Clearing Out, My Dirty Little Secret, and Correcting a Big Mistake

Every January, I choose an area of the house for extensive scrutiny. Everything is pulled out, looked over, and reorganized. In 2017, I did my fabric stash closet, and it remains close to this organized fashion today. A few of the bags are gone now as I did use up some stash for projects over the past couple of years. But, the bolts have increased in number, LOL!! See my post January Scraps Clean Out from 2019, and Clearing Away from just this past year. Some years, doing these projects is easy, but there are other times when the emotional baggage that goes with it is a bit more than I bargain for.

In 2017, I tackled my linens and some of the dishes in my post January Clean Out. Not a hard task. I do donate dishes back to the thrift store when I bring home new goodies. Most of the time it is fine.

I don’t miss the black octagon plates, the magnolia dishes, the Italian Mardi Gras color plates, the brown and black checkerboard plates, white leaf dishes, or some of the others that I don’t even remember. I’ll use them for a time, then find something new to me to play with. So, I don’t have quite as many dishes as it seems. But I am still mad that I donated these green soup / salad plates that went with everything.

One year I did my closet, pulling out all my clothes and going through them with a critical eye. See my post What’s In Your Closet? to see that process. With a year of wearing mostly pjs around the house, I need to do this again so that going forward everything I keep fits and is in good shape. This is where it starts to get difficult at times, donating clothing that has memories attached. Some pretty things I got from my mother, and although I don’t wear them, I have them in the closet still. Those things probably should be donated, but it is hard to let go of them. Now that I’ve tackled another difficult project, maybe I can do this soon.

One of my lockdown goals was to get through this box of papers and memories I brought home from my mother’s house after she passed away. It has been over 10 years, and I have finally been able to do this. It is really hard to get through sentimental items, but biting that bullet made me feel better in the long run. Shredding old report cards from grammar school and photos of people I didn’t know was difficult to start, but once started became easier. I pulled out historical things and mailed them to other family members with common ancestors who are doing genealogy charts. I kept a small box of photos, but now this big box is gone.

Cooking over the holidays was not as much fun with no potlucks. But I did want to make a chocolate pie and knew I had two cans of sweetened condensed milk I could use. But, when I was ready to make the pie, I opened this can, and the inside was just awful. The normally creamy white milk was dark brown. Ugh!

Mercy, I guess I don’t use this stuff much! Look at that date, past its time by over seven years! According to the US Department of Agriculture, you can use canned items after the ‘best by’ date – Before You Toss Food, Wait. This is not an expiration date, canned food is apparently food-safe indefinitely as long as it is stored properly and doesn’t have any dents or bulges. But, the longer past the date, the quality will suffer. Boy did it with that milk!! The second can was just as old so I tossed it without opening it. I found a different recipe for the pie.

OK, so here is my dirty little secret, my pantry is a mess. These are the two shelves where I keep baking goods and canned items. It is any wonder that things get shuttled to the back and forgotten? Other shelves hold dishes and specialty cooking things like my salad spinner and bamboo steamer. Shelves above hold boxed items like cereal and pasta. The top shelves have rarely used, but needed-when-they-are-needed items like my huge turkey platter, big serving plates and baskets, and large carry-alongs like a big Tupperware bowl for potluck salads.

After finding the bad canned milk, I pulled out all the cans and bottles and looked at the ‘best by’ date on every one. Why I didn’t think to do this when I cleaned out the spice cabinet, I just don’t know. Happily, only three cans were past the ‘best by’ date, and not by much. So, I left them on the counter to use this week. I used to make salmon croquettes pretty often with canned salmon. I prefer fresh or frozen fish now, so that can must have been in the pantry for at least 2 years and likely longer. I made them again on the day after the clean out, and won’t buy canned salmon again. The pumpkin was baked into bread, and the tomatoes will be made into thick and creamy tomato basil soup with ricotta. From here on, I need to rotate cans on those shelves in much the same way I do my freezer.

I mentioned this idea to a friend recently who said I should share it. A couple of years ago, I decided to clean out the freezer when I found several freezer burned items. So, a different way of doing things was put into practice. I found some trays and baskets to put on the freezer shelves to organize the food. Now, when I buy meat to freeze, it goes into the basket tray at the bottom, where the freezer is the coldest and food will freeze faster. Items already frozen in that bottom basket are moved to the shelf above, and those items are moved to the little basket on the second shelf on the left. Food to defrost and cook is pulled from that upper basket, so I am always using the oldest items first. The trays on the right have shredded cheeses, with newest on the right, and older packages on the tray nearest the ‘use first’ basket. My Sweet Babboo has his breakfast items on the top shelf, and he rotates oldest to the front for use first. Bread and frozen pastas are on the door, and the same thing applies, freshest on the bottom, moving things up, using the items near the top first. The freezer in my refrigerator in the kitchen holds lunch items and quick fix meals, rotating things from this freezer into that one. Using this system, I have not had anything freezer burned in several years.

