The ability to, and satisfaction of, improvising

I have written about this before but it is an important skill when it comes to living with less stuff. But don’t be deterred by the word improvise. Even though some people may have more skills at this than others, when it comes to everyday improvising I am sure everyone can do it without much thought.

The reason I even bring up the subject is that much of the tools, or gadget if you like, that we have around out homes perform the same tasks as one another. So at least half of them aren’t even necessary to the smooth running of our homes.

A simple knife for example can, with a little practice, perform the same task as so many other gadgets in the kitchen. “But…”, I hear you say, my gadget does it so much faster. But that might only be because you haven’t performed the task often enough to improve you skills. Which begs the question “If you aren’t needing the gadget often then why do you need it at all. And another thing you aren’t taking into account is that gadgets usually take much more effort to clean, cost a lot more to buy, are prone to break down and usually take up much more space.

I’ll give you another example. Do you own a mixing bowl a colander and a salad spinner. Well you don’t need the salad spinner.  Put the colander in the mixing bowl with the salad leaves in it, fill with water, shake and then drain. Then shake the colander over the sink. Voila clean drip dried salad fixings. And only half the space wasted in your cupboard.

At the moment I am living in a studio apartment in Berlin. Needless to say there is the bare minimum, in the way of gadgets, in the small kitchen, however, I have not found that to be a drawback. In fact I am being more adventurous than usual with my cooking, trying new recipes and adapting others, that I regularly use, to what is on hand. I find the challenge, if you could even call it that, entertaining and am more than satisfied with the results. The satisfaction of these small achievements is mentally rewarding.

I have also had to improvise when it comes to doing the laundry, darning a sock, acquiring some foreign language skills and getting around. And am happy with all the results.

If you insist on keeping certain gadgets at least get the most out of them. I use my coffee grinder to also grind nuts and spices, make small quantities of bread crumbs from stale bread, whip small quantities of cream etc. I use my panini press to cook pancakes, bacon, eggs, french toast (both sides at the same time), roti bread when having curries etc. Well, I did use it for all those things until it broke down, and I am not going to bother replacing it unless I can pick one up secondhand.

So my challenge to you is to find a gadget in your home that is, for the most part, just wasting space. Now devise another method of performing the same task this gadget is meant for, and hone those skills. Do a Google search for a video on how to best achieve this if necessary. I did so when I wanted to learn how best to peal, chop and mince garlic and eliminated the need for a garlic press or buying jars of minced garlic. Fresh is best and presses can be a pain to clean.

It matters not how fast I go, I hurry faster when I’m slow

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About Colleen Madsen

Colleen is the founder of 365 Less Things and lives in Newcastle, Australia.


  1. I used to be a sucker for gadgets, but since I’ve been decluttering, I’ve set a rule that if I want a particular gadget for some new dish or ???? I have to make it or do it by hand at least 5 times before I purchase a gadget or machine. Reason being, in the past we try something new, we love it, we rave about it, etc etc but generally it passes out of fashion after 4-5 goes.

    It has occurred to me that I have stainless steel bowls for mixing and crockery bowls for serving, I could easily just use the crockery bowls for cooking as well as serving. The only problem with that idea is that my kitchen could look too empty, so I will wait and see what our next move is.

    • Hi Moni, I only have glass bowls and I use them for everything. They all nest together so don’t take up much room. They range from big to wee ingredient bowls and include 6 dessert size bowls. All but the tiny ones and the largest one have plastic lids so now I use them instead of plastic bowls for storing stuff in the fridge. So they cover what I need for cooking, serving and storing.

  2. I use both types of bowels. Crockery for serving. I use stainless steel to make whipped cream or when I clean crab. I fill the big bowl with ice and place a smaller bowl inside of that to keep the freshly cracked crab meat ice cold.

