Monday, November 30, 2009

Holiday Planning: What to Do This Week

Tip of the Week, November 22, 2009

Thanksgiving is nearly here, but it's not too late to take a few simple steps that will help ensure a smoother, more organized, more enjoyable holiday. Here's what to do over the next few days to keep yourself sane. (These tips are taken from my Guide to Less Stressful Holidays; see the Books and Guides page on my website to order a copy.)

Do some advance prep work for Thursday's meal. Waiting until Thursday morning--or even Wednesday night--to tackle the bulk of your cooking tasks can leave you feeling crazed. Figure out what prep tasks you can do before you start cooking in earnest, such as chopping veggies, boiling potatoes to be mashed, and preparing appetizers that can be refrigerated overnight.

Get the house ready. If you're hosting Thanksgiving, give the public areas of your home a quick cleaning and decluttering early in the week so you can relax a bit before guests arrive. Consider enlisting family members to help with cleaning tasks so you can divide and conquer these chores.

Get organized to travel. Heading out of town for the holiday? Try checking in online and, if possible, packing only bags that you can carry on board the airplane to avoid long lines at the airport. Plan to get to the airport at least 90 minutes before your flight to give yourself enough time to get through security lines and prevent a mad dash to your departure gate.

Enlist and accept help. Instead of driving yourself nuts trying to prepare an entire Thanksgiving dinner--soup to, well, nuts--on your own, get your family and guests in on the act, and be prepared to accept offers of help by having specific tasks ready to delegate.In my family, each person is delegated certain tasks: one person is the designated grocery store runner, one person oversees setting and decorating the table, one person staffs the bar to keep guests' glasses full, and two people take care of all the desserts. In addition, everyone is on call for extra kitchen help if needed. Sharing the work gives the hosts the ability to relax a bit and enjoy the day, and allows everyone to contribute to the celebration.

Breathe. In the midst of this particularly chaotic week, it can be all too easy to succumb to stress. If you feel yourself about to blow your top, whether because you're stuck in an unmoving security line at the airport or because your turkey seems to be taking its sweet time to defrost, pause for a moment and breathe deeply. Try to refocus on the holiday's overall meaning to you and, as much as possible, shake off what's frustrating you. Whatever it is will pass, and might even make for an amusing story someday.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Stocking and Organizing a Home Bar


Tip of the Week, November 15, 2009

During the holiday season, many of us will entertain at some point, whether by hosting a party, a meal, or an open house or simply by welcoming friends and neighbors who happen to stop by. Having a home bar stocked with snacks and beverages can make entertaining easier and more enjoyable, no matter how much of it you do. Here's how to set up your own bar so you'll be ready to welcome guests at the drop of a hat.

Step 1: Think about how you entertain
Before you stock up on supplies for your home bar, give some thought to the type of entertaining you do. If you regularly have parties or other events with lots of guests, you'll want a bar with a range of drinks and non-perishable snacks. If your events tend to be small and low-key, with a few friends or neighbors occasionally stopping by, a simpler set-up with a few bottles of wine and a handful of basic snacks should do the trick.

Step 2: Choose a location
Next up, decide on a location for your home bar. If you have the space, and if you entertain frequently, you might want to invest in a bar cabinet or other designated storage spot for your bar. (CB2 has one of my favorite bar cabinets, with room for bottles, glasses, and other supplies.) You can also tuck your bar supplies into a dining room hutch or a kitchen cabinet, or stash them on a shelf in the pantry or living room. Choose a location for your bar that makes it easy to access from wherever you normally entertain, and one that allows you to store all of your bar supplies together in one spot.

Step 3: Stock up
Now for the fun part: stocking your bar with drinks and supplies. Remember, what's most important is that your bar support the way you generally entertain. If you tend to stick to wine or beer when guests are over, there's no reason to invest a lot in liquor or special glassware--and even if you do serve mixed drinks when you entertain, you might not need shelf after shelf of bottles.

A good rule of thumb is to start with the basics and to add to your bar supplies over time. The very knowledgeable Brad Ellis of The Bar Mix Master Has Spoken blog has a great post with an overview of how to stock a home bar in phases. Phase 1 involves a few simple, flexible supplies such as gin, vodka, sweet vermouth, and bourbon, while Phases 2 and 3 include liqueurs, mixers, and special garnishes.

If you'll be serving beer and wine from your bar, keep a small selection of each on hand. I always try to keep a few bottles each of red and white wine in my bar; around the holidays, I add a few bottles of bubbly and dessert wine to that stash. A six pack or two of beer, or a few larger bottles of specialty brews, rounds things off nicely.

Finally, you'll also want to include non-alcoholic drinks, both to use as mixers and to serve guests who prefer not to tipple. Tonic water is an essential (to prevent waste, opt for cans or small bottles unless you know you'll be using a full bottle all at once); ginger ale and Coke are also handy. A variety of juices can round out your selection.

Beyond drinks, you'll also want to stock your bar with glassware and some basic cocktail supplies like a shaker, cocktail napkins, and measuring glasses. As you expand your bar, you might also want to include tools like a hand-held citrus press (great for squeezing fresh lemon and lime juice), a bar spoon, a paring knife, and a cutting board.

Step 4: Add snacks
To make your bar an even more useful resource for keeping guests happy, it's smart to add some basic, non-perishable snacks into the mix. Classics like nuts, pretzels, and snack mixes are super-simple and easy. Add a few fancy touches like breadsticks, crackers, special olives, high-quality chocolates, dried fruits, and dipping oils.