While we are on the subject of cooking, I made a mistake in the recipe instructions in the pdf. I left out when to add the white sauce. How that happened, I’ll never know, since it is in the blog post and I usually do a lot of copy and paste. Thank you, Karen, for spotting the mistake and letting me know! Download the corrected recipe – Butternut Squash Lasagne

I’m still working on purging books too, taking a box to either Books for Good or the library book sale site a couple of times a month. I am whittling down the fiction the fastest, finally deciding to donate everything I have read off the overstuffed library/dining room shelves. Somehow this also had an emotional component, as some of the books were gifts to me. Some are travel souvenirs I want to keep, like my big book on Maui or the book on the Notre Dame Cathedral. But many just need to be donated. I also need to decide if I am ever going to read a few of these that my grandmother gave me and wanted me to read. I’ve kept them over 20 years since before she passed away. Every time I pull one of those and read the synopsis, I am not interested in it, but I can’t bring myself to put it in the donate box. I’m sure if I can just let those go, I’ll feel lighter and less weighed down by someone else’s expectations. Here’s the ‘before’ shot of the shelves.

Now it looks like this, and I’ll be purging more in the months to come. Having some empty places allows some spots for my pottery and other things. The shops don’t want more than a box or two at a time, so it is hard to get it done quickly. Plus, the MINI doesn’t hold more than about four boxes, LOL!!

I need to tackle the cookbook shelves as well, perhaps donating the entire Cooking Light series or the Taste of Home series. I still use the Southern Living ones pretty regularly, and it has an index to find recipes across many years, so they get more use. See my 2016 post on how to Organize Recipes into binders to decrease cooking magazine clutter.

So, that’s my plan, and a few of the clean-outs from this year. With lots of time at home, it is a good time to take stock of what really brings us joy, and let go of the extra clutter. Are you clearing out or reorganizing for the new year? Do you find it hard to donate or give away items with sentimental meaning?

42 thoughts on “Clearing Out, My Dirty Little Secret, and Correcting a Big Mistake

  1. Mary Stori

    It feels so good to do a big clean out, no matter what part of the house is the focus. Moving to NC from WI prompted a HUGE purge…..but what do you know? Slowly, excess items has accumulated….mostly by ‘the husband’….getting him to reduce ‘stuff’ has been futile!

  2. Rheanna

    I joined a challenge to clean out 4 different closets (1/day), doing just 20 minutes each day. I found that in 20 minutes I saw a little progress but in 40 minutes I saw a huge difference. I have tackled the coat closets and the pantry so far and feel like I am on a roll. I am sure that will come to a screeching halt when I get to my clothes closet because I also struggle with purging items that have some sentimental value to me.

  3. kathykauth

    I saved every card people give me especially the ones that had such strong meanings, well the boxes were piling up so last year I laid them out on my sewing table and took pictures of them and the sentiments regarding them and the recycled them it was hard but hey how many times are you going to look in the box. Several years ago I took Mother’s pictures home and created a memories movie photo disk which was used for her 80 the birthday and also at the funeral home when she passed, each one of my brothers got a copy, this was lovely as the guest kept going back to see as each picture came up to relive the memories with us.

  4. Rita C.

    Good job, Carole, you are on it! Honestly, I really need to tackle my closet again. When we downsized in 2019, I was ruthless in letting go, but the closet is still pretty packed with clothing that fits and is really good quality, but of things I just don’t wear! I’ve also accumulated (mostly dishes), but have been pretty good about giving some away (mostly to a sister who I will likely be helping purge at some point in the future, lol). I’ve done much better with foodstuffs and my vintage goods. COVID was good for one thing – it helped me whittle down my storage items of vintage wares for sale. If winter and COVID are good for anything, I guess it’s for having time to organize.

  5. Pat Semeraro

    Great post! My hubby marks every can with the date before we even put it in the closet since finding ancient artifacts similar to your can of milk 😆. His large marker date is easier for us to read.

  6. I had to laugh at your can of Eagle Brand milk! I do check my pantry regularly for expiration dates but every now and then I get caught off guard and find something not so good. In 2020, I estimate that I had around 2,000 quilt magazines. I slowly went through all of them and tore out pages of things I might still want to do and tossed the rest. It was fun to look through them and see that the patterns haven’t changed that much but the techniques have really changed a lot.

