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Last week I spent some time talking about ways to maximize efficiency when grocery shopping. I ended my post with a short section on lists and a promise to revitalize my own list to share with you this week. Well, I’m happy to say that I was able to work on a new list and even give it a test run when I went grocery shopping last Thursday!

Six ways you can optimize your list

Before I get to my new list, here are a few general tips anyone can adopt to optimize their grocery list:

  • Keep your list visible at home so you can easily add to it when items come to mind.
  • If you keep your pantry stocked in a particular way, add items to the list to replace those you use right after you use them so you don’t forget.
  • Try to arrange your list by common items or by subject to make it easier to flow through it when you’re at the store.
  • Bring a pen and even a clipboard when you visit the store so you can cross items off your list and have a flat surface to write on.
  • Clearly mark items you don’t end up buying for whatever reason so you can easily transfer them onto your next list.
  • Consider making your list digital for easy editing and so you can carry it with you everywhere—try a cell phone or a PDA.

How I revitalized my list

Before revamping my own list, I followed most of those tips above.  However, one in particular I knew I needed to work on: arranging my list by subject. That is what I worked on this past week and I’m very excited about my new format! Here’s what I came up with:

grocery-list

Again, I shop primarily at Walmart Supercenter and I occasionally stop by a local supermarket called Trig’s. I have a planned route I take through Walmart each time I go so I thought it would be useful to arrange the items on my list to fit my route. Last time I was at Walmart, I took special note of actual aisles and locations of items I buy so I could make my categories. I also kept in mind aisles I visit frequently, versus aisles I almost never visit.

I decided to hang my new list on the refrigerator, right where I kept my previous version. But this time when I add an item, I add it directly to the section where it can be found in the store. That way when I am actually shopping, I will (ideally) never backtrack or retrace my steps. My first test-run went very well and it felt so efficient!!

Creative lists from around the blogosphere

Since my list is tailored specifically for Walmart, I thought it would be useful to look up other list templates created by fellow bloggers. Not only can you use these lists for yourself, but you can also borrow ideas from them (or mine) to apply to your own special list format.

I would also like to mention here that I had a great comment on last week’s post from a reader, Shannon.  She shared:

We keep a running list of items then meal plan and decide the rest of the list. Last month I make a print out of what items are on which isles at the store we frequent most. Now when I need to shop I get a copy of this, circle the items I need and off I go. It saves a lot of time to know beforehand which isles I can totally skip. The other magical thing I JUST thought to do last week is to start on the opposite side of the store from which I’ve been doing it for 20 years! Start with the dairy and end with the produce! Now everything fits in beautifully with the produce on top!

Thanks Shannon! 🙂

Reader Reflection

Do you use a special grocery list template when you go grocery shopping? Feel free to share here!

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Say the word leftovers to a group of people and you usually end up with a wide variety of reactions ranging from, “we live off leftovers in our family” to the more dramatic “eeeew, leftovers are gross!” I fall into the first category of people—I don’t know what we’d do without leftovers at our house!

You see, I grew up eating leftovers regularly as a kid. It was a normal occurrence and I didn’t know of any other way. Then in college, leftovers became essential. There was no way I had time to cook every night (and sorry, but Ramen Noodles just weren’t appealing). My roommates and I enjoyed cooking massive feasts on Sunday nights and eating the leftovers during the rest of that following week.

Fast forward to the present and many of you have probably already noticed how many times per week I plan ‘leftovers’ into my Meal Plan Mondays posts. I haven’t lost my love of leftovers and today I’d like to share why.

leftovers

Why I think leftovers are so great

Leftovers save us time

Let’s get the obvious out the way right off the bat. Including leftovers as a meal one or more times per week just plain saves time. It normally doesn’t take any longer to cook your casserole or pasta bake slightly larger to ensure leftovers. But it does take time to have to cook a brand new meal every night!

I try to plan eating leftovers for those nights during the week when my husband and I have meetings and cooking is a little harder to squeeze in. In all, I usually only end up cooking new meals 2 to 3 nights out of any given week!

