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, All Recipes, and 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

The website 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 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.


  • 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.

How to organize your kitchen pantry

I’m currently reading the ninth edition of the Culinary Institute of America’s textbook The Professional Chef. I don’t have any desire to be a professional chef, I simply decided to read it to help me step up my game in my home kitchen. I’m only a few chapters into this book, and I’ve already learned a wealth of information.

Much to my surprise, the book is full of fantastic organizing advice. In hindsight, I should have expected this since having an organized restaurant can be a key component in a restaurant’s survival. A poorly run kitchen can produce health code violations, waste money on unused or overpriced food, make for a bad dining experience, and create high employee turnover. The better organized a kitchen and its staff, the more a restaurant can focus on the food and quality of service it provides.

The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) teaches the “Kitchen Brigade System,” which was initially “instituted by [Auguste] Escoffier to streamline and simplify work in hotel kitchens.” His system gives specific responsibilities and work stations to each person in the kitchen, so there is less duplication, cross contamination, and confusion about duties. The system is led by the chef (known as the chef de cuisine in French or the executive chef in English) and can include up to 18 positions that report to the chef (such as the sous chef, saucier, grillardin, all the way down to the commis, who is an apprentice learning how to work a station). One of the most interesting stations in this system, at least to me, is the cold-foods chef, referred to in French as the garde manger (which translates from French into English as pantry).

The cold-foods or pantry chef is “responsible for preparation of cold foods including salads, cold appetizers, pates, and the like.” In many kitchens, the garde manger is also responsible for all the foods stored in the pantry and walk-in refrigerators. In our family, managing the food in the pantry and refrigerator is my job, and it’s a lot of work for just the three of us. I can see how this is a full-time job for someone in a restaurant or hotel, which is feeding hundreds of customers daily. Instead of being just the guy who makes salads, the garde manger is an inventory and organizing guru.

Based off the information I’ve gathered from reading this book and specifically the sections regarding the garde manger, I’ve collected some notes to help you organize your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer (and to help improve the way I manage mine):

  • Cut down on food waste by clearly marking when you purchased an item and when you opened it. Knowing these dates can help you to use food before spoilage and to be sure you only throw away food that can make you sick. Blue painter’s tape and a Sharpie are perfect for these tasks. You can stick a piece of blue painter’s tape to reusable containers and then write the information on the tape, or if the packaging isn’t reusable (like a can or box) simply write directly onto the top of the product. Label the dates as “Bought” and “Opened” so it’s clear what the dates indicate.
  • Refrigerate and freeze foods at their proper temperatures. Use a thermometer to ensure all parts of your refrigerator and freezer are maintaining consistent and proper temperatures. Your refrigerator should be around 36ºF, unless you regularly store fish and seafood, and then it should be a couple degrees cooler (in the 32ºF to 34ºF range). Produce can be a little warmer — lettuce, carrots — at 40ºF, but those temperatures are too warm for all the other foods (meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, etc.), so it’s best to aim for 36ºF. Typically the front of the refrigerator is warmer than the back, so store produce at the front of your shelves and meat, poultry, and fish at the back of your shelves.
  • Never store cleaning supplies in your pantry so no one ever makes a mistake and puts cleaning chemicals into food. You also don’t have to worry about cleaning supplies spilling and ruining your stored foods.
  • When putting items away, arrange the items so the oldest items are at the front of your pantry shelves and the newer items are at the back. This will help you to use the food item before it goes bad. The book calls this the “First In, First Out” rule.
  • Group dry foods in your pantry by type. You will likely have categories for: flours, rice, corn products (cornmeal, corn starch), leaveners (baking soda, cream of tartar, baking powder), thickeners (arrowroot, gelatin), oats, other grains (barley, quinoa), pasta and noodles, legumes (lentils, beans), nuts and seeds, spices, sweeteners (honey, brown sugar, sugar cubes, powdered sugar), oils, vinegars and other non-perishable condiments, cooking wines, extracts, coffee and teas, and fruits and vegetables that do not require refrigeration (potatoes, apples). You may also have a section for packaged snacks and canned items.
  • Clearly label shelves so that it is obvious where items belong. This helps improve your ability to maintain order in your pantry, and also helps other people to find items and properly return them. You can use a label maker or adhesive shelf label holders for this task.
  • If possible, adjust shelf heights to best accommodate your goods. Strangely, this is an easy step to skip but will likely increase your pantry’s storage capabilities.
  • Store the items most often accessed in your pantry on shelves at heights between your hips and shoulders. Heavier items you access less frequently should be at heights between your knees and hips. Lighter items you access less often can be stored on shelves at heights above your shoulders. You may want to keep a step stool in your pantry or nearby, so getting to your food is a simple endeavor.
  • Do not store anything on a pantry shelf at floor level. This is a good place to keep reusable boxes, paper grocery sacks, and other non-food pantry items that won’t have future contact with food.
  • Keep shelves clean and immediately deal with any spills to ward off pests and spoilage. I recently heard a tip to line refrigerator and pantry shelves with Press’n Seal Food Wrap. When it’s time to clean the shelves, pull up the dirty wrap and press down clean wrap. It’s much easier than spending the day scrubbing milk rings off refrigerator shelves and much less expensive than doing the same thing with Contact Paper.
  • At least once a week, do an informal review of your refrigerator, freezer, and pantry. Get rid of spoiled and expired foods, make notes about items that are running low, and clean up any spills you may have missed when accessing items.