  7. Donna Weeks

    Love reading about your clean outs. I am always on a daily quest for “5 Things Out”. Several years ago, i began with 5 things from every room every day, out of the house. What a difference in the volume of useful things given to others. Now, I am a 5 things a day from the entire house, or sometimes more, depending on the project. A scheduled pick up from our local Habitat Restore on Friday will be for large pieces of furniture that I can’t move myself. Every Wednesday, I make my weekly donation runs with useable household items. I even donate items that charities can put on eBay for sale. These items are marked in a separate box and the donation sites look forward to receiving them.
    I also include our local library with books, magazines and old sewing patterns.
    You never know who is looking for that oh so perfect item that you have been keeping in your home for way to long.

  8. I need to do some purging too. I have boxes of books that will be going to donation sites soon. My clothes closet is done. I can organize the kitchen, but with four adults in the house – all who cook, it doesn’t stay organized long, so that’s an ongoing thing!

  9. Kim J LeMere

    We moved 5 years ago from our 2500 sq. feet home to another state and now we have 1200 square feet. It was a huge purge of plenty of items of good quality. I felt it was brutal to move stuff out but in the end it was so worth it. We decided to quit using plastic and got glass for storage of food items. We gave away most of our furniture (habitat took it all) and we bought less and smaller items. To this day I don’t bring something in unless something goes out. Less is better but it can be brutal. Taking a picture of some things was a good idea for me emotionally.

  10. Brenda @ Songbird Designs

    Great way to organize, Carole! I do have trouble ridding myself of sentimental items or things I “just might need” someday! Our pantry is our next chore to tackle. It will be a fun experience, I’m sure! LOL The Foundry came and picked up a load of things in December. Smaller boxes I take to their local thrift store or other local charities. If does feel good to get rid of items you no longer love!

  11. I always thought of purging as a project that you do once and are finished, but I have come to realize that it is something that needs to happen routinely. Since I hadn’t been doing that, I have been following the Kondo suggestion to touch everything. Everything needs permission to live in my house. So far, I did the first floor, the second floor, and have been working on the basement during the pandemic. It takes a long time for me, and I can easily see that I will have to do the first and second floors again eventually. So far, I haven’t regretted getting rid of anything.

  12. yes it can be difficult to purge emotional things…my daughter and i went thru all my photos on thanksgiving and we had a wonderful visit with absent family…got to toss what neither of us wanted to keep…will be easier for her when she has to do it by herself…

  13. Julie

    The new year is just a date on the calendar, but it does bring out a clean & organize desire. I’m already fairly minimal in what I keep. I find it impossible to relinquish sentimental things from people & family no longer here. Everything else is on a strict, one in-one-out basis. My library isn’t accepting any donations & I really want to give them the knitting & quilting books so they’ll continue to collect dust. I’m only buying new publications on Kindle & since that’s less satisfying than a book in hand, not so much.

  14. Patty

    Sentimental items are the hardest! I had a massive water leak in my house in the summer of 2018, so that took care of a lot of clutter in my house (only 2 old family photos were ruined, everything else was fixable, replaceable, or I didn’t mind just throwing it out). I have found that Marie Kondo’s suggestion of thanking items as you let them go to be very helpful. I realize that may not work for everyone – but it was especially helpful for things given to me by others that I felt obliged to hold on to. As I put them in the give-away box, I mentally thanked the person who gave it to me for their thoughtfulness, and then let it go to be useful to someone else. Good luck!

  15. Moira

    Purging and cleaing……did that over at my parents house over Christmas to help them, focusing on stored canned food. found stuff going back to 1999….yikes! Think the funniest tho were the couple of cans of green beans where the liquid had dried up inside w/o leaking and the beans had petrified….they made great rattles….lol. I’m back home now and may have to put my house on the marked because of unemployment, so I’m going thru things here and getting rid of stuff here.

  16. June Neigum

    I have found myself looking on the computer for recipes. It seems easier than going thru all my cookbooks with all sorts of variations. This has left me a bunch of printouts of the recipe I found to make. I guess I am going to have to start a notebook with all my printouts by catagory and figure out what cookbooks to donate from my loaded cookbook shelf. I have lots of church cookbooks from all over the country I will never use. I also have the Taste of Home series but not sure where to take it. Library or a second hand store?

  17. Diane Doppelhammer

    As I read your article, I think we could be blood relatives! I have bookcases of books and cookbooks. I have 6 binders of recipes that I’ve copied from the many recipe sites I follow. I have books that I want to read “sometime”. The other thing I have is too much glassware that came from my mother-in-law and grandmothers after they passed. That doesn’t even count the entire bookcase I have of quilting patterns that I have in binders in a separate bookshelf in my sewing room. I think we need to start an intervention group. 🙂 Have a blessed 2021 and keep on inspiring the rest of us with your talents.

