Overwhelm yourself

My wife and I have accumulated quite a collection of glassware over the years. It is quite ridiculous, to tell you the truth. We entertain on occasion, but we have no need for the amount of glassware currently in our possession. Even when we do have a party we only use a small fraction of the glassware.

As I have mentioned in the past, we are downsizing our living space and we must reduce the amount of stuff that we have. The kitchen was the room we tackled last. I came up with the idea of removing every last item from the cupboards to assess what we had on our hands. The end result was quite overwhelming.

You don’t really get a grasp of what you have stored away in those cupboards until you have it lying out for display. I got the same feeling when we had our yard sale. I asked myself, “Where did all this stuff come from?” The accumulation of stuff is gradual, and it tends to sneak up on you. My wife and I have been married for almost nine years now and we have just recently become more conscious of all of the things we have brought into our home.

It is much easier to prepare a plan of attack when you can see the whole of your problem. The final result was a successful paring down of our kitchen inventory. If you’re having trouble uncluttering, try overwhelming yourself. It might be the incentive you need to let things go.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

What’s for dinner?

I think the question that every parent dreads is, “What’s for dinner?” But beyond creating a plan for the evening meal, you can save time and money by planning your entire menu. Menu planning will also help you achieve other goals such as eating healthier. Here are some tips to get you started.

Determine health requirements

Health requirements vary by individual. Size, age, and physical activity all factor into determining calorie requirements. Some people may prefer to consume all of their calories in three large meals per day. Others, especially children, may prefer to get up half of their daily calories in snacks between smaller-sized meals so it is important that these be healthy snacks.

Take a look at a healthy eating chart. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has links to food guides in many countries around the world. Many guides will provide nutritional information for infants, children, youths, pregnant and nursing women, etc.

Estimate how much everyone in your family needs to eat based on the food guide recommendations. For example, you may need to prepare five servings of fruits and vegetables per child but up to 10 servings per active teenager.

Note any dietary restrictions such as religious observances, allergies, or intolerances. (Download this interesting pdf explaining allergies, intolerances, and food labelling!) Many grocery stores are expanding their selections of allergen-free foods as well as Halal and Kosher foods.

If you have certain preferences make sure they are noted. Some children can be picky eaters and what they like or do not like can change on an almost daily basis but if there is anything that is a definite no-go, (I hate beets!) cross those recipes off your list.

Consider seeing a professional to help you get started. Your family health care plan may include a consultation with a nutritionist or dietitian. If so, take advantage of this to help plan your menu.

Go through your cookbooks

Browse through your cookbooks and pull out any recipes that your family loves. You may have meals that you prepare on a regular basis without recipes. If so, list out all the ingredients for those meals. Note any ingredients in any of the recipes you wish change. For example, you could add chopped carrots or celery to a spaghetti sauce or substitute milk for cream in a cheese sauce.

Do you want to try some new recipes? Go right ahead but ensure you give yourself lots of time to prepare that meal. I would also recommend that you only try one new recipe per week — just in case it turns out to be too much work to prepare or your family doesn’t like it. If the new recipe is a big success, feel free to incorporate it into your menu plan in the upcoming weeks.

Create a master grocery list

Make a master grocery list of all of the ingredients to all of the meals you have chosen including meals other than dinner. Remember to include snacks such as fresh fruit, granola bars, etc., and other foods not found within recipes (e.g., breakfast cereal).

I have found preparing a list in a spreadsheet helpful. Create one column for the food item, another for its category. You can then sort foods by their category. It will make it easier to do the grocery shopping.

Planning the plan

Check the calendar. Families have busy schedules so look at your calendar and decide which nights of the week you have time to cook. A 30-minute meal may be perfect for Wednesdays when you’ve got some time between getting home from work and taking the kids to music lessons. A crock-pot meal might be just the thing when you have a bit of extra time in the morning to throw ingredients into the slow cooker.

Choose recipes with common ingredients. Preparing several meals during the week that use the same ingredients will avoid wasted food. For example, you might want to prepare spaghetti sauce, stir-fry, and soup in the same week to use up the entire bunch of celery. An occasional Caesar cocktail/mocktail will help finish up those celery stalks too.

