The great kitchen purge

Hello there, I'm writing to you from my clean, orderly kitchen and happy to report that one month in, 'the year of less' is going very well. To be fair, we've had a few challenges and still have a ton of work left to do, but I thought this post could serve as an update on one of the most impactful projects we've completed to date and its effectiveness at improving our lives and savings overall.

Since there are literally dozens of mini projects that we need to do that involve sorting, tossing, and organizing, we started with the ones that were most relevant to the habits we are trying to break as part of this year of less. In reflecting on the past month, I've realized that our commitment to omit non-social eating out has been the hardest habit to break and has also paradoxically led to the most amazing benefits well beyond our savings goals.

So this post is going to cover just one project, which I will henceforth refer to as "The Great Kitchen Purge of 2018" that entailed organizing our kitchen to make it as easy as possible to plan, purchase, and cook our own food in support of the goal to break our eating out habit.

This project was formally initiated when Wes and I sat down at our kitchen table with a pad of paper and a pen exactly one month ago, and talked about the meals we both liked and could easily make at home (which fall in either the Crock Pot or frozen protein + fresh produce categories), and wrote them down on a Post-It note, along with the ingredients we needed to make these meals.

With a  clear understanding of the meals we wanted to make at home, we needed to 1) understand what ingredients we already had 2) identify the ingredients we needed and 3) organize our kitchen to make it as easy as possible to use these ingredients and create the recipes of our dreams.

In order to understand what ingredients we already had and organize our kitchen to make it as easy as possible to use them, we embarked on an inventorying and organizing process which entailed:

  • Purging the spice and oils cabinet, which taught me that I love impulse buying cayenne pepper (we had no less than four containers of various sizes) and owned bay leaves that lived in individual jars a la the decaying rose in the Disney Beauty and the Beast movie. Literally everything came out of the cabinet, and I tossed anything expired, suspect or rarely / never used. Then I reorganized the spice and oils cabinet to put the spices and oils we use most often (cumin, oregano, parsely, red pepper flakes, sea salt, avocado oil, coconut oil) on the easiest-to-reach shelf and DID NOT CROWD THEM. No sir, no mam. Those spices and oils have room to breathe, to stretch, and be seen. Meaning that they shout at me, "Make white turkey chili!" or "How about chicken taco lettuce wraps?" the moment I open the cabinet.

  • Cataloging the dry goods cabinets, which showed me that I inherited my mother's tendency to believe that dry goods can be harbored and used to survive for decades in a bomb shelter should we need to go down that road. Those expiration dates are just marketing! Wes and I used to have CONSTANT debates about expiration dates. He's a stickler for them, I ignore them except for perishables. Realizing that Wes would not eat things like chickpea pasta purchased back in 2014, all dry goods past or approaching their expiration dates were tossed. As were all dry goods that are no longer conducive to our diet (goodbye, wheat flour, white sugar and breadcrumbs). Our dry goods cabinets were reduced to a hand-selected assortment of lentils, cannellini and garbanzo beans, flax and chia seeds, cans of diced tomatoes and grain-free things like edamame spaghetti noodles and almond flour.

  • Downsizing the nuts and sweets cabinet, which demonstrated that we have a strong preference for marcona almonds, macademia nuts and walnuts, yet tend to allow pine nuts to waste away because Wes hates them. In the process of going through our nuts and sweets cabinet, I decided that I was no longer going to do things like toast my own pine nuts and toss them with my own plate of long-expired chickpea pasta while Wes eats leftover Papa John's pizza. We also threw away the wayward candies and sweets that get tossed into that cabinet and forgotten. Wes doesn't have much of a sweet tooth, and I stopped eating sugar almost entirely back in July. (Instead, I purchase Lily's vegan, sugar-free dark chocolate bars in bulk to have on hand when I inevitably get a sweets craving.)

It took about a weekend to get through all of these cabinets, and resulted in a TON of junk getting tossed that was distracting us from the meal options sitting right in our very own kitchen that we'd been ignoring in favor of heading to a restaurant. With a clear view of what we had on hand, along with a list of ingredients we needed to make the staple meals we'd agreed on, we went grocery shopping to fill in some of the gaps of items we wanted to have on hand - organic chicken stock, canned green chilies and jalapenos, jars of roasted red peppers, frozen organic shrimp, ground turkey, salmon, and chicken breast  - as well as the produce we needed to create our meals for the week.

