Making Friends with Expiration Dates

I love when my clients say they want to organize the kitchen or the bathroom, because I know that expiration dates can be your best friend.

People have varying reactions to discovering that an item’s “use by” date has passed. Some want to toss the item right away. Others say, “Oh, those dates don’t mean anything!” But what do expiration dates really mean?

When it comes to food, as articles on WebMD and Cleveland Clinic explain, the date printed on the package more of  a suggestion regarding freshness rather than an outright statement that the food has gone bad. (The one exception is infant formula, which is the only food required by federal law to have a food quality date on it.) You can usually rely on your eyes and your sense of smell to determine whether a food has turned.

Regarding over-the-counter medications, articles in The New York Times and Harvard Health Publishing explain that you may not get 100% effectiveness past the “discard by” date, but the product will most likely still do its job. If you have a splitting headache and the only analgesic at hand is past its prime, it’s better than suffering!

So why do I say that expiration dates can be your best friend when you are organizing? An expiration date lets you know just how long ago you bought that item. If your Advil expired in 2015, or that packaged cake mix expired in 2016, it’s an indication that you just aren’t using those items frequently enough to warrant keeping them. It’s best to throw them away, especially if you have other packages that are fresher. We often buy something that we think we are going to use but instead we try it once and then never look at again. Or we never even open the package.

Rather than stubbornly clinging to the illusion that you really will use this item, it’s best to accept the reality that you really won’t. Cabinet space is always at a premium, so make room for the stuff that you really do use.

Too Many Choices

Making decisions can be exhausting. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered that I can reduce that stress and exhaustion by limiting the amount of decision-making I have to do each day.

Do you know those famous people who seem to wear the same thing every day? Steve Jobs wore a designer black turtleneck and blue jeans. Mark Zuckerberg wears a gray t-shirt. Barack Obama said, “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

I like a little more variety than wearing the same thing every day, but I have created certain limitations to my wardrobe. My default outfit starts with a pair of black or blue jeans (in the summer, I start with black or navy blue shorts). I’ll add a colorful shirt and coordinated earrings. I have very little variety in my undergarments. I’ve also reduced my daily cosmetics routine to three products: powder, eyebrow pencil, blush. (I’ll add some lipstick on the way out of the house.)

I own so few shoes that I can fit all of them — summer and winter — into a 10-pair hanging shoe organizer. I keep two handbags by the front door: a convertible backpack for when I need to carry a lot of stuff, and a small crossbody bag for when I don’t. A handbag insert makes it easy for me to switch from one to the other.

I’ve also simplified my kitchen. The three pans that I use the most often are hanging on the kitchen wall for easy access. I’ve reviewed and downsized the rest of my pots so that there are no duplications. I have one set of dishes, which I use for both everyday and company. Ditto for my flatware.

Another key to decision-making is being able to see everything you own. Having fewer items definitely helps make that possible. Organizing similar items together also helps.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by the number of decisions you need to make every day about fairly mundane things, try to figure out where you can simplify.

Upgrading My Garbage Bags

I never thought I would be writing a blog post on garbage bags. But life is strange that way.

A few years after moving into our current home, we decided to get a new garbage can for the kitchen. At that time, our local supermarket packed groceries in plastic bags with handles. I brought one of those bags along to Bed Bath and Beyond so that I could find a garbage can whose size would allow me to use these plastic bags. I found one with the ideal design for our kitchen and the perfect size for these supermarket bags.

As time went on, we found that not all free garbage bags were created equal. (I think the quality of the bags started to decline.) After putting away our groceries, we would scrutinize the bags to make sure there weren’t any tiny holes at the bottom that would allow garbage to seep through into the bottom of our garbage can liner. We were not always successful in weeding out the losers, and we had to clean up a lot of messes.

In 2020, New York City banned plastic shopping bags. We started bringing reusable shopping bags to the supermarket. It took us a while to use up our stash of free garbage bags, but eventually we had to start buying trash bags. I was experimenting to find the exact size that would fit our garbage can.

Then I had a brilliant idea. Our garbage can was made by Simple Human. They also sold garbage bags that were designed to fit their garbage cans exactly. Since I was already buying garbage bags, I decided to try theirs to see if we liked them.

Well, we didn’t just like them — we loved them! I can’t believe we lived all these years without them. Having high-quality bags that fit our garbage can has truly improved our lives. We never run out because I order a box of 60 and then reorder when the box gets low. The total cost for a full year is around $100.

Some of my clients still have big collections of crappy store bags (even crappier than the ones I was using). They take up a lot of space in small kitchen cabinets. I urge them to save a few and ditch the rest, and buy higher quality bags.

Is there something you are using because it is free, but it really isn’t serving your needs? Research how much it would really cost you to upgrade to a paid item. If it isn’t very much, consider improving the quality of your life.

Another Recycling Bin to Love

Call me fickle. Less than two years ago, I wrote a blog post extolling the small improvements I had made around my home during the slow days of the pandemic. One those improvements was the addition of a Simple Human two-compartment recycling bin in my kitchen. This bin was a definite step up for us, but it was not perfect in light of our recycling situation.

