Are you a household of one or two and feel it’s just not worth it to cook a whole dinner every night? Our kids are grown and living on their own. After working all day, I loathe coming home and having to cook for just my husband and me. My husband isn’t fussy, so it seems easier to have cheese and crackers or a salad for dinner. There is a hitch to that, though. When we eat like that, we will usually get hungry again and snack later on in the evening. And that’s why eating light at night doesn’t really work for us. We need healthy, filling meals for our supper!

Or do you just find it hard to prepare a healthy dinner at the end of the day? Maybe you have a houseful of people and by the time you have to start cooking, you are completely worn out.

Or may be you live alone and you would just rather grab some healthy (or unhealthy) snacks instead of nourishing yourself with a balanced supper?

Why not start a weekly cooking day? It’s not as intimidating as it might sound. I usually set aside a cooking day once a week. Sometimes it’s not a whole day; it might be half a day, or just a couple of hours, but it’s always worth the effort. You don’t have to do it once a week. You can set aside time every two weeks. Whatever you decide, just cook a few meals that you can refrigerate, or freeze, in serving size portions.

To give you an idea of my cooking day, I try to prepare one or two crockpot recipes (I borrow my sister’s crockpot so I can have two no-fuss meals slowly cooking at the same time). I also use the oven and/or stove top as needed.

To get started, there are a few things that will help make it easier:

  • The first time, try to plan a day or two ahead to make sure you have everything you need. 
  • Look at your easiest (or favorite – or hopefully, both) multi-serving recipes and write out a shopping list for all items not already in your pantry or fridge.
  • Make sure you have enough containers for all of the portions you’re going to make. If not, buy what you’re going to need. You can get inexpensive ones at dollar stores. If you want to use better quality containers, you can sometimes find a multi-pack on sale on amazon.com. My only suggestion would be that you get the same shaped containers; either all round ones or square, etc. That creates better space in your refrigerator or freezer
  • Try to grocery shop for your ingredients before the actual cooking day. That way, your first attempt won’t be so intimidating.
  • If you’re in the mood, you can do some of the chopping or prep work the day before, too. It will lighten the load for your actual cooking day.  

As you get used to these cooking days, it will become easier and will require less prep work.

And in an effort to help you get started, I thought I would share some of my most-requested make-ahead recipes.

Nana’s Pasta e Fagioli

This is my grandmother’s recipe for pasta e fagioli. It’s unlike any pasta e fagioli recipe I’ve ever seen here in the U.S.A., and I deduced that it’s from the region of Italy in which she lived before coming to America. Fair warning on this recipe – I don’t have exact measurements. But, the taste is amazing.

  • 3 (28 oz or 35 oz) cans of whole tomatoes
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • Olive oil
  • 2-3 stalks of celery, chopped
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic, sliced
  • Red pepper flakes, to taste
  • Dried basil, to taste
  • 1 lb. Ditalini pasta (or any small tubular pasta will do)
  • 2 cans of cannellini beans, drained
  • Reserved pasta water
  • Parmesan cheese

Chop 1 large onion and 2-3 stalks of celery. In a large pot, add enough olive oil to just about coat the bottom of the pot and heat on medium. Add the onions and celery and sweat on low heat until slightly tender, stirring occasionally. Add 3-4 cloves of sliced garlic, stirring occasionally. Make sure you watch the vegetables as you’re sautéing because you don’t want anything to brown, especially the garlic. Bitter garlic ruins recipes! Once the veggies are translucent, stir in red pepper flakes and a handful of dried basil. Add the tomatoes and simmer on low for about 1- 1/2 hours. Add the cannelini beans and simmer on low for about 1/2 hr. At this point, in a separate pot, start your pasta. Cook the pasta until noodles are still sort of hard, just before al dente. Before draining the pasta, dip a measuring cup in the water and save about a cup of the water. Throw the drained pasta and water in with the tomatoes. Let the flavors meld for a few minutes. Sprinkle some Parmesan on it. Done! This recipe makes a lot – enough for about 10 servings, so you can cut the recipe in half if that works for you. I do freeze it with the pasta and beans and it comes out of the freezer fine.  Serve with a salad (and maybe some crusty Italian bread) and you’ve got a complete meal!

