Organized Meal Planning

Cooking during the week when you’re working full time can be stressful. If you don’t prepare, you can spend all day wondering what you’re going to make. It’s this kind of situation that can make you hate cooking and dread the kitchen.

But it doesn’t have to be difficult.

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Preparing your meals a week at a time is much easier than starting from scratch each day. It also means that you can plan out how in depth you want to go. You can go out and buy bread, or you can plan to bake it yourself.

Make a Favorites List

If you’re planning on (or already have) taking over the majority of your household’s cooking, the best place to start is by making a list of your favorite meals. These can be as simple as frozen pizza, or as complicated as chicken cordon bleu. Just make a list of everything that you know how to make that your family enjoys.

You probably have at least 15 different meals, right? That’s two weeks right there. I would suggest trying to get to around 30 basic meal ideas that you can easily pull from when making a meal plan. If you use each recipe during the course of a month, you’ll only be eating the same thing 12 times a year, so you won’t get tired of it!

Once you have your list, pick out the ones that may take longer to make than others. I love making chicken alfredo, but only if I make the noodles from scratch. Making noodles takes several days to do right, so if I decide to make that, I’ll make sure that the rest of my week is full of easy, “throw it in the pot” recipes.

Unless I got a huge burst of energy, there’s no way I’d make noodles, pizza crust, and pastries in one week. Don’t overload yourself with work. The best part of making a meal plan is that you get to decide what you’ll do.

Check your Pantry

Before writing down your meal plan, check the ingredients that you already have. Chances are, unless you keep a very low stock of ingredients in your house, you’ve probably got enough to make at least one meal, if not more. By being aware of what we have, we can normally keep our weekly grocery budget under $30, unless we have to make a big meat purchase. For two people, that’s not too bad.

Skim the Store Sales

This step can be skipped, and sometimes I do if I don’t have the time or interest to check them out. Once you’ve determined what you can make from your pantry, check the flier for your store and see if there are any ingredients that you can work into a meal.

Write Out Your Meal Plan

Now that you’ve made a few decisions, make sure you write down your meal plan. Most days my husband picks me up from work and asks “what’s for dinner?” About half the time, I have no answer for him. I don’t remember what I wrote down, but that’s okay. The fact that I wrote it means that I have all of the ingredients and can make it quickly.

As you’re writing your meal plan, write your shopping list, too. I write them right beside each other, so if I’m at the store and I wonder why I put something on the list, the answer is right there.

Write Out Your Prep

I also like to write out what prep work I’ll need to do for the next day. Normally this consists of transferring meat from the freezer to the fridge to thaw. If I’ve decided to make something more in depth like meatballs, then I’ll transfer the meat to the fridge two days ahead of time and form the meatballs the day before so they’re ready to be cooked the day of.

Listing prep work separately is something fairly recent for me, and it’s helped so much! I used to make a plan, but then I’d forget to thaw the meat the night before, so I’d get home to completely frozen chicken. I do occasionally still forget that, but it’s much less frequent.

Do you have any special tips for meal planning? Let me know!

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Turn on the Fan!

If you haven’t cleaned your stove top recently, you may have yelled this recently while in the middle of making dinner. I know I have. I’m sure our neighbors harbor a grudge over how many times our smoke detector goes off.

I wasn’t very interested in cooking or cleaning when I was growing up, so when I moved into my first apartment, I basically knew nothing. I was definitely frustrated that I hadn’t asked my mom to teach me this stuff, because it’s kind of important. Instead, I had to call her several times with desperate questions, or resort to a Google search if she wasn’t available.

Sometimes, like this week, I got lucky and found something out by myself.

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In particular, it was about cleaning my stove top. I’m not talking about the glass top kinds, because if you’re lucky enough to have one of those, you probably don’t have to worry about burned on food causing the fire alarm to go off.

What I already knew, was that you have to pull out the coils and remove the bowls in order to clean them.

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I’m sure there are plenty of different cleaning solutions for getting burned on food off your stove elements, but I’ve always used regular baking soda. It’s easy to use, cheap, and you don’t have to deal with any chemical smells. It does require some elbow grease, though, so be prepared to work those muscles! For a tougher mess, you can use some vinegar with it. The chemical reaction between them is great for clearing out clogged sink drains and breaking down mildly difficult messes.

So that’s what I already knew how to do. What I was left with was a messy stove top and four holes that I didn’t know how to clean, like so.

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Getting to this point was so frustrating. I just thought to myself, “Why can’t you just lift this thing up like a car hood? Then it would be so much easier to clean!”

