Archive for the ‘organizing’ Category

For those of us who cook most of our family meals at home, menu planning can help save money, time, and frustration, but sometimes it is hard to find the time or initiative to get a meal plan going.  In the past, I have used weekly or even monthly menu plans, but as our family gets busier, they have fallen by the wayside.  I have also noticed that it is not always easy to track if you are having variety in your menu (my family often accuses me of cooking nothing but chicken!) or to remember to make old family favorites.

I have spent the last two years teach Excel skills to college students in my job as a visiting faculty, and this summer decided to use a spreadsheet to track my menus.  It gives me a good way to see if we are getting variety, and also to remember old family favorites or to know when we actually cooked the leftovers languishing in the fridge.  Here is an example of my spreadsheet (you can click on it to see the full size version – use your back button to come back to this page when you are done):

The beauty of this list is that I can sort it in a variety of ways if I want.  For instance, sort by protein type to look for ideas for chicken.  Or if it is a special day for a certain family member, sort to find their favorites.  Another thing that sometimes happens at our house is that one family member may miss a dinner due to other plans and on that day, we try to cook something that person doesn’t like.  So we could sort by the “hated by” column to find dinners to make when someone is absent.  I often forget where I have the recipe saved for some of our infrequent dinners, so there is a column to help with that as well.

You could customize this however it works best for you.  You might want to add a column with costs, so that you can find cheap dinners when you need to.

As I always told my students, Excel is an amazing tool and you can do so much with it, both within your career and in your life.  Let me know if you find this idea helpful.




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It’s difficult but the destashing/decluttering continues and progress is being made.  Yesterday, after waffling a bit about the handspun yarn I had, I emailed the middle school art teacher to find out if she wanted it.  She was thrilled to have it so I grabbed the box that was stacked behind my chair and went digging in the closet to find two more. Hey, what are all those notebooks in the closet?  Log books from my soap making days.  I kept the most recent one (probably the most refined recipes) and tossed the rest in the trash on my way out the door to take the yarn to school.  I was not going to allow any time for second guessing!  It felt really good.

Today I went through 3 boxes of of fiber and yarn and posted them for sale on a Yahoo group for buying and trading fiber related stuff.  I did have to stop and fondle a particularly soft batch of wool and silk mix, but then reminded myself that I really don’t enjoy spinning anymore.

The piles are getting shorter and I am happy.  Just packed up a book I sold online – out of print and the lady is thrilled to find it and I am thrilled to send it off where it can be loved:).

Time to go work on dinner.  I bought a pork loin on sale and need to go turn it into the correct shape for pork stir fry.



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I’ve got the food storage blues this weekend.   We have a narrow storage area in our basement that we have filled with shelving.  I use about 30% of the shelving for longer term storage of non-perishables and things like cereal, crackers, noodles, etc.  I think of it as my own personal store.

Wednesday I was off work and went out for the last items we needed for Thanksgiving.  Since I was at Aldi’s, I did a bit of stocking up and brought home things like egg noodles, bran flakes, and graham crackers to put away in the basement pantry.  As I went to put the noodles away, I picked up the last bag of noodles on the shelf to move it to the front and noodles spilled all over.  Looking at the bag, I saw a ragged little hole that had clearly been made by little teeth – MICE!

I groused a bit and carried the bag upstairs to throw away.  My son is working on a physics project where he has to build a bridge out of spaghetti.  I went downstairs to check to see if we had any thick spaghetti.  Picking up the last bag of spaghetti off the shelf, and surprise, a jagged little hole in the end – the mice apparently love noodles.

OK, now I’m getting ticked.  A couple of dollars gone and I count on my food storage to be there when I need it.  Dug out a couple mouse traps and baited with peanut butter and set one on the shelf and one on the floor nearby.

Yesterday I go downstairs to check the traps and one is sprung, but no mousie caught.  I rebait the trap and start looking around at my shelves – could they have gotten into my cereal, my Cheezits, my crackers?  I have enough trouble keeping the kids out of my Cheezits and now I have to compete with the mice too??

I check the boxes and none are chewed.  Then I wonder about the 6 packs of Keebler cookies purchased at the Kroger mega event….

