I no longer wish for a bigger house with a bigger kitchen. It's true that, for years, I longed for oodles of counter space to spread out during my marathon baking sessions, a walk-in pantry, and plenty of space to store all manner of appliances and cooking/baking tools. In fact, when we were house-hunting for our "starter" home back in 2002, I told the realtor that a big kitchen was a must. She almost didn't show us this townhouse because of the small kitchen, but the minute we walked through the front door, we knew this was the one. Our next house will have a bigger kitchen, I thought. I can make do with this one until then.
But somewhere along the line, I came to appreciate the smallness of my space. The fact of the matter is, there's far less cleaning and upkeep here than with a bigger home, which is a HUGE benefit worth the trade-off, in my humble opinion. We seem to have adequate space for our needs 90% of the time. (Entertaining is still a challenge.) And we'll be empty-nesters in just a few years, so there's no point in upgrading to a bigger home now. But the biggest factor in me being able to let go of my dreams for a bigger kitchen is just the fact that I've learned to live quite comfortably within my available space, and I like this simpler lifestyle. With the help of these five simple strategies for organizing your kitchen, you just might learn to love your space too:
1) Maximize your vertical space
When a client tells me they need more space, the first thing I do is look behind all the doors. I'm always surprised to find many of them bare. Finding available vertical space is like finding money you didn't know you had! Here are just a few ways to make the most of this pot o' gold:
2) Corral the little or irregularly-shaped stuff
Nothing's worse than "losing" a small container of yogurt in the back of the fridge until it starts to smell bad. When you use a small bin for storing packets of spices, half-opened bags of rice or beans, etc., you can squeeze a lot in without worrying about encountering an avalanche in your pantry. It's also easier to find what you need when you can take the entire bin out into the light instead of feeling your way around the back of a dark cabinet. Use bins in the pantry, fridge, freezer or a high shelf for all those random small items, packets and bags.
3) Buy stackable containers for your pantry
I hate having to move stuff to see what's behind it in my pantry! All those Pinterest photos showing off Martha Stewart-esque pantries full of beautiful matching glass jars make me shake my head. First of all, you shouldn't have to break the bank to achieve a beautifully-organized and functional pantry, especially if it will all be behind closed doors. But also, tall containers force you to store things in front of each other. And have you tried measuring out a cup of flour stored from a canister with a narrow opening? Large, shallow, rectangular containers that can be stacked, taking up all the shelf space from front to back rather than from top to bottom, will enable you to see what you have without having to move anything to see what's in the back row. Labeling makes it a slam-dunk on grocery list-making day. As a bonus, you can easily get your hand in there to measure out the flour, sugar or rice, mess- and hassle-free.
4) Decorate with everyday items
Have you ever noticed that a well-styled kitchen always boasts an inviting bowl of fresh fruits or vegetables on the counter...attractive glass jars of staples...a pedestal of yummy baked goods? Showing off the offerings from your kitchen not only increases its appeal, it also saves valuable fridge, pantry and cabinet space. Take advantage of this little secret! Just be careful not to make your surfaces look too cluttered. Here are a few suggestions for dressed-up items you can store out in the open:
5) Store kitchen items in another room
I know, I know...this is not so covenient. That's why you'll want to limit this strategy to items you rarely use. And while we're on that topic, think long and hard about whether such items should be stored in your house, or perhaps in someone else's, if you get my meaning. I'm pretty ruthless about getting rid of stuff I don't use, but even I have a few appliances or baking tools I couldn't live without yet only use once or twice a year. It's worth the effort of having to retrieve them from another part of the house on the rare occasions I really need them in order to have more space in my kitchen every other day of the year. Here are some candidates to consider removing from your kitchen:
Most of us prepare food several times a day. If you're gonna spend that much time in one room, why not make it a pleasant and stress-free place to be. With a little organization and some space-saving tricks like these up your sleeve, even cooking in a tiny kitchen can be easy peasy.
It’s never a good sign when it starts raining in your garage…especially when your kitchen is above the garage and you’ve just stepped in a wet patch near the dishwasher!
