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.
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.
An average American family of four spends between $146 and $289 per week on groceries, according to the USDA. That's an annual investment of at least $7500, and possibly as much as $15,000+!
Where you fall within that range depends, of course, on where you shop and what you buy, but it also has a lot to do with how much food you waste. With a little planning and effort, you can save significant money on your grocery bill each year without ever clipping a coupon or hoarding cans from a warehouse store. I call it my 4S approach: Strategize, Shop, Safeguard, and Substitute.
Strategize - Planning out your meals each week will not only save you time but also money. You'll be less likely to resort to expensive takeout or prepared foods if you've got a strategy in place for what to make for dinner. With minimal effort, you can plan your menu around ingredients you already have on hand and not only reduce waste but shorten your shopping list. Pull double-duty on the items you buy to get even more bang for your buck. For example, if you're buying a head of cabbage to make coleslaw, why not plan to make stir-fry that same week and use up the rest of it before it goes bad?
Shop - Creating a shopping list will save you trips to the store for forgotten items, as well as time in the store once you're there. You'll also avoid over-spending on impulse purchases. Build your list as you plan your weekly menu to be sure you have everything you need on hand, and add only what you need for other meals. Take stock of what's already in your fridge and pantry so that you don't duplicate or overbuy. Nothing breeds waste like buying more produce than you'll be able to use before it goes bad. Don't fall victim to deals that aren't really deals. Regardless of the price, if you weren't already planning to buy it, it's not really a deal!
Safeguard - Preserving your perishables until you are able to use them is one of the best ways to lower your bottom line at the grocery store. Instead of allowing excess meat or produce to spoil, prolong its life so you can use it another day by cooking, freezing, or canning it before it goes bad. Peel and freeze overripe bananas for later use in bread or muffins. Microwave and mash extra sweet potatoes for baking. Cut bread ends into cubes and freeze for later use as croutons or breadcrumbs. Protect your produce from premature spoilage with proper cleaning and storage.
Substitute - Switching up ingredients in your favorite recipes to use up what you already have on hand can also save you bucks at the store. Use up that extra yogurt no one wants in place of milk for your muffin recipe or toss that leftover half bag of frozen green beans into your casserole instead of making a separate green vegetable. Get in the habit of freezing your "throwaways" to use as substitutions later. For example, freeze the juice you drained from your can of tomatoes and use that instead of buying tomato juice for a recipe. Use some crushed up cornflakes to coat your fried chicken instead of buying breading.
Look for more outside-the-box ideas for using up what you already have to save you money.
Whether you spend your savings on a special dinner out or some nice wine to go with your home-cooked gourmet meal, the 4S approach will have you laughing all the way to the bank!
If you're trying to establish more order and reduce stress in your life, one of the best places to start is with your car.
Why? The only thing worse than departing your house in a stress-filled rush is departing in a stress-filled rush in a mess-filled vehicle! Most of us spend more time than we care to think about in our cars, fighting traffic, ferrying arguing kids here and there, and worrying about making it to our destination on time. A clean and tidy car can go a long way toward calming your nerves and creating a more pleasant driving environment.
Secondly, car seats can become a breeding ground for all sort of--em--"scientific experiments" that can create an unhealthy environment for your passengers. Many families eat on the go in the car. By keeping up with the crumbs and trash, you can avoid some unpleasant surprises (like the maggots my friend recently discovered under her child's car seat...gross)! Carrying less stuff around in your car makes it quicker and easier give it a quick wipe-down and vacuum when it needs it. Cleaning out your car should take you minutes, not hours!
Finally, nothing is more time-consuming and frustrating than losing track of items because you left them in the car. In an ideal world, the only items you should be keeping in your car between journeys are the things that you only use in the car or when you are away from home. Start treating everything else you bring home like a gallon of milk and put it away as soon as you reach home. You wouldn't leave a gallon of milk sitting in the car for days, right?
How? Emptying your car after each trip is not so difficult if you keep up with it...it's just a matter of getting started and staying disciplined. Start by giving the inside of your vehicle a good, thorough clean. This will help you want to keep it that way. Next, train all your passengers to share in the responsibility for keeping it tidy:
Let's face it...relationships can be hard work, especially when it comes to sharing living quarters. Whether it's with your spouse, roommate, parent, child, sibling, friend or co-worker, occupying the same space day-to-day adds a whole new dimension--and often tension--to even the healthiest relationships. As a professional organizer, I've helped quite a few couples, families and work teams negotiate a peaceful resolution to their turf wars with just a few simple strategies. With good communication, a little compromise, and the right attitude, you too can arrange a ceasefire on some of these common war cries:
He/She never puts anything away!