    I agree that a lot of gadgets can be replaced by a good knife. Other than a corkscrew, I can’t think of any other gadgets I have. I must have some, will have to check when I haven’t used the corkscrew. Lol

    • Calla – I have looked repeatedly at the Joseph Joseph bowls which goes right down to measuring cups and spoons – sorry I am on my phone writing and Im not savvy enough to add in a link, just google it. I would really like to shift everything in my kitchen to the garage and bring back things as I need them, to see what I actually do use but I think I will wait until the youngest goes in Feb.

      • Thanks Moni
        Will definitely Google them
        Your plan sounds very ambitious, but like a good one!

      • I just googled the bowls….they are great.
        Will add them to my Christmas wish list. I could get rid of at least half my bowls & take up so much less space. If I don’t get them as a present, will get a gift for myself. Lol

        • Calla – I also like that it has the measuring cups and a measuring bowl incorporated. I have measuring spoons, measuring cups and measuring jugs – looney tunes ain’t it!

    • Calla – as for wine bottles – in New Zealand someone invented screw top lids for wine bottles and now every bottle in aisle has screw tops, its great!

      • Oh I would love that!
        I always end up with cork pieces in the wine
        Will have to check for screw top lids next time.

    • If you are a true, “cook-from-scratch” chef on a regular basis, you do need a few each of both crockery AND stainless bowls — crockery bowls hold heat (great for keeping food warm) or cold (which is necessary if you make pastry), for example, while stainless bowls are more all-purpose in nature, lighter to handle, and do not break when dropped. The trick is not to have too many, and to have a nesting set of each to save space. Few cooks “need” a nesting set of more than a few of each type of mixing bowl.

      If you are paring down your kitchen collection, try what I did as I prepared for a BIG yard sale, paring down for my big, cross country move coming up in the spring: put a simple, colored sticker-dot on all of your kitchen things. Pull EVERYTHING out.

      Do not mark the things which you recognize as already being used daily, or at least weekly ( you will be surprised at how few these things are). You instinctively know which items these are, of course — things like your teakettle, large saucepans, etc.

      As for the rest: put red dots on the items almost never used, yellow dots on the “sometimes” things, and green dots on more frequently used items, but which are not used daily or weekly. Give yourself at least a three-month timeframe to make this process work well.

      Each time you use an item, pull the dot off, use it, wash the item, and replace a same-color dot with ONE checkmark on it, indicating ONE use. If you use it again, replace it with TWO checkmarks. etc. If you have used a “sometimes” item (yellow) more than five times in a month, you can move it up to a green sticker, and continue with the five-checkmark system, and then, if you find that you use it more frequently than you thought, move it up to a no-tag “essential.”

      Likewise, if a green-dot or yellow-dot item receives NO checkmarks over the course of a month, downgrade it to a yellow or red.

      Put a blue dot on the things you use only for special occasions or holidays — I’ll get back to these later.

      After three months, or six months (the time frame is up to you) re-evaluate your items. You will be quite surprised to find that a great many yellow- and red- dot items have either gone down in status or have NEVER been used. You will also be surprised as how many green-dot items, which you THOUGHT you used more frequently, have downgraded in status.

      So, let’s say you have four bread pans, and you put green dots on your bread pans because you THOUGHT you used them about once a month. And after a few months, they have downgraded to yellow, or even red. Keep only the one pan MOST frequently used — it will probably be a medium sized one, and can be used for bread, meatloaf, and other duties.

      Do the same with other items. If you must choose between a large bowl and a smaller one, remember that you can put a small amount in a large bowl, or a small amount in a large frying pan, but not the opposite. Likewise, you can put cookies, rolls and many other things on a pizza pan. It’s easier to arrange small things to fit on a pizza pan than to make a large, round pizza fit on a medium-sized, rectangular cookie sheet. I have only two large pizza pans, and I use them for ALL of my “flat pan” baking needs.

      After your time period has expired, add the red-dot items to a yard sale, or better yet, donate ALL of the red dot items to charity, and seriously cull the “yellow dot” items. Something like a mini-muffin pan comes to mind here. If you DO use it a few times a year, you do NOT need more than one. Donate the others. Obviously, when culling duplicates, give more consideration to keeping the best-quality item rather than the one that matches a color scheme. No one sees the things stored behind cupboard doors, and no one cares if they match while in use.

