February Organization Challenge

The 2011 Organization Challenge is in full swing at my house!  I think I did pretty well in January. I am happy to say that I have completed a major project and have begun two new ones.  (I was never good at math…)  I am grateful for your comments of support and I’ve decided to post personal updates more frequently (I’m hoping for weekly updates, but not promising…) for those of you who may be interested in how things are progressing in my neck of the woods.  I won’t be sending those updates by email, but they will appear on the “Articles” page of the website.  Any comments or helpful hints you would like to post  will be greatly appreciated!  So here is my January update… During Week 1, I cleaned out my old planner and organized it so it was ready for use.  I also set some goals, but we had an out-of-town guest so I wasn't able to finish the list.  I haven’t gotten around to that yet, but I’m hoping to have some time this weekend.  Week 2 was easy because I already had a schedule that needed only minor adjustments.  Actually, I plan to make a few more minor adjustments for next week.  I spent Week 3 recording birthdays and other events in my calendar.  It’s been great to have them all in one place.  And Week 4, well it was a challenge.  I tried to use one to-do list for the entire week, but I found that didn’t work so well.  I am now trying a daily list with a 5 item per day limit—besides my daily work.  Overall I was more productive, but not as focused as I would  like.

The February Challenge It’s been said, “The kitchen is the heart of the home.”  The focus this month is bringing order to the kitchen and our food responsibilities including planning meals, making a grocery list, and preparing meals.  Food requires us to make so many decisions throughout the week—what to buy, which brand, what size, where to store it, how to fix it, when to have it.  My goal this month is to organize and clean my kitchen and to simplify my experiences with food—aggressive goals, I’ll admit.  Let’s get started!

Week 1:  Collect Recipes and Organize the Pantry Collect Recipes Begin this week by gathering all of your unbound recipes—magazine and newspaper clippings, 3x5 cards, or typed pages.  Gathering recipes may seem like a waste of time, but truly it will save time in the long run.  When you need a recipe it will be at your fingertips.   Here are two options for storing your recipe collection, listed from simple to more time-consuming: OPTION #1:  Purchase a three-ring binder (with an inside pocket) and 3-ring pocket folders or dividers.  Sort your recipes into piles based on regular cookbook divisions.  Label the folders and put the proper recipes in each folder.  Be sure to return the recipes to the proper folder after each use. OPTION #2:  Make your own family cookbook.  Purchase a 3-ring binder, page protectors, and dividers—I think the plastic pocket dividers work best.  (I keep all published recipes in the folder pockets or print them directly from the website.)  Make a recipe template and enter each recipe on a separate page; combine two shorter recipes that are in the same division.  Print the recipes on cardstock and slide them into the page protectors.  I suppose you could hole-punch the recipe pages, but the page protector protects the recipe from food drippings.

Four years ago I started our family cookbook as a present for our oldest daughter.  I’ve made several cookbooks for family and friends, adding new recipes each time.  And since I have digital copies of my favorite recipes, I am able to print them or email them to friends.   Yes, it does take time, but it is worth it.

NOTE:  Be sure to copy only recipes that are not already published.  Electronic storage of copyrighted recipes is illegal.

Organize the Pantry Next, we tackle the pantry or the cabinets where you store your food.  I feel very blessed to have a pantry, but the process is the same for those who don’t.  First, take everything out of the pantry and wash each shelf.  Then, start by grouping like things together.  Here’s a tour of my pantry just after I organized it in January.  A little personal, but maybe it will spark some organizational ideas.

The top left shelf is for my coffee maker and the large stock pot to make my Grandma’s Chicken Corn Soup.  The top right shelf is for paper products.  I discovered that sometimes Styrofoam rained down on my head, so I put my disposable plates, cups, napkins, and silverware in a box.  I don’t have to worry about reaching to the very back of the shelf, either.

The second shelf on the left is for my vinegars, molasses, and a few things don’t use very often, in addition to “extras” that I buy for something that is just about to run out.  It’s much easier to make a grocery list when you know what you have.   The second shelf on the right is for pasta and rice.  Since the bags sometimes got lost in between things, I put the rice in plastic storage containers and taped the instructions on the back of the container.  You can't really see them, but they are behind the large bag of noodles.