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Turns out, YOU CAN! Dangit!

Anyone who’s cleaned a stove like this before, you probably already knew this, but I had no idea! So anyway, for those of you like me who didn’t know this, the entire top panel of your stove should just raise up like it’s on a hinge, and then the poles on either side will hold the entire thing up once they’re lifted into position. Just like a freakin’ car hood.

I didn’t use any special cleaner for this section either. I just work with dish soap and baking soda. Before closing the lid, I made sure to wipe the whole area dry. Not sure if it was necessary, but I didn’t want any lingering hard water to cause an issue. Wiping down the top of the lid is fairly self explanatory, as well, same basic principle.

Once you’ve cleaned the lid and scraped out the bowls, it’s time to put it all back in. The coils (which I wipe down, too) fit back into the slots that they came out of. I always make sure to put the same coils in the same slots when I’m done. I’m not sure if this is necessary either, but it seem like a good idea.

Once it’s all back together! Voila! You’re ready to make dinner again without having to wave a newspaper at the smoke detector!

Pro-tip: Once you’ve gone through all the trouble to clean your stove out really well, try to avoid making something that can overflow and mess it up all over again. At least wait a few weeks. Prior experience, people.

Well, I’m off to go clean my stove AGAIN! What seemingly simple cleaning tricks did it take you forever to figure out?

Dealing With Exhaustion

Is there anything worse than coming home from a rough day at work and realizing that you still have to make dinner and none of your dishes are clean yet? Well, I guess there probably is, but when you’re in that situation, it sure feels like you’ve reached the ninth circle of hell.

So how do you deal with the exhaustion and stress and still manage to take care of everything that needs doing?

dwe.jpgThis is Bessie, one of our guinea pigs. Isn’t she adorable?

Well, first, I’d say you need to come to grips with the fact that; you probably won’t. People have a tendency to come up with a lot of ideas of what needs to be done. I know I sure do. I almost always end up coming up with a list so long that just looking at it makes me tired.

Even if your list of household tasks is longer than your arm, it’s good to get everything that you’re hoping to do written down. It’s important to see what you want rather than just thinking it. Try splitting up big tasks into smaller ones, so they feel less daunting. For instance, you could separate “Laundry” into “Wash/Dry” and “Fold.” What are the most important things for you? What’s going to bug you more; a pile of unfolded laundry, or a stack of unfiled paperwork?

Once you’ve got the list written down, try to think about how long each task will take you. Really think about it, too. I have a bin hanging on the wall for any papers we get that need to be filed. I usually just pile things on until it seems like the bin might fall down. It stresses me out to have to think about going through all that information and sorting it, but in reality, it only takes about 15 minutes for several months’ worth of paperwork.

Don’t make it harder than it has to be!

Now, look at your list again. Are there tasks that you can get done at the same time? You can use the time while laundry is washing to clean your bathroom, or plan out the meals for the week.

In our house, Wednesday is pizza night. We always use frozen pizzas, because I haven’t been able to find a homemade recipe that comes close tot he flavor of Digiorno. When the pizza is cooking, I know I have 19 minutes to do a little bit of cleaning or planning or whatnot. I could just waste that time by checking my Facebook or Pinterest (and sometimes I do), but it’s a much better use of my time to get through a quick task and check it off the list.

Find the little pockets of time that allow you to keep up with your house, rather than falling behind.

It’s also important to take advantage of the times when you have the urge to do something. For me, that time normally comes at around 9:00 at night. Some people find that urge early in the morning, but I get an extra charge by the moon, so I always end up wanting to do my tasks during inconvenient times.

In the interest of not bugging my neighbors, I do have to funnel my energy into tasks that sometimes I don’t want to do. Here’s the secret, though.

The hardest part of any task is starting.

So, as comfortable as the couch can be after a full day of stressful work, get up and do just 20 minutes of cleaning. It’ll ease your mind, even if only a little, and you might even get the urge to keep going!

Do I Keep It?

We’ve all heard the phrase, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” For me, that’s something that’s been drilled into my brain since elementary school, at least. First, reduce your usage of environmentally unfriendly items, then try to reuse what you can, then recycle whatever’s left over.

But how do you know what you should reuse and what you should recycle?

This is the question that I think a lot of people get stuck on. It seems like just about everyone has at least one person in their life who has gotten in the habit of keeping way too much. They want to reuse everything that comes in their house so they’re not wasting it. In this frame of mind, just about everything is able to serve more than one purpose, which is great because it can stretch your dollar further. Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples of people who take this idea too far (think Hoarders).