Pulling out the first bag, safe.  Pulling out the next bag – corner chewed, toss in trash.  Pull out the next bag of chocolate covered peanut butter wafers – not only is it chewed, but it is half empty!  Darn little mice must be rotund after that feast.  In all, 3 bags of cookies go in the trash – at least they only cost me about 25 cents each after coupons and the mega event.  So I pick a trap off the floor and set it on that shelf and pull all my favorite foods off the shelf and stuff them in a Rubbermaid tote.

As I wake up this morning I recall that I have several bags of leftover Heath Bars (our FAVORITE candy) left over from Halloween.  Oh no, the mice have gone after the crinkly packaging, did they get into my favorite candy??

Despite singing malicious little ditties about assassinating mousies, I knew I would feel guilty when I actually caught one.  I went downstairs this morning and one trap was still unsprung but completely licked clean of peanut butter.  The licker on the other trap was not so lucky – one plump mousie gone to great mouse beyond.  And I did feel guilty.  And a little sick.  But less so when I did indeed find a bag of Heath bars nibbled.  They couldn’t go after the Twix, which I do not love quite as much as Heath.  These mice are sugar hounds.  They even got into a bag of Splenda – yuk.

So there are now 3 new traps set for tonight.  I have whatever I can put into storage bins.  I hate to go after any living creature, but I can’t have them in my house nibbling on my food storage.  I kind of hope it was just the one guy.    We’ll see tomorrow.  For now, I’ve got the food storage blues….  In the future, may need to hire a cat….

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I have to apologize – I started back to work last week after a summer off and found that putting up a daily blog post was getting to be harder than I thought.  Sometimes I can get to one during my lunch hour, but otherwise I end up posting when I get home from work and am dead tired and not entirely coherent!  I will keep trying, but if you don’t hear from me for a few days, I am just swamped.  Meanwhile, if you are a regular reader and enjoy my posts, shoot me a message to encourage me to keep it up.  My blog stats show that people are visiting my pages, but it would help to know that people are reading and actually finding my posts interesting or helpful.

Beautiful weekend here in the Midwest, if you like it on the cool side, which I do.  I am trying to get out into the garage each week to do a little decluttering.  I have set a goal to be able to pull one vehicle (the car I drive to work) into the garage before the first frost.  Last year I was scraping frost off the car each morning and that is pretty stupid when I have a perfectly good garage.

I have been going through a lot of things that have been dragging after me for 20 years or more and evaluating whether I really need to keep them.  Since I am a University professor, I am having a hard time parting with old engineering textbooks, but I have been trashing all the old notes from classes unrelated to my area of specialization.  I think I will cut down on some of the textbooks and notes I have kept eventually, but Peter Walsh suggests thinning the easy stuff first.  I have also destroyed boxes of old files related to my thesis research.  I have the theses themselves and have not had a need to go back to all my old notes ever since I graduated, so I figured I did not need them.

A few weeks ago, I started listing things on eBay that I knew I did not want, but that may have a bit of value.  I decided not to overwhelm myself, but to try to put up 3-5 listings each Sunday.  Sunday is a good time for me to spend the afternoon listing things (it takes longer than expected even though the process is MUCH easier than it was 10 years ago when I first signed up for eBay) and is a recommended time to have auctions close, since more people have time to surf eBay on a Sunday afternoon.  Before I spend a lot of time and listing fees putting things up, I do a search for completed auctions on similar items to get an idea if it’s worth the time and energy to list my items.

Last week, my first auctions closed and I got bids on 2 of 3 listings for a total of $26.  This week I have 7 listings up and currently have bids on 2 items totally about $60, but I hope they go a bit higher before they close.  I have a few things up for auction that I would not have expected to have any value and are doing quite well.  That is always a nice surprise.    Yesterday one of the shades of our kitchen pendant lamps broke (cheap pieces of junk, it turns out), so we’ve decided to replace them with nicer ones that unfortunately are also more expensive, so I’m hoping for some good eBay outcomes to help pay for those.

This afternoon’s task will be to find 5 more things out in the garage to list on eBay and also go through a few more boxes.  Slowly but surely I am making progress.  Let me know how you are doing.