Joseph Joseph GoRecycle 28L Recycling Caddy

So when Facebook showed me an ad for the Joseph Joseph GoRecycle 28L Recycling Caddy, I decided to try it. And boy, do we love it!

The Joseph Joseph Recycling Caddy is perfect for apartment living, as it can be easily transported to the trash room in our building, where we can pour the contents into the larger recycling bins. We have dedicated one section of the caddy for paper, and the other for plastic and glass. Due to the hinged lid, it’s easy to empty out just one of the sections at a time. And the two sides of the lid come together to form a sturdy handle.

Interestingly, the Facebook ad showing this item was from the Design Store of the Museum of Modern Art.  Apparently, it’s not only functional, it’s also considered good design!

So what did I do with the Simple Human two-compartment recycling bin? I held on to it for a couple of months to make sure that I didn’t have another use for it. Then I posted it on Buy Nothing, the Facebook group that I wrote about in a blog post during the pandemic, when I was getting rid of so many things. The recycling bin was the most popular item I ever posted on Buy Nothing — 84 people expressed interest! I had to use a random number generator to pick the winner.

By the way, you can use Buy Nothing even if you are not a Facebook user. You can install the Buy Nothing app on your smart phone without even having a Facebook account.

 

In Praise of Drawer Dividers

I recently noticed just how many drawer dividers I’ve added to the drawers in my home. Even more interesting to me was that the divider solution for each drawer is different. When it comes to drawer dividers, there is no “one size fits all”. It’s important to carefully measure the drawer dimensions as well as the dimensions of the items you want to store.

A photo of me organizing the dividers in the junk drawer of my desk actually appeared in the New York Times five years ago when I was interviewed for an article. Of course I wrote about it in my blog, and you can see the blog post and photo here.

When I first got the drawer dividers for that junk drawer, I discovered that the drawer would now hold slightly less stuff. That was not a bad thing, however, because grouping similar things together made me realize that I had a lot of duplicate stuff that I didn’t need. In addition, it was more important for me to be able to find my stuff than to have a ton of stuff, so it was worth the tradeoff.

I gave that desk away last year (along with the dividers) but I still have a lot of other dividers all over my home. Here are some of them.

Kitchen

When I work with clients to organize their kitchens, one of the first changes I recommend is to get a drawer divider for the silverware, if they don’t already have one. Here is a photo of my silverware drawer. The divider doesn’t fill the entire drawer, so we pushed it to the back and put in front our most frequently-used small utensils (can opener, vegetable peeler, ice cream scoop, and the avocado tool I wrote about recently) are in the front. It’s easy to find what we need and also easy to put it back after it comes out of the dishwasher.

I also have a larger utensil drawer which holds long items. There are drawer dividers in that one, too. Rounded items like cooking spoons and salad tongs go in one section, and flat items like spatulas go in another. Grouping them by shape prevents the items from getting tangled up in each other and catching on the drawer so that it won’t open.

Living Room

Last year, when I got rid of my desk, I moved my office supplies into the living room end table that is closest to my computer desk. (I wrote about that switch in Transforming My Home Office.) To best utilize the space in the three shallow drawers in the end table, I laid out what I wanted to keep in each drawer, then measured the size of the drawers as well as the size of each grouping of office supplies. I got on the Container Store website and looked at the drawer divider options until I found a product that offered the depth I needed for these very shallow drawers and that came in a variety of lengths and widths. The end result was a series of containers that keep small items together (paper clips, batteries, rubber bands) and prevent larger items from sliding around the drawer.

Bedroom

The latest addition to my suite of drawer dividers is in the end table next to my bed. It’s a small drawer and doesn’t have that many items in it. However, when you are looking for something in the dark in the middle of the night, and you’re trying not to wake your spouse, it’s easier (and less noisy!) if you know exactly where it is in the drawer. Because of the curved front of the drawer, I ended up with a narrow space in front of the drawer dividers, and that turned out to be a great place to stand up my bookmarks!

How to Select Drawer Dividers

If you’ve got a drawer in which the items slide around and it’s hard to find things when you need them, consider adding a drawer divider. The most important thing to do is measure your drawer very carefully. Don’t forget to measure the depth! Also consider what configuration you need. Do you need to store long items (like spatulas) or tiny items (like paper clips)?

In some instances, your best product will be an expandable drawer organizer. There are a lot of these for kitchen drawers especially.

Once you have your measurements and a good idea of how many small compartments and how many large compartments you need, you can find good solutions online at The Container Store, Bed Bath and Beyond, and Amazon. Here are the products I included in the photos above.

Kitchen: ORG Powder-Coated Large Mesh Flatware Organizer in Silver from Bed Bath and Beyond

Living Room: Drawer Organizer White/Translucent (in multiple sizes) from The Container Store

Bedroom: iDESIGN Linus 3-Section Tray Clear (two of them) from The Container Store

You might also consider having drawer dividers custom-made. This will be a more expensive option than buying an off-the-shelf product, but it might be worth it. One company is Organizer My Drawer, which makes custom acrylic drawer organizers.