexpensive (less than $10 a yard most places) and wipes clean with a damp cloth. And, you can redecorate and reuse it again and again. A piece of solid white oilcloth with colored chalk can make it perfect for everyday use — especially in homes with young kids. Just be sure to cure the oilcloth first.

I love simple solutions.

(Anyone know if this works on just regular, glossy-finish oilcloth? If so, the price per yard is significantly less expensive. Image from Yum Sugar.)

Cooking and freezing: Ideas for getting past mealtime stress

Since our son surprisingly joined our family two months ago, my husband and I have had weird eating routines. Gone were the days of sitting down and eating a well-balanced meal at the table, and in were sandwiches gobbled over the sink in a groggy, sleep-deprived daze. I don’t like hastily prepared meals that lack major nutritional food groups, so I called my mom and asked her to help me get things back on track.

This past weekend, my mom and I prepared, cooked, and froze about a month’s worth of meals. Beef stew, burritos, pre-mixed ingredients for homemade bread, and dozens of other options now line the shelves of our refrigerator and freezer. It’s nice to once again be working from a meal plan and not feel overwhelmed by the simple act of getting dinner on the table.

I’ve found that extending a formal invitation to a friend or family member to help with an aspect of my life where I need to be better organized can be the motivation I need to get things done. I actually did most of the cooking this weekend while my mom played with her grandson and kept me company. Simply having a set time on the schedule and someone with me meant that I didn’t put off this chore and stayed focused on it. In addition to meal preparations, this idea also works great for closet uncluttering, paper filing, and cleaning out the garage.

If you’ve never worked from a meal plan or used a freezer to help with meal planning, I recommend you read these articles and give these methods a try — especially if you feel stressed out by the question “what’s for dinner?”

Also, last week, the Lifehacker blog ran a wonderful article called “10 Simple Freezer Tricks to Save You Time and Money” that can get you moving in the same direction.

How do you keep from feeling overwhelmed at mealtime? Give us your tips in the comments.

Space-saving cheese grater

Since I only have two drawers in my kitchen, I’m constantly on the lookout for space-saving versions of the tools I use. I have a collapsible colander and try to use knives instead of small, specific gadgets.

A reader (whose e-mail I unfortunately prematurely deleted, so I can’t give proper attribution) sent us a link to this wonderful collapsible cheese grater that is now at the top of my wish list:

The Joseph Joseph brand cheese grater folds flat for storage and up for use. It’s sturdy and comes in a handful of colors. It’s great for small-space living.

I’m really looking forward to getting rid of the giant cheese grater I have now.

Keep it in rotation

Professional organizer extraordinaire Monica Ricci returns to Unclutterer to talk about consumable products. You can follow Monica on Twitter, Facebook, and her blog for more organizing tips.

There are two types of things in our lives — consumable goods and what I call hard goods. Consumable goods are things we buy, use, and re-buy to sustain our lives. Hard goods are items we buy with the intention of keeping them long term. There are some important differences between consumables and hard goods. First, the obvious is that consumables get used up and need to be re-acquired. Second, it makes sense to purchase consumables in quantity because of their consumable nature, provided you have ample space to store them. But one of the most important differences is that while consumables get consumed, hard goods live with us until we choose to move them along. Another differentiating factor is that consumable items need to be balanced and stay in motion. If not, you’ve got trouble. Trouble in the form of overspending, crowded storage spaces, mystery inventory and expired products which equals more wasted money.

To avoid these perils, evaluate your consumable inventory regularly. This means keeping on top of three primary areas: the refrigerator, the pantry and your toiletries stash.

  1. Clean out the refrigerator weekly, preferably the night before trash goes out to the curb.
  2. Keep informed about what’s in your pantry and don’t buy things you already have. Sort through everything in your pantry at least twice a year.
  3. Except for toilet paper and possibly bar soap, only keep a few extra toiletries on hand at any given time. Toiletry goods expire quickly (especially makeup), so buy them only when you need them.

There you have it … three simple ways to make sure your consumables get consumed in a way that doesn’t crowd your life, waste money, or waste food.