Best regards,


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This tip may seem a bit self-evident, but I think it bears repeating.  The best way to make sure you don’t run out of things and have what you need is to keep a running list and check it before you go to the store.  If you keep things on your fridge with magnets, put up a piece of paper titled “Grocery Shopping” or something like that and when someone uses something up or you notice you are running low, WRITE IT DOWN.  If you don’t like paper clutter on your fridge or have a stainless steel fridge that won’t hold magnets, keep a list in a designated drawer in the kitchen.  Everyone in the house should learn to write things down.  The best way to convince people of this is when you run out of things they like or need.  Don’t buy it if it isn’t on the list.  Then when you hear, “Mooooommm, why didn’t you get more microwave popcorn at the store yesterday?”  Just shrug and say, “It wasn’t on the list.”  It won’t take long for people to get in the habit of writing things down!

Oh my – I am back to work on Monday, so my posts will be a lot shorter, but I’m going to try to keep up with them.  I think next week’s theme is going to revolve around tips for helping kids settle in to school and do their best.    Education is a number one priority at our house and my work experience teaching college freshman also helps me see what might help younger kids prepare for their future.  Let me know if there are any specific topics you’d like me to address.  Over the weekend, I have some more decluttering updates as well as some other things to share, so check back soon.

Best regards,


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This is a very personal issue.  I like to read about some of the heavy duty couponers and many of them practically have small stores in their homes.  For me personally, I have found that overdoing the stockpiling not only leads to a feeling of clutter but can also lead to waste.  Over the last year, I have slowly been trying to organize my pantry items and in particular make sure that all like items are together so that you can avoid buying unnecessary duplicates and also keep your rotation going properly.  I have also been working on “decluttering” the pantry.  When there is too much junk in there, things get hard to find.

So, how much to stockpile?   First you might want to consider the purpose your pantry serves FOR YOU.    People concerned with preparedness may want to have enough food stocked to last a certain period of time.  Here I would advise people to carefully consider what they stock.  I read a study about people in Europe during WWII that concluded that in times of stress, people have an even stronger need than usual for foods that are familiar to them.  During a disaster is probably not the time to introduce your family to foods they typically do not eat.  Stock what you eat and keep up a good rotation so your stock is always relatively fresh.

People also stockpile for the frugality aspect – buying when things are on sale or cheap/free with coupons.  In this way, they avoid paying the highest price when they NEED something.  Again, stock what you use and don’t overdo it.  I used to like to keep several boxes of dishwasher detergent on hand until I read somewhere that dishwasher detergent chemicals can lose their potency over time.    I don’t know if this is a proven fact, but I  have noticed that older boxes don’t seem to clean as well, so now I only keep the box I am using on hand and start to look for a backup on sale when that box is maybe 3/4’s gone.

Other people keep a well-stocked pantry only to make sure they have on hand what they need to make what they want without special trips.  In this case, your stockpile probably won’t be very large.  Just replace your items with new ones as you use them.

Most of us will fall into a combination of these three types of people.  I myself mostly like my pantry to have things I need in it so I can cook without worry.  But I hate to pay full price for anything, so will stock up a bit when I see something on sale or am shopping at Aldi’s for staple items.  Things I use often and quickly, like canned broth and tomato sauce, I will buy by the case at Aldi’s because I know they will be used within a reasonable time.  Other staples like flour and sugar, I like to have a single backup bag of each when the canisters run empty.   Once I pull a backup into use, I have plenty of time to shop for the replacement package at a good price.  Of course, sometimes when the prices are really good (sugar tends to go on sale around the holidays), I may stock a couple of backups of flour and sugar, but am careful not to overdo it and end up with 2 year old flour coming into circulation sometime in the future.    Between these two approaches I also have a small level of preparedness.   My family could easily make it through a snowstorm on what’s in the pantry, but probably not last for a year off of what is there.

What it boils down to is picking a system that works for you.  I buy cases of some of the items mentioned above and probably use them up within about 6 months.  Other canned items, like kidney beans,  don’t get used as often, so I feel comfortable with a couple cans on hand at a time.  If I see a good deal on non-perishables like toilet paper, kleenex, or freezer bags, I will stock up to the extent I can store things comfortably.

