Exhale. We made it to week 4! Is your kitchen looking a bit like Humpty Dumpty after the big fall? There’s this children’s book I love, called After the Fall. It’s the story of how Humpty Dumpty got back up again. But this particular story is more about the process. The messy process is just as powerful as the beautiful outcome, if not more. As you’re feeling the it-gets-worse-before-it-gets-better syndrome, I hope you’re able to embrace the humble story of the egg. We’re implementing a new framework, a new system for navigating the kitchen. Good things like that take time. They make messes. And then, they get better. This week is about how to make it better.
A NOTE OF GRATITUDE
The Minimalist Kitchen Course is brought to you by our partner, OXO, a brand that has brought calm to the chaos of my kitchen. We’ve partnered together to make this course a free resource to you.
Putting it all Back Together Again (You are here)
Week 4: Putting it All Back Together Again
• To put together all the puzzle pieces of kitchen conceptualization
• Understand 3 organizing guidelines: increase visibility, compartmentalize, and give everything a home
• To determine a final inventory/shopping list
• Understand how to maintain a pared down kitchen through shopping, meal planning, and choosing recipes that fit within your framework
PUTTING TOGETHER THE PUZZLE PIECES
I’m not going to recap the week prior like I normally do here. Instead, I’m going to recap the entire course, putting together all the puzzles pieces so you can clearly see the big picture.
Let’s zoom out and fly over this course from a birds-eye view for a second. The Minimalist Kitchen is a framework in which to navigate your kitchen in a more doable fashion. You can plop (can you hear it?) this framework into any kitchen, customizing it to work specifically to your needs and likings. The textbook, my book, is my particular application of the framework. In it, you see my final inventory list, from my tools to my ingredients. You also see the recipes I make based on my inventory list. In an AHA moment a couple weeks ago, someone said—Oh! You’re showing me how to create my minimalist kitchen, my final inventory list, and my cookbook. Yes! That.
Whether my recipes become your recipes or not, I want you to see them as something else for this exercise, too. The recipes in my book are the practical application of the idea that less is more. These aren’t five-ingredient recipes. Some of the ingredient lists are long because I’m utilizing everything I’ve kept to its fullest. You can too. So many of us are looking for simplicity. And we’re asking our recipes to provide this simplicity. But maybe we’re looking to the recipe when we should be looking to the kitchen.
I like to think about The Minimalist Kitchen framework like I think about the cooking method mise en place, which means everything in its place. Before beginning to cook a recipe, you get everything in its place with this method, chopped and at the ready, for seamless cooking. The Minimalist Kitchen Framework is mise en place for the kitchen. Your kitchen is prepped and ready to cook 7 days a week.
You might be wondering why we’re complicating this course by talking about recipes instead of only focusing on organization. This framework is comprehensive because it has to be. The kitchen is an ecosystem. The recipes you make impact what ends up inside your cabinets, drawers, pantry, and refrigerator. It impacts the way you shop, too. If you don’t attend to every system, like we’re doing, you may find yourself right back to where you started, to a chaotic, hard-to-cook-in kitchen. I learned that the hard way.
We’re flying out of the kitchen for a second and over a big park. A park with a sandbox. Can you see it? Let’s go back to the analogy of the sandbox in the book on page 14. The sandbox is square. It has clear boundaries and parameters, unlike the big park in which it exists. While the park offers limitless space, the sandbox does not. Your kitchen is the sandbox, not the park. It has boundaries (a capacity). And understanding those boundaries is necessary in order to create a user-friendly, low-waste, dinner-producing kitchen. I’d even go so far as to say these boundaries will bring back the joy in your kitchen, giving you healthy parameters to create within.
Here’s the thing about boundaries. They keep us from driving off the road and crashing. They allow us to stay alive to do the things we love most. Boundaries, like ecosystems, acknowledge that there is a natural order to things. Everything comes with a specific set of rules. Like your broccoli, for example, it has a short life span. It does best when kept refrigerated after being cut from the earth. It also has a specific set of nutrients to feed your body what it needs. These aren’t the kind of rules that strip joy away, these are the kind of rules that define the natural order of things. And when you can understand how things naturally work, then you can build or design really good solutions to handle their naturally occurring problems and needs, rather than fighting against them. To do so in your kitchen, you define an objective, you begin to understand the natural order, and then you work backward to solve the problem. This all must be sounding familiar.
The Minimalist Kitchen framework is a really big puzzle. Now let’s fill in some of the final pieces.
Putting it All Back Together Again
After performing the task of paring down last week, you’ve shed a huge layer. Everything left in your kitchen right now is from the keep category. Meanwhile, the undecided items have been removed for 3 months in order to free up space and help make the final decision very clear. A pared-down kitchen, however, can still look visually chaotic when left alone. Mess begets mess, giving visual permission to create more mess. So let’s put it all back together again using 3 simple requirements: increase visibility, compartmentalize, and give everything a home. For additional guidance in setting up your pantry, reference pages 26-27.
