Does your stuff have a spot where it ‘belongs’ – the ‘right place’ and, if so, do others in your household agree with that?
I returned a couple of days ago after going out of town with my family. Like many of you, we’ve been staying at home for the past three-plus months. The walls of our house were starting to look WAY too familiar. We really wanted to look at some new walls – or, better yet, no walls – while still being safe. It’s hotter than blazes in North Texas this time of year, which makes outdoor activities pretty miserable. So, we drove west to beautiful Breckenridge, Colorado. For a week, we enjoyed social distancing, hiking, eating outdoors, and sleeping with the windows open in beautiful 60 to 70-degree weather.
To maximize the safety of our getaway, we rented a furnished condo while we were there. As a professional organizer, I spend most of my working hours in other people’s homes or offices. It’s part of my job to look in their closets and open their drawers and cabinets to evaluate their organizational systems. Even in a non-professional capacity, I still notice how people set up their spaces (although I hope it goes without saying that I would NEVER peek inside cabinets uninvited). It’s always fascinating to me to see the many ways that ‘organized’ manifests itself.
Can There Be More Than One ‘Right Place’?
Obviously, in the case of our vacation rental, it was difficult to tell what reflected the homeowners’ preferences vs. how much was the result of a series of guests putting things away after use. Every time I opened a drawer or a cabinet, I found myself looking at what was in there and wondering at the decision process that led to those things ending up in that spot. Most of the time, I could easily follow along but, every once in a while, I found myself really scratching my head.
For instance, on our first morning, I woke up early to 50-degree weather, so I decided to make myself some hot chocolate. I found a saucepan fairly easily in the lower cabinet to the right of the stove. Makes sense, right? Next, I needed a measuring cup and spoon. I had no success finding those in any of the five drawers on either side of the stove. I was also unable to find them in either of the upper cabinets.
However, I did finally locate a measuring cup in a drawer next to the sink on the opposite side of the kitchen. And I found a second measuring cup in a different drawer, and a third in a bowl on top of the refrigerator. I found a set of measuring spoons in yet a different drawer, along with an assortment of unrelated items (e.g. batteries, matches, and instruction manuals for small appliances I never located).
Who Decides What the ‘Right Place’ Is?
I doubt that the homeowners keep their measuring cups in three separate locations by design. So, I pretty easily chalked that up to renters putting them away in the wrong spot. But I started wondering, which spot did the homeowner consider the ‘right place’? That is always an interesting conversation to have with clients, as well as the source of a lot of conflict within households.
In pretty much every house I’ve ever been in – including my own – there are a few things in the kitchen that nobody in the house seems to agree on the ‘right place’ to keep them. For my family, it’s the small metal scissor tongs. They are used to pick up individual food items from a hot pan. So, I always put them away in the drawer immediately to the left of the stove which, to me, feels like the ‘right place’. Except that I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve opened that drawer and not found them there. They’re in the silverware drawer with the serving spoons and forks. Or maybe they’re in the drawer with the grill utensils, or the one where we keep the measuring cups and spoons.
How Important Is the ‘Right Place’?
There are a few situations where the ‘right place’ is critically important – e.g. a surgical suite or emergency room. But, most of the time, it’s a personal preference and it’s often highly subjective. Yet, it can lead to a lot of conflict between people sharing the same household or office space. How do we resolve that? Communication, compromise, and consistency are key.
Talk about the reasons behind why each person thinks their ‘right place’ should be the one. I had a client who adamantly believed that scissors should be in the kitchen junk drawer. Her spouse believed – equally adamantly – that they should be in the office. After discussing their reasons, they learned that each person used the scissors almost exclusively in their ‘right place’. So, both of their positions made perfect sense. Once they understood each other, they purchased a second set of scissors. Household peace for under $5? Priceless.
