Posts filed under ‘Get Organized’

Tips for Organizing and Saving Money on Spices

Spice tins in a box

Herbs and spices have always presented a challenge for me for two reasons:

  1. They are expensive. It’s hard at times to justify spending five or even 8 dollars on a small bottle of any ingredient.
  2. They are difficult to store and organize. Lots of little bottles don’t lend themselves to any sort of reasonable organizing scheme that doesn’t also take up a lot of space in my cabinets or pantry.

And, if these two issues aren’t enough, to a person, every chef I’ve ever talked to or taken a cooking class from has said that spices go bad quickly because oxygen degrades their flavor. In the last couple of years though I’ve solved my herb and spice challenges using two tactics:

  1. I buy my spices in bulk.
  2. I store my spices in small square tins.

These two approaches combined help me spend less on herbs and spices, keep them fresh, and store them in a reasonably sized space. My hope is that my trial and error in developing this system might be helpful to anyone still trying to overcome the same challenges I’ve face. If you have a great system for storing herbs and spices, I’d love to hear about it in the comments – I’m always looking for new ideas.

Buying Spices in Bulk

I buy spices in bulk for three reasons:

  • I can buy as much (or as little) as I need. If I only need a few teaspoons of a spice I don’t regularly use, I can buy just that much and not let the rest go to waste in my pantry. I can also buy seasonal spices like pumpkin pie spice or poultry seasoning only at the time of year I need them. I’m also more likely to experiment with a new spice if I don’t have to spend a ton of money to try it.
  • Like other bulk foods, spices tend to be less expensive because there is less packaging involved. Ounce-for-ounce, bulk spices are less expensive than their pre-packaged spice aisle equivalents.
  • I can completely replenish my entire spice collection every three months for less than $25 so I always have fresh spices on hand. Because I paid so little for my spices in the first place, it doesn’t bother me to toss ¼ of a 89 cent bag of chili powder.

My local Central Market has an extensive bulk spice department with Whole Foods coming in a close second. If you don’t have access to a good bulk spice collection, there are several online spice retailers including:

I buy many of my spices whole and grind them when I need them. Whole spices last longer because their outer shell protects them from oxygen, and an inexpensive coffee grinder makes grinding them easy. If you’ve never had freshly ground nutmeg you’re really missing out on the true nutmeg flavor. The same is true for freshly ground pepper.

Spice Storage Made Easy

I struggled for years with the best way to store spices. I’ve looked at every spice storage system imaginable, but the problem is I like to keep a healthy collection of spices on hand – typically between 30 and 40 different varieties. Many spice bottle organizers are great for 12 or even 20 bottles, but once you get past a couple of dozen spices, they simply take up too much space. Also, because I buy in bulk, my spices come in little plastic bags instead of bottles which makes them even more difficult to corral. After some experimentation I landed on square food safe tin containers in two sizes: 4 oz. and 8 oz. I like these for a few reasons:

  • Square containers make the most of available storage space. Round containers always create unused empty space when you set them side-by-side.
  • The clear lid makes it easy to see how much of any spice I have left.
  • The lids fit tightly to keep as much air out as possible.
  • They are inexpensive. A 4 oz. container is $.72 and an 8 oz. container is $.91. It cost me less than $30 to set up my entire system, even with my rather large collection.

A collection of tins will fit nicely in a drawer or even in a small basket on a shelf. My tins will even fit in an existing spice rack that’s already installed in a pantry. I was a little short on storage space, so I recycled a wide and shallow plastic storage box I purchased a few years ago. It’s translucent to help filter out the light – another enemy of spices right there with oxygen and heat – and it fits neatly in a cabinet within easy reach.

I do organize my spices alphabetically to make them easier to find.

Group of spice tins organized alphabetically

I use a two-tiered approach that utilizes mostly 4 oz. tins with a few 8 oz. tins for the spices I use most regularly.

Spice box with two layers of tins

Finally, I use my Brother P-touch to make labels for the tins so anyone in the family can easily find a tin. If I decide I don’t need to store a particular spice any longer, I remove the label, wash the tin, and set it aside for future use.

 Ground cumin in a tin with a label

Finding Your System

My approach to spice storage is based on the number of spices I regularly keep on hand, easy access to bulk spices, and my kitchen’s storage space. As you think about how best to store your spices, you’ll need to consider similar issues. If you can only get spices in bottles, then dark, air-tight bottles that block the light may be your highest priority. If you only keep a dozen or so spices on hand, a pretty counter-top storage rack may be just right for you. No one system is right for everyone, but hopefully the ideas I’ve shared here will jump start your spice organizing fun.

