Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Tip #16: Fresh New Year, Fresh Start for Your Kitchen

Ahhh, the first week of the New Year. A time of hope, of new resolutions, of valiant efforts at self-improvement and turning over a new leaf.

Despite our best intentions, sometimes those efforts are short-lived, especially once the reality of what it takes to accomplish that resolution sets in ("You mean you have to go to the gym regularly to see results?!"). This is part of why I prefer setting goals over resolutions: far less negative connotation surrounding the word and concept, and a lot more room for positivity and improvement.

But there are some goals and resolutions you can stick to if you start with a clean slate. One of the most popular resolutions people set at the beginning of the year is to be more organized. Lord knows I'm one of these innocents who thinks that I will instantly become Goddess of Organization once the clock strikes midnight on January 1st. And I delude myself even further into thinking I'll stay that way the entire year, which is sad but kind of adorable.

I realized that part of why I don't succeed at this is because I don't start off with the aforementioned clean slate. Turns out that you really do need to do the purging before you can do the organizing (HA! Go figure, lol). I try doing both at once, end up frustrated and lose interest. Some years, I do get a head start on things by throwing a cleaning party for myself on New Year's Eve. I get dolled up as if I was going out, turn on some good tunes, and scrub my little home until it's sparkling clean. It's a wonderful to wake up on New Year's Day to a clean, organized place.

But even that doesn't involve the Grand Purging of ALL the Things, which is what I'm going for this year. And since I know I'm not the only one who strives for a neater home and more streamlined methods to keep up that New Year Clean feeling year round, I thought we could go on this little journey together. At least when it comes to the kitchen.


Before I launch into my list of things to tackle, there's another big reason for doing this, and why the kitchen purge is the one end of year purge-fest I do religiously: I get to go on way better shopping trips. If you've been following me for awhile, you know all about my $25 Shopping Carts and their central tenet: building around your current inventory, rather than making a list of things you think you might need. When you're working with a clean and current refrigerator, freezer, and pantry, you can easily take stock of what you have and what needs to be purchased.

All that being said, here are a few things to get you started on the path to kitchen wellness. They're not set in stone, and you're more than welcome to apply ideas and methods that work for your space and your family, too. But these are good, general tips to get you started, and hopefully give you a renewed sense of control and purpose when it comes to cooking.

Step 1: Clean Out the Freezer

I like to take care of the freezer before the fridge because I use my freezer for a lot of storage. I like to keep bags of cooked rice, quinoa, and beans for easy meal prep; cubes of chicken or veggie broth for making chilis, soups, and sauces; and pre-chopped veggies and fruits for stir-fry dishes, stews, smoothies and more.

All that requires room, and even if my freezer is relatively small and I have a general idea of what's in there, sometimes it's easy to forget what's way in the back or hiding in mysterious foil packets. So, it's good to give the freezer the old once-over every few weeks.

Anything that's obviously freezer burned and old can get tossed. Yes, freezing things prolongs their life, but that doesn't mean you can keep food in there indefinitely. This chart offers a great overview of what you can freeze, and for how long.

Another thing I like to do when it comes to the freezer is to label everything. The food I prep for later use is stored in either ziploc bags or storage containers, and I label everything with what it is and the date it was stored. This way I'm not rummaging through fogged over bags when I just want to start cooking. Once everything is labeled, I organize things with the more recent items in the back, older items in the front. This way I'm using them in the order they were purchased or prepared. It's the whole FIFO (First In, First Out) restaurant mentality. And if it's good enough for restaurant kitchens, it's good enough for my nano-kitchen.

Lastly, if there are any veggies and meat that could be used sooner rather than later, set them aside to make a good soup or chili. It clears up some space for new items, or for storing the leftovers of said soup or chili for future meals. BONUS: You don't have to plan dinner.

Okay, time to move on to the fridge.

