This is the 5th blog in a series I call “Slow and Simple” where I chronicle my adventures in trying to bring more order and calm into the chaos of life by slowing down its otherwise relentless pace. I have been working my way through different aspects of this theme in the context of our homes and today I want to talk about something very practical - the kitchen. Over the last 5 years I have rethought how I declutter, organize, store, cook, clean, decorate and dispose of waste in my kitchen keeping my “why’s” firmly in mind. I like to cook healthy, comparatively easy meals and minimize waste. I like to manage this space in an environmentally friendly way. How can I limit the seemingly endless march of single-use plastics through it? I want my kitchen to inspire me to cook and I want the experience of cooking to be efficient and enjoyable. The dining table is the hearth or centre of the home because its the meeting place where my family and friends regularly connect and share life together. I want to create lovely memorable mealtimes.
I have discovered that if I lack ingredients or the right implements or can’t find them or feel unenthusiastic because I am preparing food in a dirty, messy, disorganized space and eating it in a dining area that fails to set the right tone for relaxation, then I am more likely to be half hearted in my cooking efforts and not enjoy the process of preparing the meal. I am also more likely to bypass the whole endeavour and opt for expensive and less healthy take-away. I have not eliminated plastic altogether and my kitchen still gets disheveled at times but I have certainly reduced plastics considerably and even though my kitchen gets untidy it is much easier and faster to clean up. The planet doesn’t so much need a few people doing zero waste perfectly (although I am grateful for such people) as it needs a lot of people doing zero waste imperfectly.
Sparing a thought for kitchen management and an efficient shopping system helps make beautiful meals a daily reality because a beautiful meal begins its life in the kitchen. For me long, chatty meals with family and friends are a hallmark of the slow and simple life. I consider them a sacred ritual. I think they help build a sense of connection, community and tribe. And as I will share in my upcoming “simple cooking” blog, mealtimes have the capacity to change the world. It will take a few blogs to cover this topic but today I explain the nuts and bolts of how I decluttered and improved the organisation and storage space of my kitchen. I would love to hear any nuggets of wisdom you have learned. Please feel free to comment below.
Clearing clutter helps make room. For me its not about getting rid of stuff for the hell of it. Or to create some Uber-modern, sterile showroom kitchen in your house. It is about making room for more: Time, passion, creativity, experiences, contribution and contentment. As theminimalists.com put it removing excess is a part of the recipe for creating a more meaningful life - but its just one ingredient. “It get’s us past the things so we can make more room for life’s important things - which aren’t things at all."
I started my decluttering by thinking about what I wanted to cook and what I actually do cook (not always the same thing but both worth consideration) and chose to sort through a set of drawers or shelves a day. I take everything out and clean it. I label four cardboard boxes (from Bunnings):
1. To give away
2. To throw away (damaged and unable to be re-purposed)
3. To sell
4. To put away (the item is lost and needs to find its way back to its home in another part of the house)
I hold each item and ask myself:
1. Does this item bring me joy?
2. Is this item useful?
3. Have I used this item in the last 2 years?
If an item does not meet one of these criteria I box it.
One caveat to the last question is considering how my life might change in the coming couple of years and what I enjoy cooking even if I am not doing so at the moment. I have kept certain baking trays, for example, even though I have limited time at present I know I will return to baking next year.
With everything tidy and organised and stored beside its corresponding kitchen activity it becomes obvious what is missing. These few items I list down and obtain mostly from second hand shops. I don’t rush around. I had already been coping fine without them. I let the list build and when I feel the urge and I find opportunity and energy align, I do a second-hand shop crawl to find them. I managed to find a beautiful wooden pair of salad tongs and a large set of cloth napkins this way.
This is a good decluttering system which quickly processes kitchen belongings. I deal with the boxes later rather than interrupt the flow of decision making in the moment. I feel a buzz each time I conquer even just one drawer, and that buzz becomes addictive spurring me on. There is a palpable sense of lightness as I create order out of mayhem. A frisson of delight each time I open an uncluttered clean drawer, everything easily visible, in its right place, and just what I need. I do this once a year as a Spring ritual and it gets easier and faster each year. I have dispensed with the boxes now because there is little to get rid of. Decluttering and organizing my kitchen has definitely made meal prep more enjoyable and efficient and more likely to happen because I now enjoy spending time in my kitchen. It also makes organisation and cleaning easier. Such small successes lay the groundwork for bigger ones. For me it has been a learned skill - tidiness and planning do not come naturally - but learning them has improved other areas of my life such as study, social life and business.
I find it useful to think in terms of zones when organizing kitchen items, grouping them according to use.
For example, organizing the fridge I place milks together and condiments. Salad and sandwich-filler ingredients are another category. Snacks go together as does dairy. Fruit is separate from vegetables. My sister labels the front side wall of each shelf with permanent marker to help everybody remember her system which is a great idea. It wipes off with eucalyptus oil. I have found organizing my fridge this way makes it easier to locate an ingredient, facilitates decision making, and helps me quickly work out what needs to be restocked. Saturday morning I do a rough clean and tidy and this usually keeps it under control.
Stove top utensils go in the top drawer beside the oven. Most of these things can be purchased from second hand shops. Herbs and spices sit together away from light and heat but easily accessible to the stove top. Hot drink supplies and mugs live near my electric kettle.
Baking implements are all in one drawer so when I want to bake I know to go to one place and all implements needed are accessed immediately. School lunch refillable containers sit together right above the area I used to construct them.
