The kitchen is one of the most important rooms in your home. More than just an area for preparing food, the kitchen is the place where you pass along values to your children, demonstrate the joy of conversation, and participate in the ancient ritual of sharing a meal as a family. It's just naturally one of the happiest rooms in your house.
Your kitchen and your dining areas are also tightly linked to the inner workings of your body and your mind. When you're clearing out an overstuffed life, I believe you have to start here. Your kitchen strongly influences your food choices, so this is also the natural place to begin when decluttering your waistline. It often provides enough space for you to stash away hundreds of thousands of calories' worth of food—healthy or otherwise.
As you declutter and reorganize your kitchen, the key question to ask is "Am I using this space to hold foods that help me create the body I want?" Are the supplies in your kitchen helping you stay lean and strong? Or do you pack your pantry and fridge with foods and drinks that fuel your journey into obesity and poor health?
Task 1: Develop a vision for what you want from your kitchen
This task simply requires you to sit down and do some thinking, ideally with the other people in your home. Determining your vision simply requires asking "What do I want from this room?" You have a lot of options. Write down your vision and be specific. Examples:
• I want a relaxing place where I can check in with my family.
• I want this to be a place where I take 10 minutes to relax in the morning before I go to work and 30 minutes to decompress in the evening.
• I want to be able to focus on what I'm eating in this room, and to be able to express gratitude that I once again have enough to eat today.
• I want a space that welcomes guests, is fun to cook in and easy to clean, and says "I value sharing meals with family and friends."
• I want to explore new styles of cooking, so I want my kitchen to support a lot of experiments.
Task 2: Separate the "benign" from the "malignant" items
The stuff you own has power—the power to take you to another place and time, to remind you of events long past, to overwhelm or depress you. Malignant clutter poisons your point of view, your habits, and your behaviors. It makes you feel bad about the decisions you've made. It makes you think less of yourself. It makes you second-guess yourself. It gets in your face, undermines your confidence, and calls you a failure. It reminds you of lost love, missed opportunities, or times past that you wish you could move on from. It's harmful, and rooting it out must be your priority.
Carefully inspect your kitchen and dining areas and list all the malignant items—or better still, gather them in one pile. These things can bring up all kinds of emotions. The idea of throwing them out might be hard, even when you can see they're bad for you. So you don't have to get rid of them right now, if you don't want. You have all week to first get used to the idea. Right now, I just want you to identify these items and set them somewhere unobtrusive.
It's up to you to decide what's benign and malignant in your household. But I'd suspect that the kitchen items that might make your malignant list include the following:
• Junk food.
• Processed foods.
• Unhealthy cooking tools. (Deep-fat fryers, cake-ball makers, and so on.)
• Plates, cooking gadgets, and utensils that represent some type of failure. (For instance, kitchen items from a previous, painful marriage or baking tools you had high hopes for but never used, creating a feeling of failure in the kitchen.)
For each piece of malignant clutter, ask yourself:
• How did this get here?
• What power does this item have over me?
• Is this item helping me create the vision I have for the space?
• Is this item serving any purpose or helping me in some positive way?
• What feelings linked to this object have kept me from throwing it out?
• How would I feel if this item disappeared on its own right now?
• Could this item that's a source of pain or disappointment to me become a wonderful addition to someone else's life?
When it comes to your health, your refrigerator/freezer area is one of the most important kitchen zones. For this and every zone in your home, I want you to first ask yourself: What do I want from this area? Someone who grew up in a financially strapped household where having enough to eat wasn't guaranteed might want a fully stocked fridge at all times. Someone with low willpower might want to have only healthy foods on hand.
Decide which needs you want your refrigerator/freezer to meet. Please be sure that your fridge and freezer (and other food storage areas) hold the kinds of foods that will carry you to success. Ask youself how much space you want to allow for each type of item. Spend a few moments sketching out a mental map of your refrigerator. Determine how much space you'll devote to fruits and vegetables, milk and other dairy, condiments, and other contents.
Once you settle on these criteria, get to work. Ask yourself whether each item helps your refrigerator perform the function you want from it. If it doesn't, toss it. If you realize you have way too much bottled water or salad dressings, get rid of them. If you don't want to keep food or drinks that are unopened and unexpired, consider offering them to friends, family members, food banks, or homeless shelters.
As you're cleaning and decluttering, give all the shelves and bins a good scrubbing and sanitizing. When you finish, if you have a second refrigerator in your garage or another room, clean it out, too.
Give your pantry the same treatment that you gave the fridge/freezer. Before you decide what will go into the pantry, decide what you want this zone to provide for you. Are you trying to get more whole grains into your diet? Make sure your pantry keeps plenty of those available.
Decide how much space should be available for each type of item (such as canned goods, cereal, pasta, boxes of teabags, and so on). The pantry often attracts all sorts of nonfood items, such as pet supplies and grocery bags. If possible, keep nonfood items to a minimum in your pantry, so this zone's primary function remains keeping you nourished.
Clean out your entire pantry, wipe up any dust and crumbs, and haul out stuff that's old or expired. If any type of item exceeds the space you're giving it, figure out how to use it quickly, give it away, or throw it out.
Your first step in decluttering your kitchen's horizontal surfaces is to ask yourself "How do I want these horizontal surfaces to make my life easier?" (Rather than "What do I want to put here?") In any space, especially the kitchen, it's important to remember that flat surfaces are not for storage—they're for preparing and serving.
Anything that gets in your way or adds to your cleanup time needs to go. Clear out all the piles of mail, instruction manuals, work materials, knickknacks, collectibles, computers, food wrappers, and any other debris that doesn't belong. If your horizontal kitchen spaces look like clean, functional workspaces, your kitchen will look larger and more inviting, and you'll be more likely to cook and less tempted to just load the family into the car and eat elsewhere.