If you’re looking for visual inspiration, check out Better Homes and Gardens’ slideshow on how to store more in your kitchen. My favorite images are: Use Clear Containers for Dry Goods (I love how the cooking instructions and nutrition facts are taped to each container), Store Stuff on the Doors (the additional storage is perfect for teas, sweeteners, and other items accessed frequently), Pantry Drawers (perfect for homes without traditional pantries), and Cubby Organization (marvelous for small appliances).

Stay tuned for an article next week with dozens of interviews from large families talking about how they organize dinner preparations, cooking, feeding, and cleanup on a nightly basis. The strategies they employ to feed their families of five, six, seven, eight or more can help everyone — and that includes singles and small families like mine — to get a nutritious meal on the table every night without stress or breaking the bank.

Clean and organize your refrigerator

Tomorrow, November 15, is Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day in the U.S. I’m not really sure who decided to declare such a day, but my guess is a refrigerator manufacturer or food producer had something to do with it. I only know about it because of Hallmark’s Ultimate Holiday Site, which tracks the most absurd holidays. (Case in point, today is National Guacamole and Pickle Day.) Although zany, Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day makes a teensy bit of sense being so close to Thanksgiving — it is a good idea to make room in your refrigerator for all the food that will be needing space in the coming days.

When cleaning out a refrigerator that hasn’t been tended to in many months, I like to tackle it in the following manner:

  • Gather supplies. Two large trash bags nested one inside the other (food is heavy and a broken bag makes a huge mess) is a must. You’ll also want a bucket with fresh, warm (not hot) water and mild dish detergent with a sponge. Also, a roll of paper towels or a few clean hand towels are good to have with you to dry the shelves when you’re finished wiping them down, especially for the freezer. Finally, I recommend having a notepad and pen handy so you can create a shopping list as you work.
  • Purge all food past its prime. Working from top to bottom, clear out all food from your refrigerator that is expired, rotten, and not good for eating. If you don’t know if something is edible, check If a food is in a jar or bottle and you can’t find its expiration date, visit the company’s website. Many websites have sections where you can enter the item’s bar code and learn its shelf life information.
  • Wipe it down. Give all the walls and shelves of your refrigerator a firm but gentle scrubbing. Clean up all spills, leaks, and general yuckiness that can dirty up the inside of your refrigerator.
  • Organize. In addition to putting like items with like items (making it easier to retrieve foods, as well as remembering what items you have), consider employing some advanced organizing techniques. Add stackable, removable shelves or under shelf baskets to better separate items. Use shelf liners to make it easier to clean up future messes and to keep round foods from rolling. If your crisper is where foods go to mold, try removing your drawers so you won’t forget about your produce (if you’re a visual processor, this may really help you). Also, learn what the recommended cooling temperatures for your food are so you know where the best place is inside your refrigerator to store each item.
  • Clean the containers. Now is a great time to wash all the reusable food containers that may have been hiding storing rotted items.

While you’re working, it’s also nice to inspect the seals on your refrigerator. Are they letting air escape? If they are, you can likely replace them yourself for not very much money or effort. Check your manufacturer’s website for exact information on the replacement seal required for your specific refrigerator model.