One of the things I talk about with clients regularly is the importance of considering everyone in the home or office when organizing. On the items where you can’t find agreement, compromise has to be the solution. Who cares the most about this? The office manager responsible for filing the invoices wants them in a letter tray on top of the filing cabinet. That should be given more weight than the accounts payable manager who wants to leave them on his desk. Where possible, try and accommodate the person most affected by the decision.
Finally, once you decide on the ‘right place’, everybody needs to do their best to be consistent in using it. Don’t be passive-aggressive if your first choice wasn’t the final selection. And don’t assume that others are being passive-aggressive either. Gentle reminders and consistency will eventually train everyone to return the item to its ‘right place’.
On our last day of vacation, we received word from the DFW Labrador Retriever Rescue Club that we had been matched with a dog! He’s approximately 12 weeks old so we are going to have our hands full for a while with puppy training. I’ll be taking a break from the blog for the month of July so that I can focus on clients and our new family member (yes, that’s his picture at the top of the blog). Have a great July and I’ll see you back here on August 12th!
Congratulations on moving in to your new home! Right now, it probably doesn’t look much like home. It probably looks more like a sea of monotonous cardboard stretching as far as the eye can see. The boxes all look the same, and they seem to multiply when you turn your back. How do you bring order to the chaos? One key is to prioritize how you unpack.
Open Up Your Ready Box
Remember in the previous blog post, I urged you to pack a box with essentials that you would need immediately upon arrival at your new house? Time to open it up!
- Put toilet paper in all of the bathrooms if there isn’t already a roll. I’ve been surprised how many times homeowners take the toilet paper with them when they move out. Also, put hand soap in there and a towel, or a roll of paper towels.
- Designate a space that you can keep at least somewhat clear for snacks and drinks. Make sure that everybody can access it (but you can keep an eye on what younger children are eating and drinking).
- Keep your tools handy. Try to return them to the same place after you use them. It’s all too easy for them to get lost in the debris of boxes and paper.
If You Have Children, Start in Their Room(s)
Kids’ rooms should be at the very top of your list. For younger children especially, making their room feel as familiar as possible will go a long way towards easing the transition into your new home.
- Assemble their beds as soon as possible and make them. Remember those clean linens that you carefully packed before you moved out of your old home? Little ones might even be able to take a nap while you do some more unpacking.
- Unpack and assemble or set up any storage, e.g. bookshelves, cubbies, etc. Don’t start unpacking boxes until you have some place to put their contents.
- Let your kids help unpack their clothes, toys, and books and put them in their new places. Depending on their age, you may even be able to let them handle this on their own.
- While you probably won’t want to spend hours decorating, hanging one or two special favorite items on the walls will make it feel like home. Well worth the time!
Tackling the Kitchen
The kitchen should be high on your list to unpack. Apart from being the ‘heart of the home’, moving is hard work and you’re going to need to eat.
- If you’re going to line your shelves, do that before you start unpacking. Ditto for drawer organizers or silverware trays. Make sure that you wipe down shelves and drawers thoroughly and dry them, especially if you are using adhesive liners. Dirt, crumbs, and water will keep the liner from staying in place. And you definitely don’t want mold growing under your shelf or drawer liners.
- Before you open a single box, make a plan for where you are going to store things. Consider the layout of your kitchen as well as what you will use most often. Generally, upper cabinets are best for lighter weight items, or more frequently used items. Lower cabinets are best for pots and pans, heavier items, and infrequently used items. Think about the dishes and cups that you’ll use every day and locate those things in cabinets close to the dishwasher. Put pots, pans, casserole dishes, etc. near the stove or oven.
- If your items were packed in newsprint packing paper, you shouldn’t need to wash them before putting them away. Of course, if anything looks dirty, or was wrapped in bubble wrap, newspaper, or other non-clean materials, a quick spin in the dishwasher is probably a good idea. If you decide that you want to wash all of your dishes and cups just to be safe, then unpack those first and get the dishwasher running.
Unpacking the Kitchen – Box by Box or All at Once?