Baked Rotini

  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • 1 med. onion, chopped
  • 1 green pepper, chopped
  • 28 oz.can whole tomatoes, undrained, cut up with a scissor
  • 1 (6 oz.) can tomato paste
  • 4-oz can sliced mushrooms, undrained (opt.)
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. basil leaves
  • ½ tsp. oregano
  • ¼ tsp. garlic powder
  • ¼ tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
  • 8 oz. (1/2 lb.) rotini pasta
  • 2C (8oz.) shredded mozzarella, divided

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In medium skillet, combine beef, onion and green pepper. Stirring, cook until beef is browned and green pepper is tender; drain. Stir in everything except the rotini and mozzarella. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat. Simmer 20 minutes on low. In the meantime, cook the rotini according to package directions; drain. Combine Rotini and meat sauce; mix well. Layer ½ the mixture into a 3-quart baking dish; top with 1 cup (4oz.) mozzarella. Put in other ½ of the mixture and top with the remaining cheese. Bake in oven until hot, 20-30 minutes. Makes 6 – 8 servings. This freezes wonderfully! When you are ready to eat it, just add a salad (and Italian bread again – who can resist?).

Easy Pesto Spinach Artichoke Chicken Bake

https://www.thepinningmama.com/easy-pesto-spinach-artichoke-chicken-bake-recipe/

I made some changes to this recipe. I make this in a deeper casserole dish than indicated in the recipe. I also add a little more pesto and a lot more spinach than listed. And I use a 12 oz jar of marinated artichoke hearts. You can divide the chicken breasts and the rest of the yumminess into serving sizes and freeze.

Serve over rice the night you’re ready to eat this.

Crock Pot Chicken and Wild Rice Soup

https://iowagirleats.com/2015/10/07/crock-pot-chicken-and-wild-rice-soup/

Divide into serving sizes and freeze. This is filling enough to eat alone, or you can add a salad.

Crock Pot Chicken Taco Chili

http://redsie05.blogspot.com/2010/10/ww-crock-pot-chicken-taco-chili.html

Divide and serve over rice or pasta. This is also filling enough to eat alone, or you can add a salad.

I hope this post (and these recipes) have been a help. If you’re interested, I’ll add more recipes to the website. Just type “share more recipes” in the comments!

What is the first thought you have when going to your mailbox each day? Is it a feeling of dread? Curiosity? Eagerness? I’m going to guess that we all look at our mail and think something along the lines of: “Ugh, what kind of junk am I going to find in the mailbox today?” Right?

It was very different when I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. As a child, I was excited when the postal carrier came. I loved to grab the mail out of the box. Before bringing it inside, I would flip through the envelopes with anticipation, searching for any handwritten ones. They didn’t necessarily have to be addressed to me. I just loved that someone in another family had written a letter to someone in my family.

Today’s mail is different. Nowadays, most of our friends and family inform us of their personal lives via texts or e-mail. Therefore, it’s rare that we receive a letter. Today, it’s mainly bills, statements, advertisements, special offers and promotional mail. And there’s much more mail than there used to be. Many people say they receive no less than eight pieces of mail per day, most of which is just plain junk.

That’s why handling today’s mail can be a nuisance. For some, it’s hard to decide what to file, what to keep, and what to discard. So it piles up in baskets, on desks, on the floor, and sometimes even in bags.

Those bags! They’re the worst. Ask anyone who uses this sort of “filing system”. When visitors are on their way over, the bags end up all over your house as you stow them in closets, under furniture, or whichever room you declare the “closed door room”.

