Did you catch the article about the five principles I established for organizing our house from top to bottom? Well, it’s time to put those principles into practice! In this post, I’m excited to tell you all about one of my first organizing projects and how I was able to tackle the mess of our cookbooks and recipes once and for all.
When the inevitable and dreaded “what’s for dinner” question is asked, we’re now much more likely to be inspired to cook rather than give in to the temptation to get take-out.
Perhaps in this post you will pick up some tips for how to organize your recipes as well.
Principle #1: Partner
An organizational system will never work if all parties using the system do not buy in and see value in creating and maintaining the system. Therefore, I started this project by having the following conversation with my husband who is also my partner in cooking:
Me: I think I want to get rid of pretty much all of our cookbooks and most recipe clippings and only keep the ones we actually use. I’ll print out the recipes we want to keep and divide them into three three-ring binders: dinners, baking, and holidays. And then I’ll decorate the binders to make them pretty.
Husband: Who are you?
Partner buy-in achieved?
Partner buy-in achieved.
Principle #2: Purge
The overarching goal of my organizing efforts is to get rid of as much unnecessary clutter in our lives as possible and only keep items that we truly use and love. So the next step was to drastically downsize our piles of cookbooks and recipes. Here’s how I went about doing just that.
Get rid of cookbooks that you never use
Before our last move, I already gave away or trashed (depending on condition) all the cookbooks we owned but never used. Our diets and cooking habits have changed over time and there were probably about 15 cookbooks that we hadn’t opened in years and were more than happy to part with.
But at the start of this project we still had the mess shown below to deal with – a cardboard box full of cookbooks and a drawer full of magazine clippings and recipe print-outs.
(And in case you are thinking I took the drawer out for demonstrative purposes, I didn’t. This is a new invention called a floor-drawer that has no cabinet to go with it, especially created for people in the middle of a kitchen renovation.)
Only keep cookbooks that have major sentimental value, major inspirational value, or a large number of recipes that you use regularly
I had three cookbooks that either had sentimental value or that I use for inspiration often enough that it made sense to keep them. I forced myself to complete this step quickly and efficiently and resisted the urge to start browsing through the cookbooks. If I didn’t recognize the value of the book just by looking at the cover, then by default, it must not have been that valuable. Yes, I totally admit to judging a book by its cover!
Of the remaining cookbooks, tear out “tried and true” recipes and trash the rest
At this point, I still had a big pile of cookbooks remaining, each containing maybe one to three recipes that we ever actually use. I tore out the pages with the recipes we use and trashed the rest of the cookbooks.
Again I resisted the urge to look through every page of every cookbook. If I didn’t remember that a particular recipe came from a particular cookbook, then I must not have been using that recipe lately and it wasn’t worth keeping.
I divided the keeper recipes into three piles:
- every day dinners
- baking and desserts
- holidays and special occasions
I only kept recipes that I consider to be “tried and true”. These are my tried and true criteria for every day dinners:
- The recipe is awesome. I’d rather rotate 10 mouth-wateringly delicious recipes than 20 so-so recipes that I’m not that excited to cook and eat.
- The recipe only contains ingredients that we regularly have in the house. We used to be able to plan meals in advance and shop accordingly for weird ingredients (like, say, shallots or saffron) and will probably go back to that one day, but it’s just not happening in our current life situation. If it’s not on our weekly Costco list, it doesn’t get cooked with.
- We have cooked the recipe multiple times over the past few months. This is the most important criteria and kind of encompasses the previous ones. Even if we like a recipe in theory, there must be something about it that’s not a good fit, if we rarely or never actually do cook it.
My tried and true criteria were a bit less strict for the baking and holiday categories. But still, I only kept recipes that we have actually used in the past and are likely to use again.
Go through magazine clippings and recipe print-outs and keep only recipes that are “tried and true”
Using the same “tried and true” criteria, I went through all the magazine clippings and print-outs. This is where I ran into a whole lot of recipes that fall into the “I would love to try this some day” category. And guess what? If the “some day” had not happened yet, those recipes went bye-bye. When “some day” comes and I feel the urge to experiment with a new recipe, I’ll just go online and find a recipe to experiment with that day. The fact that you can find pretty much any kind of recipe under the sun online these days is also what made me comfortable just purging most of the cookbooks and clippings I had. If I’m missing something in the future, it’s easy enough to find it online.
Below you can see the end result of my purging exercise.
The trash pile is a lot bigger than the keeper piles. Yes! Mission accomplished!
