How to Organize your Recipes: A Recipe Storage and Meal Idea System that Works (or life lessons from trying every system on the planet!)
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One of my biggest tools for success in the kitchen and especially with healthy eating is definitely organization. You know this if you've watched our latest FREE video series in which I help you revamp your healthy eating habits, and I give you a tour of my kitchen and pantry and how I get it organized. This is certainly the biggest tool in my organizational arsenal that ensures I eat really really well, but another part is having easy access and a system for all those recipes and meal ideas I love and make time and time again.
When it comes to systems to organize recipes, I can tell you I've tried absolutely all of them. I went back and forth for years and I still couldn't find a system that worked for me.
I tried notebooks, large binders with magazine cutouts, online storage systems, and even a recipe organization software. It may sound extreme to you but when you're a recipe creator like I am and you spend most of your waking hours in the kitchen, you need a system or you end up having the same problem most of us have:
- You can't find what you're looking for when you need it, and you keep cooking the same dishes over and over again.
Being organized is essential for having variety in your diet and especially being able to love and enjoy the foods you're eating, so you never get bored and you can stick to this healthy way of eating for good.
Lesson learned number 1: My cookbook collection
I inherited a cookbook collection from my beautiful mom that was so impressive it occupied half my bookshelf. I sadly had to downsize it when we moved to Spain, but I kept all of my favorites and some of my mom's favorites including the cutest mini English tea book, and her Russian cookbook which is in such a used state it's really hard to read. I think that if I piled up all those books we would have recipes to last us a lifetime, but do we use them on a day to day basis? Nope! Why? Because it takes me forever to browse through them, remember what recipe is in which book and then see if I have all the ingredients, all before actually getting down to the cooking.
Lesson learned: you can have all the most beautiful cookbooks in the world, but a cookbook is not a recipe storage system. Don't worry, when I teach you the system that finally worked for me we're going to put all those cookbooks to good use.
Lesson learned number 2: Apps, computer software and online systems
These didn't work for me in the long run because it just became too hard to keep it updated, fill all the information in, etc.
Lesson learned number 3: My mother in law's recipe notebook
My mother in law keeps all her scrumptious recipes in a little notebook in the kitchen. Every time I go to her house I love to browse through it, and all it is is a notebook filled with handwritten pages, one page per recipe. it's the closest to the system that worked for me but when I tried it it didn't turn out like hers, with her beautiful penmanship, all clean and organized. Mine was a mess. I started adding little sticky notes and pages since I couldn't add any new pages or information in and the whole thing was a disaster. This however is a great system, very similar to the one I finally went for.
Lesson learned number 4: The classic recipe binder
This was another system I tried, and I did end up taking a lot from this system for one of the main tools I teach: the small kitchen binder (more on this later). Many people swear by this method of just adding loose sheets of paper and magazine cutouts etc., to a binder and just going through it when you sit down to cook. Mine soon had so many pages, it was messy, impossible to browse through it because it was like an over stuffed piñata, and it ended up right next to all my recipe books in my bookshelf which I only checked when I was looking for something specific. Not good, at least for me.
What exactly did I need?
There is a big difference between having tons of books and recipes to choose from when you want to do a bit of experimenting or make something special, and having a select number of recipes that you LOVE, your go-to's. It's so important to have a system for all these usual suspects. These are familiar recipes that you've probably made many times over and that are therefore less overwhelming. Things everyone in the family loves to eat, but with time we just forget these even exist and we stick to just a few.
What I needed that I hadn't achieved with the previous systems, was a method for storing those recipes I had already tried, and that were part of our usual repertoire. Something I could grab and take to the kitchen and prepare really quickly.
This had two sides to it:
- I needed a simple reminder of some dishes that did not require a recipe or specific amounts.
- I also needed a different system for the actual recipe, especially those that required very specific amounts.
The great news is I found the perfect system for both, and I'm sharing it all with you so that you can try it out and see if it works for you.
We tend to underestimate how important it is to have a system. If you think about it, half of the reasons why we struggle to make healthy meals, is we simply don't remember or can't think of what to cook. These systems used together will help you so much.
