Athena Magazine

Fashion, lifestyle, passions

Holiday Entertaining Made Easy November 11, 2008

entertainingBy Julia Pantoga

This is a sociable time of year. For some of us, entertaining is fun—a chance to show off our lovely homes, our cooking and our planning skills to friends; a chance to work on the puzzle of how to fit 15 people into a home that feels crowded with 3 people in it; and a chance to drag out party games and toys that have gone unplayed since last winter.

For others, entertaining is a stressful required chore of the holiday season—this year, it is your turn to host the family (including all the nieces and nephews and their children) for Christmas Eve. You don’t keep your house visitor-ready (i.e. clean and neat with valuables put away), you don’t feel comfortable around a lot of people, and cooking doesn’t come naturally to you. Whether you love to entertain or not, here are some tips to make it less stressful:

Entertaining is for you to enjoy
As you are preparing to entertain, remember always that entertaining is meant to be enjoyable for you. Don’t serve food you don’t like. Don’t invite people into your home you don’t like. Close off rooms of your house that you don’t want people in. If cooking doesn’t come naturally to you, or you don’t enjoy it, buy food from a restaurant or a caterer. If you really feel uncomfortable having several people in your home, throw money at the problem: entertain in a restaurant party room.

Prepare EVERYTHING in advance
You may want to serve foods to your guests that you can’t prepare much in advance, such as spinach salad. I’m sorry, but you really need to knock that off your planned menu because you need to prepare EVERYTHING in advance! There are two reasons for this:
1.    When you are entertaining, the only thing you should be thinking about is enjoying yourself.
2.    If you have a small space, you can use your food preparation areas as flat surfaces for putting out food.

This lovely display of family photos will be put away in the service of snacks!

This lovely display of family photos will be put away in the service of snacks!

Use every surface
And I mean EVERY surface: the stove (if you don’t have a flat top, use planks of plywood and table cloths to make it flat); the top of the coffee table where you usually keep magazines; the end table where you keep awesome photos of your kids; the kitchen counters (which you don’t need since you already prepared EVERYTHING in advance).

bookshelf-barUse the rest of the house creatively
Empty a bookshelf and use it as a bar. Keep the cold drinks in your bathtub or kitchen sink. Put everyone’s coats on the wicker sofa in the screened in porch.

Final reminders.
•    Enjoy yourself.
•    If you have only one bathroom, don’t use that bathtub for cold drinks.
•    If you don’t want people to go in your bedroom, don’t put coats in there.
•    Before you have people you aren’t close to in your house, snoop-proof it. Paper bags are helpful for this. Say you keep several medications in your medicine cabinet in the bathroom that you’d rather not have just anyone see. Put them all in a paper bag and put the bag in your underwear drawer. That is not a great hiding place to prevent burglaries, but it is good enough for a party.  While it is entirely likely that someone will open your medicine cabinet; it is improbable that a party-goer will rifle through your underwear drawer and open a paper bag. Use a paper, rather than plastic, because it makes more noise. Since your medicines are all together in one bag, they will be easy to return to the medicine cabinet after your party.

party-toys•    Leaving toys and reference books (atlases, dictionaries, etc.) out are always good for getting lively conversation going.

Easy and fabulous party foods:
•    Figs, cut in half topped with cream cheese mixed with chopped pecans (you have no idea how great this is until you try it)
•    Homemade cookies
•    Apple slices with lime juice squeezed over them, served with good cheddar cheese

The best party foods:
•    Don’t require a fork
•    Don’t require a plate
•    Can be eaten standing up and with one hand
And here’s the deal about serving:  Nothing you serve has to look fantastic. Rather, it should be easy to get to and serve, and it should taste great. Your friends are there to enjoy you and your hospitality, not to be impressed.

figs-and-cookies

 

Perfect Applesauce November 2, 2008

Filed under: Domestic Goddess,Food is Good — rebmas03 @ 2:47 am
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By Julia Pantoga

I’m taking a break from my holiday preparation series to write to you about apples because we are at the end of the apple season, and if you GO RIGHT NOW, you may be able to get some great orchard apples. I know I did just a few days ago.