  18. Tami Von Zalez

    I am with you – I do the yearly cleanouts. When it was clear I would never return to the office, I purged all of my “work” clothes. I am constantly reorganizing the product I have for sale on ebay. There is one cookbook I would highly recommend to add to your collection – The Joy of Cooking.

  19. AJ

    Organizing and cleaning is my least favorite thing to do except I love the results. I am gradually learning that it is necessary and an on-going process. Dealing with emotional attachment and worth of items makes it hard to part with things. It helps to find someone that needs these items more than me.

  20. I need to “clean out” my clothing closet(s) more often. I too have spent the year in PJ’s until noon, sweatpants and the like. At the end of winter last year I took all my “long sleeves” off of hangers and folded into two totes. This winter, I have been wearing them, directly from the tote, culling a few as I go along. My spring/summer short sleeve/sleeveless & tank tops got moved to another closet. Like you, it is time to purge. My daughter keeps me on my toes with my pantry thankfully! Before she moved in nearby it was quite horrifying how old some things had gotten, but she is ruthless in tossing old spices, old cans etc and I don’t shop the way I used to. Now I only buy exactly what I need. My freezer needs a good going over!! I like the baskets…great idea

  21. As you know, I’ve downsized….and you are right….so many elements of decluttering are emotional. Like the family memories….and truth be told, I’ve kept sweaters my mom knitted from when I was a child….though I did donate many to students in need (with her permission) I kept the ones most dear to me! I even donated my wedding dress to project angel….they make burial gowns for stillborns. The one thing I learned… I just felt sooooooo rejuvenated and emotionally cleansed afterwards. Your book collection is impressive. I always use your book recommendations to find a good read and have just started to read the last one you sent me….so thank you for that:) I plan to go through my clothes once again to hopefully cut it in half and have almost a “capsule closet”… i just don’t need a lot of clothes….and want to have/wear only those that I love. The pandemic has changed my professional dress… I no longer find myself needing a professional dress as before… I’m excited about this. Overall, I have found the downsizing, cleansing process to open a new pathway to a new me…rather than who I was. I wish you the best of luck processing all that you are….and am sending smiles your way!!! :)V

  22. Patricia Evans

    I knew I needed to do a deep clean of the pantry (and pantry items are not just in one place, sigh) when I went to find items to donate to the Cub Scout Food drive and I couldn’t find much that wasn’t expired. I decided to clean out one shelf a week but never stuck to the schedule. The worst finds were cans of tomato sauce (found on two different shelves which were so old they had decomposed the cans and leaked onto the shelves. What a mess to clean up as the sauce had turned black and hardened on the wooden shelves. I’m still trying to clean out, but my husband is constantly saying, “Don’t throw that out, I’ll eat it”, but then he never does.

  23. I sat here reading about all your cleaning projects, and not one finger twitched. I’m proud of you and hope others are not as resistant to an excellent example as I am.

  24. Like you, I’ve been culling my library. I have donated dozens of books to a couple of “Little Libraries” in my neighborhood, given my Harry Potter series to a young woman in love with the movie version, added some (paperbacks only) to a group sending to servicemen, and listed freebies on Free Cycle. I’ve only kept those that I “may” read again. But so many books and so little time! =)

  25. I can certainly relate to your condensed milk experience. Our local grocery store tapes up torn bags of flour and sells them for 50% off. My husband, ever thrifty as he is, loves shopping the 50% off rack, so we ended up with 4 bags of flour in our freezer where we keep unopened bags to keep it bug free. I haven’t used much flour since I became diabetic a few years ago, but recently decided to make the husband some banana bread out of overripe bananas. So I pulled the “currently in use” bag of flour out of the canister. It was sealed in a vacuum sealed bag to bugproof it. I went ahead and made the bread. When I did a taste test, it was awful, tasted like bleh! I pinched a bit of flour and tasted it and it could have been dust. Then I checked the expiration date, which was 2012. I guess it HAD been awhile since I baked. LOL!! Needless to say, our next trip to the store I bought a fresh bag of flour. There are still 3 bags of old flour in the freezer that I need to toss.
    I don’t even want to talk about my closet. I still have business suits in there. I retired 22 years ago. Enough said.

  26. KJ

    Wow, what a great post. We just moved for the second time in a year, so the local thrift store loves us. lol Unfortunately, moving from house to condo back to a house means we need to rebuy a few items we either sold at garage sales or gave to the thrift store, like shovel, wheel barrel etc.