What works for you?  If you looked in your pantry, what have you currently got the biggest stock of?  I just picked up a flat of diced tomatoes at Aldi’s recently.  12 cans at 49 cents each was not even a budget buster.  Second place would be the giant block of paper towels from Sam’s Club.  I just wish they were easier to store!

My biggest tip if you struggle with your pantry stockpile is to start putting dates on things and figure out how fast you use them up and if they stay good for the time you have them.  I knew my old system wasn’t working when I realized that I had 2 boxes of graham crackers in my basement that were a year past their “best by” date.  Fortunately they tasted OK, but when I eventually got a fresh box, the difference between old and new graham crackers was pretty obvious!  I have realized that we eat graham crackers sporadically, so I don’t usually keep a backup box anymore.

Last pantry tip of the week coming tomorrow.

Best regards,


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This week, from Monday to Friday, I am going to post a tip a day on helping get your pantry organized and working for you.    The start of school is rapidly approaching, for both me and my kids, but I don’t want to discontinue posting to my blog.  My idea is to set weekly themes and write shorter posts that go with those themes for Monday through Friday posts.  Weekends can be a free for all!  If you have an idea for a theme, let me know.

So, without further ado, here is pantry tip #1:  Your Sharpie is your friend.

I came upon this idea a bit inadvertently.  One of the first things I put a date on was a 2000 foot roll of kitchen cling wrap (like Saran Wrap, but industrial sized) that we bought soon after joining Sam’s Club.  The date on that box of wrap reads “opened 4/98” and it is still in use!  In fact, there is at least half a roll left.   This date tells me two things – first, it is probably not necessary to stock up on cling wrap any time soon.  Second, I should probably ask my kids which one of them wants to inherit the box of cling wrap.  I have a sneaking suspicion it will outlast me.    Actually, it also tells me I probably made a good buy.  Prior to purchasing that box of wrap, I was buying at least 2 rolls of cling wrap a year at the grocery store at about $1.50 each.  That huge box at Sam’s Club cost me $10, so after 11 years, I think I am well ahead of the game on savings.

My reasoning in putting a date on that wrap was a good one – it is very easy to see how fast something is being used up.  In that way, you will not overstock your pantry with things that will either go bad or not be used for years.  Be sure to put the date you open the item on, not when it was bought, so that you will know how long it took to use it up.  If it is something you are worried about going bad, you might put a date on it when you bring it home  – “purchased 8/09” and then another date when you open it – “opened 11/09”.  That may also be helpful so that you can see how fast things are coming into circulation out of your pantry stock.

The most obvious candidates for dates are things like spices and baking supplies.  When my daughter joined 4H and attended a baking workshop, the lady running the workshop reminded the parents that now was a good time to replace their baking powder, baking soda, etc., since most of us probably have had those items in our pantry for longer than a year and our kids would do their best baking with fresh, new supplies.  I did as instructed and began dating those items as well.

I love to bake bread and so buy my yeast in a vacuum sealed brick.  I have mentioned before that my absolute favorite brand is SAF, which can be purchased at Gordon’s Food Service if you live in the Midwest or else various online vendors also sell it.  I date the bag when I first open it and pour about 1/3 cup into a small glass jar that I keep in my fridge.  The rest stays in the foil bag, and then I put it in a Ziploc freezer bag and pop it in the freezer.  The date is for me to know how long the bag is lasting – I find that my yeast kept like this lasts way past the expiration date listed on the bag.  If you have any doubts, proof your yeast before using.

I know several sources say you should toss your dry herbs and spices and buy new ones about every 6 months to a year, but I don’t do that.  I let my nose and taste buds and my Sharpie date guide me.  If the herbs or spices smell weak, I will just use a little more than called for.  I only toss them if I can’t smell a thing when I open the container.

So, grab your Sharpie and mark away.  I think you will find it helps you be that much more organized.  Not to mention, you can amaze your friends and relatives by showing them the 11 year old box of cling wrap in your pull out pantry as you go to wrap up their leftovers!

Coming tomorrow – tips on where to buy your dry herbs and spices.

Best regards,


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