Prepare more than you need when you can. When you’re chopping fruit and vegetables for a meal, chop extra for lunches and snacks the next day. Cook twice as much and use it the next day. For example, bake extra chicken breasts to use in sandwiches or casseroles the next day. Cooking more than you need for dinner will allow you to use leftovers in lunches on the following day.

Time savers: Pre-cut fresh and frozen vegetables and packages of grated cheese might be a bit more expensive but they will save you meal preparation time. Use free time on the weekend to make soups, casseroles, or other freezer meals, slice and dice garlic and onions, and wash and chop lettuce and other salad ingredients.

ALWAYS have a back-up meal planned

Ensure you always have the ingredients for a 30-minute meal ready. This could be something as easy as mac and cheese or a store-bought frozen casserole. Because no matter how much you prepare, at some point, something will go wrong. You will come home from work to find the electricity was off and your crock-pot full of raw meat and vegetables has been sitting at room temperature all day or your casserole dish will explode sending shards of glass all over the oven. (Both have happened to me.)

If you have any meal planning tips, feel free to share them with readers in the comments section.

How many salad dressings are enough?

Salad DressingNot to pick on my mother or mother-in-law, but they both have an odd habit of collecting salad dressing in their refrigerators. The salad dressings may start out neatly lined up on the refrigerator’s door, but they somehow end up in the back of the main shelves never to see the light of day before they expire. With a quick inventory of my refrigerator, I count two dressings. For our family, that is reasonable. If you’d like the choice of six to ten dressings, go to a restaurant. Stocking your fridge full of dressing is overkill.

It doesn’t take a lot of time to do an inventory of your food supply. You may be a bit embarrassed when you find out how much you actually have in you fridge, but there is an easy way to curb your inventory. Stop buying more dressing. (Heck, make your own.) Before you head to the grocery store take stock of what you need and make a list. If you have more than one dressing per household occupant, then you most likely don’t need any more. So when you head out to buy groceries you may want to skip the salad dressing aisle.

I guess taking aim at salad dressings isn’t fair. I’m sure there are many condiments that can be purchased in over abundance. The main thing to take from this post is to make a shopping list when heading to the grocery store. Making a list and sticking to it will help curb your appetite for more food.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Simple solution for small packets in your kitchen pantry

Card FileHere’s a simple solution for packets of dry goods in your pantry: Store them together in an index card file.

I store packets of yeast in a 3×5 card file and larger packets of taco and stew seasonings in a 4×6 card file. These card files keep small packets from getting lost behind boxes of pasta and cereal and they make inventory simple when creating grocery lists.

An index card file is just a simple, inexpensive way to keep clutter at bay in your pantry!

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in October 2007.

Reader question: How to dispose of old knives

Recently, a reader wrote in with a question about disposing of old knives:

Most were cheap knives [with] handles that are in extremely poor shape. The blades don’t look all that great either. A charity would not want any of them for sure. What options are there for safely disposing them?

I’m sure this reader is not alone. Often times knives simply wear out their usefulness and get replaced. Of course, disposal is not as simple as tossing them into the trash. Here are some safe and effective options for safely disposing of unwanted knives.

First, check with your local recycling facility. Here in my neighborhood, it’s the town dump (or “transfer station” if you want to get technical). Often they accept metal including knives. There may be a fee involved, but it’s likely very small.

If recycling is not an option for whatever reason, and you’re not going to donate the knives, you can in fact throw in away, as long as you do some preparation first. Start by contacting the town or company that hauls your trash away, as they probably have guidelines for disposing of “sharps.” If you live in an area that requires you to take trash to the dump yourself, like I do, ask an attendant there for advice.

There are general safety guidelines to follow as well. Find a piece of cardboard that’s longer than the blade and fold it in half. Place the knife inside so that the blade is against the fold. Next, tape it down so that the cardboard won’t slip off.

You can also wrap it in newspaper — five or six sheets will do it — and then again in bubble wrap. Also consider dulling the blade a bit beforehand. The knives are ready for disposal.

I hope this was helpful. Again, my first hope is that you can recycle these knives. If not, contact whoever handles your trash for guidance, and then prepare the knives so that they’ll be safely handled. Good luck.