My grandparents are definitely in this category. Being born shortly after the Great Depression ended, they were brought up to save as much as possible (because they simply could not afford to go out and buy more than was necessary). This need to keep things that might be useful has passed down to me, as well. My husband and I like to watch Hoarders and other similar shows to keep these urges at bay. Very effective.

If you notice these tendencies in yourself, cleaning up becomes much more of a chore than other people might think. You start out hoping to clear some space only to find yourself faced with multiple projects that you just don’t have time for right now. Before you set that item aside, ask yourself a few questions.

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What are you going to do with it?

If you get the urge to keep something for reuse later, take a few seconds to think about what you’re going to do with it. If you can’t think of a specific use for the item, you probably won’t ever use it.

I find the most difficulty getting rid of crafty items. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found small pieces of yarn that I’ve felt the need to keep. It’s not long enough to knit anything, and I’ve got lots of extra yarn, but I still can’t help the urge to throw it in a bin for later. Really though, what the heck am I going to do with like 4 inches of yarn? Nothing. I’ve gotten good at going through these questions reasonably quickly.

How are you going to do it?

Be honest with yourself. If you look at something and you think to yourself, “I know what I can do with this,” then you need to stop and think about the logistics. Do you have the skills and tools needed to complete this project? If you have to purchase materials for the idea, how much will they cost? Is it even worth it?

If you want to keep a rinsed out salsa jar because it’s a convenient size, but you already have 5 jars set aside and you can’t figure out how to get the labels off, you probably should just recycle that jar because you’re not going to get to it.

When are you going to do it?

If a specific project comes to mind, go ahead and keep the item, but only if you think you’ll get around to it soon (like, within the next week or two, ideally). Believe me, having too many projects lying around the house is stressful. Don’t put that kind of stress on your life, especially when you’re already dealing with the stress of balancing work and home.

The photo for this blog happens to be my stack of photos, ticket stubs, and other small tokens of our adventures that I’d like to one day put into nice photo albums (by the way, I’d never suggest getting rid of photos or memorial items). Having that large of a stack sitting around and waiting for me to get to it is very frustrating for me. As it is, I know that stack will take at least an hour to organize and separate into years. Not to mention scanning everything in, laying out pages on Shutterfly or Blurb, and importing everything. With all that in mind, I’m still keeping that as one of my future projects because that’s something that’s important to me.

I’m not saying that it’s going to be easy to change your saving ways. It’s something I’ve been having issues with for practically my whole life (just ask my mom!). It is something worth working on, though. Clearing your home of clutter and projects clears out the mind, as well, and can help your family live a happier, more stress-free life.

Have you ever found something that you just can’t bring yourself to get rid of?

A Moratorium on Dishwashers

In my Efficient Housekeeping post, I mentioned that I hand wash all of our dishes despite the fact that we have a dishwasher. I’m sure this idea sounds a little bit crazy, but it may just work for you.

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Cleanliness

The most important reason that I started doing my dishes by hand was the fact that our dishes simply were not getting clean. I don’t know how many times I pulled the dishes out only to discover that they were still covered in specs of half washed food.

After trying various brands and amounts of dish soap and having little to no luck, we’ve decided that it’s probably the dishwasher. We’ve been renters for several years now, and have yet to live in an apartment with a dishwasher in good working order. Sure, since the building is owned by a landlord, we could ask that he replace it, but we prefer our privacy much more than having a usable dishwasher. I’d rather we not have strangers in our house fixing something that we can live without.

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Dish Protection

Another reason I stopped using the dishwasher is that it kept chipping the edges of my dishes. Not that we have an expensive set of dishes, but they were given to me by my grandmother when I was a teenager as part of my dowry (yes, I just used the word dowry. It makes me feel fancy).

After just a few washes through the dishwasher when we got our first apartment, almost all of my dishes were already chipped. I was really upset. I’d been planning to use those dishes for the rest of my life and they were already messed up. It ended up becoming a moot point when my hubster did some checking and discovered that our dishes may have contained small amounts of lead in the glaze (This is mostly an issue for plates made in the 1970s and earlier, although this article mentions some other places you might find them).

Once we discovered this, we went out and bought a cheap set of clearance dishes from Boscov’s. (We haven’t gotten rid of our old ones yet, because I don’t want to part with them. We haven’t actually gotten one of those home lead tests yet, so we don’t know for sure if the dishes are unsafe, but we didn’t want to run the risk.)

