Labeling my leftovers with erasable labels has become my new way of planning for my future self. I know that my future self is going to forget things. Sure, I’m a professional organizer, but I’m also a normal, forgetful human being. My daily life is complicated, full of distractions. What do I want to tell my future self, to make my life easier? Taking a few seconds a day to tell my future brain what food we have in the fridge has changed my life. We are – wait for it – actually *eating* all the vegetables and groceries that we buy. (I know, right?)
PRODUCT UPDATE: I have since learned about dissolvable food labels, which are amazing, but only if your hands are completely dry (which mine rarely are, in the kitchen). My best product news is that if you get Ultra Fine Point retractable Sharpies, no need for an art eraser, because the words will wash off in the dishwasher!
Labels are the world’s easiest life hack
As an organizer, I love labeling things! But I hadn’t ever thought of doing that with fridge food. I’ve been listening to the Lazy Genius podcast (her tagline: “be a genius about the things that matter, and lazy about the things that don’t”) where she talks about naming what is important to you. It turns out that naming my food leftovers for my future self is important to me. I even wrote a haiku about it.
For your future self
Label your leftovers now
No more wasted food
My refrigerator, the black hole of my kitchen
It all started when I couldn’t find the green beans that I had cooked. During the long pandemic of 2020, we had stopped eating out at restaurants. I was cooking a LOT. My refrigerator was full of food. So why couldn’t I find the vegetables that I had cooked? Where were the leftovers from last night? Things were disappearing in the chaos of my fridge. My organizer brain came up with “Hey, I could label them! Labels make finding things much easier, right??”
Today is Blursday the seventyteenth day of Marjuny
So, during the long home confinement of 2020, I spent some of my Blursdays trying various ways of labeling my food containers. But nothing worked consistently well. I needed a label that would be easy to use, easy to change, and most important, easy to see.
Then I found the solution
I finally started using Avery #5429 shiny erasable labels. I can write and erase, write and erase, over and over, on the same label hundreds of times. I’ll tell you where to get them, below, and answer questions I can anticipate that you might have.
But first I want to show off my labeled leftovers
Here’s what my fridge looks like, at a random moment in time. The two of us in this household will plow through this food, oh yes we will. And then I can relabel these containers with new food. It’s like my own little cafeteria! Even if you don’t cook as much as me, you surely have leftovers, right?
Where can I buy these labels?
Labels: You can find my favorite ones, the Avery #5429 erasable labels, at Office Depot, or Staples, or Amazon. Use a Sharpie marker on them. Any kind of Sharpie. They are shiny and laminated, so you can erase them and keep using the same label forever. I’ve been using mine continuously for almost a year now and they show no sign of wear.
Erasers: Get these sturdy Pentel art erasers from Target. You can find them on amazon too, but Target has them cheaper. Trust me, this size of eraser is the one you want. I’ve already done all the Blursday research for you.
Can you use a regular writing pen on them?
No. Use a Sharpie. Regular ink from a pen won’t dry on the shiny laminated label, and will smear like this. While you’re getting a Sharpie, get a retractable one instead of having to hassle with a cap. (SUCH a useful invention!) UPDATE: if you get an Ultra Fine Point Sharpie, the writing washes off in the dishwasher!
Can you run these labels through the dishwasher?
YES. Hundreds of times.
And then, your next question: Do I have to erase what’s on the label before running it through the dishwasher? NO. I thought I had to, at first, but then discovered that it made no difference in the erasability of the label. If anything, they are a little easier to erase after the dishwasher. As the Lazy Genius says, be a genius about the things that matter, and lazy about the things that don’t!
UPDATE: if you buy retractable Ultra Fine Point Sharpies, the writing washes off in the dishwasher, with no erasing required!
And then, your next question: Do these labels come off, in the dishwasher? NO. At least, they haven’t in mine. To keep the labels from peeling off in the future, make sure your container is clean and completely dry before putting the adhesive label on there, and press it on firmly.
Glass or plastic food containers?
Either will work, but glass has a distinct advantage. It’s much easier to scrub the label firmly with your eraser on a rigid glass container than on a flexible plastic one. For my leftovers, I like using Pyrex rectangular containers. (Rectangle food containers use space more efficiently than round ones.)
Why can’t I just write on the food container itself?
You can. I tried this, too. But your writing will only show up if the food is light-colored. For example, you can see the “polenta” name, right? But can you just barely see where I wrote “green beans?” You have to squint to see the writing. I’m all about not struggling with organizing systems, which means no squinting. You could also put Post-it notes on your food containers, but things get damp in refrigerators so they might fall off.
What about different colors of Sharpies?
Sure! I love lots of color, too. But I find that black Sharpie shows up best, and doesn’t require any decision-making. But if that decision-making (red for chili, green for spinach) wouldn’t derail you in the goal of finding your leftovers quickly, then color away!
Are there other brands of erasable labels?
There’s another brand of erasable labels called LabelOnce. I started out using those. But I ended up liking the Avery labels much better for my leftovers. The LabelOnce labels come in an assortment of sizes, but the small ones are too small for longer food words like “asparagus” and “strawberries.” They come with a pencil-sized art eraser, but it breaks too easily with the constant erasing. LabelOnce makes really good erasable labels for other uses. But for food, get the Avery #5429 labels, and the Pentel art erasers.
How much time are you spending writing and erasing, writing and erasing?
Not as much time as it probably sounds. I have a designated spot in a drawer for the Sharpie and eraser, near where I prep food. I can quickly find them when I need them, and put them back when I’m done. I might never use up all the labels from the original Avery package (because, you know, the ones I am currently using are infinitely reusable). But that’s all right. This new food management habit has truly changed my life, and my eating habits.
Is that maybe a tiny exaggeration, that it’s changed your life?
No, it’s not. Using these erasable food labels has led to us actually EATING all of the food that we buy. Because we can instantly FIND the food that we have. I’m eating a lot more vegetables now, and more variety of foods, than I ever have before. I’m throwing out much less food. You know, the food that used to get lost in the fridge and would slowly rot into compost? (I see you out there, nodding in recognition.) Now, when I open the fridge, my food containers speak to me. “HEY! Here we are! The leftover egg roll skillet from last night! The soup you made! The cantaloupe you cut up! “ (Are some of my labels a bit crooked and not perfect? Yes. Do I care? No.)
Why don’t you have similar foods grouped together in your fridge?
Putting “like with like” categories of items together is a very useful organizing principle. For instance, black sweaters together in your closet, office supplies together in your work space, and so on. But for me there’s no ROI (return on investment) in time spent arranging my vegetables together, meat together, etc. Besides, my brain likes seeing different categories of my food jumbled together. It lets me combine things for lunch and dinner in different, unexpected ways. I know how to show myself a good time.
I want to do this too!
Step 1: get the Avery #5429 erasable labels and the Pentel art erasers, and a Fine Point retractable Sharpie or an Ultra Fine Point retractable Sharpie (no erasing needed). Step 2: press the erasable labels firmly on your clean, dry food containers. Step 3: find a designated home for the Sharpie and the eraser. Once you’ve set up that infrastructure system, take a few seconds every day to erase and write new food names as your leftovers accumulate. That’s it!
Can I help you get more organized in your home? Contact me! Do you have favorite ways of managing the leftovers in your fridge? Tell me in the comments!