Principle #3: Practical
What I most want from my recipe organization system is to be able to find the recipes I need as quickly as possible. Taking out the recipes that we have never tried before and probably never will was a major step in the right direction.
But I needed to go further than that. When it’s 6pm on an average Wednesday and it’s time to figure out what’s for dinner, I want to be able to browse through realistic options. I want to see Hot Dog Salad, Dorito Casserole, and Cowboy Spaghetti. I don’t want to see how to bake birthday cupcakes or put together a Thanksgiving dinner for 20.
So I bought three three-ring binders from Target (up&up 1 inch deluxe binder with view pockets) to correspond with my three recipe categories, so I could keep them separate:
- every day dinners
- baking and desserts
- holidays and special occasions
I also bought a pack of 50 letter size sheet protectors from Target.
My original plan was to make copies of the cookbook pages and magazine clippings on letter-size paper, but I was actually able to find all but one or two of my tried and true recipes online and was able to simply print them. Some were already in a printable format and others I copied into Word and reformatted a bit before printing. The couple that I couldn’t find online, I just typed up.
Then I simply put the recipes inside the sheet protectors and divided them among the three binders.
After the purging, I had few enough recipes left that I didn’t bother with dividers, although I might decide to add those later if my tried and true recipe collection grows. I did group like recipes within each binder. For example, the holiday and special occasion binder ended up with sections for Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Birthdays, and Summer Barbecues.
I can now easily find the recipes I’m looking for without looking through various cookbooks or going through the entire drawer of clippings. But there are a couple of additional reasons why keeping your recipes organized in a binder or binders is practical:
- The binders stay nice and flat. You don’t have that annoying problem you sometimes can have with cookbooks where they won’t stay open to the page you are using.
- It’s so much easier to keep things clean. If you are messy like me, your cookbooks and recipe clippings will quickly be covered in various nasty stains. This was one of the reasons it was easy for me to find the recipes I wanted to keep. Just pick the ones with the most stains! When the binder itself and all pages inside it are covered in plastic, it’s easy to wipe them clean or even replace them if need be.
- This system is very flexible. It’s super easy to adapt to different cooking styles or different needs in the future. I suppose one day we might get tired of Hot Dog Salad and then we can easily just take that page out.
Principle #4: Pretty
Some people might be satisfied with simply practical organization systems, but to me it’s worth it to take a few extra steps (or car rides to Michael’s) to bring some pretty into every day. Pretty things make me smile and also motivate me to stay organized.
To prettify my binders, I covered them with scrapbook paper and used alphabet stickers to label the spines. I liked this idea because a) it’s inexpensive, b) there are endless scrapbook paper options to suit every taste, and c) the Husband got to make fun of me for channeling my inner 5-year-old by cutting paper and playing with alphabet stickers.
I only needed six sheets of 12 inch X 12 inch scrapbook paper, but I bought a pack of 80 sheets, because I really liked the designs in this collection and can use them for other projects. I’m mostly a neutral girl these days, but if you like more color in your life, there are tons and tons of paper options out there. Just sayin’ in case you want to channel your inner 5-year-old too.
I used my Fiskars paper cutter to cut the paper into 10 inch X 11 inch pieces for the front and back of each binder. I used an x-acto knife to cut out holes around the little buttons that keep the plastic stuck to the binders in the back.
I also needed strips of paper that were 11 inches tall and 1.5 inches wide for the spines. I used PaperStudio Alphabet stickers for the labels. The thin strips were challenging to get in the spine, but I found it helped to have the binder open and to wiggle the strip slowly side to side.
Aren’t they pretty?
Principle #5: Phased
I rarely, if ever, have hours of uninterrupted time to accomplish anything. So while it might sound ridiculous to someone with endless Saturday afternoons at their disposal, accomplishing all of the above seemed like an overwhelming prospect to me at first. Even if something “only” takes a few hours, finding those few hours can be a challenge, when you have a full-time job, three kids, and an on-going house renovation.
But I’ve found that projects are a lot less overwhelming and a lot more manageable if I break them down into intermediate weekly goals. Here’s how I divided up the tasks for this particular project:
WEEK 1: Shopping trip to Target to buy binders and sheet protectors
WEEK 2: Purge
WEEK 3: Print neat copies of all the recipes that are to be kept and fill the binders
WEEK 4: Decorate the binders
What about you? How do you currently have your recipes organized? Are you happy with your system or are you ready for a change?