How to Improve Your Living Space, Simplify Life, and Build Comfort During COVID-19

A few weeks ago, your day-to-day world consisted of your home, your car, an office, maybe a school. Now, you are among the millions across North America who are spending most of their time inside because of restrictions to stop the spread of COVID-19.

While a comfortable home is a good place to spend your time most days, the coronavirus-related lockdowns or quarantines currently in place have many looking for quick ways to improve function, space and comfort.

It is the same home, but now you have new storage needs. Organization becomes more important. And, you need a game plan to ensure the home operates with maximum efficiency to increase enjoyment and reduce the potential for tension. You might notice repairs you were willing to live with before, or think about what upgrades you’ll make once life returns to normal.

We spoke with Paula Kennedy, a longtime friend of In Every Home and a designer in a COVID-19 hotspot, Seattle, about quick changes you can make in your home to reduce stress, improve function and make it into comforting environment for everyone there.

Start with space

Think about how you use your home, then map out the space and establish a purpose for each area. Make sure members of the family understand each area. “We all live there now, and everything happens there, from DIY to homework,” Kennedy says The home may have just gone from being largely empty during the day to a place where children are learning and multiple people may be earning their living. “Everyone needs to know where everything goes. The more organized things are and the more routine it is, that will reduce stress encourages homeowners to make a plan so all family members are aware of how the home works.

Spending almost all of our time at home is an unfamiliar experience for most of us, but plenty of things haven’t changed. It’s still spring, and still time for spring cleaning. Take advantage of your new schedule flexibility and dig in for some serious decluttering. Kennedy recommends removing anything unnecessary in the kitchen. “We need that valuable countertop space to be used for other things,” she says. “If you aren’t using the blender every day, it doesn’t need to be on the countertop.” It’s not just about freeing up space. Multiple studies have linked clutter to higher levels of stress and anxiety.

Stay in your lane during the day. Keep the work areas for working, the learning areas for learning. Look at how you can alter your space to make life easier. The family may be used to gathering in the living room around the TV, but having everybody in one room might be a recipe for stress. “Move the TV into the formal dining room,” Kennedy says. “Spread the family out instead of everyone being in the living room. Use the home efficiently so you’re not on top of each other 24/7.”

Simplify life

You’ve cleaned and decluttered. Now it’s time to think about what you can bring into the home to make your life easier. Appliances like countertop ovens, portable steam ovens and sous vide cookers can speed up meal preparation and give you healthy cooking options. Many smaller appliances can be bought online, so you can save yourself a trip to the store.

Additional food storage, like refrigerators reserved for beverages and snacks, can save space in the main refrigerator and help manage foot traffic, and make us feel more comfortable at home. “Food storage can give you extra security,” Kennedy says. “Do you have a way of storing extra food and freezing it so you can store it as long as possible?” Think about adding an extra freezer, under-cabinet refrigeration, or a vacuum sealer for the countertop. A recent jump in sales of freezers suggests many are putting additional food storage measures in place.

That extra refrigerator or freezer can also help manage foot traffic. Put your microwave, countertop oven and beverage refrigerator in the same place in a “grab and go” zone. That way, family members coming into the kitchen for lunch or a snack won’t move into areas reserved for work or school.

“I make sure the microwave is in the same zone as the refrigerators so the kids, or people coming in to get a snack, aren’t interrupting the main work zone,” Kennedy says. “The microwave oven or speed oven near the refrigerator so they don’t intersect the main cooking zone.”

Build comfort

People have different tolerance for noise, including sound generated from appliances and foot traffic. Take steps to bring the home’s noise level. “That’s on my list for wellness,” Kennedy says. “How we manage that sound is important. “A simple DIY is adding rugs, mats or soft finishes that help absorb some of the sound.”

Air quality is also a factor in wellness and comfort. Make sure your kitchen ventilation is working properly, and consider adding an air cleaner.

Bringing elements of the outdoors, like more natural light or vegetation, into your living space may also help reduce stress and increase productivity. Think about adding an indoor herb garden or growing some of your own food.

While you’re at home, take stock of what you changes you can bring to your home to make it a more comforting place. Think about why you feel comfortable in certain parts of your home and try apply those elements to the home on a wider scale.

Quarantined? Using what you have at home

We’re spending more time indoors right now than normal. Keeping each other safe is extremely important right now, but we have to keep ourselves and our families busy, too. Luckily, there’s more to do around your home than you think!

Do you love to cook? Normally, we are so pressed for time it’s easy to default to our tried-and-true recipes most nights. Not anymore! Make the most of your time inside by using this as an opportunity to try something new. With the right appliances, your options are almost limitless.

Break out the Stand Mixer: Your stand mixer is an all-purpose star. Practice your baking skills with a new cake recipe (we love Smitten Kitchen), try making some homemade pasta, or even sausage. Get creative – browse the attachments available for your stand mixer.