The third shelf on the left is for larger containers of oil and honey.  The third shelf on the right is for all of my canned goods organized so I can find them easily:  starting at the far right, tomatoes and tomato products, then beans and other veggies, then canned meats in the back and fruits in the front, and finally soups and pumpkin when it’s in season.

The fourth shelf on the left and right is for my baking supplies:  oatmeal, shortening, and on one side and sucanat, honey crystals, lecithin, and gluten on the other.  (Yeah, I’m trying to get away from using shortening, but the White Chocolate Macadamia Nut Cookies just don’t turn out the same.)

The fifth and bottom shelf on the left is for cereal.  We kept the cereal on the lower shelf so the kids could get out and put away the cereal when they were younger.  Notice we have a large container to store cereal that we purchase in bulk in bags.  It’s so much easier for storage and for the kids to use.  On the right side I have some canisters that previously held white sugar and white flour--we still use them sometimes, but not every month.  I'm planning to make some changes to that shelf this week.

The drawers under the shelves give extra room for smaller things that don’t store neatly.  The set on the left is for coffee and baking supplies such as nuts, chocolate chips, and sugars.  The set on the right is for envelope mixes, potatoes, onions, tea bags, and grocery bags to recycle.

The shelves on the door were an idea I borrowed from a friend.  The left side door has large spice containers on the top two shelves and the bottom two are for smaller boxes or bags of whatever we have—raisins, craisins, croutons, cornbread mix, The right side door has more baking supplies like salt, baking powder, baking soda, vanilla, on the top shelves and pudding on the bottom shelf.

In case you’re wondering, the rest of my spices are in a cabinet near my stove and my plastic wrap and foil are in a drawer.

Take a good look at your space (and your budget) and decide if you could make better use of your space by investing in some shelving or other organization tool.  I find that I save money when my pantry is more organized.  I don’t buy duplicates of food I already have, I am able to see and use what's available, and I’m more content to cook and eat at home because I haven’t spent a lot of time searching for the ingredients.

Week 2:  Planning a Weekly Menu and Making a Weekly Grocery List Planning a Weekly Menu Planning a weekly menu may seem unnecessary, but it will save you time and money.  It will save time spent standing in front of the panty or refrigerator hoping that meals will throw themselves together like Ezekiel’s dry bones.  It will save money because you will purchase ingredients for specific recipes and not merely items that look good.  Yes, it still takes time to make a weekly menu, but the time is well spent.

Make a divider in your planner/household notebook for Menu Planning.  Make your own form or use this combo form for menu planning and as a grocery list.

Here are some suggestions to help you make a weekly menu plan. OPTION #1: Pre-Planned Menu When I was making a gift purchase at Dave Ramsey’s website, I noticed an advertisement for E-Mealz, a business founded by two moms who create a weekly budget-friendly dinner menu and the accompanying grocery lists for regular, low fat, low carb, and gluten free menus based on the grocery store where you shop. The cost is $15 for 3 month subscription, billed quarterly.

A few weeks ago I took the plunge and subscribed for the next three months.  I logged into my account and printed the menu and the grocery list.  Menu done.  Grocery list done.  That was nice.  So far our family has really liked most of the recipes—an amazing feat for girls who are more “selective.”I can’t recommend it yet, since I've used it for only two weeks.  I’ll let you know how it works after I’ve used it for at least a month.  For those who might be interested, you can check it out here: E-MEALZ Easy Meals for Busy and Frugal Families.  To be fair, I want you to know that if you sign up from the link, I’ll receive some sort of credit.  I’m not even sure how that works.  Like I said before, I haven’t used it long enough to strongly recommend it but it is an option.

OPTION #2:  Freezer Cooking About 10 years ago, I was a desperate homeschool mom.  With two toddlers and two in elementary school, I found it difficult to get a decent meal on the table.  While shopping at a homeschool curriculum fair I purchased a freezer cookbook from 30 Day Gourmet, a combination recipe and instruction book of how to cook once a month and freeze all the meals.  I knew I could never do the “once-a-month” cooking, but the thought of having meals in the freezer was very intriguing. (I do not have a freezer, but I do have an extra frig in the garage.)  The recipes were simple, didn’t include too many or exotic ingredients, and seemed family-friendly.  True enough, the family did like the recipes and I liked the idea of having a homecooked meal on even the busiest of day.  Today my freezer cooking goes in spurts.  Here are two ways I’ve used the cookbook.