Two of my most recent clients had more than the usual amount of trouble keeping a handle on their mail. One had lost control of hers after a lengthy illness and was faced with several bins of new mail mixed in with older paperwork that a family member had pulled out of her files in order to figure out what bills needed to be paid in her absence. The other client had been afraid to dispose of mail for years, holding onto both opened and unopened envelopes spanning back almost fifteen years. It was overwhelming for both of them.

No matter the problem with your paperwork, it could potentially take over your home and cause you an inordinate amount of stress if you’re not handling it promptly.

So, let’s get to the good part! Below I’ve outlined five ways to better manage the mail madness in your life:

  1. The best way to handle mail is to do it as soon as you walk in the door with it. This literally takes three minutes or less. Every single one of us can and should take three minutes out of our day to simplify our lives… and for the sake of this article… starting with the mail. I suggest keeping a recycling container very close to whatever door you use to enter your house after gathering the mail. It can be any type of container. It can be inside your coat closet, in a basket, on a desk or on piece of furniture that is a multi-use piece. This is the recycling basket we use. It’s right near to the front door, it’s pretty and gets the job done:


  2. Next, turn to or walk right to your designated inbox container with the mail still in hand. We start the process of reviewing the mail right here at the end of each work day so we can dispose of the junk mail as soon as we enter our home and then proceed to our much deserved winding down. Rip open the offending envelopes and get right to it. You know all that extra crap that comes with your bills? Little inserts and advertisements? Immediately toss all those “ugly guts” right into your recycling box or basket. I promise you the first time you do it you’ll find yourself wondering how something so simple could feel so satisfying and, more curiously, why you waited so long to adopt this simple process.
  3.  You’ll want to handle everything you’re holding in your hands. When you open bills, look at the amount owed and due date, write that that info on the outside of the envelope, then put the paperwork back in the envelope. By noting this particular info on the outside of the envelope, you can quickly peruse your bills and know which ones to pay when. Keep all of these bills in a second, separate basket just for bills. There’s no other thinking needed. The recycling of the mail is done for the day, the bills are in one place and you even know when they’re due. You can even keep your checkbook in the bill basket. After all, if you’re good at budgeting, you’re going to need it to record your payments anyway… And if you’re no good at budgeting, or don’t even have a budget at all, well, Lighten Up has a blog for that too so stay tuned.
  4. The rest of the mail is probably going to be stuff that falls into one of two categories:
    • Stuff to shred. Yes! Invest in a shredder. You won’t regret it. You’ll want to shred any confidential or secure information that is extraneous so it doesn’t crowd your filing cabinet. We shred those “fake” checks for cash advances that come with our credit card bills and any type of “special offers” that might have our personal information on it.
    • Items you you might want to reconcile (bank statements, etc.), look into further, or file. So, keep another basket for this stuff if you think keeping it with your bills will be too confusing or stop your momentum when paying bills.
  5.  While I personally have yet to go paperless, I know the prospect of doing so is intriguing and many of my clients have expressed interested in making the switch. If you’re thinking of doing it, here are some articles we found with helpful tips that can help keep a paperless office neat, orderly and easy to manage:

http://time.com/3672824/go-paperless/
http://toolsandtoys.net/guides/the-tools-and-toys-paperless-guide/
http://www.pcworld.com/article/2036838/five-easy-steps-to-going-almost-paperless.html
https://filethis.com/going-paperless/
https://www.techlicious.com/tip/how-to-go-paperless-at-home/

Now, here’s the hard part. You have to train yourself to take care of all of this stuff once a week. Yep! Once a week! I know some of you are wincing. It’s okay. Remember, since you’ve gotten into the habit of purging daily, the weekly bill paying and filing is much more manageable and moves much more quickly. What once took an hour or more and was always put off because no one made the time to do it, now takes mere minutes since all the extraneous junk is out of the way and you can tend to just do the filing of a very small pile of manageable pieces. This is really less painful than you think once you get into a natural rhythm of doing this weekly. And if you have budgeted for your bills, another future blog post will be about budgeting and keeping accurate records, it will be easy to maintain this rhythm. So, once a week, pay your bills, reconcile statements and file it all.