Have a Cultural Food Night: You can’t go out to your favorite Thai spot right now, why not try making it at home? Check out our series on cultural cooking for inspiration – we’ve spoken with experts on Mexican, Thai and Cuban cuisine.

#TreatYourself with a Milkshake: Surprise the kids and pull out the blender for a milkshake bar. Grab a few ice cream flavors and fruit and let them make their own flavors. We’re all craving comfort foods right now, and milkshakes are a classic.

It’s also a great time to get some cleaning done. Keeping things neat is important as we find our homes transitioning into multi-purpose spaces for working and learning.

What’s the difference between cleaning and sanitizing? Staying safe from harmful microbes is likely number one on the priority list – here’s what you need to know.

Start your spring cleaning early: When was the last time you cleaned your refrigerator coils? Does your vacuum bag need to be replaced? Make a spring appliance cleaning checklist.

Organize your refrigerator: Keeping all the new food in your fridge organized will save you time and money on leftovers.

How are you making the most of your time at home?

Bring Culture to Your Kitchen Part 3: Cuban

Cuban cooking is about making the most of what you have. Its recipes aim to make a lot out of a little, using the ingredients that are on hand.

“They don’t have a winter, but still can only get certain things at certain times of the year,” says Guillermo Pernot, chef-partner of Cuba Libre Restaurant and Rum Bar. “When the fish don’t swim by because migration comes in September, you don’t have fish. Mangoes come at certain times of the year. Papayas come at certain times. Potatoes are difficult to find. Sometimes you don’t have carrots, sometimes you don’t have eggs. It’s this wonderful struggle, in a good way. You can make food about almost everything, and make it fantastic.”

Pernot was born in Argentina, but has focused on Cuban and Latino cooking for years. He spent time as a chef with a restaurant owned by Gloria Estefan Group in the 1980s, and went on to launch his own Latin-themed restaurant, Pasion, in New York. Today, Cuba Libre aims to represent an evolution in Cuban cuisine. He’s also personally connected to the culture through his wife, who is Cuban.

“Simple” and “seasonal” might be the two words one would use to describe Cuban cuisine. Food on the island, which is about the same size as its closest U.S. neighbor, Florida, draws from a range of influences. Pernot, who has traveled to Cuba, described restaurants that take advantage of ingredients found nearby. You might find a Haitian influence in the eastern part of the island and ingredients like coconut, chocolate and chilis, Pernot said. Restaurants in the agricultural region of Vinales in western Cuba tend to utilize only local ingredients found in that region. “You find these little pockets of food culture throughout the island,” Pernot says.

Local market and fruit shop in Havana, Cuba

Family and food are two cornerstones of Cuban life. Extended families often live near one another. “Usually, people don’t move far outside of the city,” says Pernot. “They won’t move more than five or six blocks away. The group stays together, and they gather every Sunday.” The menu might include arroz con pollo, beer and maybe a roasted pig. They’ll start the fire and cook over several hours. “People gather, they dance, they play music, they laugh.”

“Food is about family, and Cubans are big on family and gatherings, enjoying life and food together,” says Bruce Ozga, dean of culinary education at the North Miami campus of Johnson & Wales University. He has been observing Cuban cooking for more than 20 years in Miami, where the Cuban influence is strong. Preparing meals is also a family affair.  “The food is very important, and everybody loves to get their hands in the process,” Ozga says.

“Everybody brings something and they come together and eat. But it doesn’t stop there—it’s the music, it’s the dancing and having a great time with family.”

So gather a group of your family and friends (and maybe a pig to roast). It’s time to bring a little bit of culture from America’s island neighbor to your kitchen.

Appliances & Ingredients 

Of course, a good range is important for braising and stewing, both common Cuban cooking methods. A multi-cooker or pressure cooker will be useful for cooking rice and beans, staples in Cuba, and stews like ropa viejo, a common dish at the Cuban table.

Shakes are common in Cuba—mamey shakes (made from the fruit of the native mamey sapote tree), as well as soursop shakes and fruit shakes like pineapple, mango, papaya. “The majority of the fruits they have are local, tree-ripened and ready to go,” Ozga says. “Cubans love their sugar. They juice sugar cane. Orange juice is all fresh-squeezed. That’s part of the culture.” Shakes may also include milk, ice or vanilla extract.

Get a good, durable pot for whipping up a big batch of arroz con pollo. Use a panini press to make grilled sandwiches, and a tortilla maker.

Cuban cooking calls for ingredients found in most U.S. kitchens: onions, garlic, green peppers, cumin, oregano, paprika, oil, rice, beans, eggs, pork, chipotle, diced tomatoes, lime, avocados and plantains.

Start with the basics. “You’re not Cuban unless you’re making a good pot of rice and beans,” Ozga says. Pernot recommends putting together a simple meal of yellow rice and picadillo. Pork is always welcome at the Cuban table. Try your hand at plaintains maduros or plaintains tostones. For dessert, make a flan from condensed milk, evaporated milk, eggs, sugar and vanilla extract.