The pantry follows the same zone principle. Tinned foods also share space. Nuts, legumes, dried fruit and pasta go together in glass jars. “Baking ingredients” are separate from “Sugars” like maple syrup, rice syrup, honey and stevia. Condiments that don’t require refrigeration go together in one basket. Breads, rolls, wraps and crackers in another. Pet foods. Breakfast cereals. Spreads. Stock powders and cubes. There is a first aid basket and another for party supplies which includes birthday candles and cake decorations, balloons and banner.
I also have some plastic takeaway containers that I keep for those occasions I am sick or too tired to cook. I use local takeaway food shops that are happy to refill them.
I find it helpful to think in terms of what activities I do in the kitchen; decide where it is most practical do them and locate the food and materials for each close by. Labeling bottles and baskets helps other members of the family to get with the pulse and help me maintain order.
To improve storage in the fridge I have found creating structure around these zones is helpful. Glass Pyrex containers are great for cut up salad/sandwich fillers.
All ingredients required are stored together making it faster and more likely that I will choose this healthy option for lunch. They stack well to maximize fridge space. Clear glass storage makes for easy visibility of contents and is potentially recyclable. And glass doesn’t absorb odours, smells or flavour like plastic can. Contents can immediately be seen when you open the fridge door. For my beloved and young adult offspring, all food stored in brown paper bags or opaque containers that can’t be seen immediately on opening the fridge seems mysteriously invisible and often goes unused.
For the fruit and veg crisper section of the fridge I have discovered these handy, sturdy waxed paper bag plant pots which are super-light and machine-washable.
All fruit and veg are visible on opening the drawers. It is easy to see what needs refilling and I just take the empty waxed bag shopping with me. Fruits need less chilling than veges so I store them separately. My fridge allows me to adjust the temperature in each drawer. I did use normal brown paper bags as storage for awhile, folding back the opening to fit the space, but found over time they got torn and dirty quickly, couldn’t be cleaned and I was going through a lot of them. These washable paper bags are tough. I’ve had them for years now and they show no sign of wear. I got them from uashmama.com and they weren’t cheap but it’s a family business and I consider them an investment in the environment. I like to support practical innovations that solve domestic eco dilemmas. However, I notice that Bunnings is selling very similar plant pots in either paper or hessian with a plastic liner cheap as chips. Look in the small plant pot section inside the store. When empty I throw them in my shopping bags to refill at the supermarket, then they get placed straight back in the crisper.
Freezer foods are kept in “Stasher” bags. https://www.stasherbag.com/ You can get them online or at Howards Storage World. These reusable storage bags come in different shades and sizes and are made from pure platinum silicon from natural resources - primarily sand. They’re 100% plastic and BPA free, non-toxic and contain no fillers. I consider them a real find. It’s a clever, eco design by a women who is both engineer and mum who has a passion to reduce single-use plastics. 1% of her sales go to high-impact non-profits that protect our oceans. No, I am not on a retainer to hawk her product. I just love conscious innovation like this that is better for us and our planet. Every time I open my freezer they remind me that mankind has the amazing ability to create stuff that can heal our biosphere. Contents are easily visible and they stack well saving space. They are also dishwasher and microwave safe and have a very effective pinch lock seal that is easy to open and close. No more orphaned containers missing their absent lids.
I have found that wide deep drawers are good for storage of pots and pans, and crockery.
Cute wicker storage baskets bring a rustic, warmth to the kitchen but serve a practical purpose too. They continue the zone principle housing like items together.
If baking, for example, I take all the baking ingredients out in my dedicated “baking” basket rather than searching for individual items. For an injury I go straight to the “first aid” basket. They also make cleaning a lot easier because you can pull the whole basket out rather than individual items.
Adjustable IKEA bookshelves extend my limited pantry space.
I have learned that I don’t like a deep pantry. Things get lost and end up unused or purchased again unnecessarily. One layer makes food items easy to see, locate and replace. My husband built these shelves which convert my deep pantry into shallow-depth, tiered storage that means everything is clearly visible.
Glass jars are good for pantry storage because they are long lasting and potentially recyclable. It is easy to see when they need to be topped up. I labelled my pantry glass bottles with glass paint and heated them in the oven to set the paint so that it doesn’t come off when I wash up.
We lacked storage in our kitchen for larger items like casserole dishes and roasting trays so I designed stainless steel racks to hang over the kitchen bench. We had a local welder make them up but my husband constructed similar shelves himself for garage storage out of sturdy metal garden trellises and metal chains from Bunnings.
This is all very mundane. I hope I haven’t bored you but none of these things were obvious to me as I was setting up my first home. I wish I’d known. When my life slowed down and I was able to be a bit more mindful about what I do solutions to my organisational and storage problems (actually even just noticing that I had a problem!) emerged. I have discovered that the more organised my home is and the more obvious that order is, the more my husband, kids and visitors can help me out. It also takes less time and effort to teach them to do so. Kids love being grown up and helpful and reading labels helps with their literacy and spelling. I have also noticed that bringing order to my kitchen has helped me enlist more assistance from my now young adult children to cook, clean and shop. They seem to enjoy it more and appreciate the satisfaction that comes from creating simple meals in a pleasant space.
Next week I share my thoughts on cleaning, handling kitchen waste and aesthetics before moving on to talk about the shopping, simple cooking, simple entertaining and a charming, cheap, simple table setting that sets the mood for a good meal.