Canning: Meal planning months in advance

Last summer, while sharing a bottle of wine with food columnist Kim O’Donnel, I professed that I wanted to learn to can. Kim didn’t skip a beat, she’s always game for whatever random schemes I hatch, and said that she would teach me. Then, before we could set a date, she decided to follow her husband to Seattle and skipped town (if I didn’t like her husband so much, I would have protested this decision much more vehemently — whisking my pal away to live on the other coast is usually grounds for a good fist shaking and finger waving).

So, this summer, I had to give this canning thing a try without her seasoned help. My belief is that canning is preferred to freezing because the power can’t go out on your pantry. Also, when done with friends, you get to divvy up the goods and everyone goes home with amazing treats. It’s wonderful in the middle of winter to open up a can of tomatoes picked from your own garden when they were at their peak. (And, even though I put fake flowers in my window boxes, I do have a garden. Growing food is a much different endeavor in my mind than frivolous ornamental plants required by the HOA.)

I decided to take a sweet route on my first foray into canning. My friend Krystal and I headed to the Chesterfield Berry Farm near Richmond, Virginia, with high hopes for making strawberry jam. In the fields, we picked more than 20 pounds of beautifully ripe strawberries and then made what can only be described as the world’s best jam. (Twenty pounds of strawberries was overkill, by the way — eight or nine pounds would have been enough.)

Over the next 12 months, in addition to consuming as much of it as my stomach will hold, I’ll be giving out the extra jars as gifts instead of the obligatory bottle of wine when I go to dinner parties at friends’ homes.

How is canning uncluttered? Well, I’m not sure that it is in the strictest of senses. It is, however, a great way to extend the fresh fruits and vegetables of summer throughout the whole of the year. It saves money (a lot cheaper to grow your own than it is to buy it in a store during the off-season) and it makes meal planning extremely simple. The New York Times ran an informative article this week on this very subject titled “Can It, Preserve It, Pickle It, Savor It” that provides many resources for new canners. Even if you don’t have a garden, you can head to your local farmer’s market and pick up the in-season foods you wish to can.

Do you can food? How does it help you with meal planning? Tell us about your experiences in the comments.

Unstocking the pantry

I often get requests from readers asking me to put together “bare minimum” lists. Lists that answer the question: How many items of X should I have and should I even have Y? I understand the desire for such lists — we’ve even written a few in the past — but they’re always met with mixed reviews. What works for me doesn’t necessarily work best for you.

That being said, I recently stumbled upon two great “bare minimum” lists for kitchen pantries in the Chicago Tribune. Instead of thinking about them as lists of must-have items, I thought about them as guides to figuring out what was clutter in my cupboard. If something in my pantry wasn’t on either list, I put it on the dining room table for further evaluation.

After this sorting process, I constructed a series of meals to use up the extraneous items. Most of these questionable items were nearing their expiration dates, too, so it made for a worthwhile activity.

Check out the lists and consider using them as clutter identification guides for your kitchen pantry:

Built NY lunch bag for kids

I highlighted Built NY’s uncluttered lunch bag a while back, so I figured I’d point our readers to their new lunch bag for kids called the Munchler. The Munchler is a lunch bag that can also be carried like a backpack. It also unzips into a placemat for easy use and stores flat. Made from polypropylene, it will insulate your child’s food.

Munchlers come in four varieties including a dog, panda, tiger, and bunny. These are fun, practical, and, most importantly, reusable lunch bags. Built NY has some great designs while offering very affordable products.

(via ohdeedoh)

Unusual storage spaces

I have a secret. See this cookie jar:

Are you imagining that it is filled with scrumptious chocolate chip cookies? Mmmmmm, cookies. Let’s take a peak inside of it:

Wait, those aren’t cookies!

Now you know my secret. I store garlic, potatoes, and onions in our cookie jar. It’s dry and dark in there, and no one suspects that Cookie Monster’s belly is full of healthy vegetables. Plus, I don’t have to sacrifice drawer or cupboard space to store these items that shouldn’t be refrigerated.