Embrace the simplicity of the menu. “Here we have a culture that makes a lot out of a little” Pernot says. “Not everything has to have the best fish or the most expensive ingredients. Just buy a tough cut of meat, stew it, buy peppers, carrots, potatoes and green peas. Make the best stew. Make the best rice possible. For $20 you can feed six people or more. We should learn how to do that.”

Ropa vieja, the traditional Cuban meal

Finally, prepare and share the meal as a group, to celebrate the spirit behind the meal. “The people who escaped Cuba and settled in south Florida still keep strong roots and they keep their Cuban culture with them,” Ozga says “They know where they came from, and they always seem to embrace life.”

Scents of Home: Use a diffuser to create your home’s identity

Scent is an integral part of our memory. Consider the smell of chocolate chip cookies, your brain jumps to the people and places associated with the scent so quickly that the cookies almost become an afterthought. Conversely, thinking of a bad smell probably brings you to a specific place in your mind, like a garbage dump, or that time you opened a carton of expired milk. Whether good or bad, scent evokes nostalgia.

The scent of a home varies from room to room and comes from a number of factors, including cooking and cleaning habits, ventilation and changing weather conditions. It’s part of what gives a home its character.

We spend so much time decorating our homes to make them places of comfort for our families. Curating your home experience shouldn’t stop with what you can see. A scent identity is a powerful way to let your family know they’re home, and is easily created with essential oils and a diffuser.

What is an essential oil? According to master aromatherapist Jimm Harrison, in technical terms, they’re volatile lipid from plants that is extracted through distillation or pressed from a peel. In less technical terms, they smell good and are widely used to boost your mood and health.

If you’re just starting out with essential oils, focus on the basics.

Lavender: “Lavender is considered calming,” Harrison says. “If you look at it in a lab, you’ll see it has calming properties. But it can be used in many situations. It can really balance emotionally. For someone who is fatigued, it can energize. It helps heal the skin. It has some anti-inflammatory properties.”

Peppermint: “Peppermint is one of the more energizing of the oils,” Harrison says. “Mint has this uplifting, alive feeling. It’s good for digestion and pain. It also has antibacterial and antiviral properties.”

Citrus: “Most people have a positive association with citruses,” Harrison says. “They tend to be happy, uplifting and joyful.”

Frankincense: “It has an interesting property that’s hard to document,” Harrison says. “Historically, it helps to quiet the mind. If you’re religious or spiritual, it’s a good oil to ease up that mind chatter for a meditative or prayer state. It’s a great oil for diffusing because it can be energizing even though it’s quieting the mind.”

Copaiba: “It’s really good for pain relief—topical for massage and relaxing the body,” Harrison says. “It can have both calming and energizing properties. For skin care, it can promote regenerative wound healing.”

Once you’ve found some scents you like, start having fun! Play around with ratios – citrus with a drop of peppermint will smell different than peppermint with a drop of citrus. Consider the room in which you’ll be using your oils. Soothing scents, like lavender, are perfect for the bedroom, while you may want something more energetic for the living room or kitchen.

Whatever benefit you’re looking for, research the company and where its oils come from before buying. “Make sure you’re getting 100 percent real oil,” says Katie Stefani, manager for the sensory and home category at Homedics. “If there is even one added synthetic in there, it won’t give you the same benefit.” Beware of deeply discounted prices on essential oils. “A low price means they probably aren’t pure,” Stefani says.

Oils can be blended for specific benefits, and some companies may sell blends intended to boost immunity, improve mood or relieve allergy or cold symptoms.

Spread the Scents With a Diffuser

While many essential oils give off strong scents on their own, a diffuser, which heats a suspension of oil and water, magnifies the aroma and spreads the therapeutic benefits.

Stefani, who is certified in aromatherapy, recommends adding 5-7 drops of oil to the water in a diffuser. “Add a few more drops in the beginning to get a stronger scent,” she says.

Measure the amount of oil carefully so you don’t overpower the room. If you’re using different scents in different rooms, make sure the odors harmonize. “The odor does not have to be strong or overpowering to have an effect,” Harrison says. “It creates this soft, influential environment. When you use oils in the home, you can manipulate the feeling of your environment, the memory and emotion.”

Diffusers come in different sizes, though the scent’s reach depends on a few other factors, like how much oil is added and what type of oil you are using. “Citrus tends to evaporate faster,” Stefani says. “Right off the bat, they’ll be heavy and strong, but as time goes on they’ll go faster. Mints last longer than the citruses.”

Choose a diffuser that fits into your home décor. A quick online search will show you that the options are practically limitless. If you’re really looking to chill, some include features like colored lights and relaxing sounds. “When you come home from work, you can unwind and distress from the day,” Stefani says. “The sounds give you an added benefit. Instead of a speaker, a light and a diffuser, it’s one relaxation experience.”

What sort of experience do you want to create for your home? Calming? Energizing? Healing? Tell us about your favorite essential oils blends.

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