Note: This method takes a financial investment. Do it as you are able, attacking one area at a time.
The first item of business is to increase visibility. If you had to give a percentage, how much of your kitchen was completely hidden from your visibility before? Maybe you have deep shelves where things go to hide. Or items still in their original packaging from the store that make it impossible to gauge how much is left. When you’re unable to see items in your kitchen, you’re also unable to receive visual reminders to use the item as you naturally navigate the space. Over time, as you accumulate more things to keep track of mentally, that item in the back of your cabinet, that you promised yourself you’d remember, quickly becomes forgotten. It’s to be expected.
When I finally came to terms that I couldn’t trust my brain to keep inventory of everything in my kitchen, I gave up trying and built a visual inventory system. This type of system is good for everyone in the home. How many times have you said, “They never put things back in the right place!!” A mental inventory is only good for one person, but a visual system is good for everyone. Whether you’re opening your fridge, pantry, drawers, or cabinets, you should be able to see everything without digging. It should all be in plain sight.
But what about…
Deep shelves. Deep shelves are the worst shelves. I have a general rule for myself—only store two rows deep. Any deeper and things get forgotten. If you have plenty of storage in your kitchen, then don’t use the full depth of the cabinet (or the fridge for that matter). However, if you’re tight on storage, then I recommend pursuing a couple solutions. Consider the back half of depth as unusable space, and add additional nearby storage (see Week 1). Not all storage space is good storage space. Or, add two bins to the shelf, one to hold items in the front and one for the back. The bins will allow you to easily retrieve the items in the back without having to completely rearrange the shelf every time.
Corner shelves, cabinets, and lazy susans. Corner shelves, that awkward deep storage space, tend to be a good place to store small appliances or another similar grouping of items. Organize the space to least used in the back to most used in the front. Like deep shelves, you can also compartmentalize using bins for easy retrieval if storing smaller items.
High cabinets. Again, not all storage is good storage. Consider storing items used less frequently (2-4 times per month up higher). In fact, that’s the hierarchy I’ve given my upper cabinets. The higher you go, the more infrequent the use. Again, if you don’t have enough user-friendly storage for your everyday items, then consider adding more or reducing the amount of things you keep stocked.
In the same way that we’ve navigated this process, breaking down a really large idea into smaller, doable chunks, compartmentalize, compartmentalize, compartmentalize. Large spaces without dividers is a recipe for chaos. Break them up, add dividers, compartmentalize. Take your utensil drawer, for example. If you threw all your forks, spoons, and knives into one drawer, it would be entirely inefficient to find what you’re looking for while also trying to put dinner on the table. The same is true of all other drawers and cabinets in your kitchen. Compartmentalize everywhere you can. Though it may seem counterintuitive, compartmentalizing actually maximizes the storage capabilities of a space.
To create an intuitive kitchen, group similar items. If you need extra guidance here, think about the way the kitchen section of your favorite home goods store is organized and follow suit.
Hello tidy! OXO has an expandable utensil organizer that adjusts to your drawer width and your fork length.
Not all dividers are linear. Don’t forget the circular turntable as a way to divide and conquer a space, and easily get to the things in the back. I like this one from OXO that comes in 2 sizes. I’ve heard from several people that they use this turntable in their fridge. This is a great solution for deep fridges.
Install vertical dividers for things like cutting boards and baking sheets, and don’t forget about your fridge too. In the fridge, we use OXO GreenSavers to both extend the life of our produce and help compartmentalize the space. To read more about tackling the fridge, head this way.
GIVE EVERYTHING A HOME
This concept is the most reliable for both creating and keeping a minimalist kitchen (and home for that matter). Give everything a home. Think about what happens to all the unaccounted things around your kitchen. They end up accumulating in piles and stacks, which unintentionally give us visual permission to keep cluttering. Think: mail, counter produce, bread, wine, etc. When things have a home, you can easily clean up and retrieve the item when needed. And when something new enters, you either need to give it a home or get it out of your home.
The same is true of your pantry. How many things have a permanent home right now in your pantry? So permanent you could find your flour, let’s say, with your eyes closed. So permanent if a guest used the ingredient, it would make it back home without a problem. We’re going to borrow from the concept of increase visibility and add it to this one—give everything a permanent home in a clear container. This is also the concept of compartmentalizing at play.
