Have you ever tried to have a conversation amidst a lot of background noise? Read the paper with the TV blaring? Focus on work with your kids arguing around you? Or even worse, having someone yelling at you while you’re trying to concentrate on, well...anything? These situations leave most of us feeling stressed out and downright grumpy, not to mention unproductive.
But sound isn’t the only thing that makes noise. Stuff...clutter...mess create visual noise that can distract and stress us out just as easily. If you are surrounded by disorder and frequently feel yourself tensing up for seemingly no reason, it may be time to quiet your environment. It’s not as hard or time-consuming as you may think.
Obviously, the best way to maintain a visually quiet atmosphere is to purge your excess belongings, designate homes for everything you own, and then put things away as soon as you’re done using them, but getting that set up doesn't happen overnight. And if you have a spouse, roommate or kids, you know they excel at foiling those plans or at least at slowing your progress in reaching that noble goal. But regardless of your situation, there are still a few things you can do right now in just minutes to muffle the visual noise in your home until you have a chance to stifle it permanently. All it takes is regular (1-3 times daily) sweeps of the common areas where you spend the most time to do the following tasks:
Except in extreme circumstances, these tasks will only take 1-2 minutes each at most and the more frequently you sweep, the quicker it will be each time. After a while, it will become second nature and you won’t even have to think about doing it. I like to begin and end my day with a sweep of the main level and also do one before leaving the house. It rarely takes me more than 5 minutes. Doing everything on the list during your sweeps is ideal, but even just doing a few will make a big difference.
It won’t come as a surprise to those of you with little ones that kids are negatively impacted by too much visual noise, too. They often act out or have difficulty focusing in a cluttered environment. Get them to participate in the solution while they are still young enough to enjoy helping. This establishes in them the habit of regular and frequent tidying, underscores that home maintenance is everybody’s responsibility, and creates a baseline level of tidiness they will strive to maintain moving forward. If they are used to living in clutter, they will become desensitized to it (until it reaches an overwhelming or crippling level). If they are used to a more orderly environment, they will be more likely to maintain it.
Even very young children can share in the room-sweeping task before you leave to go play at the park. Assigning them a different “occupation” each day makes it sound more fun. Here are a few ideas:
If you’re not used to regular tidying, it can feel like a big chore to start. You may even try to convince yourself that it’s just a waste of time to put things away that you’ll be using again later. But remember that the purpose of keeping a tidy home is not to just have a tidy home...it’s to avoid feeling frustrated, stressed and anxious. When things are tidy, you will focus more easily, feel better about yourself, and relax knowing that you can find what you need. You’ll actually enjoy your surroundings more without your mess constantly yelling at you to clean it up!
With a quieter environment, life will become a whole lot easy peasier!
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I never used to be an anxious person, but parenthood and home ownership changed all that. And then Covid happened. Stress and anxiety seem to have set up a permanent residence in my life, but that doesn’t mean I have to allow them to make themselves comfortable here. Understanding what feeds them helps me keep them in check.
For me, it’s all about control (or a lack thereof), so it should come as no surprise that I’ve learned to use my organizational skills to my advantage. When my house is tidy, I can focus and I don’t lose things. When I have dinner already planned, it’s one less thing for me to worry about. Maintaining lists of all sorts (shopping, to-do, projects, etc.) ensures fewer things fall through the cracks, and keeping a strong grasp on my schedule means I am better able to control my time. I wasn’t always this organized...it happened gradually over many years as I realized how much better having everything in order made me feel.
Facing the unknown is another trigger. Worrying about how much a home or car repair will cost, fear of not knowing how to accomplish an important task, anxiety over what a future situation will look like so that I can be adequately prepared (especially when it comes to my kids) are the things that keep me tossing and turning in bed. Experience has taught me that research is my friend. The sooner I learn the answers to my many questions, the sooner I can relax. Sure, I can worry that I won’t be able to pay for a new air conditioner, but maybe I don’t actually need a new air conditioner. And if I do, I can research the various options for financing it until I find one that will work for me. Knowledge leads the way in finding workable solutions to the things we all worry about.