Step 2: Clean Out the Fridge

I'll admit that this is a daunting, tedious chore for many of us. But it's the kind of task that, once accomplished, makes you pat yourself on the back and give yourself a gold star AND a cookie, because who doesn't love seeing a beautifully clean, organized refrigerator?

I won't go into a step-by-step of how you should clean your fridge, because we all have our favorite methods for that sort of thing. But I will give you some things to keep in mind while you're cleaning, so that you can add them to your process.

Start by tackling the things that you know just have to go immediately. Don't feel ashamed - forgotten food happens to everyone, and can yield some messy results. Trash the culprits and clean up any associated messes. Ahhhhh... Already, you start feeling a sense of peace and accomplishment (at least I do once I've gotten that far).

Next, address the condiment issue. It's easy for multiple bottles and jars of the same thing to end up in the fridge door or shelves, taking up valuable space and serving no one. Check the dates on each; if it's time for it to go, toss it. If the condiment still has plenty of life left but you have multiple containers of it, try consolidating what you can into a single container. If you still have a little leftover, transfer the remaining condiment into a smaller container. For example, let's say you have about 1/4 cup of mayonnaise left in the jar. Instead of keeping that big ol' jar, move that 1/4 cup of mayo into a small glass container that takes way less space, and toss or repurpose the larger jar.

Moving on to the fruits and veggies, if there's anything that should be gone and you haven't already tossed, get rid of it. If you have usable veggie scraps, chop them up and store them in zippered bags or small containers, and either freeze or store in the fridge for your next meal. If there isn't quite enough to process that way, but still too much veggie to waste, set them aside to make a delicious vegetable broth. Check out this guest post that Andrew from Eating Rules did for me several years ago for a simple, tasty veggie stock that has become a household staple.

Since you're already there, you can rinse and dry any greens you have, and store them in fresh bags. A paper towel or two lining the bag will help with any excess moisture, keeping your greens fresh and crisp for longer than they would if left in their regular produce section bags.

I cannot stress the importance of the last two paragraphs enough. It's easy to end up with bits and pieces of vegetables and fruits in your fridge and not know what to do with them. If you reach that point, even if you're not doing the big kitchen purge, process them for later use. And by "process" I really mean just chopping and storing. You'll use up all of your produce instead of wasting it, and the bit of time spent in prepping will save you both time and money in the long run. I know it's convenient to buy produce that is already peeled and chopped for you, and sometimes I buy it too. But a lot of it costs so much more than the whole ingredient, and you're not always getting the freshest product. If you can spare some chopping time whilst binge watching your latest Netflix obsession, you're in for easier meal prep on those days when you literally can't even (as the kids say).

Got eggs? As always, check the date to see if they need to be tossed or used immediately. Remember the date on egg cartons is usually a sell by vs. use by date, so there's no need to toss them if it's just a day or two past the printed date. If it's been a week or so past the date, give them the old water in a bowl test: fill a large bowl with cold water and carefully submerge the eggs. If they stay flat at the bottom, the're fine to eat and can be kept for a few more days; if they stand up one one end but still hang out at the bottom of the bowl, they're still okay, but should be eaten or processed right away; and if they rise to the top, they're no good.

My general rule of thumb for the eggs that can still hang out is to hard boil them. Hard boiled eggs are a wonderful, protein-rich snack that can usually nix my hunger pangs until I'm ready to have an actual meal. I also use them in salads like my Super Simple Egg White & Veggie Salad, or make deviled eggs when I have a craving. Even better than regular hard boiled eggs is pickled eggs, so if you want to take things to the next level, I highly suggest pickling them. I'll be posting my pickled egg recipe in the next several weeks, so stay tuned if you need some inspiration for that.

As with the freezer, use the organization method that works for you, but add FIFO. Newer items in back, older items in front so that they're used first. It not only makes sense, it helps reduce senseless waste.

Now, take a break, have a drink of water, and get ready for the dry goods.