Here’s the thing about apples: If you have great apples, anything you do with them will be great.  If you have mediocre apples, anything you do with them will be mediocre. The sad truth is that if you bake a great apple crisp with mediocre apples, your desert will be so-so at best. However, you can just cut up a couple apples, squeeze some lime juice over them and serve them with slices of cheese, and if you have great apples, you will have a stunning and delicious desert.

In my experience, great apples are not to be found in supermarkets; I find them at fruit farms and orchards. The variety I bought this year is “Melrose,” but the variety that will work best for you is entirely dependent on the region you live in, the time of year you are going to the orchard and what you plan to do with the apples. Talk to the clerk in the orchard store. He or she will make a great recommendation. I’ve found that even listless teenagers working in orchard stores know apples. There is something magical about great apples!

If you are going to be peeling your apples to bake them, you will want to buy big apples. That way, you will get the best fruit-to-peeling effort ratio. If you are going to be packing your apples in your lunch, you’ll want a smaller size. Stored in a cool place, apples will taste fresh for weeks. If you will be using your apples for baking or applesauce, they will last longer.

Here’s a domestic goddess tip: Homemade applesauce is really, really impressive, and it is really, really easy to make. In the past couple of years, I’ve started to leave the skins in my applesauce, which:
•    Makes it a gorgeous pink color
•    Clearly communicates to your guests that this is homemade applesauce
•    Adds delicious and interesting texture to the applesauce and
•    Makes it even easier
Here’s how to make homemade applesauce:
1.    Cut up five huge apples and put the pieces in a pot.
2.    Add ½ cup water, 1/3 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon and a pinch of salt to the pot.
3.    Simmer the pot (covered) on medium low heat for 30 minutes.
4.    Turn the heat off and mash everything together.

Cooking homemade applesauce makes your home smell great too.

 

Domestic Goddess: Packing for Holiday Travel October 26, 2008

Filed under: Domestic Goddess — rebmas03 @ 3:40 am
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Pack Bathroom Bag

My bathroom bag is always packed.

By Julia Pantoga

Between this time of year and January, I take several lengthy driving trips to visit friends and family. Because I am typically away for 3 or 4 weeks, and I am doing so many different things and seeing so many different people, packing for these trips is a big project. But, I lead a life full of obligations at home, so I never have much time to pack. Hence, I have developed various systems to make the job easier and to make sure that I don’t forget things.

Packing List

Packing list


Keep a List

I keep a running list of things I need to pack. This list includes everything I might need in every circumstance. I also keep a short list in the corner of the things that I need to remember for this specific trip (e.g. cranberry relish recipe for sister). I keep this list handy on my computer and update it as the trip approaches, and I remember things. Right before the trip, I print this list out and refer to it carefully while I am packing. I put a line through things that I don’t need for this trip and check things off as I put them in the “staging area” for my packing (which is usually my bed). If I pack anything that is not on my list, I write it on my list and, if I may need it for a future trip, I add it to the master list on my computer.   When I leave the house, I fold the list and put it in my purse. I then have a checklist to use every time I repack along the way.

Pre-packed Bathroom Bag


Have Some Bags Always Packed

My bathroom bag is always packed. I don’t pack bathroom items such as: toothbrush, shampoo, hand lotion, deodorant, etc., because I have duplicates of all of these in my bathroom bag. The main disadvantage of this system is that my bathroom bag is heavy, as it not only contains a toothbrush, but sunscreen, insect repellant and a host of other emergency items. The great advantage of this “system” is that when I return home late at night, I don’t have to unpack my bathroom bag to find my toothbrush. All my “home” bathroom items have been left in their usual spots.

Here’s another tip—put really nice products in your bathroom bag–shampoo and conditioner that smell so great, that showering is a treat. As you are driving at odd hours, sleeping on different couches every night and adjusting to other household’s routines, you need to remind yourself that you always take care of yourself. No robber would ever realize it, but my bathroom bag is one of the most expensive items in my car when I travel.

In addition to my bathroom bag, I keep an extra workout bag in the car, complete with extra sneakers, water bottle, sports bra, swim suit, etc.

