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Kitchen Helpers

Meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooking take up a pretty serious chunk of time every week.  To make things a little less hectic and a little more enjoyable, I have a few helpers around the kitchen that keep everything running smoothly and to take up less time.

First, I do meal plan.  I try to plan at least 2 weeks at a time (and this dictates my grocery list).  Read more about that process here.  But, I also try and post those meal plans in the kitchen so I know what’s coming up each day and can make sure everything is ready when I get home from work to rock and roll.  I found I have saved at least 1/2 an hour each night by prepping ahead of time.  I used to have a fridge sticker with days of the week from the Martha Steward line at Staples to post our meal plan, but over time, it got to looking a little gunky and I decided to retire it in favor of something a little prettier.  I took a free printable from online and adjusted it to fit my needs.  Then, I put it inside a frame and attached a dry erase marker at the top with a velcro dot.  This little guy is on a very narrow piece of wall next to our pantry.  I like it’s placement because it cuts down on the fridge clutter and is right next to where a bunch of our meal supplies already live.  Now, I can keep track of our meals for two weeks in style!  I also love that I can erase things and move them around, because if your life is anything like mine, sometimes we have to alter plans.  I already know we have all the ingredients for everything on our chart, so making adjustments is no big deal.

Sorry for the glare!

Sorry for the glare!

There are also some very awesome products that help the cooking process go much smoother in our house.  I’ve used each of these for over a year and LOVE them!  I used to prep vegetables for our dorm in college, and I learned very early on that I am not really a big fan of cutting certain ones.  So, I was super excited to discover these two sweet items.

1)  Frozen Chopped Onions.  You don’t have to have fresh onions on hand OR have to chop them into tiny pieces.  Need I say more?

There are other brands out there that are just as good, and we pick up whatever the grocery store we are visiting happens to keep in stock.

 

2)  Already Minced Garlic in a Squeeze Bottle.  I LOVE this stuff, because I use garlic a ton in my recipes.  I love that I can just grab and go with out having to have fresh garlic or a garlic press (which I have never owned) on hand.

This is the brand I use, but I am sure others are just as good. I know this company also offers an organic version if that suits your needs better.

Is there anything you use to make meal planning and prep easier around your house?

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Attempting to Live Hands Free

One of my life goals has been to be more present.  I want to be able to experience my life and not just rush through from one activity to another without every really feeling joy–and I don’t want my daughter to live that way either.  But, sometimes it is really, really hard not to be that way in today’s world.  There is a constant pressure to be and do everything, whether it is extra curricular activities, volunteer or work commitments, keeping a clean home at all times, etc.  There is a lot of pressure to be SUPER mom.  And, I freely admit that is pressure I put on myself without really realizing it.  My whole life I have been a perfectionist–even as a little kid.  There are definitely advantages to wanting things, all things, done well all of the time, but there are also huge drawbacks.  The pressure to be everything to everyone all of the time takes its toll.  And, the end result is that you are so focused on what is to come that you don’t really enjoy what is presently happening, and then you regret being there but at the same time missing out on parts of life you will never get back.

I stumbled upon some articles written by Rachel Macy Stafford about being a Hands Free Mama and how she came to realize her life needed a transformation–to be more present with her daughters.  At the bottom of the article they mentioned she had a book coming out in early 2014.  Hands Free Mama:  A Guide to Putting Down the Phone, Burning the To-Do List, and Letting Go of Perfection to Grasp What Really Matters.  The title spoke to me on so many levels.  I immediately jumped on my public library website and put myself on the hold list.  When the book came up as ready to pick up, I was excited to see what she had to say.  I expected most of the book to be about how technology is taking over our lives and ruining our personal relationships, but I was happy to find out I was wrong.

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Sometimes it feels like our phones, tablets, etc. are ruling our lives and causing a disconnect when face to face with friends, family, or colleagues.  Other people feel this way–if two commercials I saw almost back to back show us anything about lives in America.  A man is trying to give his wife a diamond necklace and she won’t get off her phone–in fact everyone around them is on their phone instead of interacting with the people in front of them.  It takes him opening the jewelry box under her nose for her to acknowledge him.  The other commercial showed three people getting into a car, eyes glued to their phones, not communicating–until the driver (not on his phone) revs the engine and knocks them out of their stupor long enough to decide where to eat for lunch.  But, should it require diamond necklaces and fancy car engines to make us realize we need to disengage from the device and interact with the world around us?  Of course not.

