Sunday, November 18, 2007

Getting Organized for the Holidays: The Kitchen

Tip of the Week, November 11, 2007

Thanksgiving is less than two weeks away, and Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s won’t be far behind. The holiday season can be one of the most enjoyable times of the year—as well as one of the most stressful. This year, give yourself the gift of more pleasant holidays by taking some simple steps between now and the end of December to get organized for the celebrations ahead. Over the next several weeks, I’ll be sharing tips designed to make the holidays less hectic; this week, I’ll start with some ideas on how to get your kitchen in better shape.

Ring (and bring) out the old
If you’re like most of us, by this point in the year you have things lurking in your fridge, freezer, and pantry that you haven’t used in months (if ever), can’t remember buying, or, in the case of mystery leftovers, can’t quite identify. The span of time before the food-heavy celebrations of the end of the year begin is the perfect opportunity to weed out the unneededs, undesirables, and unidentifiables from your kitchen. Even if you won’t be hosting big meals or parties during the season, chances are you’ll need extra storage space for holiday foods you get from others; in addition, clearing out the old stuff will help keep your food supply safe (as you won’t risk eating or serving anything past its prime) and will help you start 2008 off on an organized foot.

Enlist some assistants (in the form of kids, your partner, a friend, or a neighbor) and do a thorough sweep of the food in each area of the kitchen (including any space you use for extra or longer-term food storage). Toss anything that’s expired, stale, dusty, or that you haven’t used in more than a few months. Foods that are unexpired and still in good shape but won’t find their way to your table anytime soon are great candidates for donation to your local food bank, where they’ll be put to use to serve folks in need.

Put what you’ll need front and center
If you’ll be doing any significant cooking or baking over the holidays, identify the ingredients you might need and rejigger your storage spaces slightly so those items are easy to find and grab. For example, if you don’t do much baking during the rest of the year but are planning to whip up multiple batches of cookies around Christmas, gather things like flour, baking powder, sugar, and decorating supplies in one fairly central and easy-to-access spot so you won’t have to dig for them (or run out to the grocery store and buy multiples) when it’s time to get started.

Prepare for leftovers
Holiday meals and parties almost invariably mean leftovers, so it’s smart to keep a few storage supplies on hand to get yourself prepared. Now’s the time to reacquaint yourself with all of the food storage containers that might be roaming around your kitchen. Gather them all together, and take the time to match up containers with lids, getting rid of any orphans. (This is the perfect activity for kids, and is a great way to get even young children involved in the organizing process.) Toss or recycle any plastic containers that are warped or that have any sort of scratching or scarring on the inside; these scuffs can leach chemicals into food stored inside the containers. (And as a general rule, never heat leftovers in a plastic container that’s not specifically labeled as being microwave-safe or heat-resistant.)

If you don’t have any—or enough—food storage containers, invest in a new set. I’m especially fond of Pyrex’s glass containers, which are sturdy, stackable, easy to clean, and can be put in the fridge, freezer, microwave, oven, and dishwasher. For storage containers you’ll be giving away, consider emptied and cleaned coffee cans, large yogurt containers, and other reusable packaging. Keep all of your food storage containers stored neatly in one spot so they’ll be easy to grab when you need them.

Make a list
Finally, avoid last-minute runs to the grocery store by creating detailed lists of what you’ll need for the meals and celebrations you’ll be hosting. For large meals like Thanksgiving dinner, make a list of staples you can buy ahead of time (such as stock, oil, flour, and dried herbs) as well as a list of things to buy a few days beforehand (essentially anything that can’t linger in the fridge for too long, such as vegetables, fresh herbs, milk, and fruits). Keep your lists posted in a convenient spot so you can add to them as needed.

Take the opportunity this week to start to get your kitchen holiday-ready. You’ll be better prepared for the celebrations ahead and will be able to spend more time enjoying them and less time stressing about them.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Organizing Printed Photos

Tip of the Week, October 28 and November 4, 2007

This week’s Tip is in response to an organizing frustration sent to me by my aunt, Shawn Murphy, who writes, “My problem is my photos: tons and tons of them taken over the past many years. I have pictures of folks at family clambakes; pictures of grandchildren from birth to ages 9, 8 and 5-1/2. (Heck...I have photos of nephews and nieces--yes, even pix of YOU as a baby--) stashed away in huge plastic storage boxes, lingering in the cellar, in bureau drawers, in half-filled albums, under the attic eaves, in my (HA!) ‘office.’ You name a place in my house, and yes, I have photos stored there (and let's not forget the 'fridge...I have a ton of them there).”