My quick meal idea system: the small kitchen binder
If you'd like to watch me explain this on video, I highly recommend our FREE video series in which I give you all the tips, along with all my meal planning and kitchen organizational basics. Basically, this system includes a very small kitchen binder with just a few pages, in which I keep a bullet point list of my usual go-to meal and snack ideas.
It's very important that this binder only has a few pages, so that you can really get into the habit of only taking a couple of minutes to glance through a short list, and get instantly inspired.
This works for dishes that only require components you can put together and that you don't need to measure. Sometimes however, I will include amounts for something like a salad dressing I always make and that I keep forgetting the amounts for. Other than that, this is just a list of quick and easy favorites. You glance at it, get inspired, see what you're in the mood for, what you have in the fridge and then start cooking. You can also include the name of a recipe you love to make from one of your cookbooks, and add the name of the cookbook and the page right next to it for quick and easy access. This last tip is especially helpful if you decide that my next storage system is not ideal for you, that way you can still include some of the more elaborate favorites in your list.
My recipe storage system: Tailor made recipe cards (guess what? You're getting them!)
The recipe card system is as old as Moses. It was my mom's recipe system for years, but I never thought about using it because those typical file cards seemed so teeny tiny and my recipes never ever fit in just one card. The system works though. You have a box filled with individual cards and you can pick and grab one, take it into the kitchen cook with it and put it back. It's easy to flip through to find what you want, you can divide it into different sections (entrées, desserts, starters, pasta, breakfast, etc.), and continually add new cards into each section as you discover new recipes (something you can't do in a notebook which is that other system I think really works well).
This system was a lifesaver for me and I've been using it for a few years now together with my small kitchen binder which I use for my day to day meal ideas.
How does it work?
You can either buy standard file cards and write your favorite recipes in, but if you're like me and you feel that the space is just cruel, and the cards look hideous and make you feel like you're back in the office or at school, there are countless versions you can find and print online with beautiful patterns. These come in the standard size to fit inside a file card box, but again, I needed something bigger, so we designed it!
I print them out in card paper, and every time I create or find a recipe that I tried and went crazy over, I write it down on my card and put it in the box.
Yes, of course I'm sharing my little template with you (get it by clicking the button at the end of this post). You can print it out in cardstock and have them last forever (I recommend a cream colored cardstock paper for a more vintage look). I found a beautiful very inexpensive wooden box to store them in in my local craft store, and I know that whenever it's time to make pancakes, my tried and true recipe is in there waiting for me.
Yes, it takes time to write down the recipe, but after years of having systems that never worked for me I am so happy I found this one and it's well worth the effort. Sometimes when I sit down to watch cooking shows or videos I know I need to grab an empty card and a pen and start writing as I watch. For my recipe testing, I fill the amounts in with a pencil, so that I can keep adjusting until it's perfect.
Other systems that might work for you
We're not all made equal, some of us are more of the pen and paper crowd, others are as techie as can be, others simply work fine with no system at all. You should experiment just like I did and find what works for you. Here are some more ideas:
- Having two Pinterest boards: one for recipes to try, another for tried and true recipes or meal ideas. (While you're in there, follow us on Pinterest! We share delicious recipes we find over the web!).
- Printing out classic recipe cards in the standard size (remember, mine are bigger), here are some great ones.
- Printable from Balancing home
- Printable from Essentially Eclectic
- Printable from Ever More Paper Co
- Printable from The Social Home
- Find many others here
- Purchasing a recipe card system in your favorite cooking supply store or scrapbooking store, or purchasing one online, like this one.
- Keeping loose pages in a binder.
- Using apps or computer software.
- Keeping a quick glance list at the beginning of your cookbooks with your favorite recipes from that book and the page number.
- Writing down your favorite recipes in a notebook.
I hope you felt inspired to get your recipes and meal ideas organized. These systems have saved me so much time in the kitchen, and although now I have almost all my own recipes organized and perfectly sorted and searchable in our online program (yup! I use it just like our members do since I'm hopeless at remembering some recipes), these systems help me with quick meal ideas that don't require measuring, and they help me with storing recipes that are not from my own creation and that come from all those wonderful cookbooks my mama left me.
To download our large recipe card template click the button below, and I always recommend printing it in card paper (I love printing it in cream colored card paper because it looks adorable!) so that they're nice and durable even as you take them into the kitchen while you cook.