Hands Free Mama is a little bit about how technology affects our relationships, but also so much more.  It is really about how we can spread ourselves too thin and end up focusing on the things we feel we “need” to do instead of the people in our lives that we love.  Stafford came to this realization while jogging and the weight of her life slammed into her knocking her to the ground.  She realized her girls were growing up, and she was missing it.  Her focus was on so many places at once that she wasn’t focusing on the relationships in her life the way she should…the way she wanted.  So, she set out on a journey to eliminate the distractions from her life so she could spend more time on what really mattered to her.  The chapters in her book read like a reminder board of how to begin your journey to live hands free.  Each starts with a main title like Acknowledge the Cost of Your Distraction, have a one word subtitle like Serenity or Clarity, and a quote related to the topic at hand.

If you really want to know what each of them are, I highly suggest you get your hands on this book.  It is a fast paced read that will really make you stop and think.

I found this little plaque at Gordman's and thought it was so appropriate for this blog post!

I found this little plaque at Gordman’s pre-Valentine’s day and thought it was so appropriate for this blog post!

My biggest takeaways from this book have been not just been simple acts like not looking at my phone as often, but more about a shift of mind.  I found that many of the items Stafford wrote about also pop up in Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project book.  And, both books spoke to me in similar ways.  Here are my top ten takeaways from Hands Free Mama…

1)  Acknowledge the cost of your distraction.  What is the cost of your distracted life?  What are you missing out on by focusing more on your electronics or to-do list than the people you love most.  Are you missing a valuable conversation, experience, or connection with your child or spouse?

2)  Identify your distractions.  This was something that came up at the beginning of the book–and about half way through.  I thought going back to this part way through her process was brilliant, because what you think is or isn’t a distraction in the beginning could be completely off base.

My identified distractions:  professional commitments outside of my normal job; the  need to check all of my emails and social media accounts very, very frequently; reading (this is a tough one, because it is a huge part of who I am, but I know it can be a distraction in a bad way at times); and finally my to-do lists.  I still very much like my to-do lists and daily/weekly/monthly schedules, but I am approaching them in a much healthier way–more on that later.

3)  Make purposeful connections with people.  When you are en route somewhere, waiting for an appointment, waiting for your food to arrive at a restaurant or a movie to begin, put down the device and take that opportunity to connect with the people around you.  (We went to breakfast with my dad last week, and I didn’t look at my phone once during the entire meal.  That little accomplishment made me happy, but at the same time a little sad that I considered it an accomplishment).

4)  Engage in household tasks together.  I got in the habit of doing household chores before my daughter woke up or after my daughter was asleep.  I thought it would be easier and we could spend more time together. And, not surprisingly, I have been failing miserably in getting my swing day/weekend cleaning goals done (deep clean kitchen, clean tub/shower, etc.).  I am too tired or busy trying to get something else done while she is asleep that many times it just gets shoved out of the way.  Instead of trying to do it all on my own without her seeing (or worse yet while she is zoned out in front of a show), I need to involve my daughter in the process.  She is old enough to help now with pretty much everything–AND she wants to!  Getting her involved in cooking dinner, prepping lunches, cleaning up the house–doing it together–gives us time and connection we wouldn’t have otherwise.  And, it sets her on the way to learn skills she will need as a fully functional adult.

5)  Start family traditions and a daily hands free ritual.    We have long done a Friday night pizza and movie night, but there were times I fell asleep during the movie or spent the time surfing Pinterest instead of really engaging in the show with my daughter.  Since reading the book, I have actively experienced the movie with her–we cuddle up on the couch under a blanket or two and talk about what we think will happen next.  Our daily hands free ritual has also been around for a few years, but I am much more consistent with it now.  As my daughter winds down for bed, we read a book, and then I crawl into bed with her and give her a cuddle or rub her back as we listen to the “sleep” cd her dad made her.  I have not missed one night time cuddle in two weeks–which might be a record.  I always had some pressing issue calling me away like dirty dishes or an email I just had to respond to at that moment that seemed more important.  What I realized (and really already knew) is that the traditions and rituals are precious.  I am so grateful that she still wants to cuddle with me; sometime in the not too distant future, she won’t.  I want to take every advantage of it and a million other moments while I can and really be present so we can both enjoy and appreciate them.