      I have found that the biggest space-wasters in kitchens are, as this article emphasizes, specialty things. These things are often given as gifts. You do not need a rice cooker, for example. You need ONE medium-sized saucepan with a HEAVY bottom (to prevent overheating) and a good lid, and you need to learn to cook rice properly, and not attempt to rush it, so it does not burn. That’s really the trick: a heavy-bottom pan and a slow flame.

      Likewise, you do not need a nesting set of colanders AND a vegetable steamer. If you have two colanders, use the smaller one to steam vegetables. And, an alternative to a salad spinner is to set your large colander in the sink, and aim your sink hose against the salad toward the side of the bowl. Angle it correctly, and the whole amount salad will slowly spin inside the colander, making the job of shaking and draining easier.

      (BTW, if you evict the salad spinner from your kitchen, and you do a lot of family RV travel or car camping (not backpacking), your former salad spinner can be used as a mini-washing machine, especially for small items like socks and undies or a single shirt. A teaspoon of laundry liquid, some water, and your small items go in the bowl and basket. Crank it enthusiastically, drain, fill with plain water, and do the same to rinse.

      We most certainly do not need specialized slicers for avocados, bananas, eggs, etc. Learn to choose the correct knife to make even, straight cuts (a smooth knife or a serrated one?) depending on what you are slicing. For example, all those gadgets for eggs, avocados and bananas can be dumped in favor of using a sharp, non-serrated knife.

      Some people buy specialized cutting items because they think they cannot cut straight. It is a matter of practice, and also of choosing the correct knife. If you are left-handed, and you attempt to slice bread with a standard, serrated bread knife, your slices will come out slanted, because the knife is beveled for a RIGHT handed person to apply pressure downward, and straight. If you are left-handed, go to a good kitchen store or online site and invest in two good, left-handed serrated knives (a bread knife and a meat slicing knife) and you will never have a slice of roast or bread that is thick on top and thin at the bottom again. And you can ditch all those “specialty” slicers.

      After a few months using the sticker system, you will be truly surprised at how MUCH you can get rid of. And don’t worry about your kitchen looking “too empty.” It will be MUCH easier to clean. If you must, you can store frequently used items like sugar, coffee and flour in canisters on the counter to keep it homey looking, or store your frequently used cooking utensils (wooden spoons, spatulas, ladles, etc.) upright on the counter in a heavy, decorative crockery canister

      Now for those holiday items: as they are used only on holidays and special occasions, frequency of use is not the issue. Rather, the issue is, how MANY do you ACTUALLY use? Take a year for this one. Once again, mark everything, but use the little BLUE stickers to designate special occasion items. After the item has been used and cleaned, apply a blue sticker with one check mark to indicate one use; do the same on subsequent holidays and special occasions. You will be surprised at how many “special occasion” items you own which were gifts, are duplicates, and truly NEVER get used. Donate the items which are never used, and consider donating the items used only once during the year.

      Another thing is all the “specialty” items for individual holidays. I know people who have entire sets of dishes for each season. This is ridiculous. Use your ordinary “good” china for holidays and special occasions and simply decorate your table — minimally — to be seasonally appropriate for Christmas, Easter, etc. A simple change in the color of the candles, solid-colored napkins on a white tablecloth, and a seasonal bouquet for a centerpiece will do, and you can discard the wilted flowers in your compost heap, instead of storing a specialized, holiday centerpiece for each holiday. Keep the napkin-color selection to a minimum: perhaps a bright, light green for spring events, a russet color for fall events, and red or blue for the winter holidays. No need to have a several tablecloths with seasonal prints: a single, white one will do. Few people use tablecloths other than on special occasions, anyway, so you do not need more than one. A small box or drawer can hold seasonally-colored napkins and candles. That’s really all you need to set the mood for special meals.