    I have to wait until I am in a special mood (cranky) before I can really go to town with organizing and giving away, but have managed to make the difficult decisions to donate sentimental items from both families. Once we have done the renovations we want here more items will be going. I found places in the house for the really important things, though.

    Having worked as a merchandise manager for several years in my youth, it is habit to put new canned goods to the back of the ones currently in the cupboard. 🙂

  27. Joan Sheppard

    You are my HERO! Every month I have a big box for Amvets, take things to Goodwill…but I”m a pack rat – I might need it for a Scout project or maybe the kids need it for a school project! Neither of those things exist anymore. But I still save egg cartons, for seeds of course! and other crazy things. I have “blossomed” and wouldn’t wear most of those clothes anyway but memories are tough to fight! I haven’t even been in the attic in 5 years! I need someone to go up there before I go up and “rescue” the plaid sleeveless hoodie. Not even on Halloween! I think I have my mother’s Gym uniform from 1930! Don’t even ask about my craft sewing room.
    Thanks for the inspiration. One small area at a time might just be something I can handle.

  28. Linda Garcia

    I have many areas that need a good sorting and cleaning. However, about 2 years ago during the period between Christmas and New Years when there is no school, my granddaughter came over to my house for several days and helped me clean out my pantry. It needed it BAD! We took out everything. I cleaned the shelves and I re-arranged my metal shelving units. I had one unit in front of another unit, so the shelf was about 20+ inches deep. When I put that shelving up 20 years ago, I thought the double deep shelf was a good idea. Well, all that happened was stuff got shoved to the back and never again saw the light of day. I re-measured the closet dimensions and by having my DH cut some of the door trim off from the inside of the closet, I was able to turn the shelf the other direction. I now have 4 shelving units in a U shape. One on each side and two across the back wall. I also got baskets from Walmart and I grouped my items together in baskets. Like pasta and rice in one basket. Crackers in another basket. Condiments in a basket, etc. I got a rack for my canned goods so I can see all my cans at once. I put lazy susans in the corners of the shelves to increase the corner usefulness. I also buy spices in the large containers from Sam’s Club and I got clear containers and I grouped all my spices together. The clear containers are approximately 2 inches longer than the width of my shelving, so it actually gives me more storage space to use them. Anyway, my pantry is awesome now that I can find everything and use things before they expire.

  29. Susan Nixon

    When we sold our home and went full time in our 5th wheel, there was no choice about cleaning out things! 2500 ft to 300 ft. Yeah, not happening if you save everything! I could stand to do that again. Only it’s 1500 ft now and part of that is my sons’. You do a great job with this every year, and kudos to you!

  30. Sue Hoover

    Very smart way to move the freezer items for use. I’m going to give it a try. Thanks for the Butternut Squash Lasagna recipe. Sounds delicious and will be perfect during Lent!

  31. Joan Sheppard

    I had an annual Dr. appt. today and decided to wear a little mascara. HA! After a year of neglect it was trash. So now I can add another part of the house that needs an intervention. I have taken to putting a date on make up so it moves along. Mascara has a really short 3 month life span. Tomorrow I don’t think I’ll even open the box – I’ll just pitch all the nail polish! Thanks for this reminder to get things to move along down the line.

  32. I have several areas that need this type of treatment………you got heaps done…..and yes I too find it hard to give some of those things away also…….

  33. Great way to use your at home time. These clean outs are good value.
    I love the great feeling when it is all done and I have never regretted any of the things I have given away. Even better, I have not filled the space with new items!!

  34. Twyla K Starr

    I have let food items go past their “date” so I have started taking a black sharpie and marking the front and lid top with the date large enough I can see it when I open the pantry. This has helped a lot. The freezer I was making a list and just got out of the habit but, I should begin again. I enjoy your blog so much it is one of a very few I read. Thanks for the info you share.

  35. cdloken

    I’m stopping over from The Tuesday Turn Around link up and I have to say I LOVE everything about this post! I couldn’t help but chuckle when I read about the condensed milk! Been there done that. I just finished organizing our closets and I’m on to our kitchen now. Great tip on how you store items in the freezer. I always struggle with that so I’m definitely going to try that!

  36. Cathie J

    Oh my, do I have trouble letting go. I rarely do a deep purge like you do, but I do manage the deep clean. My pantry gets a sweep about once a year in summer. I really should do a cooking magazine purge, but they are all Taste of Home and I use them a lot. I will look at your blog post on that. I should also do a craft magazine purge again. Maybe during a school break or in the summer. Thanks for this motivating post.

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