My Bags Are Packed

My Bags Are Packed


Packing

My own strategy is to pack a lot of small bags that I can handle myself. If I have help loading and unloading my bags (and I usually do), helpers that are bigger and stronger than I (a category that includes most adults) can carry multiple bags at once. But, if I find myself in a situation where I have to handle my luggage myself, I can handle my own bags with multiple trips.

Leave Your House Ready for Your Return
Every time I leave any dirty dishes when I am going to be away for any length of time, I regret it terribly when I get home. Pe-ew! Wash all your dishes, take out the garbage, sweep the floors and generally pick up the house before you leave.

The best tip I ever got about traveling is to change my sheets right before I leave. Nothing says, “Welcome Home!” like a fresh bed.

Welcome Home!

Welcome Home!

 

The Easiest Holiday Cookies Ever! Part One October 18, 2008

By Julia Pantoga

I don’t get what people love so much about decorating holiday cookies; everyone but me seems to think it’s fun. The benefit to you of my disdain for decorating holiday cookies is that I’ve thought about how to make every step simpler and less excruciating. (By the way, I did not decorate the cookies in the photo above; an artist friend of mine did.)

Okay, there are three parts to making decorated holiday cookies:
1.    Making the dough
2.    Rolling out and baking the cookies
3.    Decorating the cookies.

I like the first two steps; it’s the third step that gets me.


Make the dough now and freeze it.  When it comes time to make cookies in December, you will be really pleased you have that done.  Wait to roll and bake the cookies; however, because baked cookies are very delicate and likely to break before you have a chance to decorate them. (Although broken cookies are magnificent crumbled up and served over fruit.) Here’s the recipe I use. It works when you freeze it and roll it out later, and it tastes great. I divide it into three batches that I freeze.

Sugar Cookie Dough
1 cup butter (I like salted butter for this recipe)
½ cup sugar
1 egg (don’t forget to bring it to room temperature by putting it in a bowl of hot water)
3 tsp. vanilla
3 cups flour
½ tsp baking powder

1.    Cream butter and sugar.
2.    Add egg and vanilla, beat well.
3.    Measure and mix in flour and baking powder. (I mix the two together before putting them in the dough).
4.    Divide dough in three batches, label and freeze.

If you must know…  For 1/8” cookies, bake 5 min. @ 400 degrees.

You should begin shopping for decorating supplies now.  Go to a store that specializes in cake/cookie decorating.  There, you will find exactly you need.  The store will have the most interesting assortment of cookie cutters, colors of food dye and specialty icing spatulas.  The sales clerks will be knowledgeable and helpful about cookie decorating
The easiest cookie cutters to use are those with the fewest “appendages”.  For example, a bell shaped cookie cutter will make cookies that are much easier to handle than a fussy angel-shaped cookie cutter.  If you have young children, or if any of you are easily frustrated, easy cookie cutters are a must.
While you are at the decorating store, buy:  a small angled and tapered spatula that is designed especially for icing cookies, fantastic green, red, yellow and blue food dyes (they will be so much better and more complex than what you can buy at the grocery store), decorating paintbrushes (I’ve tried dime store paintbrushes, but the bristles fall out, which is unacceptable when you are making food.). Don’t buy anything that won’t “dry”.  “Gel” decorating products look great; but the next day, the cookies are still sticky. Make sure that everything you buy for decorating will eventually harden.  At a decorating store, the clerk will know what hardens and what doesn’t.

I’ll tell you what I know about rolling and baking cookies in Part 2 of this series and give you some ideas for decorating in Part 3.  Keep in mind though, that I don’t like decorating; so my decorating tips will be along the lines of easy-and-quick (but fabulous).

 

Cleaning the Microwave with Lemon October 11, 2008

Filed under: Domestic Goddess — rebmas03 @ 11:27 pm
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By Julia Pantoga

I was visiting my sister the recently, when she called from the kitchen, “Hey, Domestic Goddess, do you know how to get fish smell out of the microwave?” I was in the other room showing my niece some music videos on this blog. I disinterestedly yelled back, “No idea. And don’t call me that.”

My sister yelled, “I’m going to try microwaving a lemon. Does that sound right to you?”