      Likewise with all those specialized serving dishes. Use your crockery bowls to serve hot food. Plain white, or a solid color, will suit any holiday.

      • Hi Dez, I think all the true chefs in the world would throw in there hats if home cooks are going to start using their hard earned professional titles willy nilly. I cook from scratch most of the time but I don’t find the need to own stainless steel bowls. In fact I decluttered mine, and the plastic ones I had, because I have plenty of glass bowls that nest together so they don’t take up too much space and are used also for serving and storing because they have lids. I don’t find them heavy and I have never dropped any of them.
        That being said, I do like you plan for identifying the items in your kitchen that aren’t being used often enough to keep. I own a trivet that got used once a year just for cooking the Christmas pudding. To justify its existence I declutter all the other trivets (pot stands) I had and now use my trivet everyday under my teapot. And it is available at Christmas as well.

      • Dez – that is the most comprehensive kitchen cull plan I have ever come across! Obviously you are a scratch-cook of the highest degree. I am cateringly challenged and have much simpler kitchen needs. My plan is based on The Minimalists packing party whereby Ryan Nicodemus packed up everything he owned into well labelled boxes and as he needed things he went and collected the items but what was left at the end of six weeks was sold or donated. The beauty of this is that the human brain is wired to improvise rather than walk all the way to the garage to find some gadget.

        Of course, I don’t see my kitchen as my domain and the equipment therein the tools of my trade, so possibly I would prefer a more structured cull system if I wasn’t cateringly challenged.

        • With that in mind Moni, and I forgot to mention in my post, that when a knife can do so much in the kitchen it is important that you have a decent knife. The one, and probably only, thing lacking in this apartment in Germany is a good knife. And there are actually an abundance of knives here. Seven in fact and none good enough to cut up meat and potatoes. Which is ironic given that the good old Kartoffel (potato) is pretty popular her in Germany.

  3. Hi Colleen! As I am not a great cook, I don’t really care about kitchen gadgets. However I have two such gadgets that I got as Wedding gifts that are not much used, but clutter my kitchen nonetheless: a juicer and a food mixer. I have no used either of them this last year, but I still hesitate in letting them go. Food for thought…

    • Hi Andréia, you only hesitate to let them go because they were gifts and we all know what I call that kind of clutter. Obligation clutter. I think we have discussed them before. That was about two years ago, and they still aren’t being used. Perhaps it is time to let them go.

      Just a little aside. I can tell I have been in Germany for a while because when I was inserting the é in your name I almost chose the e with the umlaut.

    • Andreia – what about ‘gifting’ them to a charity?

  4. Great challenge. Here are my thoughts:

    Nut cracker – It doesn’t even get used and I’m fairly sure I could crack nuts open by squashing them with a rolling pin if I ever wanted to.

    Food mixer – Again rarely used and my handheld stick blender, whisk attachment and my own hands (for kneading bread) cover everything I used it for.

    • Good for you Sally. I question my mixer too because, like you, I tend to just use my hands these days, because being over 50 is the time in ones life where it doesn’t pay to have baked goods around all the time. And with only hubby and meself at home a cake would need to be eaten quickly enough so it wouldn’t go stale and that is not good for the figure.

  5. Hi, Colleen. Improvisation is a useful skill to develop, a skill that MacGyver took to the height of coolness. While reading your post, I had this mental image of you “MacGyvering” away in your Berlin kitchen. 🙂

    There are people who don’t like to use kitchen gadgets because they find that the gadgets detract from the joy that they derive from the entire cooking process.

  6. Colleen, you mentioned that the gadget might just seem useful because you haven’t taken the time yet to aquire the skill to do it without a special gadget.
    I’m working as an artisan baker/patissier for two years now and I think most people would be surprised about how few gadgets we actually use at work. Actually I sometimes get questions from aquaintances that imply that there must be some secret gadget, ingredient or machine for a special task that only us professionals know about. The truth is, in most cases there isn’t. The only difference is knowing your materials (i.e. recognizing when a dough is good etc.) and improving your skills by repeating and practising the required movements. In the places I have worked, all machines and gadgets are always at stake, there always has to be prove that it’s really faster to use them and clean them afterwards than to do it by hand – and apart from very obvious machines like the oven or a mixer that are used multiple times a day, usually the gadgets loose.
    At home as well, I have had some major lightbulb moments when I learnt about traditional methods to do some tasks and that many of the gadgets aren’t needed at all.