Leftovers prevent waste

Let’s face it. As hard as you might try to make the exact amount of food for any given night, it is downright impossible to achieve this feat for some recipes. Whether you have several servings or just a couple of bites left, it certainly doesn’t make any sense to throw it away!

You aren’t only throwing away your money, but in reality you are also throwing away your time—time you spent cooking that food in the first place and time you will have to spend cooking in the future because you aren’t saving that food for another meal. Pack it in your husband’s lunch the next day or find ways to creatively mix small amounts of leftovers into your next meal. Whatever you do, just don’t settle for tossing them in the trash.

Leftovers help us plan ahead

One additional reason I love leftovers is because of the potential to plan ahead and freeze food. For example, when I make large dishes like lasagna or enchiladas for just my husband and me, I often end up removing several servings and freezing them in small containers for a rainy day.

That ‘rainy day’ might come when you are scrambling last-minute before a meeting, or when you are too sick to cook. I actually find it quite fun to dig through the freezer and see what exciting food I can find from months before. When does lasagna ever take 5 minutes to prepare? When you pull it out of the freezer!

What to do if you can’t stand leftovers

If you fall into that latter category of people who make a face and say, “eeeew, leftovers are gross” then you might not be totally convinced by my three points above.  But all hope is not lost.  Here are a few tips to help you deal with dreaded leftovers:

  • Ensure you won’t end up with leftovers. As stated above, it can be tricky for certain recipes to make exact amounts. But once you figure out your family’s eating habits, you can tweak your recipes to achieve perfect or near-perfect results.
  • Change the way you prepare leftovers. If you hate leftover pizza because it gets all rubbery and gross in the microwave, then try reheating it in the oven. Another way you can change things up a bit is to try to take your leftovers and work them into something else. For example, we sometimes take leftover fajitas and fry them into quesadillas the next day.
  • Wait to eat your leftovers. I mentioned freezing leftovers above, but you can also just wait a few days to finish them off if the reason you don’t like leftovers is because you don’t want to eat the same food two days in a row. Variety is a good thing! Sometimes my husband and I wait several days to eat leftovers so that they end up feeling almost like a new meal when it’s finally time to eat them again. Just be careful not to wait too long as food obviously only has a limited time before it spoils.
  • Just give leftovers a chance. Perhaps your issue isn’t with eating the same food two days in a row, but with eating food that isn’t fresh. Have you actually ever tasted leftovers? While not everything tastes great re-heated, certain leftovers can actually taste even better than the first time around because flavors have time to meld in the refrigerator. Try leftovers sometime, you might be surprised.

Reader Reflection

I obviously love leftovers, but what about you?

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Last week I continued the series I’ll Be Homemade for Christmas with some fun tips about making special gifts that use plants. I’m excited today to get to talk about something completely different, food! It’s hard to go wrong with food gifts because who doesn’t love to eat and enjoy something homemade and delicious! And another great thing about a homemade food gift is that it is consumable, which ultimately means less clutter. So food gifts can actually help your recipient stay more organized in a manner of speaking! Let’s start by brainstorming a little when it comes to gifts that can be made using food.

making-cookies

Brainstorming food gift ideas

Whether you are an expert chef or you just know how to bake a frozen pizza, there are several great homemade food gift ideas to choose from that will suit your lifestyle and skills. Here are just a few to get you started:

  • Bake and decorate special Christmas cookies
  • Make fun Christmas candy or other holiday dessert
  • Prepare a homemade spice blend
  • Share some of your summer garden harvest canned or frozen goods
  • Make a special homemade soup and freeze small containers to give away
  • Arrange a food gift basket
  • Prepare a collection of favorite or easy recipes
  • Make homemade hot chocolate or other beverage mix
  • Prepare base recipes in containers to give away

An example of a homemade gift using food

The sky is the limit with food gift ideas, but I’d like to focus on one in particular that makes a perfect gift for people who are busy, people who don’t cook much, or people who don’t know how to cook very well. That gift idea is the last one on the above list: preparing base recipes in containers you can give away.

To get started you just need to find any good recipe (baked desserts are best) and prepare only part of it, the dry ingredients. Place the mix in a decorative jar or other container that seals well. All the recipient has to do in turn is add the wet ingredients and bake. cookiesYou will need to provide a list of the necessary wet ingredients, in addition to baking instructions. An easy and creative way to do this is to print a small label for the container. You might also choose to add a personalized message too!

Mixing all the dry ingredients together ahead of time into a nice base recipe is great for at least three reasons. First, preparing dry ingredients it is often tedious and perhaps the hardest part of any given recipe so you end up doing a significant portion of the work for your recipient. Second, certain people who don’t cook much might not even have special dry ingredients on hand, so you’ve saved them a trip to the store. Third, you will save the recipient a lot of time because adding a couple of wet ingredients to your base recipe takes hardly any time at all!

Now let’s take a look at some examples. A popular choice is to prepare a base recipe for cookies or brownies. But think outside the box a little too and consider food like homemade bread, quickbreads, or even cornbread. Consider making more than one base recipe for any given recipient so they don’t run out too quickly.

Cornbread base recipe
(from the back of the Quaker Yellow Corn Meal Box)
1 ¼ cups all purpose flour
¾ cup Quaker Enriched Corn Meal
¼ cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt

In your directions you would have the recipient simply add 1 cup of skim milk, ¼ cup of vegetable oil, and one beaten egg. Bake mix in a greased 9-inch pan at 400 degrees F for 20-25 minutes. It’s a piece of cake! Well, more like a piece of cornbread.

Homemade food gift ideas from around the web

There are many great ideas on the Internet when it comes to creative homemade food gifts. Here are just a few I’ve found:

Reader Reflection

Have you ever made homemade gifts using food? Feel free to share any ideas here.

Coming up next week

Next week we will learn about creative gifts you can make using your words!

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Today I want to conclude my short series on the pantry. So far you’ve learned how to save some time by creatively stocking your pantry and yesterday you read about three money-saving tips you can adopt while doing the stocking. All that’s left now is to take all your stocked food and organize it in the space you have. It doesn’t matter if you have an official pantry or if you use kitchen cupboards; these spaces are much better off organized in such a way to maximize your efficiency in meal preparation and to prevent food waste.

I’ve broken down the pantry organization process into 8 steps. You may already be past the first few steps, and that’s great! But if you desire to start from square one, then these tips will be just what you need to begin. So let’s organize our pantries!

Step 1: Empty your shelves

Find a large surface nearby (like your kitchen counter and/or table) and empty your pantry’s contents onto it. Yes, that’s all. This first step is easy!

Step 2: Toss and combine

This second step might be easy for some and hard for others because it involves throwing things away and consolidating. I happen to enjoy these practices because they make me feel like I am accomplishing something (instant gratification!) and I ultimately can free up much-needed space in the process. So what you need to do is go through all your food and assess what needs to be pitched and what needs to be consolidated. Do you have popcorn that expired 3 years ago and likely won’t even pop in the microwave anymore? Toss it. Do you have 3 different containers of garlic? Combine them into one and get rid of the other two containers. Don’t be wasteful, but be realistic and diligent…you want to start with a nice clean slate.

Step 3: Figure out which food items go together

What you do next is something that is useful with anything you organize—categorizing. Don’t think about your space yet, just think about the food for now. Which foods naturally go with others? Here are some examples of categories that I used: baking ingredients (like flour, sugar, baking soda, vanilla, chocolate chips, etc.), cooking ingredients (like spices, broths, oils, bottles of marinades or sauces), snacks (like chips, popcorn, or candy), breakfast foods (like cereal and oatmeal), beverages (like coffee, tea, hot chocolate, etc.), and stand-alone foods (like boxed pastas, rice soups, peanut butter, etc.). After you are done arranging everything into nice tidy categories, it’s time to take a deep breath.