Kitchens function most smoothly when its zones are clearly defined. The preparation area is the space where you assemble the ingredients for a meal. This zone should allow you to pull meals together in the most efficient way possible.
The only items in this space should be the things that help you prepare your meals. This includes:
• Pots and pans
• Kitchen utensils like ladles and stirring spoons
• Herbs and spices.
Step back and consider the space in your kitchen that's devoted to meal preparation. Look at the places where you keep your pots, pans, cutting boards, utensils, and storage containers. Are these items conveniently located?
How much space will you allow these items to take up? Which items do you regularly use, and which are just consuming precious space? Grab a box and systematically go through all the drawers and cupboards that hold food preparation items.
Get rid of the worn-out, unused, damaged, or just plain ugly stuff that no longer has a place in your home. If you find items that are not used for food preparation, decide where they belong or whether you should simply toss them. Pots and pans unused for more than 12 months can probably go. If you have duplicates of any items, some of them can go. Any plastic storage container without a lid must definitely go!
This is the area where you put food on plates just before you serve your meals. This area should be clear, clutter free, and functional, with handy access to platters, serving utensils, and flatware. Any other items that don't serve this purpose should go elsewhere.
Carefully examine this zone. Does it currently help you do this task, or is it cluttered with kitchen- and non-kitchen-related items? Whatever objects are currently getting in the way of an efficient serving space need to go. Decorative items that clutter the space—no matter how pretty—need to find a new home.
Check your platters and serving dishes. Do you have a reasonable number, or are many of them long unused? Remove all your utensils and kitchen gizmos from their drawers. Decide which items you really need and use, and get rid of the ones you don't.
In most kitchens, dishes and glassware tend to fill up the cupboards that are available to them, whether or not the owners use them regularly. For this task, bring out all dishes, cups, and glassware from your cupboards. Get rid of any items that are chipped or damaged, as well as those you simply don't use.
Take this opportunity to toss out all of those free and souvenir plastic cups that seemed useful when you brought them home but now just take up space. If you have unmatched items, decide if you want to keep the irregular pieces or simply discard the partial set.
Now decide how much space you're willing to provide for your dishes. Put the items you're going to keep back into these spaces, making sure to keep like items together. Discard any items that don't fit into the spaces you've allocated.
It's crucial to keep the right cleaning products (or homemade cleaning products) close at hand so you can quickly and easily clear a mess, remove a spill, or just wipe the countertops clean at the end of an evening. In most kitchens, the cleaning products stay under the sink. People often find that venturing into this dark, spooky place is one of their least-liked kitchen tasks, but I promise that this step can be one of the most rewarding.
First, remove everything from under the sink and place it on your kitchen counter. Discard any old, unused, empty, or just plain odd products and items. I guarantee you'll find multiples of some cleaning products (like partially filled bottles of the same spray cleaner)—if you do, merge them into single containers. (Never merge different cleaning products together. It can create toxic fumes.)
Be sure to dispose of old cleaners responsibly. While the under-sink area is empty, thoroughly clean it. Finally, reload the space with only those items that you need and use regularly. Consider using plastic storage bins to keep similar items together. This will help keep the space tidy and enable you to quickly and easily find what you're seeking—which you'll be grateful for the next time you’re fumbling around for the right bottle in this dark, spidery area. Be sure not to overload the space.
Now is the time to turn your attention back to your malignant kitchen items: the stuff that makes you feel guilty, or sad, or like you've failed as a cook or
as a provider for your family.
As bad as this stuff is, I know it's often difficult to "break up" with it. It's just like addressing a relationship that's bad for you or that has run its course. Even when you know you need to do it, making that break can be incredibly painful.
I have dealt with all kinds of malignant clutter over the years. I know how crippling some items can be, how they can crush your spirit and, without warning, bring up memories of times or events that send you into sadness, anger, and despair. I also know that the only way over a problem is through it. By dealing with malignant clutter, you remove hurdles that are keeping you from your best life.
A few years ago, I worked with a family that had endured the father's battle with lymphoma. Every member of the family was left shaken by the experience. Fortunately he was in remission, and his odds for continued good health were great. But in one corner of the living room, I found an upper-body and head cast that held him completely still during his extensive radiation treatments.
The whole family blanched when I lifted the cast aloft. They hated what the cast represented. Still, they couldn't let it go. Your malignant clutter may have been tormenting you for years. But you're getting a fresh start, and this harmful clutter is presenting obstacles to your growth and success. Now's the time to get rid of your first batch of malignant clutter.
If you simply must have a reminder that this stuff was part of your life, take a picture of it, then tuck away the physical photo in a desk, or stick the digital version deep into the belly of your computer. It's time to give this clutter to the world outside your home.
Gather up the pile and:
• Distribute items to friends or family.
• Sell things on Craigslist or on consignment.
• Donate it to Goodwill.
• Set things out on your curb with a sign that reads "FREE."
• Recycle whatever you can.
• Accept that some items are worthless and throw them in the trash.
After a long conversation, the family I was just telling you about agreed to my suggestion that we burn the cast as a way of saying good-bye to the cancer and signaling a new beginning. This was one of the most emotional moments I have ever had as a professional organizer. Everyone was in tears as flames reduced the cast to ashes. But in that moment, there was also a great sense of joy and release. By letting go of this piece of malignant clutter (the worst kind of malignant clutter, in fact), the whole family was free of the destructive power that it held over them. (Just don't make burning trash an everyday thing. Burning garbage is linked to pollution that harms your heart and brain, and could increase your risk of serious diseases.)
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