Background noise, distractions, and the physical aches and pains that accompany old age have also become bigger issues for me in recent years. I’m not able to do as much physical work in one stretch as I used to be able to do, and sometimes this creates stress, especially when time is of the essence. Finding ways to recharge my batteries, improve my focus and soothe my senses relieves tension and makes me more productive in the long run.
I’m learning that it takes a lot of energy and effort not to slide down the slippery slope into negative thinking. Focusing on the half of the glass that is full instead of the half that’s empty takes practice. How I talk to myself matters. Occasionally I need an injection of positivity from outside sources. Maintaining healthy, supportive relationships that build me up instead of tearing me down keeps me on a positive trajectory. I look for inspiration and motivation from the experiences of others. And a bit of humor goes a long way in reminding me not to take it all too seriously.
Realizing each of these triggers, I’ve identified four primary ways to quiet my stress and anxiety when they become too unruly:
Unexpected circumstances happen all the time and breed stress and anxiety in all of us. Sometimes just the realization that something will eventually arise to derail our best-laid plans makes us feel anxious. While you can’t plan for every contingency (you’ll drive yourself crazy if you try), there are many things you can do now to mitigate the stress and chaos that rear up when it does happen:
C’mon, you already knew I was going to say this, didn’t you? But it is true that organization makes you more nimble in a crisis. When your home is in order, you can locate necessities in a hurry, other people are better able to assist you, and repair people have easier access to areas requiring attention. Having a firm handle on your time and to-do list facilitates rearranging your schedule at the last minute and delegating responsibilities to others. Maintaining current contact info and keeping important documents at your fingertips also speed up everything when time is of the essence. Finally, planning meals in advance (including an emergency back-up dinner plan for those surprisingly hectic days) ensures you maintain your healthy eating plan and avoid the fast-food drive-thru, even on the busiest night.
Maintain an emergency fund
Home and car owners know that Murphy’s Law is real. Whatever can go wrong will go wrong at some point, guaranteed! Those unexpected repairs can cost beaucoup bucks in addition to the sheer inconvenience they bring. Setting aside money from each paycheck and keeping it in an easy-access account saves you from having to borrow (often at high interest rates) or worsening the damage by delaying a much-needed repair until you can afford it.
Assemble an emergency kit
Actually, make several. Gather you are likely to need in an emergency and store them in a convenient spot. Here are just some examples:
Back up electronic records
Technology is great...until it isn’t. Our heavy reliance on electronic storage of information comes at a disadvantage when we can’t access our usual tools due to a power outage or internet disruption. Keeping a written list of your passwords, account/policy numbers, prescription drug and other key medical info, and even your driver’s license and social security numbers in a safe and secure place can be a lifesaver in such circumstances. I once had a client whose husband lost all of his identification (passport, driver’s license, social security number and birth certificate). Replacing each lost document required having at least one of the others. It was a nightmare! Fortunately, his wife thought that maybe she remembered his driver’s license number...and she did! It saved the day!
Quick communication can make all the difference in an emergency. Keep your phone adequately charged (unlike my kids who run it all the way down before recharging). Make sure you have updated contact information handy at all times for the following:
Choose an “Emergency Buddy”
Identify someone reliable and trustworthy who lives locally but not with you and ask them to be your Emergency Buddy. Give them a copy of your home and car key/s, tell them where they will find your various kits, and grant them permission to pick up your children at school/daycare, if necessary. Add them to your list of emergency contacts and make sure they know how to reach other key members of your circle and vice versa. This way, they can assist if you are incapacitated or need help retrieving key items from your home during an emergency.
Devise escape and meetup plans
Especially if you have young children, it is crucial to practice what to do in case of a fire, tornado or other emergency. Devise escape routes and designate a meeting spot in case you get separated. Help your children memorize your phone number and address and teach them when and with whom to share this information (and when not to). Make sure they know where to go for help if you get separated from them while away from home and when/how to call 911. Ensure that everyone in your household knows where to find the spare key and/or how to contact your Emergency Buddy.
With a little organization and advance planning, even reducing the stress and anxiety that accompanies life’s curveballs will be easy peasy.
“The gentleman at the next table has ordered you a large portion of unpleasantness. How would you like that served?”