Remember, stock what you'll reasonably use based on the type of entertaining you do and how often you expect guests. The goal is to limit the amount of prep work you need to do before parties and visits, not to fill your bar with snacks you'll never use.

Step 5: Enjoy!
Once your bar is stocked with drinks, supplies, and snacks, you'll have one less thing to think about when it comes time to entertain. To make things even easier on yourself, consider setting up a self-serve drinks station during parties, with a few bottles of wine and a few house cocktails that guests can mix themselves. Or enlist a mixologically gifted friend or family member to staff the bar during your events so you can focus on mingling with your guests.

After each event, take stock of your bar supplies and replenish them as needed to make sure you don't find yourself short of an essential ingredient during your next fiesta.

However you'll be entertaining this holiday season, a simple, organized, and well stocked bar can make it easier and less stressful to welcome guests into your home. Cheers!

Monday, November 16, 2009

5 Quick Organizing Projects

Tip of the Week, November 8, 2009

Though there are still 24 hours in each day once Daylight Savings Time ends, the early darkness can make it seem like we've got less time to work with than we did before we turned the clocks back last week. And the increasingly hectic schedule of the holiday season means that time is at a premium, even if there's technically just as much of it as at any other point in the year.

The good news is that it's still possible to fit organization into your life even when things get busy and time starts flying. Here are 5 mini-projects you can tackle in 15 minutes or less, along with suggestions on extra steps to take for each if you happen to have a few more minutes to spare.

#1: Declutter a Junk Drawer
If there's a junk drawer in your home or office that drives you nuts, doing a quick sort-and-purge session can help restore your sanity. For the purposes of this mini-project, you don't need to totally reorganize the drawer: just focus on weeding out anything you know belongs elsewhere and anything you know you don't want or need.

Have a few extra minutes? Put some basic drawer dividers in place to keep like items together and to prevent chaos every time you open the drawer. You can use a utensil tray, modular drawer dividers, or simple reused containers like checkbook boxes or empty shallow glass jars.

#2: Do a Pen and Pencil Audit
This is a particularly good project to take on when you want something that requires neither a lot of energy nor a lot of brainpower. (It's also a great task to assign to kids.) Do a quick sweep of the spots in your home or office that tend to collect pens and pencils, then try out each implement, tossing those that no longer write and setting aside for donation those that still work but you don't want or need.

Have a few extra minutes? Distribute a few working pens and pencils, along with a pad of notepaper, in convenient spots throughout your space so you don't find yourself scrambling for something to write with (or on) the next time you need to take a phone message or jot down an idea.

#3: Go on an E-mail Deleting Binge
E-mail sometimes seem to multiply in the time it takes to blink, and it's entirely too easy to find yourself with an overflowing Inbox. Rather than trying to empty out the entire thing at once, spend 10-15 minutes deleting "low-hanging fruit" like old newsletters, spam, out-of-date messages from stores and online retailers, and anything with more than two Fwd:'s in the Subject line.

Have a few extra minutes? Take some time to unsubscribe from any newsletters, electronic store flyers, or other regularly appearing messages you never seem to read. (Remember: don't try unsubscribing from anything that seems like spam. Doing so just lets the spammers know your e-mail address is valid.)

#4: Weed out Obvious Junk Mail
With your e-mail Inbox whittled down, turn your attention to your stack of postal mail. Pull out any junk mail and shred/recycle it. Do the same with catalogs you don't want, anything you have in excess (like those Bed, Bath & Beyond coupons--believe me, you'll get more of them), and the filler material (such as inserts and advertisements) that comes with bills.

Have a few extra minutes? Stem the flow of catalogs you don't want by calling the companies that send them to you and asking them to remove your name from their mailing lists. Even quicker: visit www.catalogchoice.org, where you can remove yourself from mailing lists in a matter of minutes.

#5: Do a "10-Minute Tidy"
Finally, put 10 (or 15) minutes to good use by using that sliver of time to return to their rightful homes any errant items around your home or office. Get files back into a cabinet, supplies back into a drawer, clothes hung up or folded and put away, dishes safely stashed in cupboards. Set a timer and focus exclusively on putting things away until your 10 minutes are up. (This is another great--and, believe it or not, fun--activity to do with kids.)

Have a few extra minutes? Work on finding a home for anything that always seems to be wandering around lost, or that's never where you need it to be when you need it.

Tackle a few (or all) of these mini-projects to keep yourself organized and in control, even when the clock is working against you.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Guide to Less Stressful Holidays

Looking for a great gift to give yourself this holiday season? How about the gift of more organized, more meaningful, less stressful celebrations?

My new e-book, The Organized Life Guide to Less Stressful Holidays, is a comprehensive workbook designed to help you get more out of the holidays with less time, less effort, and much less frustration. The guide is packed with resources, including
  • What to Do Now schedules: week-by-week guides highlighting tasks to focus on throughout November and December
  • 4 organizing projects to help you keep clutter at bay and stay in control throughout the season
  • 11 worksheets to help you plan holiday travel, track gifts given and received, stock your pantry with seasonal essentials, and more
    Checklists for tracking menu planning and pre-trip packing
  • Comprehensive tips on creating meaningful celebrations, enlisting help, welcoming guests, and more
  • Resources for clutter-free gift giving and sharing the joy of the season
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Here's to a joyous and organized holiday season!