Big Cooking Day

  1. Purchase a cookbook or peruse some recipes from 30 Day Gourmet.
  2. Choose 3-4 recipes and choose how many of each you plan to make.
  3. Make a grocery list based on your recipes and the number of dishes.  Don’t forget to include metal pans or Ziploc bags to other containers you’ll need for freezing.  I think about the large roll of ground beef and figure out how much I can make using the entire roll or I consider how many dishes I can make from the large bag of frozen chicken.
  4. Choose a cooking day—at least 6 hours.  I find it easiest to have a “beef day” and a “chicken day”.  For instance, I brown a lot of meat at one time or I may make several meat loaves.   It’s similar on chicken day when I boil and shred a huge quantity of chicken.
  5. Assemble your meals in the proper container.  Whenever possible, I use Ziploc freezer bags.  They’re easy to label and I can fit many flat bags in my regular freezer.
  6. Be sure to label your meal—what it is and when you made it.  If you’re like me, you think you’ll remember, but then several dishes have tomato sauce and chicken and you’re not certain how long that bag has been in the freezer…
  7. Enjoy your frozen meals.  Most meals can be taken out of the freezer in the morning or be baked from the frozen stage.

Slow Start Up

  1. Purchase a cookbook or peruse some recipes from 30 Day Gourmet
  2. Plan your meals for the week.  Choose 2 frozen meal recipes for each week and  make 2 batches of each.
  3. Make a grocery list based on your recipes and the number of dishes.  Don’t forget to include metal pans or Ziploc bags to other containers you’ll need for freezing.
  4. On the day you plan to have your frozen meal, make two batches of the meals—one to eat for dinner and one to freeze.
  5. Assemble your meal in the proper container.  Whenever possible, I use Ziploc freezer bags.  They’re easy to label and I can fit many flat bags in my regular freezer.
  6. Be sure to label your meal—what it is and when you made it.
  7. After several weeks, you’ll have a collection of several frozen meals that you can choose from on the days you are unable to cook.

OPTION #3:  Consider the Crockpot My crock pot is my friend.  My mother never used a crock pot for her family of 5, but I’m not sure why.  It is  a convenient way to have a warm meal ready when you don’t have time to cook.   My biggest issue is that I only have a few good crock pot recipes that our family likes, but those few regularly find their way into our winter menu plan.

Planning a Weekly Grocery List Once you have a weekly menu, it is simple to review each recipe for ingredients you’ll need.  Record what you need on the grocery list portion of the menu planning form.  Also, when you run out of something during the week, add it to the grocery list.  I’ve taught my kids to do this, too.

Shop once a week for groceries.  When you start with a list and stick with the list, you save the money you would've spent on snacks and ingredients for recipes you think you might make.  Once-a-week shopping  also keeps you out of the grocery store for the rest of the week, which saves even more.

Week 3:  Clean the Appliances Appliances work so hard for us and they get little thanks or attention.  This week, choose to spruce up one appliance each day.  I realize that many of you may not need specific instructions, but I included them for those who haven’t been taught.  There may be a better way; I’m only relaying what I’ve been taught.  I am also planning for my daughters to help so I can pass on the knowledge.

The order you clean the appliances doesn’t matter, but it would be logical to save the bigger jobs for the days that you aren’t as busy—if there is one of those days in your week.  Since you’re inspecting these work-horses so closely, you may also want to make a page in your notebook for a “to do” list of things that need to be repaired or parts that need to be replaced.

Monday—Clean the stove Remove the drip pans and soak them in a sink of hot water.  Raise the cook top and clean under the burners.  Use water and vinegar or some other grease-cutting cleaner for the cook top and back splash of traditional stoves.   Use an approved non-abrasive cleaner for ceramic cook top surfaces.  For years I didn't realize that the knobs on the back of the stove could be removed for easier cleaning.  Remove all knobs, clean the surface and the knobs, and then replace the knobs.  Use steel wool to make the soaking drip pans sparkle like new or purchase new ones if they’re too far gone.  Lastly, replace the drip pans.