People tend to have very strong opinions on how they want to unpack. Some want to open one box at a time and put away all of the contents before they move on to the next box. Others prefer to unpack all of the boxes (or have the movers unpack them) and put all of the contents on flat surfaces, then put everything away. There are benefits and drawbacks to both approaches. Ultimately, it comes down to whether you packed yourself or had professional movers do the packing; personal preference; and sometimes, available space. Personally, I prefer the ‘all at once’ approach for the following reasons:
- You can see everything you have to put away. If you have cups and glasses in three separate boxes, you will be able to group them together before you put them in the cabinet.
- It is easier to measure for shelf placement. You’ll know exactly how much space you need to accommodate your bowls, plates, cups, etc. when they’re all stacked on the counter together.
- I find that it minimizes rearranging. You’re more likely to choose the best location for your items when all of your options are in front of you.
- On the other hand, your kitchen will look like a disaster area during the process. Some people get overwhelmed by that. So, if you’re one of them, I’d advise going box by box or at least modifying the all at once approach to minimize the visual chaos.
Unpacking the Kitchen – First Things First
There needs to be a method to the madness of the unpacking process. Make sure that you have your box cutter, measuring tape, and pen and paper handy.
- If you have adjustable shelves (as all cabinets should but too often don’t, and don’t get me started on THAT), move them to the appropriate positions before you start moving items into the cabinet. Measure, or at least eyeball, how far apart you need to space them based on what items you’ll put in there.
- Start by unpacking dishes, silverware, and cups – the items that you will use first. If you followed the ‘move in before you move out’ philosophy, hopefully your boxes are packed and labeled to make this easy.
- As you are unpacking, make note of the cabinets that need a little help to be more useful or efficient. Write down what you need and the dimensions of the cabinet. For example, maybe a lid holder is just the answer to that ‘not quite right’ pots and pans cabinet. Or you could really use a stackable shelf to maximize your mug storage.
- If you have a smaller kitchen without a lot of cabinets, plan where you will keep the things you don’t have room for. For instance, if you use your large slow cooker 2-3 times a month, you can store it in the pantry. And maybe the roasting pan you use 2-3 times a year can go on a shelf in the garage. The key is to maximize the space you have and use it to store the things you use most often.
Where you go from here in your unpacking depends on your home, your family, and what time it is when you get to this point.
- Get your own bed set up and made. You’ll be exhausted by the end of the day and the last thing you want is to be ready to crash and have no place to do it. So put your clean sheets and pillowcases on.
- Make sure that your bathroom is functional. Unpack the toiletries you brought in the ready box. Personally, I always want to take a shower after being surrounded by boxes all day.
- Living rooms and family rooms are relatively quick and easy rooms to unpack. If you want to get a quick ‘win’ and check something off of your to-do list, get one of those rooms set up. It’s always nice to have one room that you can walk into that looks ‘done’. It can serve as an oasis in the chaos. Of course, if your room has lots of bookshelves, knick-knacks, or complicated entertainment systems you may want to leave that for tomorrow.
Enjoy your new home! If you are struggling to settle in on your own, find a professional organizer in your area.
Confession – meal planning was one of the few organizational tips and tricks that I had never adopted. I have helped clients with theirs, and I definitely saw the value in it. But it just hadn’t really worked with the kind of life my family led. We had dinner together whenever practices, rehearsals, part-time jobs, travel schedules, etc. allowed. I just didn’t usually have a plan, and that worked okay for us. Honestly, it was one of the few things that I enjoyed not planning.
Or so I thought.
Enter the Pandemic
Suddenly, my usual two or three trips a week to the grocery store were not going to be an option. I did an inventory of what I had in the freezer (not much) and the pantry (even less). I quickly made a list of things I could cook with what I had. Then, I looked at a dozen or so of our favorite recipes and added what I needed for those to the list. Finally, I went to Costco and to my local grocery store and got enough food to make three meals a day, for four people, for the next two weeks.