He/She has too much "junk" and won't get rid of any of it!
He/She wants everything out and easily accessible, but I like the visual peace of having it out of sight (or vice versa).
Sometimes just understanding why you or your co-inhabitants exhibit certain habits or behaviors helps to defuse a potentially explosive situation. Don't let your frustration reach the boiling point. Think it through, talk it out, and be willing to compromise. With a little bit of effort, even sharing space peacefully can be easy peasy!
Let's be honest, nobody really LOVES Valentine's Day, do they? Many argue it's just a made-up Hallmark holiday, and you must admit they have a point. I've seen store shelves begin vomiting pink and red hearts as early as the day after Christmas. And truthfully, it can be a bit of a downer if you're single and wish you weren't, or if have young school-aged kids with 24 other students in each class for whom they (read: you) must make handmade Pinterest valentines (or buy the corny, overpriced, store-bought versions). Any teacher will tell you, a classroom full of two dozen preschoolers hyped-up on valentine candy bears little resemblance to the sweet cherubs pictured on said valentines. For most of us, it becomes a forced, obligatory day to spend money on roses and heart-shaped boxes of chocolate and then summon all of our will-power not to eat any of it. And by the way, how did the feast day of a saint come to be associated with so much sex and edible underwear?
Like many, I used to really dislike Valentine's Day for all of the reasons listed above. Until, that is, I began to reflect on why this day is named after St. Valentine in the first place. First, a brief lesson:
Very little is known about the real St. Valentine, but he is believed to have been a priest (and some say bishop) and physician who was martyred for his faith in Rome during the third century. Some accounts say he befriended and healed from blindness his jailer's daughter. Others claim he defied the Emperor by secretly marrying couples to spare the husbands from war. He is the patron saint of lovers, epileptics and beekeepers (which I, as a lover and a former epileptic who loves honey, can really appreciate). Now, as anyone can tell you, the Catholic Church doesn't make just any ol' body a saint. Martyrdom alone requires a great demonstration of love, as does healing your enemy's daughter and risking your life to spare others theirs. So it makes sense that a day about love would be associated with this saintly, loving personality, regardless of how much of the legend is based in fact.
I would argue that if we re-calibrate the meaning of Valentine's Day to focus more on loving all others as St. Valentine did, rather than on just emphasizing romance and retail sales, it takes on a whole new meaning and could easily become a new favorite holiday.
So what does it mean to LOVE ALL?
L - Listen more, talk less
O - Observe where you can meet the needs of another
V - Value every being, even those who are challenging to love
E - Empathize with those who are hurting
A - Act to make the world a better place
L - Lean in and don't be afraid to risk yourself, your pride, or your comfort for the sake of others
L - Learn from those whom you wish to emulate, as well as from your own mistakes
Let Valentine's Day be an opportunity to celebrate all types of love, not just romance or love of chocolate, and to express it in all manner of ways. Be sensitive to the fact that people who don't have a sweetheart often need extra love from everyone else on February 14th. Maybe those little kids have the right idea in giving a valentine to everyone, even those they find challenging, because we all need love and love is all we need. What are some valentines you can pass out to show those in your life that they are special and valuable? Some ideas:
It doesn't take a dozen roses or a heart-shaped box of chocolate to make someone feel loved on Valentine's Day. With a little thought and a lot of heart, celebrating love on Valentine's Day--and every day--can be easy peasy!
Happy New Year!
The busy holiday season is now in the rear view mirror once again. Does that leave you feeling deflated or relieved? Perhaps a little of both? Hopefully you were able to take some time off at some point over the past few weeks to celebrate whatever holiday/s you observe with family and friends. But so often that kind of time "off" from the pressures of work and the swirl of daily routines isn't as relaxing and refreshing as we'd like amidst the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. And now it's time to return to business as usual...that can be both depressing and reassuring at the same time. But this year can be different. As you put away the last of your festive decorations, take some time to reflect upon and unearth your center.