“I’ll have it procrastination-style, please.”
“Ok, so on a bed of dread with a side of guilt then... served cold?”
If you really want to savor the bitter taste of tasks you wish you could avoid, procrastinate. Sounds yummy, no? Then take action to get them off your plate as soon as possible. The only thing worse than being faced with something you dread doing is prolonging the experience and adding to it feelings of guilt, inadequacy, stress and anxiety.
But first, it’s worth asking yourself why you are procrastinating in the first place in order to figure out how to stop doing it. There are many reasons you might put off doing things:
1. You find them unpleasant.
Figure out how to make them more pleasant, or at least less unpleasant. Work with a friend, listen to music while you work, make a game out of it, plan a reward for afterward, or break it into smaller, more manageable chunks.
2. You would rather do something else.
The quicker you get your task done, the sooner you get to focus on the things you enjoy. Not only that, you’ll actually revel in those activities more when you aren’t encumbered by a sense of dread and/or guilt at not tackling your unpleasant task first. By getting the awfulness out of the way, you won’t have to worry about having adequate time to complete it properly.
3. You think if you wait long enough you might not have to do them.
This might be correct, but if that turns out to be incorrect, the delay will shorten the time you have available to do it. This will increase your stress level and likely yield substandard results.
4. You aren't sure how to do them.
Your first step should be finding the information you need. See this experience as a chance to learn something new and feel accomplished. When you change your attitude and approach it as an opportunity instead of as a chore, you are less likely to dread it. The next time you’re faced with a similar situation, you’ll feel more confident in your ability to meet the challenge.
5. You don't know where to start.
Begin with a “preparation step”. Buy supplies you know you’ll need, line up help from a friend or family member, research some information, schedule an appointment, or ask someone else for advice on the best place to start. Once you take that first step, the next one will come easier. The worst thing that could happen is that you miss an important step and have to start over again. At least then you’ll know where to begin, right? And remember, not taking the first step will never get the job done. Where you start isn’t nearly as important as just starting somewhere.
6. You lack the resources you need.
Whether you need money, information, assistance, or time, identify and create a plan for acquiring the resources you need. Even if this means you have to wait awhile until you have them in order to begin the task, you can still make progress just by working on obtaining them.
7. You’re afraid of what you might discover.
Realize that uncovering a problem is always the first step in fixing it. If you’re avoiding a medical appointment, doing your taxes, or calling the plumber simply because you’re afraid your worst fears will be confirmed, putting it off won’t improve the situation. However, learning the truth sooner may. Perhaps your fears are unfounded (imagine the relief!), or maybe finding out about a problem now will mean fixing it before it gets even worse. At the very least, you’ll reduce your uncertainty and all the anxiety that comes with it.
Side note: I'm not usually one to procrastinate...anymore, but when I do, it's almost always because of 4 or 7. It requires lots of self-awareness and conscious effort to avoid falling back into the old habit of putting things off under these circumstances. But I realized a long time ago that it's worth the effort in order to avoid the anxiety-laden aftertaste of my self-indulgence.
Whatever your reason for it, procrastination definitely contributes to your level of stress and anxiety. The only remedy is action. Organization can help.
If you find yourself with a heaping plateful of tasks you’d rather avoid, season it with a generous blend of confidence, determination and just a sprinkle of organization, and then gobble it up before it gets cold.
You know those people who always seem to just have it all together? The ones who are usually calmly waiting, scrolling through Facebook, when you burst through the door feeling frazzled and out of breath because you're late meeting them...again!? The folks who have the PTA calendar memorized and always seem to have contact information right at their fingertips to meet every conceivable need, from trusty mechanic or top notch medical specialist to medieval jousting expert? They remember to return your book, even though you forgot you loaned it to them in the first place. They know when and where outdoor movie night is happening and exactly when to score free cones because it's National Ice Cream Day. They always acknowledge your birthday and never forget to send in non-perishables for the school's canned food drive (while you, on the other hand, can be found desperately hunting through your pantry at the last minute for cream of mushroom soup or something else you'll probably never eat).
Yeah, we all know at least one of these people, but starting today, you can become one with much less effort than you think.