A few minutes later, she came to the door and proudly said, “It worked.” She’s a Domestic Goddess too. Most of us are.  Here’s what she did:

1.    Wiped the microwave down to remove all residue.
2.    Cut a lemon in half and squeezed the lemon juice out of it onto a paper towel folded into quarters.
3.    Placed the lemon halves in the middle of the towel in the microwave and ran it on high for 1 minute.

After cleaning the microwave, she went back to making Macaroni and Cheese from a recipe in Mark Bittman’s cookbook, How to Cook, which turned out great. My nephew said, “This is so much better than that stuff that comes out of a box.”

 

Giving away baked goods

Filed under: Domestic Goddess,Food is Good — rebmas03 @ 4:49 am
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By Julia Pantoga

I know you think it is early, but there are things you can do now to make your life easier in December…

I always give baked goods as gifts. The hardest (and usually most expensive) part of giving away baking goods is packaging them. You can come up with something more festive than baggies.

Suppose you know that you are going to give away cookies.  Start thinking now about how you are going to present those precious treasures. You need containers that are big enough to hold at least one dozen cookies, but not so big that you have to bake a double batch for each gift.  Containers will probably be cheaper if you stay away from holiday merchandise. To wit:  one year I was at the hardware store and ammunition boxes were on sale for some crazy-low price, like 50 cents each. I bought ten of them and fake pebble spray-paint, laid them out on my garage floor, painted them, then filled each with bags of cookies. I hope that these ammunition boxes were useful to my friends and family after the cookies are eaten—for storing sand paper, for example.

Some things that you will give away (like spiced nuts or homemade candy) need smaller containers. My favorite small container is a coffee mug. I begin shopping in October for inexpensive coffee mugs (my local Goodwill sells brand new coffee mugs for $1 each. Department stores donate them when they don’t sell at $6-10 each.)

You will find small gift bags in the candy-making section of a craft store. I must warn you though that going into a craft store is risky business—financially, at least. These stores have so many adorable gift containers that you may forget that one of the reasons you are giving away baked goods is to save money on holiday gifts and spend way more than you ever thought you would on containers.

Another tip for buying containers is to shop for them all year around. I often find great plain red, silver and gold containers on sale right after Valentine’s Day.

Finally, you will need is ribbon. I find that if I combine a red or green ribbon with a gold or silver ribbon, I can tie a simple bow and the result is quite elegant. If you are trying to save money, buy your ribbon at the craft store and don’t tempt yourself to do more spending in the fabric store.

Here’s how it all works together:
1.    Throw a handful of nuts (or homemade candy) into a small plastic bag
2.    Secure the bag with two ribbons that you hold together
3.    Put one little bag in each coffee mug.

I make a dozen of these early in December and keep a paper grocery bag of them in the back seat of my car, so I always have little gifts ready for people who help me all the time, like the clerk at the post office.

Another category of baked goods to give away are those that need to be baked in pans. A great discovery I made last year was the Paper Gift Bakers from The Baker’s Catalogue. These, combined with the medium size Clear Gift Bags that they sell also, have made my gift-giving-life a lot easier. I bake my gift cakes right in the pan.  Once frosted, I pop them in the gift bags. I secure the bags with a silver twist tie, then stick a bow on top of the package. Voila! A beautiful gift!

I make six gift cakes at a time and store them in the freezer once they are completely wrapped. One of the tricks to baking with disposable pans is to place all the pans on a pre-heated cookie sheet before you bake them. That way, there is only one thing to put into the hot oven and one thing to take to the porch to cool.

Usually, I don’t start baking for the holidays until mid-November (although this year I did some early to get photographs for you). October is really best spent starting to accumulate packaging materials.  In early November I’ll give you the recipes for foods that I like best for giving as gifts.

 

Exciting Domestic Goddess Post Script October 7, 2008

Filed under: Domestic Goddess — rebmas03 @ 1:03 am
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I opened my Cook’s Illustrated magazine today (Nov./Dec. 2008 issue), and the center story is about CHOPPING!  We’re all happy to know that CI and I both give the same advice.—Julia Pantoga

 

More Cooking 101: Chopping October 4, 2008

Filed under: Domestic Goddess,Food is Good — rebmas03 @ 5:47 am
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By Julia Pantoga

Chopping rocks
Chopping is the cute 4-year-old of cooking. We could hardly tolerate 4-year-olds, if they weren’t so darned cute. I’d probably rarely cook, if it weren’t for chopping.
Remember all the mind tricks I encouraged you to use for housework? You won’t be surprised that I recommend some also for cooking.  The first trick I want you to play on yourself is to do all of your prep work and clean-up long before you will be cooking.  By the time you cook, you won’t remember errant spinach that stuck to the side of the refrigerator—that will be a distant memory of something you cleaned up long ago.