So yes, we need a new dishwasher and no, there is no room for one in our budget right now. At first I was so busy being grateful that it wasn’t an issue with the kitchen plumbing that I forgot to groan about having to hand wash all my dishes for the foreseeable future. It didn’t take long for me to remember just how much I hate it. I mostly hate not having any room on my tiny counter to put all the clean dishes and how quickly I run out of dry dish towels since I don’t have a drainer and have to drain them on a towel. (I’m actually anti-dish drainer because I think they invite you to leave the job unfinished and take up valuable space even when not in use.) But once I figured out that I could use the empty dishwasher as my drying rack, my perspective began to change. I began to see the silver lining to this cloud and realized that what at first seemed like a curse may indeed become a blessing.
For one thing, washing and drying dishes is something everyone in my family can do…even the more “spatially challenged” among them. My kids have finally completed the Dishwashing Badge in our Life Skills Badge Program. My husband is more sensitive about helping with dinner clean up, and I don’t have to worry about whether the bowl I really want to use is going to take up too much space in the dishwasher later. Maybe now we won’t have to take out a second mortgage just to pay the water bills that also fund my daughter’s showers. (She’s the only 11-year-old I know with permanently wrinkled hands.) And once the kitchen cleanup is done, it’s done…no more dishes to put away later since I ascribe to the dry-them-and-put-them-away-now philosophy.
Best of all, I’m no longer worrying about what will happen if my dishwasher breaks…I already know. My children will enjoy an excuse to play in some sudsy water before school. My husband and I will giggle and flirt as we snap dish towels at each other. I’ll imagine my mother, now gone to her rest, washing that very same serving spoon back in our kitchen on Timber Trail Rd. The clean scent of the dish washing liquid will remind me of my grandmother’s kitchen.
Sometimes we need something to break to realize how truly unimportant it is. And often in our never-ending quest to simplify our lives, we end up complicating them instead. The modern conveniences designed to free up our time wind up stealing our opportunities to forge that time into something memorable. Think about your funniest family anecdotes. Chances are they felt like catastrophes at the time. (Someday I’ll share my “Mom in a Manhole” story…a real family classic.) Next time “disaster” strikes, look for the hidden blessing instead of feeling cursed.
I suppose we will replace the dishwasher eventually, but I’m not in any hurry. It might be kind of fun to share KP duty with my sister after a family holiday meal just like the old days. But only if she dries.
I hate grocery shopping! Once upon a time it was fun, back when I was young and single and only cooked because I wanted to. Back then, I could meander through the aisles for hours, dreaming about the days when I had a family to cook for and imagining all the tasty, fun foods I'd make. In my little dream world, my well-rounded and appreciative children would be eager to try new foods, and there would always be oodles of time for teaching them to cook in my spacious, always-clean-and-tidy kitchen. It was a Betty Crocker Utopia. Ha!
In reality, grocery shopping with two impatient and whiny kids is like playing Supermarket Sweep, American Ninja Warrior, The Price is Right, and Survivor all at once...where the only prizes you win are gray hair, frazzled nerves and a big fat bill at the end. Oh, and then you get to cart all your stuff home and put it away. And we haven't even come to the Hell's Kitchen part of the show!
The only way I can win this game is to limit the number of times I play to once a week. That means making sure I don't forget anything, which means creating a list. I've tried those pre-printed lists you check off, using electronic lists (many versions) and even creating my own list each week, but nothing seemed quite strong enough to numb the pain to a bearable level. The lists were never comprehensive enough or not arranged the way I liked, and crossing off (or deleting) items as I put them in the cart was too cumbersome a task to perform while simultaneously trying to prevent my kids from hiding in the freezer case or climbing the piles of giant rice bags. And in my frenzied rush to get out of the store before being kicked out by the manager, I was always forgetting some key ingredient I needed.
I finally came up with a solution that's been working really well and has even gotten some positive comments from fellow shoppers, so I thought it was worth sharing with you guys. After consulting my pantry, fridge, freezer and cabinets, I created a comprehensive list of everything I typically buy. (I've been using this list for a few months now and haven't discovered any major omissions yet.) It's organized alphabetically by category. While store layouts vary, the categories are fairly standard. You may skip around from category to category on the list, but you will usually find the majority of items within a category together in the store.