New Habit #4: Take and Use Notes. Keep track of everything as it enters your brain...reminders, to-dos, shopping needs, contact info, events, appointments, due dates... in a central, reliable system and--here’s the key--review it daily.
Why? The biggest benefit is the confidence and peace of mind you'll find from having a reliable way to tame your brain clutter. Yes...that's a thing...and too much of it leads to stress, whether you're consciously aware of it or it's just bubbling up right beneath the surface. That old expression "too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth" means that having no established leader to give clear direction will lead to chaos and, ultimately, failure. Well, that's what happens when you have competing priorities, demands on your time and random thoughts running wildly through your head without a central unified and reliable system in place for managing it all.
Now, the key word here is "reliable". Lots of people have calendars, address books, fancy apps on their phones, colored-coded giant whiteboards on the refrigerator....you name it, yet still suffer from brain clutter because they aren't in the habit of actually maintaining and using these tools properly. All the fancy pots and top-of-the-line kitchen tools in the world won't make you a master chef unless you know how to use them and do. With proper daily maintenance and a solid habit of reviewing what you’ve noted, you'll avoid overbooking (and overstretching) yourself, missing important appointments or deadlines, or forgetting to do tasks, and you'll be able to plan ahead with confidence. You'll also rest easier knowing you can communicate with your network whenever and wherever needed.
How? This is actually a three-part habit.
First, choose a format that you think will work best for you, be it electronic, paper, cave drawing, whatever, or even a combination of the above elements. This will involve some trial/error and re-evaluation as you go. Expect that...it's okay, and if you have to change formats along the way, it just means you are learning more about yourself and what works for you (or doesn't). There is no right or wrong way...just a right-for-you or wrong-for-you way. Whatever format you choose, it must meet these three criteria:
Next, add anything and everything you need to remember into your system as soon as you become aware of it.
Finally, make a daily appointment with yourself to review the data in your system so that you can bring it to life through an action plan. This is crucial. Without this, your system will not work and you will no longer trust it...reliability is key, remember? Simply sitting down each and every day to review what is coming up so that you can prioritize, plan ahead and share info with others as needed will save you time and stress otherwise spent worrying about what you're forgetting. Having a centralized system for tracking everything not only enables you to address your immediate concerns but also keeps the back-burner items on your radar so they don’t sneak up on you.
Already got this one down? Fabulous! Have you tamed your paper piles? Having a system in place for keeping track of appointments, reminders and contacts is a prerequisite to eliminating paper clutter. If you've already mastered Habit #4, go ahead and begin a daily triage of your incoming papers into these categories: action, file, pay, and read. Create calendar reminders/contacts for action and pay items, file reference papers and contacts regularly, and keep reading material handy and to a minimum (seriously, if you haven't read the fashion article you bookmarked in that 2010 magazine by now, it's probably safe to go ahead and toss it).
Tip of the Week
Speaking of taking notes, one way to improve your odds of adopting any new habit is to take note of what has (and hasn't) worked in the past. Was there a particular person who encouraged you (or sabotaged your efforts)? Is there a specific strategy that kept you motivated? Repeat the behaviors that have led to success and try to identify and eliminate the ones that led you astray.
It’s still not too late to join the official Good Habits Challenge! From this point on, only those who have actually joined the challenge will receive weekly emails introducing the remaining six habits of organized people. Plus, those who join get some free tools to help in adopting any new habit (not just these ten) and are eligible for free accountability check-ins and a chance to win a prize at the end. Joining is FREE, so what have you got to lose?
Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions about the challenge, need more suggestions or encouragement, or just want to share your success story!
You’ve got this!
What’s in it for me?
C’mon, admit it. Most of the everyday responsible actions you take...from getting out of your warm, cozy bed on a cold morning to going to the dentist or getting a flu shot are because there’s something in it for you. You get to keep your job, keep your teeth, and keep from getting sick, to name a few. I mean, how many people do you think would actually pay their taxes just because it’s the right thing to do if they didn’t also see keeping their freedom as a pretty major benefit? It’s human nature to want something in return for your inconvenience and sacrifice. Even kids understand this concept from a young age, as evidenced by my son who once offered to pull out all of his teeth for the tooth fairy if she’d just bring him enough money to buy a Lego death star. (Little did he know that, with a little patience, she’d end up with all of them eventually anyway.)