Principles of Chopping (right-handed instructions)

Let the tool do the work.  Human beings have been cooking since the dawn of time and, ever since they have been making tools, they have been making cooking tools.  It is very, very unlikely that you will try to do something in the kitchen (except open certain jars) for which there is not a tool that will do the work for you. If you are ever having physical difficulty doing something in the kitchen, you are likely using the wrong tool, or the tool you are using is not good (by the way, you all know that dull knives are much more dangerous than sharp knives, don’t you?).

Cutting tools

Cutting tools

Use the right tool for the job. Over the years, I have accumulated a lot of chopping tools, but my favorite, hands down, is a knife. As much as I love my knife, I must admit that sometimes other tools are better suited for the job at hand (for example, a food processor for chopping raisins).
Minimize the number of tools you use. Remember, each tool that you use is going to have to be washed.
Use several cutting surfaces. The purchase of a packet of four cutting mats was one of my best kitchen purchases. Having several cutting surfaces means that I don’t have to stop to wash my cutting board because it reeks of onions; I can throw it in the sink, grab a clean one and continue chopping and wash the five I’ve used all at once.

Chopping with a Knife

First of all, minimize your movements. Every time you lift the knife up completely from the cutting board, you are moving the knife. It’s safer and requires less energy to move the knife as little as possible. Whenever I can, I “rock the knife” (this has the added benefit of making you look like a real pro in the kitchen).  That is, I keep the tip of the knife on the cutting surface, push the vegetable through the knife blade with my left hand, then “rock the knife” up and down with my right hand to chop.

Rock the knife

Rock the knife

Flat surfaces on the cutting area make whatever you are cutting more stable.  Before I chop something, if it doesn’t have a flat side already, I make one. When things that you are chopping are rolling around, they are at their most dangerous; this is when it is the most likely that you will have vegetables and knives flying around.

Cutting carrot in half

Cutting carrot in half

So, here’s how I’d dice a carrot:
First, I’d cut the carrot carefully in half.  If it were a big carrot, I’d lay the flat sides down and cut the carrot halves into thinner strips.

Then I’d lay the carrot strips flat side down on my cutting surface and use the “rock the knife “ technique to dice.

Stay tuned for more chopping and cooking tips;. The holiday season is fast approaching (can you believe it?), so we need to move towards getting ready for that next week.

 

Cooking 101: Getting Started September 27, 2008

Filed under: Domestic Goddess,Food is Good — rebmas03 @ 2:22 am
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By Julia Pantoga

Except for grating, I love everything about preparing food: from looking for recipes in my cookbooks to setting the table. Hopefully, I’ll be a good teacher for you because I relish every step—although I do run the risk of nauseating you with my enthusiasm. And because I am so detailed about it, I also run the risk of making cooking sound much more complicated than it is.

Many steps
Contrary to what you see on cooking shows, where all they do is cook, there are many steps to preparing a meal. There’s planning, researching, shopping,  getting the kitchen ready, prep cooking, cleaning up after prep cooking, cooking, cleaning up after cooking, serving the meal and cleaning up after the meal. Although not always possible, cooking is at its most “magic” when you can isolate that one step from the others.


Planning

The more you serve meals, the better you will be at this. I am sure that those of you who prepare meals several times a week for a family are better at this than I am; and I am sure that I am better at this than an 18-year-old living in a college dorm. Make a puzzle game of it.

First, think about the general composition of the meal in terms of nutrition.  Also, if one dish you are serving is particularly high in fat, try to have raw fruits or vegetables as a balance. Usually color is a good guide for nutrition. If you serve several different colors or foods in your meal, you will likely have a nutritionally balanced meal (isn’t that cool?).