The inexpensive kitchen tools I love

Last week I saw this great post from Brett Terpstra, The best cheap stuff in my kitchen. In the course of teaching himself how to cook, Brett accumulated many tools, including “…inexpensive tools…that I’ve picked up either out of need or curiosity, and am repeatedly amazed at both how durable they are for the price, and how much they’ve helped make my kitchen life better.” The resulting list is a good one, and it has prompted me to look at the inexpensive and reliable kitchen tools that I love.

I’ve got a small kitchen so tools must earn their way in. As a result I’m very picky, and many would-be additions that don’t “pass the audition,” get the boot. One winner is an inexpensive cooling rack, much like this one from Wilton. I use it to cool baked goods, but also as a landing spot for almost anything that’s hot. When I’m not cooking, it doubles as a drying rack for glasses next to the sink.

Next, this great little colander from Oggi is a go-to item. The feet on the bottom make it nice and sturdy, the long handle keeps my hands away from hot water and steam and the hook on the end lets me hang it when not in use and rest over the edge of a sink when I need it to be out of the way. Finally, its small size lets me put it in a sauce pot for steaming veggies. It’s super versatile and I use it several times per week.

A good set of ramekins, like these from HIC are great multitaskers. They can hold chopped and measured ingredients when you’re working on your mise en place. They’re great for serving individual sauces or dips, holding spent tea bags and of course, you can bake in them.

I also have a microplane that I love dearly. It’s super for grating hard cheese and zesting citrus. I’ve even used it to grind nutmeg on occasion. It cleans up quickly and stores away easily.

I received the AccuSharp 001 Knife Sharpener as a Christmas gift, as I’m often complaining about dull knives. What I like like about the AccuSharp is that you don’t have to worry about holding the knife properly or maintaining the right angle. Just a few broad swipes and you’ve got a nice, sharp knife.

I’ll wrap this up the same way Brett ended his article, with a question to the readers. What else should I get? Any must-have kitchen tools I need to know about? Sound off.

What’s on your kitchen counters?

Earlier this week I was browsing the Unclutterer Forums when I found this thread: What’s on your kitchen counters? It’s a conversation that’s been going strong since 2012, with the latest contribution being published just a few days ago. Here are my thoughts.

Our kitchen is very small. Even after a major remodel in 2002, we’ve got precious little counter space. As such, we’ve had to be extremely selective about what earns its way onto the counter. Many products “audition” but few make the cut.

The first to go was the microwave. Yes, we’re a microwave-free household. Really, the stove/oven does everything the microwave manages, albeit more slowly. We can’t afford a huge bulky item that duplicates functionality. Instead, we’ve got a toaster oven.

We’ve got a few books in a bookshelf, a drainer for drying the dishes, and the mixer. Honestly, that’s it. Utensils live in a drawer and dishes, glasses, etc. live in cabinets.

Items that are used only occasionally are stored in the basement until they’re called into duty. This includes the slow cooker, blender, and big mixer. We just don’t use them often enough to warrant long-term storage in the kitchen itself.

Now I’ll ask you: what’s on your kitchen counters, and why? Does “size matter” or is function the deciding factor? Sound off, here or join the conversation on our forum.

Living with a small kitchen

Are you living in urban studio apartment with a galley kitchen or a dorm with a shared kitchenette? If so, this post is for you. Small kitchens can become very functional with just a few adjustments. I’m one who knows.

My family’s house has a small kitchen. When we first moved into the little summer cottage that would become our year-round home, the oven and refrigerator couldn’t be opened at the same time because the door of one would bang into the other. We’ve remodeled, but the space constraints are mostly the same. There is very little counter space, only a few cabinets, and we are a family of four. You can do the math on that one.

To make it work, we’ve had to prioritize about what we really need, efficiently store the items we keep, and eliminate anything we can live without. Here’s how we’ve made it work.

If the three most important things in real estate are location, location, location, the small kitchen mantra is prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. When storage and counter space are at a premium, every item must earn its right to be there. Go through your kitchen and decide if each item can stay or needs to go. Here’s an example.

We got rid of the microwave oven after realizing all that it really offers is convenience. That is to say, it doesn’t accomplish anything that the stovetop and oven can’t do. It’s quicker, but getting rid of it freed up a couple cubic feet of space. We’re years into living without it now, and haven’t missed it one bit.

