Spring cleaning is a commonly observed phenomenon that occurs when winter begins to relinquish its icy grip, thawing and slowly awakening all creatures across the still barren tundra. That is, barren aside from the overstuffed caves we’ve been hibernating in. Piled high with the remnants of parties passed, forgotten novelties, and simply neglected staples, we need this collective reminder to take a step back and take stock. However, that alarm bell starts ringing not at the vernal equinox, but the threat of a looming New Year. Inspired by the time-honored custom of “o-souji” (literally, “big cleaning”) in Japan, I find myself knee-deep in Goodwill donations and floor polish while most other people are picking out their perfect cocktail dresses and pre-gaming over the most opulent sparkling beverages.
Disclaimer: I’m not the most tidy person in real life. Mismatched forks and knives spill out of the kitchen drawer, plates of all colors tower in endless stacks on the shelves, and there’s a bottomless pile of new products to review waiting in limbo just off to the side. Years of living alone, being a borderline slob HAS prepared me to know exactly where to draw the line, though, when the weight of this physical clutter shifts to mental baggage. The greatest offender here is found in the pantry, where odds and ends accumulate with no final destination in mind. Shuffling things around only does so much good, so let’s break it down into a few simple steps towards controlling the chaos.
1. Check labels and dates. I frequently violate this rule, squirreling away packaged goods despite the clearly printed numbers that indicate expiration. In most cases, these numbers are relatively arbitrary and can be taken with a grain of salt, but know your limits. A week or two passed the due date? Totally fine. A month or two? Maybe not; always go by a visual and olfactory inspection before diving in, discarding if anything seems remotely off. If you stumble across anything a year or older, those are grounds for instant dismissal. Don’t try to donate this stuff either. The 99 cents lost on those ancient black beans are not worth getting sick over. For more specific guidelines on various foodstuffs, try StillTasty.
Bear in mind that this is only applicable to food. Immediately toss any expired medications you may come across, and be very careful when checking cosmetics as well. Things like nail polish or mascara won’t kill you when they’re past their prime, but they dry out, separate, and don’t work as intended anymore. When in doubt, throw it out.
2. Re-home leftovers. Dozens of depleted, open bags litter the battlefield when I’m done working, making it awfully tempting to tie them up with rubber bands and stuff them back out of sight when the war is won. Inevitably, this leads to broken seals, messy spills, endless duplicates when I accidentally purchase the same things over and over again without checking the surplus. Contain and consolidate loose flours, sugars, dry grains, sprinkles, seaweeds, herbs, and spices into clean glass jars. It helps to be able to see the contents at a glance, while keeping all like ingredients together. Label clearly, including the date it was opened, for easy reference. I find this more helpful than the date on the package since it’s a more obvious reference to how long it’s been exposed to air, becoming more stale by the day.
3. Digitize your stockpile. Take photos of packages before transferring the contents to more long term storage for easy reference and better accountability. In case you forget exactly what’s in that pancake mix, or need to know how much fiber was in that wild rice blend, you can just pull up the picture without all the baggage. It’s also helpful to keep on your phone while you’re shopping to prevent the usual double purchase. You’ll know at a glance that you still have some chickpea flour kicking around somewhere if that picture is on file. I like to keep everything together in one folder on your Dropbox, but you can also make an album on Google Photos, EverNote, and so forth; pick your favorite app and make it work for you.
4. Cut your losses. While working through that excess, know when to let go. If there’s a half a cup or less of flour, for me, that’s a sign to just give up the ghost and toss the rest. It’s really not enough to make anything out of, right? You’d have to buy more, end up with an even greater volume of leftovers, and you’ve just made the problem worse in the end. Start fresh with a new batch altogether if you really do end up needing it.
5. Freeze your assets. Make the most of your edible investments by stashing anything with volatile fats in the freezer to prolong their lifespans. That means whole grains, flours, nuts, and seeds especially should go into the icebox, not the closet. Nothing is forever though and even ice cream needs to get the boot at some point, so check every six months for any off flavors or the tell-tale signs of freezer burn. Minimize all exposed surface to help prevent this, wrapping things tightly with plastic, placing disposable wrap on the surface of all items if they don’t quite fill to the top of their containers. Resist the urge to use plain foil because it can’t form a proper seal, and you can’t see the contents within. Don’t forget: Label, label, label.
6. Share the wealth. I’m one of those people who just has to try everything, no matter how bizarre or obscure. In fact, the more unusual it sounds, the more attractive it becomes. Thus, I end up with hundreds of things that I no longer have any use for (or desire to use) after the first or second taste. Did I really need to buy five pounds of teff flour to make one (failed) batch of injera? Where did all these extra green peppercorns come from? Why on earth do I have seven different containers of protein powder? For items that are perfectly good but have no purpose in the kitchen, offer them up at your next potluck and treat your guests to a little giveaway. There’s a good chance that they’ll have similar curiosities, along with a matching propensity to edible oddities if they’re friends with you. Especially if they’re food bloggers, such a random stroke of luck could kick start the inspiration for a new post (speaking from personal experience, at least!)
7. Take baby steps. You can’t make decades of disorder disappear overnight. Every time you find yourself standing in front of the microwave or the oven, waiting for dinner to be ready, start rifling through the cabinets. Make small goals like cleaning out one drawer each day. Break down the project piece by piece to let the bigger picture develop over time.
New Year’s resolutions typically inspire little more than my disdain, but this time around, I’m fully embracing that annual call to arms. 2019 is officially the year that I pledge to clean up my act… In the kitchen, at least. How about you?