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Standing in line at the supermarket check stand, nobody can deny that we're on the dreary downside of a new year.
Tabloid headlines scream the weight-loss secrets of the stars, while traditional women's magazines sing siren songs of money-saving, belly-busting, speed-cleaning tips and techniques.
We ourselves? All those resolutions that looked so basic, so easy, so noble through the champagne haze of New Year's Eve have lost their rosy glow viewed in the stark light of a morning cup of coffee.
With the children back to school and holiday decorations back in their attic boxes, our resolve for a better, thinner, healthier and wealthier year has once more washed up against the hard and niggling realities of daily life.
Be of good cheer! There's a tried-and-true boost for just about anybody's New Year's resolutions. [I'm talking garden-variety resolutions here: weight loss, financial prudence, better home or personal organization. If you've vowed that this is the year you read the Russians, my hat's off to you but you're on your own!]
I'm talking about cleaning the refrigerator. Spearing the Great White Whale.
Think about it! The refrigerator holds it all: food and finance, weight and well-being, organization and chaos, all rolled into one big cold box. Dive into that baby with a detached eye, a hardened heart and one small hour of time and you're on the road to weight loss, better household management, and a healthier budget.
The timing couldn't be better, because I know what your refrigerator looks like! Plastic food storage containers pile in unsteady ziggurats in every corner--and why is it that the largest bowls and boxes hold the smallest amounts of food?
Open cans of olive juice have lost plastic wrap coverings to a succession of sneaking fingers. A yellow sticky puddle surrounds the triangular hole in the top of the can of evaporated milk. Crumbs and butter dot the face of the leftover cranberry sauce.
Greasy zipper storage bags hold what's left of the Christmas turkey: one lone drumstick and several dried and curling slices of overdone breast meat. Sliced remnants of margarine sticks hide in unlikely places, waiting to hurl themselves to the oblivion of the kitchen floor when the refrigerator door is opened.
Where to begin? There's a bit of an aesthetic to spearing the Great White Whale.
There's something to be said about waiting until the weight-loss advertising jingles displace the mental Muzak drone of holiday carols. This is not a job in which holiday sentiment is an asset. A spat with one's spouse or children will also fuel the harpoon, but same is not recommended in the interest of family harmony.
Think tough. Firm. Resolved. Then gather your tools: a large, lined garbage can, a sink-ful of soapy water, spray bottles of degreaser and window cleaner, lots of cleaning cloths and a pen and notepad. Clear the kitchen counters so you can sort and spread out with impunity, and an empty dishwasher should await your container collection.
Most important, before you begin, turn your refrigerator off--and unplug it, too, for good measure. We want the only shocks you receive to be from the code dates on some of your food!
Start at the top. Remove everything from the top refrigerator shelf. Holiday leftovers go directly into the garbage can. Show no pity or mercy! If it hasn't been eaten by now, it's because the family will scream if presented with ham in one more disguise. Open everything, and when it doubt, toss it out!
Plastic food storage containers are consigned to the dishwasher after a brief rinse. The shelf goes directly to the sink's soapy water. While it soaks off the grime of Christmas past, use your degreaser spray to clean the refrigerator's ceiling and walls down to the next shelf. Wash the shelf, dry and replace it--but don't put any food back, not yet!
Work your way from top to bottom, and you'll build up enough steam to tackle the vegetable crisper. Amazing, isn't it, how innocent little tomatoes and shy stalks of celery undergo such a malign transformation in the crisper!
Pull 'em out, pull 'em all out, and unless you bought the vegetable desperado in question within the last week, throw 'em out!
Don't forget the gooey residue puddled up under the meat drawer!
When every shelf, wall and crisper is sparkling, pay attention to the dreaded door shelves. Toss all the dribs and drabs of jelly, the salad dressings with code dates from the last decade, the stale carton of eggnog, and the teeny-weeny jars of "gourmet" this-and-that from the gift packs of Christmas Past. Be ruthless!
When the door is empty, look lively! Many newer door shelves are designed to come apart--a great help in cleaning year-old orange juice from those little nooks and crannies. One way or another, clean it out. Use window cleaner to kill the greasy fingerprints on the chrome and see-through plastic.
"But Cynthia!", I hear you cry, "what does cleaning the refrigerator have to do with New Year's resolutions?" Bear with me. We've now reached the part where we transcend our Hazel the Housemaid routine and think.
You are standing in your kitchen, face-to-face with a clean and empty refrigerator, a garbage can brimming with discarded food, a dishwasher full of plastic foodcontainers and the few hardy survivors of your harpooning session. What can be learned from all this?
Lean back against the kitchen counter. Take a hard look at what that whale has been hiding in its dark little innards. The implications will hit you in the face!
For example, when I tossed out four, count 'em, four jars of dried-out jelly and a jar of peanut butter manufactured years ago, it was clear that my children had turned a culinary corner, and the days of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were no more.
And I thought my family liked ranch dressing--but I couldn't maintain that belief in the face of a nearly-full bottle of same dating from the Bush administration.
You'll wring a few unpleasant admissions from yourself, too. Look carefully at what foods are wasted, especially from the vegetable crisper.
Are you doing what I've been doing? I'm Miss Nutritional Virtue herself at the grocery store, but those baby carrots and low-fat margarines languish uneaten in Moby's dark corners. Did you toss out as much bruised fruit as I did? Are you buying too much--or not eating what you buy?
Use pen and notepad to jot down your discoveries and track your new resolves. Match them to your New Year's resolutions. Is lower-fat eating on your resolution list? Then you'll want to toss the remnants of the Christmas dinner butter and margarine and replace them with low-fat spreads, apple butter and all-fruit jellies.
Do you want to tighten the budget? Focus on the waste you've discovered. Do you buy grapefruit (because your mother did and it's such a Donna Reed/Beaver's Mom breakfast item) only to toss the shriveled husks, months later? Are you overbuying milk, or cheese, or meat? If you've tossed it out today, make a note to yourself to buy less--if any--on your next shopping trip.
Have family members come to expect weekly cases of soda as a staple, not a treat? Cut back, and substitute fruit juices and iced tea for those high-priced soft drinks.
Is more efficient meal planning and home organization on your list of resolutions? Well, you've taken a giant step forward today.
When the dust has settled and you've taken a good, hard, productive look at the evidence unearthed from your refrigerator, it's time to replace the few food items that survived your scrutiny.
Done correctly, the New Year's Spearing of the Great White Whale should all but empty the refrigerator. Don't be afraid of that stark look! A refrigerator (unlike a freezer) is most energy-efficient when it has adequate air flow.
Gather or purchase a few little presents for your new, gleaming food storage space.
Consider small-to-medium plastic baskets (with flat bottoms) to corral loose margarine sticks, and support and organize floppy packs of lunch meat and sliced cheese.
Larger baskets subdivide your vegetable crisper and frustrate self-destructive, neurotic vegetables whose only motive in life is to burrow deep beneath the plastic bags and rot in peace.
Finally, arrange your storage space to promote good eating habits. Pile apples and oranges in an open basket on an open shelf--if they're seen, they're more likely to be eaten! Stick the big, bad, greasy cooking margarine in the far reaches of the meat drawer, so you won't be tempted to bypass your low-fat spread. Use zipper bags bags to hold washed vegetable snacks, and put them in a special basket in the crisper, easy to see and to reach.
When the I speared my own, my very own Moby Dick The Great White Refrigerator, I was so energized by the sight of the gleaming, empty, healthy and frugal contents that I moved on to her pantry!
Such a step is only for the valiant, but when the iron strikes, toss! Dare to dump the sack of stale gumdrops, the sticky candy canes, the six boxes of opened cereal with year-old code dates, and the dusty boxes of bulgur and lentils and barley (remnants of an impractical but impassioned health kick). You'll feel good. You'll make room. You'll promote health.
And if you're like me, you'll spend the next two days sneaking admiring looks at your gleaming, well-organized refrigerator. It may not be glamour, but it's life!
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