Another thing to consider is what ingredients you have on hand. Be sure that you use those green beans that are about to go bad. One more thing to consider is preparation. Think through which pans you’ll use for each dish and try to avoid having to wash a pan in the middle of cooking. These are the things that take time. You’re buzzing along in the kitchen and you realize that you need the pan you just used to make a sauce for the vegetables to make the rice. You have to stop what you are doing, find a container to store the sauce in and wash and dry the pan, before you can start the rice.

Another component of planning is to never plan more than one dish that you’ve never made in a given meal. You really never know where the trouble of a certain dish is going to show up until you make it.  Finally, plan no more than one item that has to be cooked precisely right before it is served. Cooking shows make it look easy to talk while you are cooking and do several things in the kitchen at once. It is not.  The people on those shows are either professional cooks or professional actors or both. What they do is highly scripted. Don’t hold yourself to that unrealistic standard.

Researching
To many, the mark of a “good” cook is that he or she doesn’t use recipes. I’ll agree that the Italian grandmother who has been cooking for her extended family for fifty years probably doesn’t use recipes. But the truth of the matter is that, in America, at least, most of us just aren’t that good at cooking. We don’t have the same “feel” for food that the Italian grandmother does.

Also, we are used to a much wider variety than you would expect in an Italian kitchen. We expect to make an Indian feast one week and a pasta casserole the next. I use recipes for such common foods as deviled eggs, sloppy joes and chicken salad because I don’t have an instinctive feel for how to make them. The only reason I don’t use a recipe for vinaigrette salad dressing is that I memorized it a long time ago.  The really good cooks in America, the ones who really have a “feel” for food, are mostly found in professional cooking jobs, like cookbook writing.  By tapping into that expertise, my sloppy joes that taste the way I expect sloppy joes to taste.

Something else that is great about using recipes from cookbooks is that, usually, the recipes have been tested and are consistently notated. One method that is popular for finding recipes these days is to search the internet. Be careful about this, as the recipe may or may not be accurately recorded. The internet is a great source for ideas, but not a reliable source for precise recipes. The major exception I make to this is when I see preparation of a dish demonstrated on a cooking show and I go to the website of that cooking show to get that recipe. I print it out; make notes on it while I cook; and if it works well, I put it in my “recipes that work” file.

Getting the Kitchen Ready
I assume that you’ve been doing your daily housework tasks, so your kitchen is reasonably clean and your counters are clear. The first thing to do is get all the recipes you intend to use in the kitchen. Read them over and over again. Think about what utensils you are going to use and make sure that they are all clean. Like many people, I have favorite knives. When I am about to cook, the first thing I check is that I know where those knives are and that they are clean.

The next step I learned from Rachel Ray. (By the way, what she (supposedly) can do in 30 minutes, takes me at least an hour—she never has to wash vegetables!) Put a bowl for garbage on the counter where you will be working. If you go to stores that stock Rachel Ray cookware, there will be large plastic bowls for sale called, “garbage bowls.” That’s crazy. You don’t need to buy a special bowl for your garbage! Any large lightweight bowl will do. In my kitchen, the garbage pail is less than two steps away from the counter where I do most of my food prep work. You would not think it would make much of a difference for me to have a garbage bowl on my counter, but I was shocked at what a HUGE difference it made. I use my garbage bowl for all of my garbage, including packaging. If you compost, you will probably want two bowls: one for compostables and one for other garbage.

Next week we will talk about prep cooking, which includes chopping and preparing ingredients.  But there is one last step to getting your kitchen ready, and that is getting out the containers where you will store the things you chop until you are ready to use them. That way you can really get a rhythm going when you start to chop. Chop, chop, chop. Throw the ends in the garbage bowl. Put the chopped celery in the plastic container to use later.

 

Order = Calm, Part 3, Down To Business! September 19, 2008

Filed under: Domestic Goddess — rebmas03 @ 3:24 am
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By Julia Pantoga

List of tasks to complete in hand, with time carved out to get the first few done, where do you begin? I’ll address that at the end of this essay, but first I want to share some principles that apply to most any housework project you would undertake.

Make It Easy to Put Things Away
You greatly increase the likelihood that you will put things away, if you make them easy to put away. I’ve identified three factors that impact the ease of put-away-ability

1.     Room to put things away. If your drawers are so packed that it’s hard to shut them when half of your clothes are in the laundry, you aren’t going to put your clothes away automatically. Take clothes that you don’t wear out of your drawers and your closet now, and make going through them and deciding their permanent fate another project on your list.

2.     Containers that work and that you like to put things away in.
It’s enjoyable to put clothes away in a dresser that you love where the drawers are all the right size and slide out easily.

3.    Location of storage near where things are used. If you put your pajamas away in a drawer that is right where you change in the morning, putting them away is just as easy as throwing them on the floor.

The best example I have of put-away-ability involves my shoes. I like the way my shoe display looks and it is located right next to the spot where I usually change my shoes. You will notice from the picture that my shoe storage is full at this point, which means that when I acquire more shoes, I will have to either get rid of some, put some in storage, or move somewhere where I can install another shoe rack.

Organized shoes

Organized shoes

My nemesis in keeping the house picked up is BOOKS. There are books in every room of my house, but the only large bookshelves are in my office. All my bookshelves are full and putting books away is a big job. But, I am always bringing more books into the house! Putting books away on my bookshelves is not an everyday task; moving books from various places around the house into my office is.

Books I brought in yesterday

Books I brought in yesterday


The Three Container System

I learned this method from a social worker. Every time you start a sorting/putting-things-away job, take three containers with you: one for items to take to another room, one for items to throw away and one for items to give away. The containers don’t have to be attractive and match, but wouldn’t it be more fun, and don’t you – you who are doing all of this hard work of putting your house in order – deserve some fun?

The real beauty of this system is that you can stop at almost any point in your work and a) not have a mess and b) be able to start work again at any time without retracing steps.

Three fabulous matching containers

Three fabulous matching containers

Know Your Stopping Points
Know when you can stop working on a project and not leave yourself a mess or put things back into disorder again. For example, when you have just dumped a drawer out on the kitchen table, you are not at a stopping point. When you have gone through the contents of that drawer and done your three container sort on them, you are at a stopping point. You can quickly wipe out the drawer and return the items that belong in the drawer, even if you don’t have time to order that drawer in the adorable drawer dividers you bought for that purpose. One of your goals is to never leave a mess for yourself.

Duplicates
I keep: a trash basket, scissors, tape, pens and paper in every room of my house. These items never need to be put away in other rooms because they belong in the room that they are in.

Scissors from all over the house

Scissors from all over the house

Where to Begin
I’m all about playing mind games with yourself, so I think that your first priority has to be the space that is your private space—your bedroom. That way, you are giving yourself the message, “I am important; I am putting things in order for myself.”

Next, I’d work on the kitchen, because that’s where you spend a lot of time and, if you’re anything like me, that’s the place you are most likely to have other people visit. After that, it depends on what’s coming up. If I have an overnight guest coming soon, I might want to work on my three-season porch, because that’s where I have guests stay. If the school year is about to start, and I know I’m going to need my books, I might work on the bookshelves in my office.

You are doing this for yourself, so you really need to prioritize based on what will make the most difference to you. For example, I’m easily embarrassed, and it would be quite embarrassing to me if someone showed up to spend the night at my house, and the room where I was going to have her sleep was a mess. I would make it a priority to put that room in order—to prevent an anxiety-producing scenario for me, rather than to impress her.

The End
I was telling a friend of mine about this column and I said, “I didn’t expect to spend three weeks in a row on housework” and she said, “We never do, Julia, we never do.” Well, housework never ends, but things get a lot better as you put your home in order—as long as you keep doing your basic tasks every day. And, mark my words, if you decide that it’s important to you to put your house in order, you’ll do it. But it takes time, and I implore you to be patient with yourself while you’re working on it.

Now we’re going to take a break from housework (not doing it, just talking about it) for a few, maybe even, several weeks. When we come back to it, I’d like to address a really interesting question that a reader asked me that I didn’t have an answer for, “How do you keep your house neat if you’re an artist living in a small space, and you need to keep your supplies and projects out to work as you are inspired?” She added, “My ‘projects’ are spread out in my living room, which is the first thing that you see when you walk in the house. I don’t have any extra space or rooms to keep things out and out of sight of visitors.” Good question. Any thoughts?