Simplifying packed lunches

Reader Jon wrote to us asking if we had any tips for preparing lunches at home that he can take to eat at work. He has been spending $100 a week on eating out at restaurants, and is hoping to become someone who brings his lunches to work. Since students are already back in the classroom in many states, and other students are getting ready to go, I thought now would be a great time to discuss the humble brown bag lunch.

Storage Materials:
You don’t need anything fancy, but I recommend items that are at least reusable (especially if you want to save money). You can use Lunch Skins for dry items, Rubbermaid’s plastic Easy-Find Lid containers (they’re BPA free) for foods that could spill or leak, New Wave’s Stainless Steel food containers, or Kinetic’s Glass Lock containers. You might want a thermos to hold a drink, and you’ll want a tote or box to contain it all. I’m a huge fan of bento jars and boxes, and if I carried my lunch to work, I would strongly consider getting the Zojirushi Bento Lunch Jar (the inserts are also BPA free):

Food and Preparation:
Taking your lunch to work or school doesn’t mean you have to eat peanut butter and jelly every day. The best tip I have about making lunches is to prepare them while you’re making dinner the previous night. For example, if you’re grilling hamburgers for dinner, pull aside half a cup of hamburger to cook and season for taco meat. A couple tortillas, cheese, and the meat make a great entree the next day at lunch that keeps your attention and isn’t exactly what you had for dinner.

Making both dinner and lunch increases your time in the kitchen a little, but the money you save is definitely worth it. Plus, you only have to clean the kitchen once, and you’re more likely to pack healthier lunches than you would buy if you ate out at a restaurant. If you’re making lunches for kids, enlist them to help you pack up their meals.

I wish I knew of a great cookbook to recommend for lunch ideas, but I’m completely clueless in this area. Hopefully there will be some recommendations in the comments for ways to find even more exciting meal ideas. Also, if you’re someone who brings his lunch to work every day or makes lunches for your children, add helpful tips you’ve picked up along the way to the comments. Good luck to Jon and to all parents embarking on a school-year full of lunch making.

Streamlining your morning routines

To know me is to know my love of coffee. My entire morning routine is structured around brewing the perfect cup and drinking it before the busy-ness of the day begins. Hanging on the bulletin board above my computer screen is my mantra: “When in doubt, drink more coffee.”

I’m not really addicted to caffeine, I’m more addicted to the routine of crafting an ideal cup of joe. If there were a caffeine-free drink I savored more, I would be consumed with making it. However, except for a glass of whole milk minutes after coming out of the cow or a Batida from Ceiba restaurant in downtown, D.C., there aren’t any other drinks that capture my attention so strongly.

Why am I telling you all of this? First, it’s a way for me to talk about another of my passions. Second, and this is more applicable to you, I want to share with you my strategies for organizing morning routines.

When we wake up after a night’s sleep (or day’s sleep if you work the night shift), we go through the same steps every time. For most of us, these steps include showering, getting dressed, brushing teeth, eating breakfast, drinking coffee, and possibly helping a small human go through similar steps. Your routine might vary a little bit, but for the majority of days you do the same things over and over and over again.

How many of the things you use during your morning routine, though, aren’t convenient to access? Are your breakfast items strewn in multiple cabinets across the kitchen, bathroom supplies in five different drawers and cabinets, and clothing kept in three different places across a bedroom?

Think about all of the things you access each and every morning, and reorganize these things to better meet your needs and make your routines more efficient. For example, if your family eats breakfast cereal, put all of your cereal boxes into a basket so that putting the boxes on the table each morning is one simple movement. If you have a shaving routine, store all of your supplies in one container that you can pull out of the drawer, set on the counter, and then return to the drawer all at once. In your bedroom, consider arranging your furniture so that your dresser is next to your closet. Store all of your coffee-making supplies together with your coffee cups, above or next to where you prepare your coffee.

Keep the things you use together, in containers that you can pull out and use in the most convenient location, and store them in the easiest place to access.

It’s also a good idea to time yourself to see how long it actually takes you to get ready in the morning. Many of us are under the delusion that we’re faster at getting ready for the day than we actually are — especially families with children. If you have difficulty getting out the door in the morning, I recommend that parents get completely ready before children (especially young children) wake up and always padding your get-ready time by 15 minutes.

The more streamlined your morning routine, the more likely you are to have a smooth, stress-free morning. And, the more time you’ll have to enjoy that beautiful, rich, amazing cup of coffee.

Organizing your refrigerator

Refrigerators, especially in the homes of active families, can be difficult to keep organized and free of expired foods. We’ve talked in the past about using a meal plan to help food move through your refrigerator before it rots. However, using a meal plan doesn’t necessarily keep a refrigerator from looking like it was hit by a very small tornado when its door was closed.

Like any storage space in your home, organizing your refrigerator to meet your needs can save you time and money over the long term. Here are some organizing helpers for inspiration:

  • If you or your family regularly consumes drinks from cans, you might benefit from a beverage dispenser or a can organizer.
  • Instead of cans, if you store a lot of bottles, you might need a bottle stacker.
  • Stackable, removable shelves are helpful for adding surface space in refrigerators and freezers.
  • And, shelf liners can keep foods from rolling to the back of a shelf and being forgotten. Shelf liners are also nice because they make cleaning shelves easy.

When putting food into your refrigerator, make sure that you’re storing food in its recommended location and cleaning the shelves and door seals regularly as recommended by your refrigerator’s manufacturer. If you’re not familiar with the different temperature zones in your refrigerator, use a thermometer to find out the variances within your unit. You might be surprised to find that there are multiple variances even on a single shelf (the back of our shelves are three degrees cooler than the fronts). Be sure to follow the FDA recommendation and keep your refrigerator set at 40F degrees or below on all shelves to prevent listeria and other food-borne pathogens. Also, check out if you have any questions about the shelf-life of the food you’re storing.

Small-space ingenuity: The Sigmafocus hide-a-cue

The French company Focus has designed a truly beautiful barbecue grill that folds into the wall:

From pg. 120 of the focus catalog, the Sigmafocus:

Finally — an alternative to the unattractive contraptions on capricious wheels that have cluttered up our gardens and decks for so long. The Sigmafocus and the Diagofocus [another product Focus offers] prove that aesthetics and ergonomics aren’t confined to interior design. It can be used with either wood or charcoal and comes equipped with a stainless steel grill and a range of barbecue tools. The quality and thickness of the steel used guarantees the longevity of the barbecue, which meets the EN 1860-1 standard.

This wall barbecue for gardens and balconies folds up, so that when closed it takes up limited space.

Attractive in both open and closed positions, it offers a range of cooking heights. It is easy to fix to any-wall (there are only two fixation points).

The generous ash pan allows the barbecue to be used a number of times without having to empty it out. The disc that attaches to the wall protects the wall from smoke.


I couldn’t find a price or shipping details, but the full contact information for the company is in the back of the online catalog and on the company website. I cannot tell you how amazing I think this grill is, especially for someone like me with the world’s tiniest backyard. Genius!

(via NotCot)

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: