Getting more organized and eating better are two of the most popular New Year’s resolutions made this time of year - so why not tackle both goals at once? Today we’re looking at 10 easy ways to organize your kitchen and get your meal planning under control using pretty storage containers, easy-to-maintain habits, and a few clever tricks. Ready to get started?
Meal plan regularly - The quickest and easiest way to conquer dinner planning is to have a system for finding recipes and then writing out your menu once a week or once a month, preferably always at the same time to create a habit.
I’ve also found that assigning a regular theme to dinner each night makes it easier to ensure variation in your family’s meals. It can also help with time management and cut down on wasted food. For example, I work Tuesday afternoons and don’t finish until dinner time. By making Tuesday slow cooker day I can ensure that nobody starves on those nights. Similarly, since we grocery shop on Sunday, making Monday fish night helps to ensure that our fish dinners are always nice and fresh.
An example would be something like this:
- Monday – Fish
- Tuesday – Slow Cooker
- Wednesday – Chicken
- Thursday – Left-Overs
- Friday – Mexican
- Saturday – Make Your Own Pizza Night/ Eat Out
- Sunday – Vegetarian Night
Keep a recipe stash - This makes the actual planning portion go a lot faster. Whether you keep a physical stash of magazine clippings, a Pinterest board, or a simple written list, it’s a good idea to have your favorite recipes on standby. That way you don’t have to find all new recipes every time you sit down to plan.
To start your personal recipe database, simply sit at the kitchen table with your cookbooks, recipe websites, and a list of family favorites. Get out a piece of paper and make columns or go high-tech and create a spreadsheet listing all of your family’s favorite chicken meals, fish meals, veggie meals, etc. As you find and try new recipes, continue to add the “keepers” to your list for future reference.
Don’t forget breakfast, lunch and snacks - If you spend all your time focusing on dinner plans, you might forget that you have to feed your family a few other times a day as well! If you don’t plan for these meals, you can end up spending extra money eating out or buying expensive convenience foods. You can plan each individual meal and snack or just buy basics that you know will work (i.e. eggs for breakfast, bread for sandwiches at lunch, fruit for snacks, etc).
Utilizing Your Freezer
Know the best items to buy in bulk for freezing - A well-stocked freezer can be the organized cook’s best friend. Knowing which foods to buy in bulk and freeze will save you a lot of time and money. Here are 13 items we find are always good to buy in bulk plus 5 tools of the trade you may also want to stock up on the next time you’re at Costco or Sam’s Club:
- Boneless, skinless chicken breasts
- Sirloin steak
- Flank steak
- Pork tenderloin
- Pork chops
- Shredded Cheese
- Canned tomatoes
- Spaghetti sauce
- Olive oil
- Minced garlic
- Large ziptop freezer bags
- Reusable storage containers
- Heavy duty aluminum foil
- Plastic wrap
- A good set of knives
Freeze smart - Buying foods in bulk won’t do you a lot of good if you fail to freeze them properly and they end up going to waste. Here are our favorite tips for keeping this staples well preserved and ready to pop into any meal:
Freeze meals in the portion sizes you use - If one family member particularly loves a certain dish and would eat it more frequently than the rest of the family, freeze it in single servings as opposed to a large batch. That way, it’s easy to take one serving out and prepare it without thawing the entire dish.
Freeze ingredients and condiments in small batches as well - Hummus, whether homemade or store bought, doesn’t last that long in the fridge. To keep myself from eating a whole tub lest it go to waste, I freeze it in small cups that I can take out on a weekly basis in portion sizes I know will get used. It freezes beautifully. I also do the same thing for applesauce, tomato sauces and pureed garlic. Freeze sauces, yogurt, and purees in ice cube trays or silicone baking cups, then transfer to a container or bag once solid.
Make a habit of thinking about dinner ahead of time - Take 10 seconds every night and look at what you’ll be eating for dinner tomorrow. Slow cooker meals are crazy convenient if you remember to start in the morning... not so much if three o’clock rolls around and you realize your pot roast should have already been cooking for 4 hours. Whether it’s setting an alarm on your phone or just keeping your weekly menu out in the open on a chalkboard, do whatever it takes to get in the habit of thinking about dinner in advance.
Cook when you have time - Let’s face it, for lots of us 5 o’clock just isn’t a very convenient time to start chopping and sauteing. There’s a reason, after all, that this time of day is known as the “witching hour” for parents - the kids are often starting to get tired, a bit cranky, and more than a little needy. Even if you don’t have children, you may work late or just not feel like spending a lot of time in the kitchen at the end of a long day.
I’ve started doing as much meal prep as possible earlier in the day. If I’m working in the afternoon, for example, I’ll put my daughter down for nap and start cooking with my son around noon. We address whatever can be chopped or mixed and then sit tight for a few hours. Obviously this won’t work for everyone’s schedule but it’s worth thinking about doing some of your meal prep in the morning, the night before, or on the weekends and then freezing if possible.
Have a back-up plan - We’ve gotten into the habit of making one or two freezer meals with the kids on the weekends. While it’s not necessary to have a freezer full of meals, it is nice to have something you can throw in the oven when the day has unexpectedly gone awry. Do a web or pinterest search for “freezer meals” and you’ll find a bevy of options to choose from.
Having a few super simple recipes in your toolbox can also help on those days (or weeks) when you barely have time to cook - let alone meal plan. I’ve even developed a complete emergency week meal plan for our family. Basically, it’s a list of five weeknight meals and a Sunday night meal that take the least amount of time possible to prepare and that I know my family will eat happily.
I keep all the ingredients for the emergency week meal plan listed on a laminated piece of paper and when I know It’s going to be an especially crazy week, and I have no time to meal plan, I fall back on it. I take it out of the drawer, quickly mark off anything we already have with a dry-erase marker, and head to the store. In no time I’m set for the week.
Use pretty props to keep out what you use the most - Part of being efficient in the kitchen is not wasting a lot of time foraging through your cabinets looking for ingredients and cooking utensils. There are tons of good ideas floating around Pinterest on how to keep some of your most-used cooking essentials at arm’s reach in pretty ways. A few of our favorite ideas include:
- Keeping a basket of cooking staples (favorite cooking oils, salt and pepper, favorite seasonings, etc.) on the counter near the stove.
- Natalme’s tip of using a cake stand to store hand soap, dish soap and a dish towel next to the sink.
- Home Made Modern’s feature of freeing up counter space by storing fruit in pretty wire magazine racks mounted to the wall.
Use Office Organization Tools to Maximize Kitchen Space - Pinterest is also a great source of inspiration for ways to efficiently set up your kitchen using common office organization tools. Again, a few of our favorite tricks include:
- Using a wire CD rack to store tupperware lids from Just Imagine: Daily Doses of Creativity.
- Mounting a magazine file inside of a cabinet door to tuck away foil, saran wrap, etc. from Home Idea Maker
- Using a larger magazine file to stack and store cans in the pantry from PB & J Stories.
Did you get all that? Just in case, here’s a handy free printable with our 10 tips for organizing your kitchen and diet in 2014.