Think about the bulky items in your kitchen such as the juicer, mixer, and coffee pot. (I know, nobody is going to give up a coffee pot!) Is there a smaller version? Can an item be eliminated entirely?

Once you’ve culled the bulky items, consider the “must haves.” These are the things you can’t do without, like utensils, cutlery, plates, pots, and pans. For each item on this list purge down to only what’s necessary.

Next, adopt a zero tolerance policy for unitaskers. There is no room in a small kitchen for the Jumbo Jerky Works Gun. Seriously though, these things take up space and almost never get used. Don’t just take our word for it. Celebrity chef Alton Brown breaks down exactly why there’s no room in your kitchen for these things.

Here are a few other suggestions for living with a small kitchen.

  1. Stack up, not out. Like me, you’ll probably have more vertical space than horizontal.
  2. Store items near where they are used.
  3. Find things that work with your space, not against it. For example, a magnetic knife mount is much more efficient than a knife block when counter space is at a premium.
  4. Clean as you go. This is probably the best tip of the bunch. There just isn’t room to make a big mess, so clean up as you work.

Here’s hoping this was helpful. Tiny kitchen life can be cozy and fun if you’re doing it right.

Kitchen tech and gadgets to help holiday cooking

November is upon us and soon the winter holidays will be here. In addition to the mountain of organizing that must be done, it’s time to begin planning for holiday meals. Yes, it’s work, but it’s also nice to cook for the people you love. Make the job a little easier with the following gadgets, each of which deserves a place in your kitchen.

I love using my tablet (in my case, an iPad) for recipes. It’s convenient and dare I say even a little fun? The only drawback is that it is an expensive electronic device that does not like fluids or other kitchen messes. The good news is that there are many covers and cases available to keep splatter away from your device, and my favorite is the combination of the inexpensive Arkon Folding Tablet Stand (for iPad Air, iPad mini, iPad and various Android tablets) plus a simple zip-to-seal bag.

Just place your tablet into the bag and rest it on the stand. The Arkon is well designed; nearly any tablet can rest on it, so you needn’t worry about compatibility. It really is useful.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for great recipes apps, click here for several recommendations.

knife sharpenerThe AccuSharp 001 might be the best handheld knife sharpener you’ll own. It’s such a far cry from the unwieldy honing steel we used when I was a kid. Simply run the AccuSharp over the knife blade a few times and it’ll be noticeably sharper. Plus it’s under ten dollars.

A few years ago I received a potato ricer as a gift. Today, it’s one of my favorite kitchen tools. I guess it’s a unitasker, in that all it does is mash potatoes, but the result is just fantastic. Plus, it’s kind of fun to use. I highly recommend it.

Finally, the Crock-Pot SCBAG Travel Bag is perfect for when you’re cooking and then traveling. If there’s a potluck in your future or if you’ve been asked to bring one thing to dinner, this will work wonderfully. It will hold a 4- to 7-quart oval-shaped slow cooker with ease.

Thanksgiving dinner (and other holiday meals) are easier to prepare when you’ve got the right tools in place. These goodies will serve you well. Happy cooking and enjoy the winter holidays.

Five household hacks to save you time and energy

When I was young, my friend Mike excelled at things that everyone else did marginally well. Like Hacky Sack, that little ball you’d kick once or twice before it went careening through the air. Mike was like a magician with that thing. Ditto juggling, Yo-yo tricks, all the stuff I thought was cool.

Today, I feel like Mike every time I use plastic wrap and while completing other assorted hacks around the house.

Plastic wrap tabs

I’m a calm guy normally, but using plastic wrap can make me homicidal. “We can put a man on the moon,” I’d say, waving the box around as if it were the very worst thing on the planet, “but we can’t design a usable box of plastic wrap.” You know the drill: draw out a length of plastic and the whole roll leaves the box, either as you’re pulling or when you attempt to tear it off.

A careful inspection of the box reveals the hidden solution. On each end of the long box, you’ll find a little perforated tab. These are the lock tabs. Push each one into the box, punching out the perforated edges, and they lock the roll into place. It’ll never leap out of the box again.

