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.

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 StillTasty.com

The website StillTasty.com 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 FoodSafety.gov to find out which foods have been recalled.

Unitasker Wednesday: Onion goggles

Say goodbye to the dreaded vapors (syn-propanethial-S-oxide) that make your eyes water when you are cutting onions. The first time I encountered this phenomenon was as a small child watching my grandmother work in her kitchen. She was tearing up and I asked her why she was crying. She explained the reason behind her onion tears and I learned a valuable lesson. That lesson? Always wear protective goggles while cutting onions.

Yes, my grandmother could have avoided the toll onions took on her tear ducts by investing in some Onion Goggles, but I’m pretty sure these are fairly new, so she never had a chance to use them. Poor grammy. Fortunately for you, now you have the chance to overcome this obstacle in onion slicing. Don’t let your eyes tear up uncontrollably again! Take control of the situation and slip on some Onion Goggles.

Thanks to reader Katy for bringing this unitasker to our attention. 

**Each week, the Unitasker Wednesday column humorously pokes fun at the unnecessary, single-use items that manage to find their way into our homes.

Unitasker Wednesday: 2-liter pour thing

Lifting a 2-liter bottle is SO DIFFICULT! Thankfully, I have found the 2-Liter Pour Thing.

Okay, so I realize that this may come in handy for someone with a physical handicap, but who else might invest in this contraption? Maybe you feel the need to buy this for your children to effortlessly pour their own soft drink? Just be willing to accept the consequences of a caffeinated child bouncing off the walls. From the “Why We Love It” section of the Solutions site:

No need to haul a beverage container to the counter when you want a drink – keep a bottle in the Pour Thing and store it right in the fridge! Or set it on the table during a meal so your family can help themselves.

Meal time will be much simpler when you invest in the Pour Thing!

Thanks to reader Shruti for bringing this unitasker to our attention.

**Each week, the Unitasker Wednesday column humorously pokes fun at the unnecessary, single-use items that manage to find their way into our homes.

Unitasker Wednesday: The Ultimate Professional Drink Maker

What does one do when a craving strikes for a delicious slushy or smoothie? You can head over to your favorite smoothie joint and partake in their wide variety of flavors or you can invest in the Ultimate Professional Drink Maker. That’s right, now you can have your very own icy concoction 24/7. No need to travel out of your home to enjoy that fruity sensation. You also can use it to make some alcoholic drinks in the form of a tasty margarita or daiquiri.

So what is the catch? C’mon, you knew there had to be a catch. First off, the size of this unit is not very small. Weighing in at 55 pounds and measuring 13″ x 17″ x 30″, it has a pretty hefty footprint. The other catch is the price tag. It will set you back $2000. You must really like your homemade smoothies to own this monster!

Thanks to reader Samir for bringing this unitasker to our attention.

**Each week, the Unitasker Wednesday column humorously pokes fun at the unnecessary, single-use items that manage to find their way into our homes.

Unitasker Wednesday: Microwavable S’Mores Maker

Summertime is the right time to sit around a campfire and eat S’mores. I’m not a huge fan, I’m quite happy with a solitary marshmallow, but now you S’mores fans can have them regardless if you are near a campfire or not. The Progressive International Microwavable S’Mores Maker lets you enjoy a S’more whenever the mood strikes you. What more can you ask for? S’mores on demand is quite the incredible luxury. Forget summer cookouts, enjoy these bad boys in January! From the product description:

It is easy to make smores at home using the Microwave S’mores Maker from Progressive. Just fill the base with water, stack your smores, lower the arms, and microwave for approximately 30 seconds. The graham crackers, marshmallows, and chocolate will heat quickly and evenly while the arms hold everything in place. It’s great fun for kids and adults alike.

Have any of you ever put marshmallows in the microwave for 30 seconds and then tried to eat them? If you have, then you know that if you wait more than a minute for them to cool, they turn into rocks. Yummy, teeth-breaking, sugar rocks. Enjoy!

(Thanks to reader Christine for sending us this suggestion.)

**Each week, the Unitasker Wednesday column humorously pokes fun at the unnecessary, single-use items that manage to find their way into our homes.

Unitasker Wednesday: Peanut butter and jelly spreader

How long has the human race been using a plain old butter knife to spread peanut butter and jelly on bread? I’m not sure, but the time has come to make the switch to the Peanut Butter and Jelly Spreader.

This breakthrough in spreading technology cannot be overlooked. It is two sided and color coded for easy, no-nonsense, sandwich making. The old days of making a PB&J sandwich with a butter knife are past. Spreading peanut butter and jelly with the same utensil is totally uncool. No more accidents transferring some jelly into the peanut butter jar and vice versa. Such messiness would no doubt ruin both jars! Do yourself and your children a favor and invest in this spreader. Please, think of the children!

**Each week, the Unitasker Wednesday column humorously pokes fun at the unnecessary, single-use items that manage to find their way into our homes.

G&S Design Compactables

Collapsible, or in this case “compactable,” is always a nice feature to have when looking for kitchen tools. G&S Design has a nice selection of common kitchen tools that compact down into a more convenient size that makes storing them a little easier.

First up, are the Compactable Steel Tongs (pictured). Traditional tongs want to spread their arms in an attempt to keep drawers open and be as cumbersome as possible. These tongs, however, collapse neatly into a compact position and don’t make things messy.

The Compactable Pizza Cutter is a smaller alternative to the usual ridiculously large restaurant-style pizza cutter.

The Compactable Can Opener collapses down to a very small 5″ x 2.75″. Other devices in the G&S Compactable line include:

I hope you like blue, because that’s the only color offered right now.

Unitasker Wednesday: The egg cracker

I used to have a difficult time cracking an egg and not including at least a couple of pieces of shell in the egg as it dropped into the bowl … and then I turned 10.

Seriously, cracking an egg is not difficult. Unless you don’t have hands or have severe arthritis, there is no need for a gadget like this to take up drawer space in your kitchen. The makers of the Egg Cracker wouldn’t agree with me. So, I guess, thank goodness it is dishwasher safe.

If I had one of these, I’d find that it fit nicely in a drawer next to a butter cutter, mango splitter, and the pickle picker.

**Unitasker Wednesday posts humorously poke fun at the single-use items that manage to find their way into our homes.