Your center is that sacred space within yourself that brings you inner peace and refreshes your cup so that you can keep pouring it out to others all year long. It can be a physical stress-reliever like exercise or yoga; a spiritual journey through scripture and prayer; cuddle time with your children; date night with your spouse; or a hike through the woods to breathe in all of nature's magnificent beauty. Whatever it is, it's deeply personal. It feeds your soul. You need it like you need water and air to breathe. Neglect it at your peril. And neglect it most of us do.
We all know a new year is the ideal time to make a few changes to improve the quality of our everyday life. That's why we make all those new year's resolutions to lose weight, organize, spend less, read more, etc. But those are just about establishing routines and completing tasks. Finding your center is about loving yourself enough to learn how to nourish your soul. Only then will you have the focus, energy and peace of mind needed to love others and to realize your full potential.
This year, how about just resolving to find your center and then feed it? It may take some trial and error to identify it, but you'll know when you've found it, because you'll have more focus and energy to devote to doing everything else without feeling stressed and resentful. You probably already know where to look...you just need to stop ignoring it.
Finding and feeding your center every day...that's the key to easy peasy living!
My favorite Christmas gift each year is the one from my parents. To me, it embodies the true spirit of Christmas perfectly and makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
I come from a family of many, many children who now have many, many children and grandchildren of their own. Buying gifts for each one of them would be chaotic, expensive and impractical. More importantly, all that commercialism wouldn't reflect who my parents are. They are down-to-earth, authentic, self-reflective Quakers (yes, some of that is redundant). Their generosity of both time and money is brimming over with purposeful intent and a goal of leaving all those children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren the most meaningful gift of all...a world made better by my parents having been a part of it. So each year, they carefully select an organization whose mission aligns with the values they've spent a lifetime instilling in their offspring and make a donation in our honor. I really can't think of a better legacy to pass on to my own children.
Teaching altruism is not something you can do except by example, and the more examples our children have of it, the better the lesson is learned. The holidays present a unique opportunity to show our appreciation for those who model the concept throughout the year. One such group is teachers. I used to show our thanks for their service and sacrifice with home-baked goods. But as my kids have grown, we've been blessed by an increasing number of these amazing people in our lives, and there simply isn't enough butter, sugar or time for that to be practical anymore. When the kids entered middle school, with 7-10 devoted educators each, I decided to put into practice the lessons of my parents (finally!...hopefully it was worth the long wait) and teach giving to my children.
It started out with my husband and me making a donation to an educational nonprofit in honor of the teachers at each school. Now that my kids are teenagers with access to real money of their own--not just the Monopoly kind--they set aside a percentage of their allowance each month for giving. During the holidays, they each carefully select an organization whose work touches their heart and donate the money they've set aside all year to them in honor of their teachers. My husband and I match these gifts with a donation of our own to the same two organizations. The kids then write out a holiday card thanking each of their teachers, with a letter enclosed explaining the donation and their reasons for selecting that particular nonprofit. (They also include a candy cane, because it's only fair that the students should have to deal with sugared-up teachers at least once a year...turnabout is fair play, after all.)
The best part of this teacher gift idea is discussing various organizations and the marvelous contributions they make to our world as we deliberate over their selections each year. The decision is not always an easy one. It's also a gift in itself for me too, to see the seedlings my parents started begin to take root in the hearts of my children. I know that long after Dad and Peg are gone, their generous spirits will live on in their grandchildren.
Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year's, or Festivus, December tends to be a frenzied time of year for most of us. Perhaps you are familiar with this old-fashioned holiday recipe?
1 cup Family Togetherness
3 cups Overcommitted Time
2 teaspoons Desire to Impress Others
1/2 cup Unrealistic Expectations
1 3/4 cup Excessive Spending
4 tablespoons Bad Nutrition and Lack of Exercise
2/3 cup Exhaustion
Name Your Goal
What's the most important point to your holiday? Is it spiritual reflection? Spending time with loved ones? Giving something back to help those less fortunate? Taking time to savor the tastes, sights and sounds of the season? Reliving fond memories through old traditions? For many of us, it is all of these things, but you must determine which is #1 on your list so that you can prioritize your activities accordingly. When scheduling conflicts arise, ask yourself which calendar item most reflects your #1 goal for the season. This will help you not to spread yourself too thin. It's okay to say "no", especially if it means saying "yes" to a more relaxed and enjoyable holiday!