Laundry tag iconography: Solved

Take a look at this amazing chart from the American Cleaning Institute.

This thorough guide to fabric care symbols has helped me immensely. Many of the little icons convey their meaning instantly, but what the heck is a square surrounding a circle with three dots in the middle? Or a square with three black lines? I want to clean my shirt, not decipher cryptic code.

Print that out, laminate it if you wish, and hang it up near you laundry station.

Shoe tying

“I learned to tie my shoes when I was a kid. I know what I’m doing.” Well, maybe.

Unless you’re tying your shoe like Professor Shoelace, you might be taking way too long to tie your shoes:

The ghost’s toilet

A poltergeist is a “noisy ghost,” known for tossing objects around a room and making a general mess. But what about the ghost who likes to randomly flush the toilet?

The issue of a spontaneously flushing toilet isn’t supernatural in origin. What’s likely happening is that water is leaking from the tank into the bowl. When it reaches a certain level, the toilet flushes. You can fix this by replacing a part called the flapper for about five bucks.

Folding a fitted sheet

This last tip was as mind-blowing for me as the plastic wrap thing. For years, I “folded” a fitted bed sheet by crumpling it into a ball and then shoving it in a drawer, where no one could see that I had crumpled it into a ball. Turns out, that’s not the prettiest way to do it.

This great tip from Jill Cooper at Living on a Dime is perfect. Not only will you save storage space with a properly folded sheet, you’ll have an easier time finding the sheet you need.

As with the shoelaces, this one is better seen than described:

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.

Digital recipe organizing solutions to love

Elaine recently asked Unclutterer:

I have a specific need related to paper management — recipes. I’d like to take all the scraps of paper with notes about recipes I have in books, torn out newspaper clippings, torn out magazine clippings, recipes from the inside of product packaging (like recipes on the inside of the cream cheese box) and get them organized digitally. It needs to be searchable, which is why I haven’t just done some sort of scanning thing … what thoughts/recommendations do people have?

Elaine, I know this problem well. When I was a kid, my mother used what I called the “fly paper method” of organizing her recipe clippings. If you had opened any cabinet door in our kitchen, you would have found soup can labels, magazine pages, newspaper clippings, hand-written index cards, and more, all taped to the inside of the doors. While convenient in that they were all in the kitchen, searchability was a nightmare. There must be a better way. And, in fact, there are several. The following are some digital options to consider.

Paprika. I’m tempted to start and end my list right here, because the Paprika app is such a nice solution. First of all, it’s available on many platforms: Mac, iPhone, iPad, Android, Windows, Kindle Fire, and Nook Color. (Prices vary based on the platform, but it’s just a one-time cost of $4.99 for iPhone to give you an idea of what to expect.) Also, the features are fantastic. It syncs via the cloud, so all of your devices can hold the same information. Entering a recipe manually is easy, and you can download recipes you find online with a single tap. It will generate a shopping list for you, and even sort it by aisle in your grocery store. Finally, the interactive recipe feature allows you to swipe an ingredient to cross it off when you’re done with it, and tap to highlight the current step you’re working on in the recipe. I’m sure you’ll love it (I do). But, for the sake of options, let’s explore a few more.

Plan to Eat. Plan to Eat is an app that focuses on what you’ll cook when, but also stores your recipes and shares them across devices. To get started, you enter your recipes manually. Then, you plan you week’s meals by dragging and dropping the dishes you’d like to make onto a calendar. Plan to Eat then makes a shopping list for you that appears on your phone. Plan to Eat is free for 30 days, then $4.95 per month or $39 per year.

Basil for iPad. I’m not sure what device(s) you’re using, which is why I shared two platform-agnostic solutions so far. However, I’ll go out on a limb and say, if you have an iPad, consider Basil. Not only does it store your recipes beautifully and offer a very capable search function, Basil understands that you might not use it forever. Therefore, it lets you export all of your recipes as plain text. They’re your recipes, after all. It also features timers and easy unit conversion.

Evernote. Not meant specifically for recipes, Evernote is a good candidate because it excels at two things: storage and search. Scan a recipe, add the appropriate tags, and, presto, you’ve got an excellent digital recipe book.