6)  Without fail, give proper goodbyes and enthusiastic hellos (this was also mentioned by Rubin).  Be sure to give affection to your loved ones when you greet each other after an absence (no matter how short) or when you are bidding each other farewell (every single time).

7)  Identify your roadblocks to living hands free.  For me, not getting enough sleep is a major factor.  When I am tired, I am much more likely to respond crabbily to stress or difficult attitudes.  I also know that I get flustered easily when things don’t go as I had mentally planned them out in my head so we stay on schedule.  These are things I need to address by making sure I get to sleep on time and letting go of some of the regimented scheduler syndrome.  If we are a few minutes late, it’s better than arriving cranky and blowing any chance of enjoying what we are doing.

8)  Envision your future relationships.  What you do now will dictate how your future relationships will be.  Do you want to be connected to your children or your spouse twenty years from now?  If so, you need to start building that foundation now.

9)  Let go of perfection.  So, maybe you don’t get your makeup done before taking your daughter to her Saturday morning class.  Did anyone care or even notice?  Nope.  This goes for your personal self as well as your environment.  By no means am I saying you should live like a slob, but if the bathroom doesn’t get cleaned on bathroom day or the day after, the world will continue to rotate on its axis.  AND, don’t force your perfectionist attitude on your kids.  Allow them to fail.  Praise their attempts and not giving up attitude.  This shows our kids perseverance is more important than perfection–something that will suit them better in the long run.

10)  Don’t beat yourself up for what happened in the past of minor slips here and there.  You can’t undo the past, but you can make a conscious choice to be different in the future.  And, every once in a while, you will become distracted.  Acknowledge that it happened, examined why it happened, and move on.  These feelings of guilt or remorse–and the need to be perfectly hands free–can also distract you from what matters most.

Funny, and very true. Have you ever walked into a room and completely forgotten why you entered because something in there distracted you? Do you ever feel like relationships in your life are this way too? Chances are you are living at least a semi-distracted life.

In addition to some of the practices mentioned above, in the last few weeks I have taken the following steps to live less distracted:

I plug my phone into one of the two chargers in our house and leave it there.  I try really hard to only check it twice a night–once right when I get home and once right after my daughter goes to bed.  I have also tried very hard to keep the phone in my purse when we are out and about as a or with family or friends and when it’s just the hubby and me.  Instead, I have focused on the people around me.  Really looked at and listened to them.  The “I love you more than my phone” sign could seem a bit silly, but it is also so true.  By making sure my phone is not a distraction, I am telling my family I love them more than whatever is going on in the cyber-verse.

I silenced the email alert on my phone.  (Duh!)  I didn’t even realize that whenever I heard that little chime, I reacted like Pavlov’s dog until Stafford mentioned it.  With a little reflection, I became aware that I would automatically reach for my phone to check and see if some important email had come through on one of my several non work accounts whenever my email alert would sound.  Usually, nothing earth shattering was needing my attention, but I kept checking it anyway.  Without the alert, I have almost forgotten to check those accounts during the day.

I have loosed up on some of the cleaning “rules” and routines.  If something isn’t done on its scheduled day, I don’t stress about it.  I know it will get done soon.  Putting off vacuuming for a couple of days won’t hurt anyone.

I am trying really hard not to be so rushed in everything I do.  I don’t want to feel rushed or rush my daughter all of the time.  This will probably be my biggest hurdle.  The first step will be to not over schedule ourselves.  Still working on that, but I know it is a problem and know it will be a work in progress–much like this whole process will be.

I think the biggest thing is just being aware.  Knowing that you are living a distracted (or semi-distracted life) and realizing you have the capacity to change that type of existence, starting now, is incredibly powerful.  If I want to be more present…then I need to take steps to be more present.  If I don’t want to continue feeling like life is flying by and that I am missing the joy in the little AND the big moments in my life, then I have to take charge and make the pledge to live a hands free, less distracted life.

Has anyone else read this book?  Does anyone else feel like they live their life somewhat distracted from what really matters to them?

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Kitchen Cabinet Organization Makeover

One thing I have learned about organization is that it is never really “done.”  You can spend some time figuring out what you think is a great system for organizing an area of your home or your life, and it works great for a period of time–until it doesn’t.  Or, maybe parts of your plan still work really well, but something is throwing a wrench in the works, and you need to re-evaluate.  Or, your kids get a little older and needs change.  Whatever the cause, I have learned that even when a project feels “done,” it may not stay that way forever.