January 27, 2010 at 8:00 am 9 comments

Getting Started with Coupon Organizing

Coupons with scissorsWhen it comes to saving money at the grocery store, I’ve traditionally focused most of my energy on menu planning based on what’s on sale each week. I also tend to shop at warehouse stores and buy in bulk to save on items we use frequently. I’ve begun investigating Alice.com and Amazon.com as ways to purchase food in bulk and with free shipping, and I’m always looking for ways to use inexpensive cuts of meat in my weekly cooking. One thing I haven’t regularly done to save money is clip coupons, and I’ve been increasingly interested in how coupons might help me stretch my grocery budget even further.

While I know I have a lot to learn about the best way to find and use coupons, I do know for coupons to work for me I’ll need a way to keep track of them that doesn’t take a lot of time. This week, I spent some time researching keeping track of coupons and learned quite a lot:

  • Find a system that works for you. Over the years, I’ve learned that an organizing scheme doesn’t work if it doesn’t work if you aren’t comfortable using it, so you may need to experiment with a couple of different approaches to managing your coupons before you find one that really works for you. Coupon Geek has a great post that outlines three different organizing approaches to give you some options to consider. Common Sense with Money also has a similar overview for more information on each approach, and Coupon Savvy Mom provides a run-down of your options with pros and cons for each.
  • Plan for the inserts and the loose coupons. I hadn’t really considered this, but coupons come in varying flavors, including groups of coupons that take the form of inserts or books, and loose coupons you gather over time. HomesteadBlogger took a class on couponing and put together a very detailed overview of what she learned about how to manage all forms of coupons. Worth the read if you are looking for some great detail.
  • Consider what kind of couponer you are. Casual couponers have different storage and organizing needs than more dedicated couponers. The Donna Reed Syndrome blog has a fantastic overview of the difference between types of couponers and systems that might work for each.
  • Think about how you’ll want to categorize your coupons. Almost all of the coupon organizing approaches include some method for sorting coupons into categories. But, what categories will you use? Will you sort by product type? Alphabetically? By the way the store is organized? Stay a Stay at Home Mom offers some insight into your options, and The Frugal Homeschooling Mom offers up her collection of categories as a guide. Coupon Loving Mom also shares her more detailed categories so you can see how your categories might evolve over time.
  • Pay attention to how you clip. Sometimes the devil is in the details, and organizing neat coupons is easier than organizing ones that are ripped and folded. A Thrifty Mom details her approach to clipping coupons with step-by-step photos.

While I haven’t quite decided what method I want to use, once I do, there’s a wealth of good advice on how to make each approach work best:

I’m just dipping my toe into the world of coupons, and I’m not wholly sure how deep I’ll go, but I’m looking forward to learning more.

January 12, 2010 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

Menu Plan Monday ~ January 11

Menu Plan Monday logoLast week’s Menu Plan Monday was so much fun! I got so many ideas reading other people’s menu plans and recipes, and I enjoyed putting my menu together to share with everyone. Last week was just a bit hectic because it was our first week back to work and school after the holidays, and my daughter had extra rehearsals for her musical theater performance. I did manage to stick with my menu but only by the skin of my teeth on a couple of nights. This week is much quieter so I’m going to take the opportunity to make a couple of recipes that freeze well so I’ll have mostly-ready meals on hand for the next time I’m facing a week like last week. I’m continuing to test the menu planning tool that’s in its early stages of development – it really does make things easier. Our plan for this week has shaped up like this:

  • Monday: Fish Baked in Foil with steamed broccoli and roasted red potatoes
    Cooking fish in foil is easy and makes clean up a breeze. My family loves to eat right out the foil package at the table and this preparation has made them more willing to try different types of fish.
  • Tuesday: Buffalo Tacos with a green salad and grilled pineapple
    These tacos are made with lean ground buffalo that I love to use whenever it’s on sale. This is a one-dish taco that only needs a quick salad and some fruit to round out dinner.
  • Wednesday: Lemon-Lime Soda Marinated Chicken Breasts with soba noodles and steamed edamame
    I will triple this recipe and put 1 ½ full recipes of un-cooked marinated chicken in the freezer. I will cook the remaining 1 ½ recipes of marinated chicken and use the leftovers for stir fry later in the week.
  • Thursday: White Chili with Ground Turkey with cornbread
    This chili doesn’t have to cook all day so it’s practical on a weeknight. I’ll triple this recipe as well and put 1 ½ of the cooked chili in the freezer. Leftovers from Thursday’s dinner will be the topping for Frio pies later in the week.
  • Friday: Make your own pizza night
    The whole family loves this night because we get into the kitchen together and cook. Everyone makes their own version of their favorite pizza but it costs much less than ordering pizza out. I buy the dough pre-made from a local pizza place, but my local grocery store also sells prepared pizza shells. Everyone in my family likes at least one vegetable on their pizza, so I don’t serve anything along side, but you could toss a quick salad together to go with the pizza.
  • Saturday: Quick stir fry with leftover chicken
    A cooked bag of frozen Asian-style vegetables, some teriyaki sauce, leftover chicken, and some brown rice come together in a quick and easy stir fry for a weekend night.
  • Sunday: Frito pies made with leftover chili
    Frito pies are a throwback from my childhood and they are a fun and easy family dinner. Simply reheat the left over chili in a sauce pan, open an individual bag of Fritos or other corn chips, put a cup or so of the chili in the bag on top of the chips, and sprinkle on some grated cheese. While you can dump the chips into a bowl first, it’s much more fun to eat this dish right out of the bag.

