Dennis and I have been married for almost 20 years and, as our friends will attest, we’ve spent most of that time looking at real estate. Even though we loved our home, the search for Our Next Home was relentless and our friends were sick and tired of hearing about it. We looked in 12 states. We considered beach, mountain, city, country. We contemplated restoring a 200-year-old home and priced building on a lake. No one thought we were serious.
Last summer, we stumbled on an unusual condo. Everything about it was exceptional. It met all our criteria and surprising everyone—especially ourselves—we did it. We sold our house and bought the condo. It sounds so simple, but getting from here to there meant extricating ourselves from 2500 square feet, with a basement and a garage, 17 years of things in the back of coat closets and the top shelf of the linen closet and bookshelves stuffed with everything, to 1300 square feet with no extra storage beyond the condo.
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From the moment we decided to move, every item in our home was examined. Do we keep it, sell it, or give it away? Downsizing was our very own military campaign with lists and tasks and division of labor. We would collapse at the end of every day; the hauling was unrelenting.
We looked at each item in our home, considered whether it had a purpose in our newly-imagined life. For many sentimental items that no longer needed to travel with us, they could be just as sweetly remembered in a photo.
In the meantime, we gutted the condo, replacing floors, ceilings, lighting, and the entire kitchen. And I began to evaluate everything about my kitchen life as a home cook and as a food writer. This meant planning sufficient space for a lot of different grains and flours, plenty of baking supplies, and a lot of pan sizes and shapes.
The larger question was about preserving. What did preserving look like in a downsized life? What would I want in my pantry? The list was brief: canned tomatoes, two types of jam, one or two pickles, pie filling, and the pressure canning convenience of home canned beans and stock. I kept almost everything that would support those activities, but sold off duplicates (ahem, three meat grinders, six camembert molds, four canners). And decided whether I needed the dehydrator (no), the pressure canner (yes, but I’ll have to go visit a friend to use it), the wine fridge/cheese cave/charcuterie cooler (yes, absolutely).
As I packed the kitchen, I consolidated, appalled to find two dozen bottles of vinegar, the rogue bags of chocolate hiding among the grains, and a collection of chiles covering most of the Scoville index. Who knew I had a thing for olive oil? 17 bottles. So. Much. Honey.
At the new house, I worked with the contractor to make sure there was space for what I wanted to keep, at the same time getting a big reality check about how much I could store. I built three large pantries to hold flours, sugars, spices, chocolates, grocery items like olives and anchovies, as well as all the homemade preserves and empty jars. I built cabinets to hold bins of cheesemaking supplies, charcuterie tools, chiles and spices, canning supplies. I needed space for dog food. And cheese boards. Yeah, evidently I have a thing for cheese boards, too.
I planned pull out drawers everywhere, in each pantry, and drew charts of what would fill each drawer. I planned space for small baking tools and ramekins, deep drawers to stack bakeware. Narrow drawers for knives and my scale. Tall, vertical spaces for baking sheets. One drawer holds tea and coffee and related supplies, like French presses and teapots.
There were so many jars. Really. Ridiculous. Dennis counted 97 jars IN THE REFRIGERATOR. I repurposed empty jars into storage: some for grains and legumes, pint jars for unusual sugars (caster) and flours (buckwheat) that were lost in the back corners of cabinets. Half-gallon jars hold all-purpose, pastry, and bread flours and white, brown, and 10X sugars. I purchased spice tins and developed a love/hate relationship with my DYMO labeler.
Intense planning paid off. Everything I brought with me fit. And I haven’t regretted anything we sold. I’m still cooking the same way I cooked before, with a practical pantry that’s just a little bit smaller.
Here are my top downsizing takeaways.
- Start today. This was a daunting task when faced with a deadline. Don’t delay. Whether you Marie Kondo your life or just sift through the stuff one closet at a time, do it.
- If you are not an organized person, that’s okay. There are professionals who are. Downsizing help is there! People who will come to your home and take things away for you. Sometimes, just sitting with your partner or a friend will make the effort of clearing a closet a little less onerous.
- Plan where every single item will go. Build categories, like: Spices, Pantry, Flour & Sugar, Baking, Tools, Nuts, Dried Fruit, and Legumes & Grains. Then gather similar items together. All the cookie add-ins, for instance, and put them near the Flour & Sugar. Buy or repurpose storage containers and mark them clearly.
- Abandon sentimentality. I have no children, so I’m not addressing that side of sentiment, but I am embarrassed to tell you that I had my grandmother’s carrot peeler—plastic with a sad chipped handle—that she gave me in 1975, culling a shoebox of kitchen gadgets from her own cupboards. Yes, really. I never used the peeler, much preferring the handle of the OXO one residing in the same drawer. Successful downsizing means being sentimentally relentless.
- You don’t have to throw everything away. If you really love Aunt Mabel’s spaetzle maker even though you never have used it, but you might, and you like knowing you have it? Keep it. Just plan where it will live.
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Endnote: We contracted with a professional to run a “downsizing” sale including furniture, appliances, linens, cookbooks, art, rakes and shovels, suitcases from the attic, garden ornaments, costume jewelry, old handbags, and coin collections from childhood. We filled two rooms with items for sale. We moved, leaving behind anything we did not want to take with us, and let the professionals do the rest. It was well worth it.