    • Yay Sanna, words from the horses mouth that is what is needed for a post like this. And it isn’t just in the kitchen that there are tools that aren’t necessary. Although that is where most of them are. Thank you for your expert opinion on the matter.

  7. Okay… The following are not technically declutters… They are more along the lines of helping the flow of life tasks…

    I bought a Rubbermaid type canister for the table sugar. It was previously in the paper bag it comes in, with a baggie around the bottom in case the counter was wet when my daughter placed it there. This hopefully will prevent the sugar from getting all over the cupboard and I won’t need to use the unwieldy baggie (and which my daughter always complains about).

    The attic door is in the ceiling of my bedroom and it would drop down with drafts, allowing hot or cold air, depending on the season, to invade my bedroom. I don’t know why it took me 12 years to notice this and figure out a solution. But I mentioned this to my husband recently and he magnetized the door so it stays where it should. Now I can declutter some use of my space heater since it doesn’t get as cold in my room 🙂

    A neighbor generously gave me a scented foaming hand soap a few months ago. We have been using it but I found that it made me sneeze because of the scent (even though I like it!). So I emptied the remaining one inch of soap into our compost and filled the empty container with unscented dish wash and water. I will take it to work for all the therapists to use.

    I have been floating some Christmas ideas for my husband past him… And he has not taken to any of them. Then I thought of the one thing he has been pestering me about for a few years (I have been putting him off because of the subscription cost). He will now be getting Sirius radio installed in his car. I believe he is very happy with this Christmas gift and has found a good price for the installation. No clutter gift!

  8. We have gadgets. I’m hoping Mom will decide to declutter them as we go through things in the days ahead. We have a blender that is heavy and seldom used. Mom uses it to make her Viennese Mocha Coffee. I think I will give it away and have her try using the stick blender. When we move she plans to divide up the Rubbermaid/Glad type plastic containers. I plan to quietly “lose” mine.

    • Hi Deb, I am so looking forward to the stories of the resulting decluttering due to the moves you have ahead of you. I am excited to learn of how much you mother finally got rid of. And of course I am excited to know how little you ended up with yourself.

  9. For me, the worst thing about gadgets is that it’s generally just an extra thing to wash. I used to ALWAYS use a potato peeler for potatoes, carrots, turnips, etc. When we changed our way of eating 4 years ago, we seldom ate potatoes for the first 2 years. Now that we do, I find myself using a knife most often. I guess I just became more accustomed to not using a peeler. I have at least 3 potato peelers and, guess what? I don’t think I’m ready to declutter any of them. It was really hard to find the kind I like when my original one wore out!!

    I no longer have a blender. I gave it away to a storm victim a few years ago because I almost never used it. I recently thought about getting another one, because I wanted to juice veggies. However, I think the novelty of that would wear off quickly.

    I do like my stick blender, but I don’t use it very often.

    • Hi Deanna! I am seriously considering letting go of the food mixer, but I could never let go of my blender! I use it almost every day and it has multiple functions. For instance, I have a cake recipe that uses it and I make that cake a lot. I never use the food mixer to make cakes, I prefer to do it by hand. Still, I can’t seem to let go of my food mixer….

    • Hi Deanna, I am sure, since you never use the peeler anymore, that you could declutter the two spare and just keep the one. I actually have two peelers but I use them all the time. However I could manage with just one. And like you, we eat a lot less potatoes these days and more and more I am not bothering to peal the veggies when I cook. I just throw them in with the skins on. Waste not want not I say.

