Reclaim your cluttered table: how to take back the space you need for pretty tables and family meals

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Clutter-free dining table

Soooo… maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but when I first became inspired by beautiful table settings and longed to try my hand at creating them, the one thing holding me back wasn’t a lack of ideas or even a lack of dinnerware to play around with. Nope – I had plenty of those things. What was holding me back?

It was our cluttered table. Which was, quite frankly, almost always a mess – an embarrassment – and had been for a long time.

When my daughter was little we ate at home more often, but as she got older and as my husband’s home-based business grew and overtook more of our living space, we ate dinner out more and more. The table became a dumping ground for nearly every object brought into the house, whether it was mail, a new electronic device, paperwork for the business… or just anything.

In short, that dining table was so stacked and cluttered with other stuff that there was no room to enjoy a sit-down family dinner even if we took time to do so! And a cluttered table – one that needs reclaiming – doesn’t just happen to families. It can happen to any of us for a variety of reasons:

We let our mail accumulate
We use our table as an office, crafting area, or general “catch-all” for items coming into the home.
We don’t take recently-used dishes to the kitchen.
We don’t immediately throw away trash.

These issues can certainly be compounded when multiple people live together, but a cluttered table can become an unmanageable space even for an individual who lives alone.

When we did eat at home we would do a basic sweep to de-clutter enough to make room for our plates and drinkware. Only rarely did we completely clean off the table and fully set it.

But there were times over the years – phases – when we actually did try to do better. And in those moments, the solution was just so incredibly simple that I couldn’t believe we weren’t better at implementing it:

Don’t let stuff accumulate.

Easier said than done, of course, but it can be done! I’m no expert in home organization and have never claimed to be one. But here are the steps that worked for us – and yes, it was an ongoing battle.

De-Clutter, then Maintain

The first task is to deal with any clutter that’s already accumulated. The second task is to maintain!

To declutter, break the project down into small chunks. Reward yourself as you complete each step! (Did I ever let the table accumulate junk so I could reward myself with chocolate upon completing each decluttering step? I’m not saying…)

Tip: get a few boxes or bins to be used for temporarily stashing items that need to be sorted. Remember, sorting comes later! This step is just to get the items off the table. I always seemed to need three of these temporary bins – one for mail, one for school and business papers, and one for small objects like electronics, prescription bottles, etc.

Amazingly, clearing the table never really took that long – probably around 20 minutes if I was determined and focused. To clear the table, I would make multiple passes around it, clearing one category at a time.

1. First trip around is to gather up and throw away all obvious trash: packaging, paper napkins, etc. Tip: pay attention to what you’re doing, and be careful not to throw away important items. I once threw away my husband’s wallet, and another time our tax refund check. Oops!

2. The next trip around is to collect all dirty dishes and take them to the kitchen. You do not have to be distracted by doing the dishes yet – just set them near the sink or dishwasher and plan to deal with them later.

3. Next, gather up anything that counts as mail, whether or not it’s opened. Put the mail in a bin or box to be sorted later.

4. Gather into another bin or box any school or work papers that need to be handled.

5. Gather up small objects: phone chargers, hats, scissors, prescription bottles… put all this stuff into a separate bin to be sorted.

Once you have made enough rounds to clear each category, you should be able to see your table! Be sure to give it a good wipe-down, and stake your claim by putting down a nice runner or central placemat with a centerpiece of some kind. Something that says, “this space is now for dining.”

If anyone in your family keeps their laptop computer permanently plugged in and sitting on the table (ahem, my ex-husband), but you want to keep your table available for mealtime, you have a couple options:

Arrange the dining space so there is a piece of furniture near their seat where they can move the computer off the table before meal time.

Or –

Set up a separate desk or work station for them elsewhere.

Unless you have a dedicated formal dining room, you’re likely going to have to allow that some activities other than dining may take place at the table. The idea is to try to establish that the table’s primary purpose is for eating, and as such, should be kept available – or at least easily clearable – for this purpose.

Next up is sorting. This involves going through each temporary bin and dealing with each item in the bins. We had permanent storage boxes for completed schoolwork and paid bills, assigned shelving for daily prescriptions, etc. – and the goal of sorting is to have a place for everything and take the time to put everything in its place. This can take some time as you go through things – but remember, unless you live alone or are the only person in the home who is able to do this, it shouldn’t all fall on YOU to get it done.

All of this clearing and sorting leads us to the second step in reclaiming the table: maintaining!

To maintain:

Here are a few tips for maintaining your dedicated dining space.

1. Set aside time daily to keep the table clear. If all family members are involved in this process, clearing their own items, it should only take a few minutes.

2. Actually clear the clutter from the table – don’t just push it aside. Stack it elsewhere temporarily if you have to, but clear the table for the meal. This simple step in and of itself – if you haven’t been doing it regularly – creates visual (and therefore mental) “rest.”

3. Have an actual drop station (not the dining table) for items to be set down when you walk in the door.

4. Put things away immediately as they come into the house. (This was the hardest one for us.)

Why bother?

Why is all this important? Well, for our purposes on this blog where we encourage setting pretty tables, it’s impossible to set a nice table for the enjoyment of a meal if the table is not available. That seems fairly obvious. But apart from that, there are a few other reasons to reclaim the table.

It reduces stress. It’s mentally exhausting to look at, walk past, and worry about a table that’s filled with stuff that doesn’t belong there.

It helps establish “meal time.” We’ll talk about the importance of family meal time in a moment. But first, let’s acknowledge that meal time is important for everyone, even those of us who live alone. It affects our mood, health, and mental health when we take time to give proper attention to the food we eat and the manner in which we eat it.

And what happens when the table is not usable for its intended purpose? Well, if you’re like me, a few things can happen:
1. You eat more fast food.
2. You get stressed every time you see the mess.
3. You get a little more paralyzed, unable to take corrective action, as the clutter increases.
4. Eventually, you don’t tackle the project at all because it’s just too big. It becomes not only a source of stress, but also unpleasant as a place to eat, because you’re always eating in the midst of unwanted clutter, pushing back papers or moving aside a computer to make room for a plate and drinking glass. This takes a toll on your mental (and sometimes physical) health.

When you add in a spouse, partner, and/or children, it just means more people are probably contributing to the problem. And, family activities often cut in to meal times making it even harder to gather around the table.

The thing is, there is a lot of research out there pointing to the many benefits of families gathering for meals around the table. Regularly enjoying a meal together results in healthier, happier, and better-adjusted individuals and families. I’m certainly not alone – or even original – in thinking family mealtime deserves to make a comeback. But even for an individual living alone, creating a stress-free area in which to enjoy meals can make a difference.

I’m sure the last thing any of us needs is to make another “resolution” – we’re all quite absorbed already with vows to lose weight, get organized, improve our finances, etc. So let’s not resolve – let’s just act! Take 20 minutes to de-clutter and clear the dining table today, and claim the space for dining by setting out a centerpiece.

I’ll go first!

Here’s an image to Pin if you need to check back for fresh motivation!

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