January 10, 2010 at 8:00 pm 4 comments

Five Easy Strategies for Organizing Your Pantry

I’ll admit – I’m a little bit type A about keeping my house organized, particularly my kitchen. Somehow, if my home is organized, I can manage the natural disorganization that comes with being a mom, wife, and business woman. Over the years I’ve experimented with different ways to keep what can be one of the most unruly part of my kitchen (well really house): the pantry. As I thought about it, there are five key things that I do to keep my pantry in some sort of reasonable shape.

Strategy #1: Use tiered shelf organizers to make pantry items easy to see

I can’t tell you how many cans, jars, and bottles I’ve lost in the back of a pantry because they were hidden behind another taller or wider item. Tiered shelf organizers let you make the most of the depth of your pantry items while raising them up so you can really see what’s on each shelf. I like the expanding variety because I can adjust them to fit different spaces. If you keep a lot of the same kinds of canned goods, you may find that a shelf made specifically for cans may work better for you.

Strategy #2: Make a corner work for you with a lazy Susan

Corners can be the land of the lost in a pantry. Jars and bags get shoved into them and don’t emerge for months, or sometimes years. I’ve discovered that a lazy Susan, or small turntable, turns corners into a useful and usable space. You can place a collection of jars or bottles on the tray and give it spin when you need one from the collection. They even make double-tiered models to accommodate small jars and bottles.

Strategy #3: Keep baking ingredients fresh and neat with square canisters

I can personally attest to the fact that when left to their own devices, bags of flour and sugar will leave a powdery mess all over your pantry, no matter how well you try to reseal them after opening. Bags are also really difficult to corral neatly in a pantry (see Strategy 4), and bugs just love to crawl into the tiny openings in the seams of bags. For many years I used round glass canisters that I had bought at a garage sale to hold my baking ingredients, but they were heavy and didn’t make the best use of space. I recently switched to the OXO square and rectangle container system and I couldn’t be happier. These bad boys are designed to stack neatly and the variety of sizes works well with just about any shelf configuration. I will admit that they are a little pricy, so I replaced my glass containers one or two at a time as I found the OXO containers on sale. I use labels from my hand-dandy label maker to keep track of what is in the containers, but you could just as easily use hand-written labels with the same results.

Strategy #4: Corral bags with baskets and larger containers

So many pantry items come in bags, like pasta and rice for example. Others like oatmeal packets and snack bars come in bulky boxes that get smashed and generally run amok on pantry shelves. Add in items from the bulk department like nuts and trail mix, and a pantry can quickly become unmanageable. My favorite tool for keeping bags of things organized and contained is a large bin. Bins are available in every size and made from every possible material. You can pick them up at the dollar store, the Container Store, Wal-Mart, and just about anywhere else you shop. I tend to use several bins in my pantry to hold like items. I have a pasta bin, a snack bin, and a cookie decorations going right now. Before you go shopping for bins, be sure to measure your pantry shelves and select ones that are only about ¾ as tall as your shelves. This makes it easier to see what’s in them and to get bags in and out.

Strategy #5: Turn empty wall space into storage

My pantry has a big blank wall that was crying out to be put to use. The problem is that my pantry is narrow to begin with, so adding additional shelves even 9 inches deep would make it almost impossible to move around in it. My solution instead was to purchase some inexpensive shallow baskets from IKEA and hang them in sets on the wall. They are only a few inches deep but are tall enough to hold boxes of wrap, bars of chocolate, bags of nuts and fruit, and even my label maker. They installed quickly and have proven to be very durable. Because they are a part of a system, you can completely customize the number and size of baskets to fit any empty wall space you might want to make use of. If you don’t have an IKEA near you, look for similar products at Target, Wal-Mart, or even a home improvement center.

Putting the Strategies to Work

Before any of these strategies will work, you need to know what you’re trying to organize. I know it may be painful, but the best approach I know of is to empty your pantry entirely, group your items by type (baking goods, canned goods, pasta, rice, sauces, spices, etc) and see what you have to work with. Ask yourself:

  • Which of these can be stored in their current containers? Will a lazy Susan or tiered shelf make them easier to work with or are they fine as they are?
  • Which of these might do better if they were moved to a different container? Would a larger bin work or possibly a canister?
  • Which do I use most frequently? These should be closer to the front and middle of the pantry.
  • Which ones do my children regularly access? Be sure to put these on shelves that are low enough for little hands to reach?