Step 4: Assess your shelf space

Look at your nicely arranged categories of food all over your kitchen. Smile. Now look at your pantry or cupboards. Don’t panic! While you probably won’t be able to keep the exact arrangements you’ve chosen for your food due to space limitations, you can still get it close. Re-evaluate your categories now with this new information. Above you saw that my food separated into (mostly) nice, organized groups. But the shelves in my cupboards are an assortment of sizes so I needed to make a few adjustments. Each of you will have to make the necessary adjustments that suit the layout of your space. Here’s a breakdown of how I arranged the food I listed earlier onto my shelves (keep in mind that I don’t have an official pantry, so I need to use regular kitchen cupboards):

  • Cupboard 1 (2 shelves): baking (shelf 1 & 2)
  • Cupboard 2 (3 shelves): spices (shelf 1), canned ingredients (shelf 2), bottled ingredients (shelf 3)
  • Cupboard 3 (3 shelves): pastas (shelf 1), sauces & soups (shelf 2), stand-alone foods (shelf 3)
  • Cupboard 4 (2 shelves): cereal (shelf 1), oatmeal & breakfast bars (shelf 2)
  • Cupboard 5 (2 shelves): salty snacks (shelf 1), sweet snacks (shelf 2)
  • Cupboard 6 (1 shelf): beverages
  • Cupboard 7 (1 shelf): oils, potatoes, and rice (shelf 1)

So as you can see, even though I had to split some categories up, I was still able to keep them near each other. And for certain illogical cases, I just had to deal with it. For example, I don’t see any rhyme or reason to how oils, rice, and potatoes go together, but these large items (I buy all these in bulk) only fit in this particular cupboard! When you tackle this challenging step in your own kitchen, you might find that it is a lot of trial and error. But don’t be discouraged—you’ll discover a good system if you put your mind to it!

Step 5: Arrange your food onto your shelves

Now that you’ve decided where you will put everything, you need to find an efficient way to arrange it all on the shelf. Keep three goals in mind as you do this: (1) maximize use of space (i.e. can items be stacked, or placed in a different order?), (2) keep arrangements logical and efficient (i.e. which food items do you use more often?—keep them near the front) and (3) minimize chances of food items being forgotten about and expiring (i.e. is everything visible and reachable?)

Step 6: Consider improvements

Here’s a chance for you to get creative. How did step 5 go? Do you still need more room? After a few weeks of meal preparation do you find that certain items are not in logical or convenient places? Don’t be afraid to make changes to improve your system. For example, do you love containers that you can label? Things like flour, sugar, and other baking items are perfect for this type of storage. The great thing about special containers is that they are stackable and they seal and keep food for longer. Another idea to consider is changing shelf heights in your cupboards to better fit items or buying special racks that can add an additional surface to any given space. Experiment!

Step 7: Stick to your system

There’s no point in having a great system if you don’t stick to it. Be careful not to allow all your great new arrangements to turn into chaos again! Put items in the EXACT place you found them. When you buy new items, remember your system and arrange them accordingly. Every once and while take a look at the bigger picture and make sure you aren’t slipping in any areas. If you stick to it now, you won’t have to go through this arduous process all over again in the future (unless you move!).

Step 8: Rejoice!

You’ve gotten a major area in your house organized…so celebrate! There’s nothing wrong with enjoying your accomplishment and feeling good about yourself. So go on and give yourself a pat on the back.

Reader Reflection

Do you have any creative pantry organizing ideas you’d like to share?

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This week I’d like to do a series on the pantry. We all have some kind of space in our kitchen where we store food. Whether you have an actual pantry or just utilize various cupboards like I do, there are definitely ways to better organize it. Today I specifically want to talk about creative ways to stock your pantry so you can save time when you need it the most and have more flexible meal options.

Why stock your pantry?

A while back, I wrote up an illustration about two starkly different scenarios with regards to meal preparation. One instance in each scenario involved going to your pantry and seeing if you had the ingredients you needed for the recipe you chose. In the chaotic scenario, you were missing some ingredients and had to make a run to the grocery store, while in the organized scenario, you had what you needed and were able to get started right away. The key here is saving time by avoiding inefficient and inconvenient trips to the store when all you really want to be doing is getting that meal cooked. Let’s face it, evenings especially can be busy and stressful with meetings, kid’s activities, and generally everyone running in different directions. Furthermore, if you’re like me and live well out into the country, a trip into town to just go to the store for a couple of items is a real time killer and gas waster. Finally, stocking your pantry certain ways can offer your family more flexibility in cooking–who wants to eat the same thing every night?!

What about meal planning?