This became very apparent when I took some time to think about why I was frustrated about the state of my kitchen cabinets.  I took a chunk of time over a year ago to go through and purge, rearrange, and organized my kitchen.  I set up an organization system in my pantry that is still working pretty well today, though I did make a little adjustment by moving some of my daughter’s things to a rolling cart in the kitchen.  But, my kitchen cupboards were giving me a bit of grief.  Specifically two cupboards in particular– one the bottom row and one on the top.

The bottom cabinet is a very oddly shaped and somewhat difficult to use cabinet.  It has a standard sized door, but the depth of cupboard actually reaches back a significant distance (my arm doesn’t reach the back wall-even if I stick my head inside).  This means that there is a ton of storage in here, but not all of it is easily accessible.  Our pots and pans are stored in the drawer under our stove, and this cabinet was home to some electric cooking appliances we used all the time like our crock pot and George Foreman grill and others we didn’t use frequently like our stand mixer and a waffle iron.  I also stored our glass bakeware in here among other things.  Giant pain in the neck and sometimes hands when trying to maneuver things out of and into this cabinet.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.

The top cabinet houses mostly cooking related items like spices and mixing bowls, but it is also home to many of our medicines and first aid items (I read keeping them in a steamy bathroom can cause issues with potency, and it is very convenient for us to have them on this floor of our house).  But this cabinet didn’t really function the way it should either.  There were items in here that didn’t make sense, I had trouble getting to things I did use all of the time, and it looked like a big old mess.

Whole lot of randomness going on in here.

Whole lot of randomness going on in here.  Do you see the things toppling over?  Ugh!

What to do?  I followed most of my Top 7 Organizing Tips without even realizing it–which shows why they are my top 7!  I pulled everything out of the cabinets in question.  I purged a little more and evaluated what was left behind.  What did I use all of the time?  What needed to be easily accessible?  How can I make the most out of the space I have in front of me?  After some reflection, I realized I needed to throw another cabinet into the mix.  We had one cabinet on the lower level that I had decided to use as a kiddo cabinet.  I learned about this practice from Jen over at I Heart Organizing.  By making a dedicated space for my daughter’s items, she could get her own cups, plates, bowls, etc.  I didn’t want to lose that option for her, but I also knew the cabinet wasn’t living up to its potential.  So, I pulled everything out of that cabinet too.

The now former kiddo cabinet...

The now former kiddo cabinet…  And other random stuff.

I had a blank slate of 3 empty cabinets (and one very cluttered floor).  Now came the chance to put everything back in a very thoughtful way so that I didn’t end up with jumbles and frustration once again.  From what I have read and what I have personally experienced, what I needed to do was choose a specific “job” for each cabinet space.  For example, my upper cabinet was now only going to hold only cooking related items (and our two small medicine baskets).  I also wanted to make it easy to use the items in this cupboard–meaning I wanted to be able to pull out items I used all of the time without having everything else fall over.  Some of the more awkward items needed corralled with baskets.  We happened to make a Target run while I was working on this project, and I picked up a few items to help.  The white and teal baskets came from the home section of the store, and what looks like a shorter version of a magazine holder (these are my new favorite organizing tool!) and the chalkboard tags came from the Dollar Spot.  The baskets may not exactly match each other (which doesn’t really bother me, because every color has its own purpose), and I think the similar labels give everything a cohesiveness.

This is my favorite!  Love the baskets and labels!!

This is my favorite! Love the baskets and labels!!  I even moved some of my frequent cooking items like quick oats and bread crumbs from a bin in the pantry to here for easier access.

The kiddo cabinet items were moved over to a very deep drawer right next to the cabinet where her items used to live.  Everything fits in here nicely except two of her larger, segmented plates (which were moved to to the new large “storage cabinet”).  As she is now older and uses more of our regular “breakable” dishes, we didn’t need as many plastic ones as before and could downsize on the space dedicated to her things.  The former kiddo cabinet is now home to my “cooking essentials”–the things I use daily or weekly–crock pot, grill, and baking dishes.  This has worked so much easier.  I can reach all of them without fear of things falling or having to sort through other stuff to get to them.

The kiddo drawer...

The kiddo drawer…

Cooking essentials cabinet...

