Print Print this Page

Meet The Cluttershrink, A Professional Food Allergy Organizer

Hearing the initial diagnosis from your child’s doctor that your child has a life threatening food allergy is terrifying. You’re driving home from the office visit and come home to a kitchen which may likely be filled with those allergens. Panic sets in. What do you do? Enter professional organizer Crystal Sabalaske, also known as the Cluttershrink.

How is your family affected by allergies?

We have 19 food allergies and sensitivities in my family of 4. (husband, daughter - 11, son - 9 and me). Some are life threatening. I have celiac disease too, and while I know celiac is an autoimmune disorder and NOT an actual food allergy, I count "gluten" (all wheat, barley, oats and rye derivatives) in our list because it's another food category we need to take into consideration when shopping, preparing meals or eating out. My husband has had food sensitivities and allergies for as long as I have known him. I was diagnosed with celiac and other food allergies in 2009. We learned of my daughter's first allergy before she turned one, and we learned of my son's first allergy before he turned one. So we have been dealing with food allergies for over 10 years.

You are a professional organizer. What inspired you to specialize with families with allergies and how long have you been an organizer?

I have been a professional organizer since early 2002. When I first started my business, I was only working as an organizer part-time because I still had a job in a corporate environment. About 3 months after I started my business, I was asked to be on HGTV's show, Mission: Organization. I filmed several episodes for them, and after the shows aired, I had enough business to quit my job to focus on organizing full-time.

In mid-2014, I had lunch with someone I knew through a networking group, and she said, "Have you ever thought about organizing for families with food allergies?" I wanted to smack myself in the head because the thought never occurred to me, even though I have to organize my family's life (meals, school parties, holidays, travel, playdates etc) around food allergies every single day. In late 2014 I hosted a virtual summit with 11 other food allergy experts about the social aspects of living with food allergies, and I’ve been offering food allergy organizing services ever since. I started offering food allergy organizing services for families at the end of 2014. I work with people in person or virtually via Skype/phone.

It's very scary to find out your child is anaphylaxis to a food. What do you recommend parents do to their pantry when they first get the diagnosis?

Upon initial diagnosis, regardless of who has received a food allergy diagnosis (adult or child), it is imperative to do a thorough cleaning and evaluation of all food items, personal care products, cleaning supplies and food preparation utensils, small appliances, cookware and dishes. It can be very overwhelming, so start in the kitchen. If there is a contact or airborne allergy, then you will need to take extra precautions (such as using masks, gloves and covering surfaces with disposable plastic tablecloths) while sorting through items. The food is most likely to cause a future reaction so begin in your kitchen by sorting dry goods (canned and boxed foods). Then work in the refrigerator and freezer, and after all the food has been sorted, then move on to the small kitchen appliances, dishes, utensils etc.

What does it mean to sort food for a food allergy kitchen? First, print out a list of the allergens and allergen derivatives (for example: gluten can be classified as wheat, barley, oats, rye, in addition to hundreds of other ingredient names). Read every label on every box, even if you have multiple boxes of the same item. Occasionally, ingredients or manufacturing processes change, and the labels may differ. Toss or donate any items that include the allergen(s). If it isn't clear if the item contains the allergen and further research is needed, store those items in a large plastic storage container with a lid (that you can hide, store out of the kitchen) until you have time to research those items by calling manufacturers. If you don't have the time or patience to do that, donate those items to a food pantry or friends and create a list of questionable foods to research at a later date. Keep all SAFE foods but do not yet put them back in the pantry, fridge or freezer.

The next step, before returning items to their original storage area, is to clean all shelves, drawers, and cabinets thoroughly with a commercial grade disinfectant or a 50/50 bleach/water combination (room temperature).

I always recommend lining all shelves with PLASTIC shelf liner that can be wiped clean in case of any future spills.

Do you recommend a thorough cleaning of the house?

It's a personal decision, and you should also consult a medical professional, whether or not you choose to keep any allergens in your home after a new diagnosis. Some families choose to ban allergens from their home entirely. Others choose to keep some allergens to meet the dietary needs of other family members or because they have been advised to keep feeding those items to other family members (such as feeding your non-food allergic child milk when you have another child with a milk allergy). In our house, we keep some allergens (mostly fruits and gluten) and nut products (but only pre-packaged items to eat outside of the home). We do not keep shellfish, an airborne allergen, in our home.