If your workplace refrigerator is in need of a good cleaning, you still have time to organize a clean-up project for tomorrow. You may want to add rubber gloves to your list of supplies, though. You never know what science experiments are happening in the back of those shelves.

Random note: November 15 is also Sadie Hawkins Day, so if you are female you can ask a male to help you clean out your refrigerator and celebrate two bizarre holidays at once.

Clean your barbecue grill? Might want to wait until spring

I’m a fan of grilling all year round — even in the snow and ice of winter — but many people pack up their grills in the fall. If you’re someone who puts your grill away for the six cold months, consider the idea of not giving your grill a hardcore cleaning before putting it into storage.

The baked on crust that surrounds the metal on your grill grate will help protect the grate from rusting during the winter months. Rust can’t oxidize the metal grate if air and water aren’t able to directly come into contact with it. Instead of scrubbing the metal until it shines, take a clean, dry, cotton rag and wipe off all the large food crumbs and burned bits, but leave the black coating intact on the grate. Next spring, when you start up your grill for the first time, you can heat up the grate over the fire for 10 minutes and then scrub the grate thoroughly with a metal grill brush over the open flame (obviously wearing a really good oven mitt and using a grill brush that is up for the job). Fight the urge to do this type of deep cleaning now, though.

If you have a charcoal grill, you’ll want to empty any remaining ashes out of the bottom of your grill before storing it for the winter months. Please, be smart and only empty cold ashes from your grill so as not to hurt yourself or start a fire. Once the ashes are removed, use the same dry, cotton rag you used on the metal grate and wipe out the inside of the grill. It doesn’t need to be sparkling clean, you just want most of the ash out of the kettle of your grill. Again, the remaining ash will protect the interior of your grill from rusting during the winter months.

If you use a gas or electric grill, you can also use the dry, cotton rag to wipe down the cooking elements on the inside of your grill. Be careful not to damage them — a light touch is all you need. Gas grill owners will want to disconnect the tanks from the grill and return the empty to the rental company for a voucher. The voucher will let you start back up in the spring without having to pay another deposit for the tanks, and you won’t have to worry about storing the gas tank over the winter (something that can be dangerous if the tank isn’t completely empty).

You may want to dust off the exterior of your grill before storing it, but this step isn’t even all that important. It is important, however, that you cover your grill with a grill cover. The grill cover isn’t perfect, but it will help to keep most moisture out of your grill while it’s not in use. Moisture is the grill’s most common enemy, and you want to protect your grill from this adversary.

What you can give a good cleaning are all your grilling utensils. If any items need replacing, you may want to replace them now so you’ll be ready to go on the first warm day of spring. I like to replace the metal grill brush annually.

Productivity tip: Begin with a cleared surface

After seeing our post last week about his book Twenty, Michael Ruhlman sent me a message saying I’d left out one of the essential components of mise en place. He was right, I had left out one of the best parts! (His message was very nice, by the way. And, it means he actually read the post, which is quite flattering to this fangirl.)

The first step of mise en place, before you pull out a single ingredient from the cupboard or turn a dial to heat up your stove, is to:

Put away everything that you don’t need.

Clear your counter top. Get rid of the clutter. Or, to co-opt an artist’s metaphor, start with a blank canvas.

You run a much smaller risk of making a cooking mistake and adding an unwanted ingredient or missing a step if there isn’t anything else out on the counter to distract you. At the end of the cooking process, you’ll know if you forgot to salt the food because you’ll see a little bowl with salt in it sitting next to the stove. If your counter is piled high with junk mail, dirty dishes, and your child’s art projects, you could easily overlook the missing item.

Clearing the counter top also allows you to focus on exactly what you’re doing. There isn’t anything to distract you, at least that you can control.

This concept of putting away everything that you don’t need applies to a lot of projects that you may encounter throughout your day. It’s perfect for working on a project at work — close all programs and windows on your computer screen that aren’t related to your work, clear your desk of all materials that you don’t need — or even your hobby work surfaces at home. Mise en place is a great way to help you be productive even outside your kitchen.

Can mise en place make your cooking more organized?