In case you're curious, here are the basic meals we've had in our rotation:

  • White turkey or chicken chili, made with organic frozen meat that we defrost in the refrigerator the night before and put in the Crock Pot in the morning (I love this recipe from Williams Sonoma, altered to remove dairy)

  • Baked salmon or tilapia with roasted vegetables, made with organic frozen filets that we defrost in water shortly before cooking and organic produce purchased that week (typically broccoli, green beans, Brussels sprouts, etc.)

  • Sausage and lentil soup, made with canned tomatoes, dried lentils, and spicy Italian sausage (here's the recipe we love)

  • Shrimp or chicken stir fry, made with onions, garlic, a little coconut oil, red pepper flakes, almond butter, low sodium soy, and assorted fresh vegetables. Someone suggested we buy a party platter of chopped vegetables each week, and it's THE BEST for cooking two-person meals and limiting waste. We add snap peas, pepper and broccoli to shrimp stir fry and snack on the rest.

  • Taco salad, made with organic frozen lean beef or turkey and organic taco seasoning and served over chopped romaine with canned jalapenos and roasted red peppers.

A couple of other notes: we've been cooking extra dinner, and then packaging it for lunch the next day. It's not a perfect lunch planning system, but has been a dramatic change in the amount of 'buying lunch out' of our former lives. We've also decided to allow takeout once per week as needed, as well as one date night per week. For takeout, we plan to order Thai on nights where we both have to leave early and work late and have been buying cauliflower rice each week to have on hand as a replacement for the white rice to keep it healthy. 

The Benefits of Our Great Kitchen Purge of 2018

This may sound crazy, but this exercise has dramatically improved both our relationship and our waistlines beyond the obvious monetary savings we expected.

From a relationship perspective, taking time to plan our meals for the week on Sundays (over a homemade brunch of coffee, eggs and almond flour pancakes) has led to better communication about our work and social obligations. We used to fight when one of us (OK, usually me) forgot to mention that we had to work late, or had a client dinner, or scheduled plans with a friend on a Friday night. Now we have a structured time to talk about our upcoming week, and jot down a simple meal plan on a Post-It note that we use to guide our grocery shopping that day, and then put on the refrigerator as a reminder.  We've also decided to allow one date night per week, with the rule of treating it as a special occasion. It's amazing how much more fun our nights out have been with that mindset shift.

From a waistline perspective, it's natural that cooking at home more often gives you improved control of what's going in to your body. But I think there are a few other factors in play related to the weight loss we've both experienced this month:

  • Our meal time has shifted to be an experience rather than a utility: we started taking time to set the table, light candles, play music and actually enjoy each other's company for 45 minutes vs. our old pattern of running out to a restaurant in starvation mode, eating quickly, not registering as full, and finding ourselves snacking at 9p.

  • One of my personal goals related to the 'letting go of things and activities that don't add value' was to stop my obsession with weight and dress size (if we're connected on Instagram, you may remember this mini post on the topic): instead, I decided to replace it with a healthy focus on eating whole, clean, nutritious foods. Redirecting my thoughts has been challenging, but has resulted in me thinking about eating less often, and therefore actually eating less in general. Who knew!

  • Overall, we're in a happier and more contented place in our lives and relationship: in addition to the better communication, improved connection over meals and what that means for our relationship, Wes and I are individually in better places. For me, I think it's largely because I'm focusing so much more of my energy and attention on what I have vs. what I do not have, and seem to have more time to spend thinking and reflecting. Although I'm certainly no expert on the topic, a lot of what I tend to read related to health claims that our mental states directly impact things that affect weight like gut health, sleep, etc.

At some point I'll do a comparison of what our hard savings are in the category of omitting eating out but thought that these benefits were surprising and a lot more interesting to share. Also, I'll be sharing a bonus post with the breakdown of all of the projects we've completed this month, along with the simple, low or no-cost approaches we utilized to get them done. If you're interested in this content, please sign up for the newsletter.

Thanks so much for reading, and for all of your input / suggestions / tips related to this year of less challenge (especially those meal planning tips… all of them were spot on)! Please feel free to let me know your thoughts in the comments, and I hope you have a wonderful rest of the week!