Certain kitchen items, which cannot be disinfected in the dishwasher or tend to hold food proteins in cracks (such as plastic dishes or wooden utensils), should be tossed. Anything that can go in the dishwasher should be disinfected in the dishwasher, and you should carefully evaluate pots and pans and small appliances to determine if they should be replaced and/or if a duplicate item should be purchased. For example, if you have a true wheat allergy, you should not share a toaster with people who eat wheat.

Cleaning and organizing a kitchen after diagnosis can be very time-consuming, so a thorough cleaning of the house should be done as soon as possible, starting in the bedroom and bathroom used by the person with the food allergy.

**Crystal further notes, the vacuum bag should be changed or the vacuum canister should be disinfected before the thorough cleaning to prevent previously vacuumed food particles from spreading.

What advice do you have for organizing school snacks and lunches?

All Safe snacks are labeled with custom stickers in a plastic box WITH a lid in a designated area of the pantry. It's also helpful to color code any containers or utensils that are used for school snacks or lunches. Make sure to send safe snacks into school in the same way - labeled and in a labeled plastic box with a lid.

How do you start organizing with a family? Do you have bins? What is your favorite organizing supply store?

Typically, one member of the family hires me and the project largely determines whether or not I work with other family members. It is critical, when organizing for a family with food allergies, that all members of the family understand the organizing system that is set up. I initially start working with a parent, but at some point, I usually have to speak with the children (if able) and other members of the household to discuss changes made to the kitchen so that everyone can stay safe and avoid cross-contact.

If you're referring to other areas of the home, like a bedroom, I require the input of the person who owns the items in the room or uses the room the most. It's never a good idea to start sorting and organizing a system for someone without that person's input.

I don't buy storage bins until AFTER the sorting process is complete. Otherwise, you're trying to fit a system into a certain set of bins instead of establishing the most efficient system and purchasing bins or other organizing supplies to support that system. If you buy the bins first, you may end up with more clutter and a system that isn't as effective as you need it to be.

I don't have a favorite store for organizing supplies. I tend to shop at a local dollar store, Target, Wal-Mart, The Container Store or places like Bed Bath & Beyond. There are a few online sites that I frequent for specific items, but I can usually find what I need in a local store.

What advice do you give for keeping a house clutter free?

The ONLY way to keep a house clutter-free is to take the time to set up custom organization systems that are designed to support your lifestyle (work habits, personal habits, family's schedule etc). Organizing is about maintenance. It requires a daily pick-up session at the end of the day to return each item to its proper home. If you set up the "perfect" system, but fail to put items away, then the system will fail and the house or work space will become cluttered again.

If you have a house that is completely cluttered, where do you begin?

The best place to begin in a cluttered home is either the place that will have the most impact (so for a food allergy family, that would be the kitchen) or the place that causes the most pain. For example, a "pain" place might be the kitchen island, the guest bedroom, the basement....It's the place that you look at and want to scream; the place that causes fights with your spouse; the place that makes you want to cry.

I find myself saving things such as glass jars or magazines that I think I'll use or read in the future but never do. What do you recommend?

Regarding saving items you think you'll need but never do.....I actually used to hoard magazines. It was years ago, prior to becoming an organizer, but at some point, I got so sick of moving the piles that I just tossed them all in the recycling bin. I felt such relief and was supported in my decision knowing that I could find the information online. If you save various categories of things you might use one day, gradually ease out of the habit but by selecting only 1 or 2 categories to keep. Choose the category that is most likely to be put to use. Perhaps you're more likely to use the jars than you are to read the magazines. If space is an issue, what are the implication in terms of how much more you could enjoy your life if you would let go of the items you've been holding on to? If you got rid of the magazines piled in an office, would that give you more time to scrapbook or provide a place for you and your child to work on homework together?

When she’s not organizing, Crystal can be found reading, watching reality tv, daydreaming about working out (but rarely getting to the gym) or sipping iced tea (always brewed, never bottled). For more amazing organizing advice, please contact Crystal.

Crystal Sabalaske
Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, & Instagram, Google+ - cluttershrink
LinkedIn - Crystal Sabalaske

Wishing you and your family a clutter-free home,
Janet Millan
Project Allergy