When you can see everything laid out in groups, you’ll find I think that it’s easier to imagine how you might organize them together in the pantry. Once you’ve identified a set of items that need a solution it will also be easier to find a container for those items.

Advice and Tips from the Blogosphere

My approach to organizing my pantry works well for me, but I know that my approach is just one of millions, so I spent some time searching for other ideas and approaches that might be useful. Along the way I picked up some new tips and tricks, including:

  • Approach your pantry re-organization with a plan. This 10-step guide from A Child Grows in Brooklyn is a great one to follow.
  • Corner cabinets can be a big waste of space, but with the right approach you can make them work for you. This post from I’m An Organizing Junkie has some great ideas for making the most of these odd spaces.
  • Organizing a pantry when you regularly buy extra on-sale items presents its own specific set of needs. You’ll need ways to keep track of many of the same pantry items, like packages of oatmeal or canned vegetables. Jen, from Balancing Beauty and Bedlam illustrates in graphic detail how she whipped her pantry in to shape to help her stockpiling approach to shopping.
  • If your pantry is small or you have a lot of things to store, consider creating an overflow space in another room like your garage. Haggard Mom details how she took this approach to support her new canning projects.
  • Sometimes help from a professional is just what you need to make your pantry a better place. The good news is you don’t have to pay for a professional organizer, instead, watch this video from The Insightful Nana to see how a professional organizer tackled her pantry.
  • The Perfect Pantry blog features a different pantry every week, making it a great place to get regular new and interesting tips for keeping your pantry organized.

Maintenance Matters

I tend to pull everything out of my pantry at least once a year and revisit my organization scheme based on new foods I’m cooking with, new culinary hobbies (baking, canning, cookie decorating, etc), and to fix whatever organizing approaches might not be working just right for my family. While the whole process takes about half of a day, it’s really worth it and helps me avoid losing things in the pantry during the rest of the year. I also do a big pantry clean out before major holidays and before school starts to help streamline these busy times. Each clean out takes a couple of hours. For a total of 8 hours a year I can keep my pantry usable and my sanity just a little more intact.

January 5, 2010 at 8:00 am 1 comment

Menu Plan Monday ~ January 4

As I’ve been exploring the blogosphere I came across a really fantastic concept organized by Laura from I’m An Organizing Junkie: Menu Plan Monday. I’m a huge proponent of menu planning, it’s really the only way that I can be sure my family will have nutritious meals that I can manage to get cooked during the week. Without a plan I tend to thrash about in the afternoon and try to find a way to fit a quick grocery trip into my schedule More often than not I end up just grabbing food on the way home or ordering out, both of which I’m trying to avoid.

Menus Based on What’s on Sale

I use a new tool still in the early stages of development to help me with my menu planning. It looks at the products that are on sale at my local grocery store (an HEB in north Austin, Tx) and then makes recipe recommendations based on my preferences. Because it’s right after the holidays there are all sorts of good things on sale this week: pork loin, strip steak, and shrimp to name a few. I’m feeling adventurous this week so we’re trying out four new recipes, but I could throw in a family favorite if I wanted to as well. My daughter has a dress rehearsal and an upcoming performance this weekend so we have a couple of dinners out planned and I’ll be doing creative things with leftovers on Sunday. Our plan for the week looks like this:

  • Monday: Pork Chop and Au Gratin Potato Bake with steamed green beans
    A comforting dinner for our first day back to work and school after the holidays; leftovers will reheat well for lunch.
  • Tuesday: Chipotle Shrimp Tacos with Uncle Ben’s Mexican rice and black beans
    My family loves these as an alternative to the same ol’ tacos.
  • Wednesday: Rosemary New York Strip Steak with roasted potatoes and carrots
    This simple recipe makes the most of the steak. Leftovers are great for lunch sandwiches.
  • Thursday: Pick up sandwiches after dress rehersal
    Rehersal is from 5:30 – 8:30, so making dinner just isn’t practical. Sandwiches are light and easy on the wallet.
  • Friday: BBQ Glazed Homemade Meatballs over egg noodles with a side of steamed broccoli
    I can enlist kid help in the kitchen to make these and we’ll use the leftovers on Sunday for BBQ meatball subs
  • Saturday: Special dinner out after performances
    We traditionally go to a sit-down restaurant to celebrate success or a job well done. This counts on all fronts.
  • Sunday: BBQ Meatball subs with coleslaw
    Meatballs from Friday take on new life as subs. My grocery store makes good coleslaw so dinner is easy as we get ready for the next week to start after a hectic weekend.

January 3, 2010 at 9:18 pm 4 comments


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