A Journey of Discovery
- Food is expensive. I had somewhat insulated myself from that reality by making multiple trips and only buying a few days’ worth of food at a time. Yes, when I looked at the ‘Groceries’ category in Quicken, it added up to a lot of money. But we also ate at restaurants more frequently than I appreciated.
- They call it ‘perishable’ food for a reason. The berries and avocadoes that my family liked to eat? You can’t buy those two weeks at a time. Making a grocery list required some algebraic calculations. How many people would eat this item? Realistically, how many would each person eat? How many days would they keep? My family can tell you about ‘Enforced Orange Day’, where everybody ate only Clementine oranges as snacks to finish the bag before it went bad. Or ‘Leftovers Dinner’, which is a motley assortment of storage container contents the night before the trash goes out.
- I needed to expand our menu. After a few years of less eating dinner together at home, my family had a small list of favorite meals that we cooked. Eating at home for every meal, every day, those would get old really quickly. Also, shortages at the grocery store meant having to make adjustments and substitutions. Some of our new favorite recipes so far are Spaghetti al Limone, Brioche French Toast, this Fajita Marinade (discovered when our go-to pre-marinated fajitas were no longer available), and homemade pizzas with this Pizza Dough.
Meal Planning – Getting Started
You don’t need anything complicated to begin planning your meals. The online magazine The Kitchn has a free downloadable template that you can use to get started. Or, you can Google ‘meal plan template’ and find hundreds of options. Then, you can customize and adapt one of those to your liking.
I’ve found it helpful to have these on my template:
- A place to write (next to the meal for that day) what ingredients I will need to buy;
- Enough room to write the name of the recipe and where to find it;
- A section to list what perishable foods I need to use up that week; and
- Some way to highlight meals that need to or can be made in advance.
It is REALLY important to organize before you start. Luckily, this was one I didn’t have to worry about. My pantry was in good order (although, I did have to reconfigure some things to accommodate so much more food). But you will need to know what you have before you begin and that is hard to do if your pantry, refrigerator, or freezer are a mess.
- First, take everything out. If you’re working in your pantry, I always recommend taking ALL of it out at once. That way, you can see what you have and how much you have, and group things together in a way that makes sense. In the refrigerator, you can work by area (shelves, door, etc.).
- Second, throw away anything that is past its prime. If it’s expired, stale, moldy, or discolored, it goes in the trash. If it’s something you use regularly, remember to replace it.
- Third, set aside anything that has been in there for a long time, but nobody has eaten. If it’s been forgotten, put it front and center and remind everyone that it’s there. If nobody is going to eat it, get rid of it.
- Fourth, sort the food into categories – canned goods, dried goods, snacks, breakfast items, etc. That way, you can see what you already have. Hopefully, that will spark some ideas for meals to cook.
- Finally, take an inventory of what you have, and what you’re out of or running low on. Use this to make a grocery shopping list.
The ‘Planning’ Part of Meal Planning
Now it’s time to figure out what you’re going to eat for the next week or two. This was the part that I always found intimidating. Even though I’m a planner generally, I never minded winging it when it came to my meals. I thought that I wouldn’t like being locked into eating a certain thing on a certain night. What if I changed my mind?
So, my meal planning is pretty flexible. I buy groceries every two weeks, and I plan for that number of meals, but not necessarily on specific days. That way, I can adjust based on what we’re in the mood for. Do what works for you.
The essential part of the planning is to make sure that you have everything that you will need to cook that meal. Look at your inventory and see what you can make that will use up ingredients that are close to expiring, or that you have a lot of.
There are plenty of people who have been doing this longer, and better, than I have. Dozens of websites have meal planning suggestions, recipe ideas, etc. I started meal planning more out of necessity due to the circumstances. But I have found that I really like going grocery shopping with a plan instead of wandering the aisles waiting for inspiration to strike. And, I like not deciding on a meal only to find that I don’t have one or two of the ingredients that I need. So, I will probably keep up meal planning even after life returns to normal (whenever that is).