      • I know Colleen. You would think with 3 potato peelers I’d be happy to donate 2. But not yet. Maybe I’ll have an easy declutter day soon when I just want stuff outta here :)). I don’t peel a lot of my veggies anymore either. Never peel my potatoes when they’re pretty (no matter for soup, potato salad, stewed potatoes), except this year we’ve had a lot of little red potatoes that don’t classify as pretty. Also try to buy organic when possible, i.e. carrots and don’t peel them.

  10. Does anyone remember the Cosby show episode where Cliff buys all of these appliances and gadgets and his wife Claire calls the storage area for them (in their kitchen island) appliance heaven?
    That is my husband. Loves all of the kitchen gadgets even though he has never cooked or baked. Maybe owning them made him feel like he did, haha!
    Has anyone else experienced this with their husband/wife/partner?
    When we moved to Hawaii, the contents of appliance heaven went to Salvation Army.

    • Ha ha Kimberly. My husband doesn’t have much say in the kitchen but he does own a number of tool that I would question if he ever uses. It is more likely that I would use them too actually. I hope he doesn’t see this comment. Hee hee!

  11. The reason I decluttered is to have my kitchen gadgets and cook books. I have very few clothes – I don’t have a 333 wardrobe – I don’t have that many clothes and next to no jewellery.
    I live to cook wonderful creations for my family and friends.

    • Well good for you Mich. I love to craft so I have more of that kind of thing than others. If you use it a lot then go for it. However to the person who wishes to declutter in the kitchen this post would be far more helpful to them.

    • You sound like you have a lovely, uncluttered home, Mich … I’m imagining lots of breathing space. 🙂

      You seem to have done a great job in removing clutter and keeping the things that you love and use!

  12. Sorry, off subject, but I just need to say these things: I’ve been decluttering genealogy papers, old photos and memorial items from my Mother’s funeral, etc…for about 2 hours this afternoon. What a downer. It has all made me feel very sad. However, I did learn a couple of things…(1) if you are going through these kinds of things, plan shorter segments of time to work on it; (2) as you go through it all, remember that whatever you get rid of (burn, in my case), you will never have to go through again; uh oh…a third (3) if you can handle it, just turn your drawer upside down into a trash bag and dispose of the contents without ever going through it. I could have done that and only missed one thing that I would like to keep…however, I didn’t know I had it anyway.

    I hope I didn’t set myself up for bad dreams tonight…about to cry already…maybe a little self pity creeping in too.

    • Oh (4) and plan something that will make you laugh afterward :)))

    • Hi Deanna, I can see why you might feel the need to cry… Maybe you could plan something that you find comforting afterward – herbal tea, a good book, a walk, a massage/facial…

      • Thanks, Peggy! No walk, it’s pouring rain here :)) however, I settled for a glass of wine. It really makes me feel better though that I released most of it, and I’ll never have to go through it again. Thanks for your comfort.

    • I hope you’re feeling better, Deanna. I’m sending you a hug and good vibes. 🙂

      • Thanks, Nicole. I am feeling better…and a beautiful day here this morning after raining half the night.

    • Hi Deanna, you have hit on something that I keep hinting to the generation above me to takes care of so their children don’t have to. One thing you could also have done was go on line and find someone, and there is bound to be someone, who is tracing the family tree. Give them the papers and let them have at it. I suppose the only problem with that or just burning them without looking is that there could be some long ago forgotten investment papers in there that might be worth something. Buy then again if you never know you don’t know what you are missing.
      Anyhow! I hope you are feeling better today. A good old glass of wine can sure help.

      • Hi Colleen! I can see how my above comment is misleading. I didn’t put any genealogy info in the pile to be burned…only pictures that I didn’t want to keep and info from my Mother’s death and funeral (cards, list of visitors, funeral program, etc.) My niece works on our genealogy and all those papers will go to her. I’m pretty sure they’re duplicates, but I’ll let her go through them. I think the handwriting on that info is that of my niece’s mother (my sis-in-law) as she was the one who started our genealogy work. Thanks, I do feel better.