When cooking from a recipe, I usually:

  1. Read through the entire recipe to get a comprehensive idea of what I’ll be doing.
  2. Read through the recipe again, this time taking notes on the recipe that are helpful to me during the cooking process.
  3. Set out all of the equipment I’ll need to complete the recipe.
  4. Measure, chop, mince, etc. anything that has to be done at a very specific time during the cooking process. (If I’m making soup, I’ll chop all my vegetables first, but I tend to just measure and grab ingredients out of the refrigerator and pantry as I go.)
  5. Heat the stove or oven, if applicable.
  6. Cook.

You’ll notice that I don’t typically measure out all of my ingredients or get them out of the cupboard before starting the cooking process. This step, referred to as mise en place, has always seemed to me to be unnecessary. I also think measuring things ahead of time dirties a ridiculous number of bowls. Or, rather, I thought it was ridiculous until reading Michael Ruhlman‘s newest cookbook Twenty.

Before explaining what Ruhlman said to change my mind (or at least think mise en place less ridiculous), let me first give you some of his credentials. He co-wrote Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook, been a judge on Iron Chef America, studied at The Culinary Institute of America, wrote Ratio (one of the most useful cookbooks ever written, in my opinion), and has also written books with chefs Eric Ripert, Michael Symon, and Anthony Bourdain. If you like to cook, Ruhlman’s books are valuable companions in the kitchen.

Now that I have my praises for Ruhlman out of my system, let me share with you what he wrote that helped to change my mind about mise en place. From pages 13 and 14 in Twenty:

There are all kinds of home cooks — people who cook to unwind; people who cook as a hobby; people who cook because they want to feed their family healthful, tasty, economical meals; and people who cook because it’s the least objectionable option in fulfilling a daily need. Regardless of what kind of cook you are, the most basic rules apply. First and foremost is that cooking is easier, faster, more efficient, more successful, and more fun when you think first, when you prepare and organize, when you set up your mise en place.

This is not an additional step — it’s simply doing all that you would do throughout the cooking anyway. You’re just doing it ahead of time, spending less time between cupboard and counter, refrigerator and stove. Be sure your counter or work area is completely clear. Go to the refrigerator, pull everything you’re going to need, and set it out. Go to the cupboard, and pull everything there you’ll need. Gather your tools beside your cutting board, set the pans you’ll need on the stove, and get the oven hot if you’re using it. Think about the sequence of your actions. And then being to work, and as you work while you’re doing one thing, think about what you’ll be doing next and next after that.

The past few meals I’ve made, I’ve tried mise en place (Ruhlman defines it as “organize and prepare,” even though it’s exact translated meaning is “put in place”). I’m not convinced it’s something I’ll do in the future for everything I make, especially the favorite recipes I know by heart and could make while wearing a blindfold. However, for all new and tricky recipes, I’m giving it a whirl. Being organized and prepared has served me well in so many other aspects of my life, it’s likely to benefit me in the kitchen.

What are your thoughts on mise en place as a way to help you be more organized in the kitchen? If you thought it was a waste of time, like I did, do Ruhlman’s words change your mind at all? Or, have you been a loyal mise en place preparation guru your entire cooking life? I’m interested in reading people’s thoughts on this cooking habit.

The Simple Meal

When life gets busy and stressful and you feel pulled in multiple directions, meal planning is often the first system to break down at home. You want someone else to get food on the table. You want someone else to clean up afterward. You want someone else to make it happen without adding any stress to your already complicated life.

Eating out at a restaurant or pulling through a drive-thru are short-term solutions to what is hopefully a short-term situation. They’re convenient and won’t do too much damage to your finances or waistline as long as they’re rare occurrences. If eating out at a restaurant and pulling through a drive-thru become your standard mode of operation, however, you’ll realize these short-term conveniences have long-term consequences.

Over the years, my husband and I have come to rely on The Simple Meal when we’re stressed and don’t want to make a production out of dinner. This meal consists of a protein, a vegetable, and a drink. From start to finish it takes the same amount of time as pulling through a drive-thru and less time than eating out at a restaurant. Plus, the cleanup is usually very simple.

The key to making the protein and vegetable interesting enough to constitute a meal are really good spices and sauces. Rustic rub catfish takes five seconds longer to make than plain catfish when you have the rustic spice rub prepared ahead of time. Honey-bourbon salmon takes 30 seconds longer to make than plain salmon as long as you have 3 Tbl of honey and 1/2 cup of bourbon already in your house. And tilapia with an olive tapenade takes just minutes to get on the table when you have olive tapenade in your pantry. All three of these proteins can be baked in the oven (with a little bit of lemon juice to help prevent sticking) in aluminum foil pouches, eliminating the need to wash a pan or baking sheet.