The best part about this list is that it's reusable and easy to check off. You see, it fits on the front and back of a single sheet and thus can be laminated or placed into a plastic page protector and used with a dry erase marker.* Hang it on the fridge and add to it all week long as you think of things you need to buy. Check off any additional items you know you will need before heading to the store. Scanning the list itself will even trigger your memory of things you need to purchase. Then as you shop, simply rub off the check marks with your finger as you put items in your cart. No pen required! (This leaves the other hand free to yank your kids back BEFORE they pull the bottom orange out of the neatly-stacked pyramid.) Hang it back up on the fridge when you get home, ready for next week's round.
Feel free to download this printable PDF and give it a try, or email firstname.lastname@example.org to request a FREE editable version you can customize (created in Microsoft Excel).
And for my fellow suffering moms out there: I've discovered that assigning each kid an item and having them race to see who can retrieve theirs first not only keeps them occupied and teaches them where to find things in the store, it saves my energy for more important things...like chasing the shopping cart they are coasting downhill to the car.
*Laminating the list stiffens it, making it easier to write on or rub off and preventing it from creasing in your shopping bag. If using a page protector, place the two sheets back to back with a piece of cardboard in between to achieve the same effect.
I'm bracing myself for a barrage of hate mail for posting this, but my recent discovery has brought me such freedom that I simply must shout it from the rooftops!
I'd like to think I've proven myself as a reasonably frugal consumer. When I say "frugal", I mean that I am budget-conscious and put some effort into finding decent bargains while also recognizing that my time is at least as limited as my finances.
First an admission: I do not coupon (gasp). I found it to be too time consuming and confusing. On top of that, in order for couponing to work, you have to actually remember to give the cashier your coupons...oops! I used to be a regular shopper at warehouse stores like Sam's and Costco because of the low per-unit price you could get by buying in bulk. But then I realized that while spending $400 in one week for 3 different items may save me money in the long run, my short-term cash flow was precisely that...short. So I began shopping at a discount grocery store that stocks mostly off-brand products but where the prices (and the quality) are at least as good as the coupon and warehouse deals without the hassle or the huge outlay.
Finally, I had managed to secure a low unit cost without having to purchase a high quantity. I began to see the benefits of fitting normal-sized products into my tiny pantry (pictured left...I just love my pantry). Gone (eventually) were the 2-liter bottles of soy sauce and vats of olive oil. Crackers, pretzels and cereal were no longer going stale before they could be consumed. I was able to reclaim part of my garage for storing other items besides overflow food. And it no longer took the National Guard to help me unload all the groceries each week.
Unfortunately, I kept buying more cans and boxes than I actually consumed each week out of pure habit..."just to have some on hand". I still had one large shelf reserved in the garage for storing all my extras. In the garage, mind you...where I hate to go. I would send the kids down to get stuff for me, so I lacked a keen sense of what was actually there. I was always buying things we didn't need and not buying something we did need simply because I assumed we already had more of it down in the garage.
And then something happened to knock some sense into me. I fell down the stairs and dislocated my shoulder...badly. I could no longer carry as many groceries and was forced to shorten my weekly shopping list to only what I knew we would use in the next week or two.
Eureka! Now I can fit everything into my pantry where I can easily see at a glance just what we need. Everything is fresh and actually consumed rather than wasted. Putting the groceries away is quicker and easier, and I now have even more room in my garage. I feel so FREE!
All of this has made me realize that being a "frugal" consumer means respecting not just your financial and time limitations, but your space limitations too. My father used to always say, "Space is at a premium." It surely is a precious commodity to be used wisely. Don't squander your spacial budget just to stretch your financial or time budgets. Find a balance of all three.
How do you balance your financial, time and spacial budgets?
Note: Your Sam's or Costco membership may still be worthwhile for purchasing household items, office supplies, electronics, etc. at a great price or for when you are feeding a large crowd. I am not suggesting you ditch it! Just don't let bulk purchases of regular groceries eat up all your space.
Valerie Sheridan is a professional organizer, wife, mother of two, and Founder/Owner of EasyPeasy Living.