After trying many different food storage containers, I’m partial to OXO POP Containers for their variety of sizes that fit together like a puzzle, their lightweight structure, and their easy-to-open top. Here are a couple other things to consider when choosing containers. Can you quickly open the top with one hand in the middle of meal prep? Are they sturdy or do they tip easily? Are they airtight? Will they store an entire bag of chips? Are they light enough to pick up and carry across the kitchen (think flour or sugar container)? Does your hand fit inside? Would you trust your 5-year-old with it? If it has a lid, will it stay open when you pour? OXO containers check all those boxes for me.
But what about…
Expiration dates. Great question. Using this framework, I never think about expiration dates for my shelf stable ingredients. Cross that off your mental list. It’s one of the many by-products of this method. Because we keep a pared-down amount of ingredients, we consume everything well before expiration. It sounds simple, but we eat what we buy. This also means we have very little food waste. It’s so rare that I ever throw away food—fresh or shelf-stable. Lower grocery bill, less waste, not having to think about expiration dates. Are you sold yet?
Costco-sized bags. OXO sells a variety of sizes to fit a variety of needs. I can fit a whole bag of Pita chips from Costco in their 5.0 qt. POP container, which also keeps them from ever going stale. If you need an even larger container, try the 5.5 qt. Match your container size to the size of package you typically buy. And base the size of package you buy by what you can consume before expiration.
As you give everything a home, think about the miscellaneous things that pile up and spill over, too. Like the lids to your pots and pans. I’ve hung mine up using 3M hooks. You can also use a freestanding lid rack if you have the space.
Whether you realize it or not, we’ve been making rules and creating boundaries all throughout this post. Work within the capacity of your kitchen. Give everything a home. Buy what you can consume before expiration. Increase visibility. As mentioned above, these rules are not meant to strip away joy. They are intended to preserve joy. To make good rules, first acknowledge how that particular thing naturally works, then build a solution around it. For example, we know that when we can’t see what’s in our pantry, we tend to overbuy at the store. The solution: increase visibility by storing food in clear containers.
Another big problem in our house is cereal—a bunch of half-eaten boxes that eventually go stale and take up lots of real estate. We came up with this rule: one cereal box at a time. The cereal goes directly in the designated OXO cereal container after we get home from the store. We also stock oats and a couple flavors of muesli, so we have limited space for additional cereal. A couple months ago, I noticed extra boxes of cereal popping up. I didn’t pay much attention to it at first. When the problem didn’t correct itself, I brought it up to my husband, the cereal lover. Here were our options for moving forward. We could begin only stocking one variety of muesli and reallocate that container for the cereal. Or, he could create a new storage space to meet this need. This is the ecosystem thing at play. When you introduce something new to the system, it impacts everything else. As you make rules and break rules, consider the impact to the ecosystem. What new issue is going to pop up if you break this rule to buy that thing?
Pull out your Week 1 worksheet and begin attending to each of the identified problems in the same way. You may need to create rules with your housemates to find a good compromise. Either way, it’s necessary to communicate the rules at some point. As you communicate, give those rules context. What is a rule? It’s a parameter intended to preserve the joy. If you have specific seemingly unsolvable conundrums, leave them in the comments. I love to problem solve!
Maintaining your Minimalist Kitchen
What you’re about to end up with is a kitchen that looks simple and well organized, as if it had always been that way (the sign of good design). I want you to remember the arduous process you took to get there. Because simplicity in its final form always looks so simple, but getting there is always hard. It’s much easier to add than it is to take away. Remember this process so that you don’t find yourself heading backward. You’ve done the hard work. Let’s preserve it. There are a couple more things to know moving forward.
FINAL INVENTORY LIST
With your pared-down kitchen, you now have an updated inventory list. Create a clean list based off your initial list.
Download the Final Inventory Worksheet here.
You’ll notice this one is a bit different from the initial list, as it’s broken out into 2 main categories—your stocked ingredient list and your seasonal ingredient list. The stocked ingredients are anything shelf-stable (from your pantry to your fridge). Fridge stable items include things like ketchup, soy sauce, and mayo. You know, the things that last a good while in your fridge. You can also include things like eggs and milk that have a shorter lifespan but are ingredients you always keep stocked. Your seasonal ingredient list is anything that has a very short life span. You know, the fresh stuff. See page 32-33 for an ingredient list reference.
With this list, you can add so much variety as long as it can be consumed before expiration. A critique of this framework is the lack of variety. It’s an accurate critique in regards to shelf-stable items. Stocking a wide variety of shelf stable items causes an overflow and waste issue. However, seasonal, weekly produce, which lasts about 1-2 weeks, doesn’t cause either of those problems. So, try to soothe your need for variety through fresh produce, herbs, cheese, and animal proteins.
While we’re talking about variety, let’s talk a little more about it. Why do you crave variety? When do you crave variety? How can you achieve it in a way that doesn’t create a storage problem? Can you reallocate space to account for this need, if needed?