Photographs tend to be both a delight and a curse. Life would be so much less interesting without snapshots of meaningful people, moments, and scenes, but all of those pictures can quickly become overwhelming and wind up as clutter. It’s possible, though, to bring some order and organization to your favorite photos so you can actually enjoy them (which, after all, is the point). Here’s how.

Curate your collection
Unless you’re a very careful shooter who’s never taken a bad photo or a very diligent editor, chances are your collection includes some (if not many) less-than-perfect pictures—not to mention shots of mystery people, places, and things that you can neither remember nor identify. The first step in an organized photo collection, then, is weeding.

Photos, like letters and other memorabilia, can be extremely hard to let go of, even if they’re of poor quality, damaged, or unidentifiable. As you weed, then, remind yourself that getting rid of a picture doesn’t mean getting rid of the related memory, or of the person or experience depicted in the photo. Also bear in mind that the more snapshots you have, the harder it will be to access and enjoy them (not to mention store and care for them). Aim to let go of boring, out-of-focus, and over- or under-exposed shots, as well as those of unremarkable people, places, or things (which is to say, anything or anyone you can’t identify or don’t care about). If you have duplicates, either send them along to the people featured in them or people who would enjoy them, or put them in your Toss pile.

Make realistic storage decisions
Many of us have grand ideas about what we’ll do with the photos we choose to keep. Often, these ideas include putting them in albums or using them to create scrapbooks, and even more often, this means that the photos (and quite possibly the albums as well) wind up hanging around for years. To prevent your pictures from becoming a cluttered, guilt-inducing mess, choose photo storage that’s realistic for you. If in fact you have the time, inclination, and patience to create albums, go for it: this can be a great way of organizing your pictures, and of accessing them when you want to browse. You can choose from albums with slip-in pages (which are quick and easy to fill) or those with paper pages onto which you stick each photo. Just be sure to avoid albums with adhesive pages, which can damage and discolor pictures.

If you’re surrounded by pictures and albums you intended to pair up years ago but haven’t, give yourself a break and choose a simpler method of storage. Photo boxes are a good option; these are roughly the size of shoeboxes and are made of acid-free cardboard that won’t damage photos. Most come with dividers so you can separate photos within them by category or date. Be sure to take your photos out of the envelopes they came in so they’ll fit easily. If you keep your negatives, label each sleeve by date, subject, or some other information that will help you sort them. Stack your photo boxes on shelves or together in a larger cardboard or plastic box or bin, grouping them by date, people, type of event, or some other category. Ideally, aim to keep pictures away from excessive heat, humidity, and temperature extremes, all of which can cause serious damage.

Stem the flow
Moving forward, make a conscious decision to limit the number of printed photos you allow into your life. Small steps—such as getting single prints rather than doubles, even if doubles are only a few cents more—can make a big difference. If you don’t yet have a digital camera, consider buying one; even simple models take quality shots give you the option of deleting photos you don’t like. (Look for a Tip on organizing digital photos in a few weeks.) If you shoot digitally, be sparing with the number of photos you print. Choose only those truly worth the expense of printing, and keep the others stored on your computer, a memory card, or a disc.

Use the photos you already have to create gifts for friends and family members. A simple album of photos you select for someone is a thoughtful, personal present, and has the added bonus of allowing you to pare down your photo collection. You might even invite your loved ones to browse through your pictures (perhaps lending a hand with sorting and weeding in the process) and choose ones they’d like. A few special photos in frames can also make a sweet gift.

Getting your photo collection under control, whether it’s as extensive as my aunt’s or simply a few scattered boxes, is an investment of time and effort worth making. You’ll get to reconnect with your pictures, let go of the ones that are little more than clutter, and store the ones you want to keep so you can enjoy them for years to come.