Anyway, back on topic. When you wash your dishes by hand, the only thing that can damage your plates is if you drop one of them. As frustrating as it is when you break a plate (especially after you’ve already washed it), I still think it’s better than having chunks taken out of all of them.

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Planning Time

As weird as it may sound, washing the dishes can be kind of relaxing. I completely hate starting them, but once I’ve started, I do find it an enjoyable chore. I always have some show on in the background (currently that show is Criminal Minds, which my husband hates, but he doesn’t complain about it when I wash the dishes), so it’s not totally mind numbing.

It’s also a time that I can take to think about how I want to plan out the rest of the week. I’m right there in my kitchen, so I can see my pantry and get a few ideas about what I can make and what I’ll need to put on the grocery list. When I’m done with the dishes, I’ve almost got my meal plan ready to go. That’s killing two birds with one stone! (Sorry, birds…)

**But wait! Doesn’t washing dishes by hand waste more water?**

This is a valid concern. When I first thought about giving up the dishwasher, I was really worried that we’d see a spike in our water bill. After doing some checking, it turns out that it’s actually possible to use less water when hand washing the dishes as long as you do it efficiently. I’m not sure if my method is completely efficient, but our water bill didn’t increase once I started hand washing, so it definitely isn’t all that bad.

What about you? Ever been so frustrated by an appliance that you stopped using it?

Efficient Housekeeping

Since it’s just the two of us, I’ve found that I tend to be a little more lax about keeping up with chores than I want to be when I have kids. Now that we’re truly in the mindset to have children, I want to begin living life the way we will when we do have them. Although I don’t intend to work once we have kids (right now I work full time), I’m trying to improve my homemaking with a busy schedule.

This means my main goal is efficiency. I have to get the most out of my time.

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Determine your priorities.

I know we all want a clean house that looks like it would fit on the cover of a magazine, but let’s face it; that’s unnecessary. Unless you’ve got the time to really clean up and have your family trained to constantly pick up after themselves, that ideal is just going to stress you out.

Before you get started with any cleaning, you need to prioritize and make a plan. What does your family need most to live happy, healthy lives?

In my book, that’s food on the table, clean clothes, and to live someplace that isn’t hazardous.

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Don’t worry about perfection.

Ideally, you’d be able to feed your family healthy, 100% nourishing meals. In the real world, when you’ve just finished a full day of work, it can be difficult to handle much more than a Hamburger Helper or crock pot meal. Anything you make at home is better than fast food, though, so don’t get too hung up on the specifics.

In our house, every Wednesday is pizza night. After trying multiple different recipes for homemade pizza, I decided that it was more efficient for my household if we just stick with buying regular Digiorno pizzas. It’s not as healthy, but it saves me time and it tastes better, so it’s worth it to me.

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Research things that will make life easier for you.

Are there chores that you find yourself dreading every week? Whether it’s laundry, or dishes, or cleaning the bathroom, it’s pretty normal for everyone to have one thing that they just don’t want to do.

For me, that thing is doing the dishes. We have a dishwasher in our apartment, but we don’t use it (I get into the reasoning behind that here). Instead, I wash all of our dishes by hand every week. After a few days, the pile gets big and scary. Every time I started my task, I felt overwhelmed by everything from there not being enough counter space to dry everything, to the plates being too heavy.

After a few months of struggling through the chore, I started looking up tips on how to deal with dishes in a small apartment. As dumb as it sounds, I needed to research the best way to wash dishes. Isn’t it crazy how difficult something becomes once you get used to a machine doing it automatically? Anyway, after going through those tips (I’ll post about those later, I promise!), I finally stopped feeling stressed when I did the dishes. In fact, once I get started, I almost enjoy doing it! You know, until you touch that random bit of food in the water. Blech!

The point is, if something seems to be a huge struggle for you, ask what other people are doing to get past the problem. Everyone has to deal with basic chores. Between the 300 million people in America alone, I’m sure you’ll be able to find someone with an idea that works for you.

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Stick with what works.

Once you’ve found a method that works for an extended period of time, stop looking!

For instance, I’ve tried a lot of different methods of paying my bills and I always end up writing everything down in a notebook. Being able to hold the physical list of what I need to do feels more real and urgent to me than receiving another notification on my phone. I still use Mint to track my spending and so that I can see all of my account balances on one page, but I know that the bill pay service is not something that will work for me.

But my methods shouldn’t be anything more than an alternate idea for you. Don’t pay any attention to what the latest trends on Pinterest or Instagram are. If you try it and you find that it doesn’t work for you, then it’s not efficient and it’s not worth your time.

What do you think? Do you have any tips for running an efficient household?