Step 3: Clean Out the Cupboards/Pantry

This one's a doozy, and may require a glass of wine and not just water to get you through, but I have faith in you. I have faith in us. We can do this!

Herbs & Spices:
As usual, check the dates! Depending on how often you use them, it's easy to forget about certain herbs and spices. Over time, they lose their potency, so while they may not be "bad" per se, they won't offer the same aromas and flavors they normally would. While there are several conflicting articles about how long spices last, generally the whole ones can be kept for about a year or two, and ground ones between 6 months to a year. Don't feel like you have to toss anything that's 6 months old; you can still use those older spices. Just know that you'll have to use a little more than the recipe calls for to get the same result. Of course, anything older than a year or two should probably be replaced.

Like with the refrigerated condiments, if you have dried herbs or spices that are around the same age but in multiple containers, try to consolidate them into a single container. You can use the original container or your own bottles or jars. Have fun with labeling them, and this year, let's include the date we stored them, so that we know when they need to be replaced.

Once everything has been reorganized, take stock, and either build or rebuild your spice pantry. Tip #2 from 150 years ago (okay, just 10) is a good starting point. It also needs to be updated, so I'm adding that to my list for this year.

Dry Goods (a.k.a. Bare Bones Staples)
It can be tricky to divine the age of things like beans and grains if you buy in bulk like I do. The beauty of buying in bulk if you're a single person is that you can buy what you need, so I don't run into this problem frequently. However, if you're finding things on the very top shelf that you had no idea you had, it's probably a good idea to let those items go. Anything that's more recent can go into labeled containers.

Canned and boxed goods usually have expiration or use-by dates, so you can check those to determine what you can keep and what you should toss. If you have multiples of the same item, and don't have a large family or the use for duplicates, set those aside and donate them to your local food bank. Donations don't have to be a holiday-only thing, and by this time many food banks are starting to run low because of what they gave to the needy over the holiday season. Donating your usable non-perishables not only clears space in your pantry, but it helps those who need it. Definitely a win-win.

As with the herbs and spices, once you have cleared, consolidated, and reorganized, you can rebuild your Bare Bones Staples stash or try new ones. Tip #3 will help you get started.

Step 4: Take Inventory

Huzzah! You've cleared everything out, prepped and stored, set aside donations, and cleaned up. Doesn't that feel good? But there's one last thing that I like to do which I hope will inspire you to do the same, because it just makes good sense: take inventory.

As I mentioned earlier, the reason why I can do $25 Shopping Carts even 10 years later and still come out with a decent haul from most stores is because I go in with my reverse shopping list. Which is just a long-winded way of saying inventory. Yes, I do still make regular shopping lists of things I need or want, but I generally leave those for big shopping trips when I know my budget is more flexible.

When it comes to those two weeks post-paying rent and I have to tighten the purse strings, I always go in with a running tally of what I have at home. It gives me a better idea what I can purchase to supplement what's at home to last me until the good paycheck. Lots of Bare Bones staples but not enough veggies or other protein sources? I focus on buying the veggies, because I know I already have the grains and legumes at home. More chicken and produce than Bare Bones staples (which is rare, but it does happen)? I ignore those sections of the grocery store and stock up on quinoa, rice, farro, and all the beans I can find. It takes a while to switch to that method of food shopping, but I promise that it will save you both time and money when you need it most.

~~~

A final note: If you can't do this all in one day, DON'T. I'm putting this reminder in here for both you and me, because I get frustrated when I can't make everything perfect in one sitting. This is part of why I broke everything up in to sections - if you can only tackle one section at a time, that's perfectly fine! You can check that task off your list and move onto the next one when you're ready. 

I hope this gets your engines running so you can start 2018 with clear cupboards and a sparkling fridge! If there are any tips that you'd like to share that can help keep us all organized in the best room of any house, please post them in the comments. I learn just as much from you fine folks as you do from me.

Happy organizing!

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