Keep it Real
Even Martha Stewart doesn't do it all herself. She has a staff of people to make it all look easy...which it isn't. People are rarely impressed with frazzled hosts/hostesses. Be realistic and accept that you have limits. Embrace them and spend time on the things you enjoy doing to make the season special...a cheerful smile is always pretty impressive, don't you think? It's okay to buy the dessert for your party or to give a gift card you picked up at the supermarket, especially if it means having more time to spend with the people you care about.
Set a Budget
Also not impressive is bankruptcy. Don't give yourself the gift of massive credit card debt this year! Decide what purchases most reflect your #1 goal and budget accordingly. If giving to those less fortunate is at the top of your list, consider making charitable donations in a loved one's name as your gift to them. If enjoying the sights and sounds of the season is imperative, factor in those tickets to the Nutcracker or that especially tall Douglass Fir and plan ahead. It's okay to shorten your gift list to fit within your means...you may find that others are relieved to have the opportunity to shorten theirs too.
Norman Rockwell aside, most of us have some degree of dysfunction or disagreement within our extended families. Holidays tend to bring out the short tempers in everyone, so agree to some ground rules before your spinster great-aunt or your unemployed cousin move in for Christmas week or your mother-in-law reluctantly agrees to let you make the latkes for Hanukkah. It's okay to put all your cards on the table beforehand so that everyone knows what to expect (or what not to).
Give Yourself the Gift of Good Health
Stress and fatigue lead to illness. Over-indulgence leads to guilt and a wide array of health issues. Make the time to eat right, exercise and rest. Your friends and family would rather have you for the holidays than the presents, food and parties. It's okay to take care of you during this busy season so that others won't have to.
Don't forget, today's holidays are tomorrow's memories...you'll treasure them more if you don't make unreasonable demands on yourself. Even memorable holidays can be easy peasy if you just relax, celebrate and enjoy!
A couple of years ago, I posted about the advantages of creating a "command center" in your home to keep everyone in the family informed and on the same page in a low-tech manner. I showed you an example of the elements we included in ours here at Chez Sheridan and provided a few tips on developing your own. If you missed it, you can still read it here. While ours has served us well, I was ready for a change...something simple yet a bit fun and whimsical that everyone in the family could get into. I decided to go with a chalkboard and wanted to share with you just how easy this is!
As I mentioned in my original post, an effective command center should be located in a central spot where all family members will see it. I have this weird little wall between my kitchen and the main living space in my home that makes the perfect spot, but it's also one of the first things you see when you walk in the front door. As you can see from the photo, I'm not very artistic, but part of the fun of the chalkboard is that you get to play around with it and it's a fun way to get your kids (and spouse?) involved too. I'm pretty sure I can trick my teenagers into keeping themselves informed if it involves doodling with chalk!
To make your own chalk wall, all you need is chalkboard paint, painter's tape, some chalk, and an eraser. It really doesn't get any fancier than that. I bought a can of chalkboard paint for about $8.50 from WalMart and still have about one-third of it leftover after two coats on my little wall. Simply tape up the trim with the painter's tape and roll it on. It dries to the touch in less than two hours and is ready for a second coat in four hours. Allow it to dry for three days before writing on it. Then "season" it by rubbing the side of a piece of chalk all over the board. Erase it and you are open for business!
As I said, I can barely draw a stick figure, but there are lots of great resources on the Internet for inspiration on fonts and designs you can use to spruce up yours. This was my first stab at it, but I look forward to getting better with practice and adding some color next time. At least my kids won't be bugging me about what's for dinner tonight and will know what's on the calendar in the coming days.
Get creative and encourage other family members to contribute, too. After all, the whole idea is to foster more communication between you. The more they are looking at the board, the better the chances they'll absorb the information on it, right? Enlist their help in keeping it updated by assigning "chalkboard duty" to a specific person each day or week. Add reminders, an inspirational quote, or some seasonal doodles. My photo only shows the top half of my wall, but I deliberately left the bottom portion blank for my kids and their friends to write on. The more involved they are, the more organized and on top of things they will become.
With a little chalk and some creativity, even keeping the whole family informed can be easy peasy!
Valerie Sheridan is a professional organizer, wife, mother of two, and Founder/Owner of EasyPeasy Living.