Tuesday—Clean the dishwasher Start on the inside and empty any food from the trap.  Wipe down the inside walls and the inside of the door, giving special attention to the sides that tend to collect food as the dishes are loaded.  Protect your dishes from rusted racks.  Consider replacing the rack or purchasing small caps to put on the tips of the rack.  (BTW, white duct tape doesn’t work.)  We searched online and found a new rack for a reasonable price.  Lastly, finish by shining the outside of the door and all knobs.

If you don’t have a dishwasher and you ARE the dishwasher, take a bubble bath and clean the dishwasher.

Wednesday—Clean the sink and garbage disposal For a porcelain sink, use a non-abrasive stovetop cleaner or an abrasive cleaner with bleach for an older sink.  To clean a stainless steel sink, use aluminum cleaner or a non-abrasive cleaner.  Clean the garbage disposal with frozen lemon juice ice cubes or disposal a lemon cut into fourths.

Thursday—Clean the microwave and any appliances on your counters Fill a mug with water and bring to a boil—about 2 mins. on high.  This will loosen any baked on dirt.  Remove the glass bottom; wash and dry.  Using a dish detergent solution, wipe down the top, both sides and the bottom.  For grease, use a solution of vinegar, water and a little ammonia.  Replace the glass bottom.  Clean every outside panel of the microwave.

Clean the appliances on your counters such as toaster, toaster oven, coffee maker, food processor, bread machine etc.  Wash the components and then wipe down the outsides of the appliances.

Friday—Clean the refrigerator and freezer Prepare a bowl of warm water and a small amount of dish detergent.  (Most manufacturers recommend NOT using a stronger cleaner.)  Starting with the top shelf, take everything off the shelf and use a wash cloth to wash the shelf with the warm water mixture.  Replace the items that are still good and move to the next shelf down.  Continue the same process with each shelf, working your way down to the drawers.  Remove the drawers and wash them in the sink with dish detergent, and rinse well.  Clean the space under the drawers and then replace the drawers.

Next, clean the door.  Open the door and start with the seal on the top of the door, removing crumbs and dirt.  Remove everything from the top shelf and wipe down the door and shelf like you would a chalkboard.  Check expiration dates before you replace the items.  Use the same process for remaining shelves.

For the freezer, use a bowl of warm water and a small amount of dish detergent.  Take everything out of the freezer.  Remove the grate, if you can, and clean it with the dish detergent solution.  Wipe down the top of the freezer, each side, and the bottom, rinsing your dish cloth often.   Restock only those frozen foods that are still edible.

Next, clean the freezer door.  Start with the seal on the top of the door, removing crumbs and dirt.  Remove everything from the top shelf and wipe down the door and shelves like you would a chalkboard.

Finally, clean every panel of the outside of the frig, including the top.  For textured handles, use a nylon scrubber to remove dirt in the cracks.  Remove the grate/vent from the bottom; wash with dish detergent solution.  Replace the grate and smile at the shining piece of beauty.

Saturday—Clean the oven Clean your oven according to manufacturer’s instructions.  Be sure to remove the racks and clean them separately.

Sunday—Rest! Even God rested on the seventh day!

Week 4:  Clean Cabinets and Drawers Each day this week, clean 2 cabinets and 1 drawer (or clean them all in an afternoon and get it over with!).  Take everything out of the cabinets or drawers.  Clean the bottom of the cabinet, the shelves, and the inside of the door using your cleaner of choice.  Replace only the items that you need.  (See the checklist below to help you decide.)  Clean the outside door of the cabinet or drawer and the handle.

Helpful Hints: Group similar items in the same cabinet or drawer. Don’t be afraid to move contents of drawers or cabinets to a more convenient location. Consider moving dishes to lower cabinets so children can unload the dishwasher. Store Christmas and other holiday dishes in a high or hard to reach cabinet to make better use of the reachable cabinets. Eliminate any gadgets, dishes, pots or pans that you don’t use. Eliminate mismatched dishes. Match plastic storage containers—discard  orphan containers or lids Donate gently used dishes to a newlywed couple or your church kitchen.