We parents teach our kids this notion of hardship eventually leading to a payoff when we incentivize them to behave, to do their chores and their homework, and to sacrifice for others. Be it sticker charts, extra privileges, or even just heaping on the praise, we are reinforcing this idea that doing the right thing, even when it’s hard, yields positive dividends. Even when we want to improve our own behavior, we promise ourselves little rewards for rising to the challenge. And there’s nothing wrong with that, just as long as we select a prize that won’t end up sabotaging our efforts. (A new outfit for your slimmed-down body is probably a better reward for sticking to your diet than a celebratory cake...just sayin’.)
But incentives only work when we consciously identify what they are and specify the actions required to earn them. Case in point: I figured out a long time ago that a tidy, uncluttered environment keeps me calm and reduces my stress level more than just about anything else. I have two teenagers, so it’s a given that I’m going to feel stress in my life. But I know that the visual peace of a neat home and knowing exactly where to find everything will allow me to better manage all the anxiety that naturally accompanies the thought of paying for college, not to mention my babies driving and dating. That’s a reward that is well worth spending an extra minute here and there to put things away...even things that were left out by others. It’s the thing that motivates me to regularly clean out my closets and get rid of all the excess stuff I don’t really need. Just knowing that I will have sufficient room to house and conveniently access my well-thought-out purchases is all the enticement I need to avoid making impulse buys I might struggle to put away when I get it home. That effort is a gift I give myself because I’ve already determined that the payoff is huge. I don’t keep my home organized for the benefit of guests or my family. It’s for me. Which is good, because these days I rarely entertain, and my family couldn’t care less how tidy and organized everything is as long as they can find their remotes and locate the router when the wifi needs resetting.
So what’s in it for you to have less stuff? What do you get out of purging your excess...passing up a great sale...forgoing freebies and hand-me-downs...giving away some of those sentimental objects you have stored away but will likely never use?
Might some of these benefits of streamlining help you pare down?
Take some time to think about your top ten motivators for cutting back your belongings and write them down. Then dangle that carrot where you can see it clearly. Review it regularly to remind yourself what’s in it for you to tidy up before bed, to find a home for everything you own, to stop acquiring, or to donate or recycle all the stuff you can do without.
With a little awareness and the right incentive, even discovering the more of less will be easy peasy.
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If you're suffering from what I call "Covid Fog", you are not alone! Almost everyone I've talked to has experienced this phenomenon on some level during the past six months. Covid Fog is when you have difficulty sharpening your focus and/or maintaining it for as long as you used to before the Coronavirus pandemic shooed each of us into our respective corners of quarantine. Several factors contribute to creating Covid Fog: looser schedules, more frequent interruptions, lack of structure, changes in routine, mild depression, fatigue, boredom, grief, a dearth of motivation, and lapses in self-care are just some of them. Whatever the cause, the results can affect everything from your job performance to quality of life issues. Adopting strategies to help you find your focus is an essential first step in coping with the uncertainty that is 2020.
Here are my top tips for finding and maintaining your focus:
With a little intention, perseverance, and these strategies, even finding your focus through the Covid Fog can be easy peasy.
Could it be that it was only eight short months ago when we were ringing in the new year and ushering in a brand-new, shiny decade full of hope? The anticipation of the coming U.S. presidential election and Olympic Summer Games energized the country and the world. In our house, it was the beginning of the countdown to our first-born starting her senior year of high school in September and turning 18 in October. Our son was eagerly awaiting a summer of hard training for his next vigorous cross country season in the Fall. My organizing business was finally booming and my husband’s career humming along very nicely. 2020 promised to be a banner year for the Sheridan family.
