It’s that time of year again! What time of year you may ask? It’s one we here at The Goodhart Group (well some of us) look forward to: Spring Cleaning! If you struggle with getting tidy, allow me to suggest that organization will help you clear the space you need to make cleaning easier… less clutter, fewer things to move when it comes time to dust, mop, etc. In other words, zen’ning your space can help streamline your life and make it that much more likely you’ll actually do that cleaning regularly!
There has been a wave of literature and study in this direction, e.g. Marie Kondo’s book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”, but allow me to put my own two cents on the subject. I’m new here at The Goodhart Group, but in my former life I went to culinary school and then founded a DC-based organic food business which I ran for five years. Based on what I learned and practiced all day everyday, I can tell you that Chef’s training took what was already a high level of organization, and made it more practiced, systematic, and team-work enabled. These are lessons you can use to improve your home and family function.
All the lessons I learned as a Chef, I try to apply to other areas of my life, from an almost religious devotion to functional design to an intense focus on sanitation, there are clear applications to my home kitchen, but what about other areas of the house? Yes. It scales. In fact, it also scales to other areas of life entirely… but for the moment, let’s take a deep dive look at how Chef-thinking can help you transform your kitchen into a practice ground for your new-found hyper-zen organization skills. Here are some lessons from the culinary world to help you think it through on your own terms:
- You only get so much space – use it wisely. In a professional kitchen you’re often given a few feet of counter space to produce food for hundreds of people in a few hours. You need every inch of space and anything unnecessary will quickly get the boot.
- Remove non-essentials. First step after getting a sense of limited space… what do you really need and need frequently? Anything you use less than that should be stored or donated stat.
- Give everything a “home” and then communicate that home to all members of your team. If you’re storing things, try to create a system. For example put all your appliances in the same area, or all your coffee and mugs in the same area. Then tell your family so they don’t mess up the new system! If everyone learns the coffee supplies are in area xxx, your shared space will become more like teamwork and less like a warzone.
- Walk through your common procedures to streamline your regular efforts. What are the things you do everyday? Make coffee? Grill a sandwich? Make toast? Walk through what it takes… step 1 coffee, step 2 grind the coffee, step 3 dump the grinds into the machine, step 4 get a mug, step 5 get coconut milk creamer, etc – you get the point. Even small daily tasks can be streamlined, and organized functionally so that everything you need is easily available.
- “Order” only what you need for the time you take until your next trip, e.g. 2 days for produce, 1-6 months for dry goods. Or you can figure out how long your foods will stay good, and only buy what you’ll use before it expires. If you are bulk ordering, use a smaller container to hold only what you need for a week or two, and separately store the remaining bulk supply.
- Organize by type. Keep all your spices together, teas, canned beans, proteins, root veggies, leafy greens, etc. This way you know where to look to visually assess your stock level on any particular category of food, which will help you effortlessly keep a running tab of your inventory.
- Fridge organization. In a pro kitchen this is super important, and it makes just as much sense at home. Foods that need to be cooked at high temps, like raw animal proteins, need to be stored on lower shelves so they’re less likely to drip on things like romaine lettuce which you most likely will eat raw. This also helps you naturally and visually organize your fridge.
- First in first out thought process. When you bring home new goodies from the store, fresh or dry, it always goes to the back. Ideally you’re totally out of all your fresh food before you go get new stuff, but if it’s not, you move the older stuff to the front and pack new items behind it. This way you know the relative date of items and avoid leaving things to fester in the back after months of being pushed back by new items, or finding cans of food in the back of your pantry that expired when you were in highschool.
- Cook/Prep en masse whenever possible. This will minimize how much you actually have to cook! I like to cook breakfast fresh every morning, then make a smoothie for lunch at the same time – this way I only have one cleanup session. Often with dinner I’ll make a few days worth so I have snacks to eat also, but not more than what I think I’ll go through before it gets icky.
- Mise en place! This basically means before you start cooking you gather everything you need for your recipe: all the tools, all the food items, all the spices, etc. Think once, then just execute – it makes cooking easier and less hectic. Plus you won’t start a recipe it turns out you don’t have all the ingredients for!
- Use a cutting board. Making the effort to learn how to wield a knife on a cutting board will increase your efficiency. So often I see people standing and cutting things with a knife in the air, thinking they’re saving a dish, but this is way slower since you can only make one cut at a time, and it’s also really unsafe! To me this is a lesson in making the effort upfront to get a cutting board, then you can make 20x the cuts at one time, and you’ll be done faster, with less effort. Sometimes making the effort to get well setup from the getgo has exponential returns on investment.
- While you’re at it, use TOOLS to maximize your effort. Even better – if you can make your cuts with a food processor, DO. The food processor will shred, chop, slice.. All while you’re doing something else, like getting the water boiling for pasta or pouring a glass of wine.
- Make clean up easy. Get your kitchen setup for easy and complete cleanup and share the load. If you can, use stainless steel for all the kitchen surfaces you can, because it’s the only truly sterilizable material. Use bleach soaked towels for wiping surface, not sponges – sponges are for scrubbing pots, not spreading the mess on countertops all over the kitchen. Come up with a routine. Even better if you can set the expectation of sharing the load by saying whomever cooks, the others clean, and vice versa, then take turns.
- Label and date leftovers. Don’t let what you have leftover go bad! Label and date it so you’re not guessing whether or not it’ll make you sick 2 days from now. If you can’t get through it in time and it starts to get icky, consider other uses… less than fresh tomatoes can easily be stewed and turned into a soup or sauce rather than used on a salad or tossed in the trash. Leftover lasagna can complement some doggie kibble for an extra special furry dinner. Reuse, reuse, reuse.
- Creature comforts. The kitchen should be a place of nourishment, fun, and bonding. Make it feel special and warm, and treat yourself to that luxury. For me it’s a beautiful glass of wine and some Miles Davis, fo you it may be a mother of pearl Chef’s knife and your kids doing homework at the barstool nearby.
Do what you can to enjoy your time in the kitchen, and you’ll soon see how creating a good experience in the hub of your house can set the tone for the rest of your home, your family, and other areas in your life. Maximize your efforts and minimize the work by thinking like a Chef in your kitchen and beyond. And one final tip, the more you practice, the more second nature it will become.
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