Eliminating 'clutter crimes'

Home: Efficiency expert Nellie O'Brien offers tips for getting organized, starting in the kitchen.

October 31, 1999|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff

"Where's my cereal?" "Where's my lunch?" "Where are the car keys?

"Is the carpool here already?"

"Where's the dog?"

If that sounds like an ordinary morning in your household, Nellie O'Brien has one word for you:


Well, duuuh, you already knew that. But how can you be expected to remember where every little item is when there are so many more important things on your mind?

O'Brien, a food storage and organization specialist, doesn't want to organize your thoughts: She wants to organize your life, starting with the kitchen. So you don't have to think when you reach for the cereal or the flour or the dog food.

Now that the holidays are approaching, organization is even more important. Big meals can mean big headaches -- say, if you've lost the can of cranberry sauce or have no room in the fridge for turkey leftovers.

To prove her point, O'Brien took on the kitchen of Jack and Mimi Egas, both 35, who have a house in Federal Hill, and two daughters, Tess, 3 1/2, and Mackenna, 15 months. The Egases both commute daily to Washington, where he works in computers and she works for the Food and Drug Administration. They have daily child care, but mornings can be chaotic.

When O'Brien and an assistant showed up one afternoon at the Egases, some chaos was already evident. Mimi was out of town, and Jack was leaving the next day. Mimi's parents, Bert and Evie Garcia, had come to take the children back to the Eastern Shore with them for the weekend. The kids were both sleepy and hungry.

O'Brien headed resolutely for the kitchen, a long galley space at the back of the house. She opened the first cabinet she came to and peered in. "This doesn't look too bad, Jack," she said. "There are still a few 'clutter crimes.' We're going to take one cabinet at a time, so it's not overwhelming. I'm going to need your input."

"OK, I'm game," Egas said.

O'Brien asked a few questions about how the Egases use the kitchen. They both cook, as it turns out, and they like a variety of ethnic cuisines (Mimi Egas' father was born in the Philippines). They really like pasta, in all forms.

The trick to organizing, O'Brien said, is to set up centers, or stations, where all foods of a similar variety are stored.

"The three biggies," she said, "are a place for pasta and grains, a place for snacks and cereal, and a place for baking supplies." In addition, it's good to have a place for spices and a place for canned goods.

After some discussion, Egas chose the cupboard O'Brien had first opened for pasta and grains, and a tall pantry unit on the opposite side of the room for both snacks and cereal and baking materials.

"What we're going to do," O'Brien said, "is empty everything out -- one cabinet at a time."

As she began taking things out and placing them on the counter, she pointed out "clutter crimes:" A jar of paint ("Just what you want with your food") and some cellophane bags partially filled with chocolate sprinkles and other cake decorations.

The packets, she said, besides taking up space, are "just waiting to fall down" when someone opens the cabinet. Other clutter crimes are dumping small stuff at the back of a cabinet where it gets lost ("That's a big key: You have to be able to see everything") and keeping boxes when they're half-empty of cereal or only have, say, two snack bars left -- a real waste of space, according to O'Brien. Leaking packages and sticky jars (in Egas' case, of sugar and honey) are messy and can attract bugs. Bagged snack foods, such as chips and crackers, are hard to seal once they're opened and quickly lose freshness, O'Brien said. They'll last longer in containers.

To Egas' surprise, O'Brien gathered all the pasta items from the cabinet and began opening the boxes and packets and putting the contents into coordinated, stackable plastic storage containers. "You're even taking out the ramen?" he asked.

"Absolutely. What people don't realize," O'Brien said, "is that most bugs coming into your home aren't after the food -- what they're after is the paste and glue in the boxes and labels. You should not keep the boxes."

"How do you know what's in the containers?" Egas asks.

O'Brien points out that most containers have transparent front panels, so you can see the contents, but she also has printed labels. Where a package label is important -- the cooking instructions, for instance -- she neatly cuts that part out and tucks it inside the container.

It must be noted that O'Brien lends her organizing expertise to Tupperware, the huge direct merchant of storage containers and other housewares, as a consultant, so she has a vested interest in having people use containers. Boxes, which arrived at the Egases earlier in the day, contained sets of Tupperware's Modular Mates food-storage containers, along with some FridgeSmart vegetable containers, and a few Rock'N Serve containers, which can go from freezer to microwave to table, and other items.

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