Some people are meal planners. In other words, they map out their days or even weeks and decide what they will cook each night. This makes grocery shopping easier and stocking your pantry a little less important because you know exactly what you will need and can buy it in advance. However, if you aren’t really much of a meal planner week to week (I tend to decide what I’m going to cook right before I cook it), keeping your pantry adequately stocked will accommodate this lifestyle beautifully. So let’s take a look at how we can do it!

Assessing what you need

The first thing you should do is figure out what you need in your pantry so you can maximize its usefulness. This involves a little analysis, but you only have to do it once and it’s definitely worth it in the end.

  • Skim your recipes. However you organize your recipes (we’ll talk about that later!), you most likely have a set of recipes that you make regularly. Take a look at those recipes and see if you can spot common ingredients. For example, when I look over some of my regular recipes, I repeatedly see ingredients like pasta, rice, onions, chicken broth, cream of mushroom soup, french fried onions, soy sauce, white cooking wine, flour, sugar, baking powder, and various spices to name a few. If you stock up on these common ingredients, you are much more likely to have what you need to make a complete recipe on any given night.
  • Think about how you improvise. Admit it, we don’t have time to cook everything from a recipe, now do we?! Sometimes I just throw things together quickly so I definitely want to make sure I have those ingredients on hand. In fact, just last night I made a quick batch of spaghetti before our meeting and all I had to do was go over to the pantry and grab a box of pasta, a can of tomato sauce, a can of diced tomatoes, an onion, and some spices. What do you improvise with? Do you have the ingredients to get by?
  • Walk through a typical day. What do you eat for breakfast or lunch each day? Do you have to prepare meals for your kids, yourself, or your spouse for school or work? We always make sure we have plenty of things like cereal, oatmeal, peanut butter, bread, crackers, chips, pudding, macaroni and cheese, canned soup, etc. on hand. Even though these meals don’t take as much prep time, they are still necessary and you don’t want to be milling around the kitchen 10 minutes before school starts trying to figure out what to make for your kids in their lunches.

Assessing how much you need

This step is a little trickier and really takes some trial and error to get it down to a science. I avoid just having one of any given ingredient because you have no idea how much or when you will need it between stops at the grocery store if you don’t plan ahead. So I usually end up getting a minimum of two, but with extremely common things, I often try to have several on hand. To illustrate, let’s look at two examples, cream of mushroom soup and chicken broth. I use cream of mushroom soup in casseroles a lot, but I don’t tend to make casseroles that often. Therefore I keep two cans on hand at all times because when I peruse my recipes, I see that the most any given recipe calls for is two cans. However, I cook with chicken broth a lot more regularly, especially if I am just throwing something together (it makes great additions to improvised soups, sauces, and sautés). So in that case, I keep about 5 cans on hand. You will need to keep track of your own cooking habits to decide how much of any given ingredient to keep around. Just don’t forget to consider the ultimate goal at all times: having what you need when you need it so you don’t have to go to store or change your plans.

What about perishable foods?

I’ve really only mentioned non-perishable foods in your pantry up to this point. As far as perishable foods go, I take the same approach, but with moderation due to the fact that these foods don’t keep as long. I also rely heavily on my freezer to keep foods like meat on hand. I always try to have chicken, hamburger, Italian sausage, and pork available to cook with. You just have to be careful not to forget about these items to avoid freezer burn and spoilage. Furthermore, I also use my pantry to store back-ups of ‘refrigerate-after-opening’ items like salad dressing, BBQ sauce, lemon juice, parmesan cheese, etc. That way when the item in your fridge runs out, you have another one available in the cupboard.

Keeping on top of stocking

So you’ve stocked your pantry once, but when items start disappearing how do you keep on top of re-stocking? I keep a grocery list magnet on my refrigerator and whenever I take an item out of my pantry, I add it to the list. It’s like keeping an inventory and always making sure you replace what you use.

Reader Reflection

How do you stock your pantry and keep track of how much you use? I’d love to learn creative ideas from people with different lifestyles.

Coming up…

Tomorrow we’ll take a look at a few money-saving tips in your pantry because if we’re going to buy ahead, we might as well try to save money too!

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