Fresh and frozen (buy the ones not packaged with salt or a sauce) vegetables are a breeze to fix, too. I’ll put a handful of green beans or broccoli or corn in a bowl in the microwave with a little bit of water, heat thoroughly, and then strain off the water. Once strained, I’ll add garlic salt or a little melted butter or some red pepper chili flakes or whatever will compliment the vegetables. I serve the vegetables in the same bowl I cooked them in to cut down on dish mess.

The best part about The Simple Meal is that it is almost always more nutritious and healthful than what you can get from a drive-thru, and it usually tastes better. If you don’t have a protein in house, swinging by the fish monger or butcher’s counter doesn’t take any more time than running out to get something. The Simple Meal is also great for cooks who are new to the kitchen.

If you’re new to cooking, invest in a quality meat thermometer and familiarize yourself with:

What Simple Meals do you make when under a time crunch and want to keep dinner from being a production? Share your recipes in the comments, and be sure to check out our sister site for ideas, too.

Strategies for keeping clutter off your dining table

If your home functions anything like mine, your dining table isn’t used just for eating. In addition to providing a dining space, our table is used for meal preparation, my son’s coloring surface, an alternate work station if my husband or I need a change of pace from our desks, a hang out spot to sit and read, and dozens of other purposes. Keeping clutter off the table so it’s ready for eating or whatever chore we want to throw at it can be a challenge, and these are some of the strategies we use to keep it clear:

  • Have a mail processing station by the main entrance. First and foremost, the dining table is not a place for mail. Create a mail processing station by your main entrance where you can sort, shred, trash, recycle, and properly handle all of your mail.
  • Install hooks for coats and bags by the main entrance. Similar to the previous point, the dining table is not a place for coats, hats, bags, and briefcases. Hang hooks for coats and bags near your main entrance so these items don’t end up on the table.
  • Keep a trash can near your dining table. If you have a formal dining room, you likely don’t have a trash can in this space. Find a way to hide one in a buffet or side table, or keep one very close by in another room that you can easily pick up and move into this space. You’ll be amazed by how useful a simple trash can will be for keeping clutter off your table. Earn an additional point if you can hide a recycling bin in the room, too.
  • Organize your buffet or sideboard to meet the needs of the space. So often sideboards and buffets are full of china that is rarely used or silver service you pull out just once a year. If you want these special event items, store them someplace more remote (the high shelves of kitchen cupboards are usually good locations) and use your sideboard or buffet for things you actually use in your dining room. In addition to storing place mats and napkins, our sideboard holds crayons and coloring books, a pair of scissors, an extra set of my reading glasses, table cleaning supplies, a few pens and pencils, a spare power cable that works with all the laptops in the house, an extension cord, and a radio.
  • Set the table as the first step of meal preparation. If you don’t plan to use the table while you’re making the meal, set it with plates, cups, silverware, etc., as your first meal preparation step. This way, when housemates come through the dining room, they won’t deposit items not related to the meal on the table. Setting the table is also a wonderful chore for any child three or older.
  • Don’t pick up and drop stuff someplace else. Although it is incredibly easy to just scoop up what is on the table and set it on another surface, try your best to properly sort through items when you remove them. Throw out the trash, put toys away, shred the credit card applications, and file papers that need to be filed. The top of the sideboard or buffet is as bad a location to hold this clutter as the table was.
  • Wipe down the table and sweep the floor after every meal. To keep from getting ants, this step is imperative with a toddler in the house. However, it might not be such an obvious step if the people dining at your table aren’t in the habit of dropping half their food on the floor. Completely cleaning off the table after every meal makes it a welcoming space for the next meal or whatever other use you need. This is also a great thing to do after every alternate use, too.
  • Avoid having a catch-all container that lives on the table. In some homes the catch-all container is a circular rotating tray, in others it might be a decorative plate or bamboo platter. Devices that are made to hold salt, pepper, sugar, napkins, and condiments are great for containing small items — but they’ll end up holding other non-meal related small items if the tray isn’t removed from the table after every meal. Have a place in the kitchen for this service to live in between meal times.

What steps do you take to keep clutter off the table? Share your additional strategies in the comments.