Then BAM! Seemingly out of the blue, a pandemic of epic proportions, quarantines, school closures, sports cancellations, postponed primaries...followed by murder hornets, protests, wildfires, hurricanes, fire tornadoes…and worst of all, death--lots of it, job losses, endless bread lines, potential foreclosures, and financial ruin for many...all piled up in a big heap, bringing everything to a standstill. The old saying that the only things in this life that are a certainty are death and taxes never hit more close to home. So here we are: at the crossroads of hope and uncertainty. What now? How do we merge these two seemingly divergent paths into one? How do we maintain hope amid all this chaotic uncertainty?
First, let’s take a step back to consider just why confronting uncertainty is so uncomfortable for most of us. Perhaps it’s because it threatens our need to feel in control. If we can’t see a roadblock up ahead, we can’t take an alternate route or steer around it to our advantage. Right now, most of us are just wondering when...when schools and businesses will reopen; when we’ll get financial relief; when a vaccine will be available that can allow us to resume something resembling normalcy. It’s hard to keep up with all the unexpected twists, turns and detours on Rt. 2020. Nevertheless, there are still three very crucial things that do remain totally within our control, should we choose to exert it. Let’s start there:
Whether you are ill (from anything) or fit as a fiddle, the choices you make about caring for yourself will affect how you feel both physically and mentally. Tune in to your body, as well as your soul, and make changes in any of the following areas, if necessary, to improve your well-being:
Whether you are quarantining alone or with others, your overall attitude plays a major role in your ability to cope with your situation. Keeping your outlook positive despite your circumstances will not only boost your own spirits, it can become a beacon of hope for others who may need a reminder of all the goodness still surrounding us. Attitude is how your perspective and priorities dictate how you interface with the world around you.
Whether you are working multiple jobs as an essential worker, furloughed at home desperately seeking employment, or finding yourself in the unexpected role of homeschooling parent, your actions are always a matter of choice and thus totally under your control. How well are your actions reflecting the attitude you want to convey? Are you eating junk food on the sofa, yelling at the other side’s politicians on TV, wallowing in gloom, self-pity and self-loathing, or are you reaching out to make a positive impact, using your available time to engage in proper self-care, helping others, hopeful thinking, and positive self-talk? The choice is yours. Make a good one.
Let's face it: this has been a difficult year so far and the only thing we can be certain of is that yet more uncertainty surely lies around the next corner. But by staying focused on the things that are still within your control, even confronting uncertainty with hope intact can be easy peasy.
Space truly is the final frontier! Everyone seems to be on an endless quest for it...for space in their homes...on their desks...in their busy lives! Yet it eludes most of us. Just as soon as we find some....poof! It’s gone and the search begins anew. But what if instead of spending all of our space, we kept some of it….empty?!! Today, I’m making a case for space!
First, how is empty space even useful?
Preserving your empty space boils down to choosing space over stuff. You may be asking...if empty space is so valuable, then why do people tend to choose stuff over space? Good question! Clients usually call me when their lack of space begins causing a problem in their lives. They are aware that they need more space, yet still seem compelled to fill it back up again when given the opportunity. Why? Here are some of the most common reasons, along with my counterpoint for each one: Do any of these sound familiar?
Fear of being without something you may need (clothes, paper towels, shoes, serving dishes).
Counterpoint: If you run out of something, you can go shopping, do laundry, borrow from a neighbor, order online. If none of these are possible, you will likely find a way to make do in an emergency. Such emergencies will be very rare and far outweighed by the everyday benefits of having more space. Think up a back-up plan in advance if that makes you feel less afraid to part with something. (Personal aside: At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis when toilet paper was difficult to find, I came up with multiple contingency plans for if/when we ran out. I never had to use any of them, but now that I have them, I don’t feel a need to use up my valuable space hoarding toilet paper.)
Avoiding a deep-seated (and usually misplaced) perception of poverty and/or a misperception of “wealth”.
Counterpoint: Having more stuff doesn’t make you rich. It actually costs you more in the long run. Would you rather be “rich” in stuff that gets in your way, or rich in time and energy that can be spent on having new and meaningful experiences, learning more about the world, and forging/maintaining important relationships? Which will matter more at the end of your life? Remember, that old adage “You can’t take it with you” refers to your material wealth, aka your "stuff".
Unwillingness to make choices (aka decision deferral).