Cooking essentials cabinet…

Finally, the looooonnnngggg  cabinet has become a “storage” cabinet.  It houses things that we use semi-occasionally like the stand mixer, water kettle, vases, plastic pitchers, etc.  Items used a bit more frequently are at the front, the not so much but use them enough to not purge ones are at the back.  This is a much better use of this space–and I was actually able to fit more in here.  It still looks messy, but everything has a dedicated space, and being pretty isn’t really necessary here.

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We have lived with the new cabinet arrangement for about a month now, and I am really happy with the way everything is working so far.  We’ve had a few times where kiddo and I go to her former cabinet looking for a cup, but that has been the only hiccup and it is getting less and less all the time.  I am so glad I took the time to make our kitchen work better.  It has definitely helped with frustration during meal time prep and when putting items away.  All in all a couple of hours over winter break well spent.

Are there areas of your house that just aren’t working for you?  What have you done to make them less frustrating?

Creativity Unleashed link party!

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Quick and Easy Seasonal Decorations

One of my favorite things to do since I was a little kid is to decorate for the holidays.  My brother and I decorated for pretty much any and every holiday–didn’t matter how big or small.  My mom kept boxes for each of us to use to decorate our rooms and around the house.  I love keeping this tradition going with my own daughter.  Of course we hit the big decorating holidays like Easter, Halloween, and Christmas, but I like to do a little something for some of the others too–like winter (which I know isn’t a holiday, but snowmen are so cute and we needed something for January!), Valentine’s, St. Patrick’s day, etc.  Here are a few ways to celebrate without going over board, and an easy craft to do with kids you can use as decoration too.

I started out decorating for mini-holidays last year by purchasing fun things to go on the door to our “guest” bath that my daughter and I both use to get ready in the mornings and before bed.  This year we added a few more elements to make it even more fun!

I really like the way the rustic wooden signs look.  I have a similar one for St. Pat's.

I really like the way the rustic wooden sign look. I have a similar one for St. Pat’s–and you can usually find things like this on sale at Michael’s or Hobby Lobby.

1)  We used to buy window clings and put them on the sliding glass door in our kitchen for all of the holidays–which is fun, but we have a ton of colder months where we live and those little guys don’t stick so well to cold windows.  Plus, we keep our vertical blinds closed a bunch of the time–which means we didn’t actually get to see them very often.  As an alternative, this past fall, we started getting the gel clings and affixing them to the mirror in the bathroom.  This way, we actually get to see them multiple times a day, and they add to the festive spirit.  We’ve already purchased ours for St. Pat’s and Easter–they had really cute ones at Gordman’s that were fairly inexpensive and we snapped them up.  Downside, we will have to buy new ones each year–which is not something I like to do–but they are not the easiest thing to store.  If anyone has a great tip or trick, let me know!

You can see the gel clings for our "winter" decorations on the mirror (snowmen and penguins ice skating.)  The snowman wall hanging we made last year out of a shoe box lid and some left over fabric, felt, buttons, etc.

You can see the gel clings for our “winter” decorations on the mirror (snowmen and ice skating penguins.) The snowman wall hanging near the towel is something we made last year out of a shoe box lid and some left over fabric, felt, buttons, etc.

3)  Looking for a super simple and cheap kids craft?  This has become one of my favorites.  I found these really cool simple wooden scroll shapes at Michael’s for pretty cheap–maybe $1.99 each before any coupons or discounts.  These are really easy to paint with acrylic paints, and we of course add glitter to make them even fancier.  The only part that is a pain is taking off the price sticker–because it leaves a little residue and probably some nicks from your nails scraping the paper off, so you can really only display one side of the shape.  Once the shapes are painted and glitter-fied, we just hang them from a little bit of ribbon or string in the same “guest” bathroom and can enjoy our minor holiday decorations all in one local.  This year the kiddo painted “frame” versions of these scroll shapes for family holiday gifts this year.

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This is the snowflake my daughter painted last year. Hers are always so colorful and beautiful. I love that she doesn’t worry about it being “perfect,” and just goes with what she thinks will be pretty.

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You can see our Valentine’s gel clings and the scroll hearts we painted this year. Now I just need to find a festive hand towel!

These are all of the frames she painted for gifts this year.  She chose the color scheme and painted each for members of our family.

These are all of the frames she painted for gifts this year. She chose the color scheme and painted each for members of our family.

Do you have any quick and easy decorating or craft tips for the holidays?

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