I’m not the only one with unusual items in my cookie jar:

Reader Sharon stores all of her chargers in her cookie jar, which sits right next to an electrical outlet. The chargers are where she needs them, and nicely stored when not in use.

Do you have any storage spaces in your kitchen that you use in creative ways? Let us know about them in the comments.

Preparing for holiday house guests

They are coming over for the holidays, and they are bringing more than just presents. That’s right, your relatives along with their kids, their stuff, and lots of stress! However, you can be prepared! The following tips will give you some simple ways to get yourself prepared ahead of time:

  1. Clean off your dining table today! I don’t mean the night before, do it today (or at least start). Start finding a permanent home for each item that has accumulated on your dining room table. Chances are the same items end up there again and again because they don’t have a permanent home within your home. Involve the whole family as most of the time, clutter on the dining table belongs to more than just one person. Once you have the table cleaned off, put a centerpiece on it, or something out of the ordinary to make sure it does not accumulate stuff before your dinner party.
  2. Get the dishes ready. If you need to borrow or use special serving dishes or holiday dishes, start taking them out now or borrowing them and get them washed. Use the dining room table as a staging ground to keep them until the holiday.
  3. Clean the house room by room. Pick a room each day or a few rooms each week. Or schedule a special session with your normal cleaning service.
    Don’t wait until the night before everyone arrives to start cleaning.
  4. Take inventory of your guest spaces. Can your guests sleep on your pull out couch or in your spare room comfortably? Does the room need to be cleaned? This is a great time to get your guest items organized, and to throw out and donate any unnecessary items that have found their way into your guest spaces.
  5. Create a friendly environment for your guests. Lay out guest towels, bathrobes, magazines, mints, maps (for your out of town guests), and water for your guests. Provide your guests with enough information so that they can enjoy your geographic area without assistance from you. Make sure they are familiar with phone and Internet access at your home as well.
  6. Be prepared to spend time with your relatives. Do your cleaning and preparation ahead of time so you can spend time relaxing and visiting, and not in the kitchen. If your relatives will be around for a number of days, consider making dinner reservations at a local restaurant so you can take a night and all relax together.
  7. Ask your guests if they have any special dietary needs before they arrive. This will help you avid any last minute trips to the grocery store.
  8. Have any gifts wrapped and ready to distribute before your guests arrive. They are lots of fun to shake and look at for the kids in your family. This will also allow you to spend time with your family instead of locked up in your bedroom wrapping presents.
  9. Remember to enjoy your company. Sharing your home can be stressful, but by cleaning and organizing in advance, you can have a relaxing time visiting with those you love!

Bonnie Joy Dewkett is the owner and operator of The Joyful Organizer. She offers professional organization services to help you organize your home and your life.

Organized menus for Thanksgiving dinner

One of my favorite humans is cooking maven Kim O’Donnel. If you are unfamiliar with Kim, she writes the popular “A Mighty Appetite” blog and online chat for One of the reasons I love to spend time with Kim is because she is a pragmatist. When she talks about cooking, it is with the perspective that normal people, not highly trained chefs, will be making the food that ends up on your dinner table.

I’m mentioning Kim because she wrote a book a while back called A Mighty Appetite for the Holidays that fits in nicely with the Unclutterer philosophy. The book has holiday-themed recipes like you would expect, but most importantly it is organized like a calendar: What to do T Minus 7 days before Thanksgiving, What to do T Minus 6 days before Thanksgiving, etc. The point of the book is to help its reader throw a wonderful Thanksgiving feast without all the stress and worry that typically comes with such an endeavor. Being organized and methodical can mean that the maker of the meal can actually enjoy the celebration.

Along these same lines, I noticed that the November issue of Gourmet magazine did a similar thing this year. Most of the Thanksgiving menus it suggests are set up over a three-day period, but I still think three-day preparation is much preferred to a single-day preparation.

Do you know of other guides or books that help to plan out Thanksgiving meal preparations? As we inch closer to the holiday, I think it would be wonderful to have a full collection of resources in the comments to this post of organized sources to turn to for keeping the stress out of Thanksgiving meal preparation. I look forward to reading your suggestions!