If you need help with setting up a junk mail/recycling station, figuring out where your home office should be set up in your particular space, or creating a filing system, call Lighten Up! We’re pros at this!

It’s March!

Time for March Madness, Pi Day – complete with mathematical jokes, pi-reciting competitions, and fresh baked pie, and St Patrick’s Day, when the Chicago River turns green. It’s also when the Vernal Equinox, on March 20th, signals the start of Spring. The sun shines on the equator, giving us a near 50-50 split of day and night. In the mid-Atlantic states, the temperatures can still be frigid enough to get hit with a sudden spring snowstorm, but somehow it just doesn’t matter. It’s as if just the thought of leaving Winter behind for Spring is enough for us to believe it’s warming up already.

A lot of us are so restless for a change that we start our spring cleaning during March. Last year, in one of my March blog posts, I talked about how Spring Fever is Our Friend and how to go about spring cleaning in an orderly fashion:

I’d like to add something this year.

Declutter in degrees.

I’ve helped several clients with spring cleaning after they’ve already started the process, got themselves tied up in knots, and then called in the reinforcements. They usually call me for the same reason: they made a bigger mess than they planned… and it’s because they didn’t declutter first.

My advice is to march through March to a different tune this year. Start out your spring cleaning in a  bolder, more structured, empowered way.

  1. The first step in your mission is to schedule a pick up by a charitable organization for two weeks ahead. The motivating factor to smart decluttering is to know when the stuff you no longer need is going to leave your home. Don’t put it in your car and take it for rides for a couple of weeks only to drag it back into your home when you need the room in your car again. Decide on a pick-up-at-home charitable organization that resonates with you. For reasons very dear to my heart, my favorite is Vietnam Vets. One of my brothers-in-law died from exposure to Agent Orange and another brother-in-law is now undergoing treatment for a blood borne disease due to contact with the same chemicals. Also, Vietnam Vets is reliable and efficient. They find your house and pick up every time. You can schedule right online http://scheduleapickup.com/. Make sure you tape a piece of paper that says “VVA” on top of the pile so they can be sure they’re only picking up what you want to donate. How awesome is that?
  2. Decide how many bags or boxes you’ll be donating.  I always tell my clients to check off the box that says 4-15 bags. It’s propels you into a different cadence. Your journey suddenly becomes a marathon. You know you’re going to want to put out at least 4 bags and hopefully get to 14 or 15. Nailed it!
  3. Then decide where will you leave your donations? Try to pick a place that is covered. If you can’t, just make sure you have a tarp or old shower curtain liner to put over the pile so that nothing gets wet.

Be intrusive in your own home. Nay, ruthless I say! No matter which room you start in, open every drawer, search every cabinet and closet, look under every piece of furniture and decide what to do with what you find. Literally march if it helps to inspire you. Lift those legs and set a rhythm as you get going.

More than likely, there are items that haven’t been touched since you did your spring cleaning the year before. Last year, you saved them because you were going to need them someday and here you are a year later still staring at the irritating thing in the same place you left it.

How insulting to our own dignity! You didn’t use it. You still don’t need it.

Stop!

Don’t think anything else other than “I don’t use this. I don’t need this.” Then grab that item and put it straight into your donation box or bag before you have time to talk yourself out of it. If you find that you can’t do this, then follow Mel Robbins’ advice from her book, “The 5 Second Rule”, count to five and if at the end of five seconds you still can’t think of a reason to keep it, into the pile it goes. Be decisive. Don’t hesitate.

Continue on in this fashion throughout your whole house, always staying at an even pace, a good rhythm. Anything that you thought you needed a year ago that is covered in dust from non-use, is still in the same place you left it last year, looks like it’s seen better days, or just seems to scream at you, “Let me outta here,” trash it or donate it so it gets to someone who will need it, use it and appreciate it.

Remember you’re on a mission. No regrets. Keep marching through March!