SHOP THE LIST
Good news! Your inventory list doubles as a grocery list. It’s the list of items you’ve decided to keep stocked to fulfill the daily needs and recipes of your kitchen. By making this decision, you’ve indirectly made the decision not to buy other things.
Your inventory list will also make your grocery shopping a whole lot easier. Shop your list, not the store, buying only the amount you can consume before expiration. Am I sounding like a broken record? The store is so good at convincing you that you might need something. Now that you’ve pared down your kitchen, you know exactly what you need. A natural by-product of this method is a lower grocery bill and reduced decision fatigue. Reference page 29 for additional guidance on shopping.
Remember this: maintaining a minimalist pantry starts at the store.
And this: a coupon or a sale is only a good deal if the item is on your list.
Now for a little levity. Did you ever see that Geico commercial with the basketball player Dikembe Mutombo? Where he swats away a balled-up piece of paper (and many other things) and says, “Not in my house!” I told Kev to imagine me standing at the backdoor swatting the things we don’t need from the store. He got a good laugh and now hears Dikembe in his head rather than my nagging voice when he’s at Target contemplating the common question—to buy or not to buy.
MAKE A COOKBOOK
Maybe you go old school with a binder and recipe cards or printed recipes. Or maybe you save a bank of recipes digitally. Either way, try keeping a set of recipes that you often make, a cookbook. As you look to add new recipes to your book, look for ones that will make good use of the food you keep stocked. Meanwhile, tweak other recipes to match your ingredient list.
When you cook the same handful of recipes, you become an efficient cook. You’re able to get into a nice rhythm. Dinner flows out of the kitchen more easily, as if you’d practiced it before. Because you have! That’s just hard to achieve when you’re always cooking something new. If you love to try new recipes, plan to do that on the weekend or on a night when you have a little extra time and mental bandwidth. Set yourself up to succeed. Reference “Follow your Gut” on page 36 and the Dinner Composition post for more guidance.
TRY MEAL PLANNING
We eat well when we meal plan and not so well when we don’t. I highly recommend giving yourself over to this task. Read more about meal planning on page 36 under “Meal Planning” and “Helpful Tips for Meal Planning” and check out the Minimal Menu Boards post for the home.
GIVE YOURSELF TIME
At the start of all of this, I said—though I’m teaching this course in the space of 4 weeks, I’m not intending to communicate that it will take that long. We’ve gone about this process over the course of years in our kitchen, as time permits, budget permits, and as certain things break. It doesn’t have to all be perfect right now. And it never has to look like Pinterest to be in good working order. If your kitchen is working well for you, that’s a good indicator of success. Attend to individual systems are you’re able. I imagine when you find success there, you’ll want to implement it elsewhere.
Here’s how this has played out practically at our house. Last year, our 15-year-old food storage containers from my college days finally bit the dust. Most of our glass containers were chipped and unsafe. The lids weren’t airtight and cleaning leaks in the fridge was becoming common. We replaced them with the OXO Smart Seal Glass Containers, which have been so wonderful. I dropped one on the ground the other day, and it’s still intact. Praise be. I donated the remaining few containers from our previous system to create enough space for this system. While I don’t keep a variety of different types of food storage (or save every jar that comes into the house), I do keep Ball jars for sauces and other food storage.
I guess this is the part where I say goodbye for now to the course. You have wings to fly. Wings are made for flapping, and they’ll get even stronger as you use them. But don’t go too far. I’ll be adding a monthly Minimalist Kitchen post to the blog. Please continue to ask questions in the comments or join The Minimalist Kitchen Facebook community, a group of people in pursuit of a similar thing. One final huge thank you to OXO who made this course a free resource for you. As if making products that make the kitchen run more smoothly wasn’t already enough. Thank you, OXO. PS—if you’re on the hunt for a discount code, you can sign-up for their newsletter at the bottom of their site.
Cheers to the simple things,
OXO POP Containers | OXO Cereal Containers | OXO Turntable | OXO GreenSavers | OXO Utensil Organizer | OXO Good Grips Smart Seal Glass Storage | Cutting Board/Pan Divider | Bamboo Dividers from Ikea and Target | Glass Spice Jars | The Minimalist Kitchen Tools List on Amazon | 1/4-inch vinyl letter decals
The Minimalist Kitchen, reread Chapter 1 as needed. There’s more specific information on building the pantry in the book than we covered in this course. To learn more about how to think about recipes, read the recipe headnotes and tips scattered throughout the book (even if you don’t intend to make the recipe).
Rebuild your kitchen, giving yourself time to do so. Continue paring down as you notice things. Set a calendar date for 3-months from now to attend to the undecided box. While you’re at it, take a walk through the kitchen. Now that things have settled, does anything need tweaking?
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