Counterpoint: Making decisions gets easier and quicker with practice and takes less time when you do it on a daily basis. Developing a habit of making decisions in the moment takes effort but will pay huge dividends in the long run.
Need to fill up the other aspects of life that feel empty (relationships, self-esteem, productivity, sense of control).
Counterpoint: Space gives us freedom. We need space to live in, move in, fill up with the people and activities that bring us joy. When we do that, we will not feel emptiness; we will feel fulfilled.
So how do we create and maintain empty space?
Simple: Choose space over stuff. Now that you understand the value of empty space and why you may have chosen stuff instead in the past, it will be easier to make more intentional decisions in the future. There are three key components to this:
With a little conscious decision-making and a few good habits, even holding onto empty space can be easy peasy!
The most stressful time of day in my home is late afternoon/early evening during the week. That's when I'm typically running from here to there, picking up one kid or the other from practice or rehearsal...sometimes both. There's homework to get started, after-school anxieties to unwind, and often other types of social drama to smooth out. And on top of everything else...dinner. I call it the witching hour. Thankfully, (to quote Elizabeth Warren) "I've got a plan for that". If you're struggling with dinnertime stress too, a weekly meal plan is a must!
Having a plan in place for anything will eliminate a great deal of stress from your life, and meal planning is no different. It allows you to do all the thinking required at a time of your choosing, rather than forcing you to figure out a solution when your brainpower is already stretched to the limit. Aside from reducing your stress, meal planning:
Contrary to what you may think, meal planning really doesn't take that much time or effort once you have a system that becomes a routine.
Step 1: Gather your meal ideas
Note that I say "ideas", because for those of you who don't enjoy cooking, the word "recipes" may be scary. Rest assured that meal planning does not require you to become the new Gordon Ramsey. You don't need complicated recipes or fancy knife skills...just a list of the things you like to eat for dinner. For those who do enjoy working with recipes, your idea list should include your recipe source, whether it be a URL, Pinterest post, cookbook, magazine or one of Grandma's handwritten recipe cards. The key is to be able to find it easily when you need it. (Be sure to include page numbers on your list too, where appropriate.)
If you have picky eaters in your home, selecting recipes that can be easily modified to suit everyone will save you time and effort. Remember, you are not a short-order cook! Ask your family for feedback and ditch the recipes no one likes. Note the recipes that are more time-consuming or complicated so that you avoid them on busy nights. Keep building and adjusting your list as you go.
Step 2: Plan around your calendar and refrigerator
Pick a day each week to do your meal planning. Look at your calendar for the week ahead to see which days will be your busiest and require a make-ahead or quick meal. Which nights are you having company or planning a special meal? Also check the refrigerator and freezer to see what ingredients need to be used up before they go bad and plan to incorporate these into your plan. Take advantage of shortcuts on busy nights, like buying precut veggies or partially-made components. You can still wow your guests with a "homemade" pie made from store-bought pie crust you bake yourself! Or use your own homemade, make-ahead mixes for some of your favorites. (Get recipes and instructions for some of my favorite homemade mixes!)
Step 3: Write it all down in one place
Write down your dinner menu for each night in one central place. Your plan should include:
Tip: Always plan an extra "back-up" meal for nights when nothing goes according to plan and you need a quick and easy save. This meal should rely on pantry or freezer staples you know you'll have on hand. (My favorite back-up meal is Broccoli Soup.) It should be quick to prepare and not require advance preparation.
Step 4: Shop for your plan
As you compose your meal plan, create your shopping list at the same time. Include all ingredients you will need to make the meals you've selected for the week and add breakfast, lunch and snack items. Shop once to save time. Take your plan with you to the store in case they are out of an essential ingredient and you need to make a substitution. (Don't forget to note changes on your written plan.)
A tool like the downloadable EasyPeasy Meal Planner PDF can help you get started. It may feel a little ovewhelming at first, but once you are in the habit of meal planning each week, it will become second-nature and will require only a small investment of your time. You'll wonder how you ever managed without a plan!
With a little forethought and planning, even feeding your hungriest crowd will be easy peasy.
Valerie Sheridan is a professional organizer, wife, mother of two, and Founder/Owner of EasyPeasy Living.