Family recipes are at the heart of the holiday season, and it’s always a wonderful feeling to pull out recipe cards written in your grandmother’s cursive, but paper is fragile and easily damaged. Aging recipe cards have been bent and held and stained and handled for years and as you come across your family recipe collection this holiday season, we’re glad you’re taking a moment to consider a preservation project that is sure to be fun and rewarding.

In this series of posts, we’ll cover:

  • Organizing family recipe cards
  • Sorting and selecting your favorite recipes
  • Adding photos, quotes & stories
  • Recreating family recipes & DIY food photography
  • Digitizing family photos & recipe cards
  • How to design & build the perfect family cookbook
  • The best cookbook printers we know
  • Advanced DIY cookbook creation
  • Downloadable cookbook templates, graphics & custom recipe cards

An Heirloom Cookbook like the one below is treasured by families. As you spend time with your family over the Thanksgiving weekend, and dinner is still fresh on everyone’s minds, organizing and selecting their favorites from grandma’s old recipe cards will be an exciting project to accomplish.

a finished family recipes cookbook

How to Organize Your Recipe Cards

The inspiration for this series and the Heirloom Cookbook featured in this post was a wooden recipe card box that sat in my grandmother’s kitchen for as long as I can remember. They were chock-full of everything from handwritten cards from my mother and Nanny, even my great-aunt, as well as magazine clippings and typewritten recipe cards.

Pulling out my family’s favorites from these recipe boxes and cards was tough, but my approach will help you sort through your own collection.

organizing recipe cards in kitchen

1. The Three Pile Method for Organizing

Most of the family recipe collections we’ve seen have been lovingly stored, but also well-used. If you’re lucky, they’re already somewhat sorted by course or category – maybe in a binder or recipe box. Others may just be in a jumble of disorganized cards stuffed into a box.

If you’re unsure of where to start, we recommend the beginning — breakfast! If the recipe cards are already a little organized, go through them one-by-one starting with breakfast. If there’s no organization at all, start anywhere in the cards you want and begin making your ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ and ‘maybe’ piles. Just grab a batch of them and go.

2. Trust Your Gut
When Sorting Recipe Cards

This tip will help you sort quickly. If you pay attention to how you feel, you’ll know the best recipes the moment you see them. Any recipe that doesn’t immediately trigger a memory, or obviously does not belong, put in the ‘maybe’ pile – you’ll sort that again at the end. Once you’ve decided on all of the awesome family recipes you’d like to include, then you can sort them into categories or courses like ‘breakfast.’

Things you might put in the ‘Yes’ pile:

  • Any recipes you have distinct positive memories of
  • Known family favorites
  • Traditional recipes enjoyed during your major holidays or family events

handwritten blueberry pie recipe

For the ‘No’ pile, here are some questions we recommend asking yourself when considering whether or not to keep something:

  • Have you ever seen this recipe?
  • How likely are you to make it yourself?
  • Is it something everyone would enjoy eating, or is it a vintage jello mold?
  • Is the card itself in good shape, is it legible?

family photo for cookbookMy favorite cards were the ones written in my grandmother’s (Nanny) or mom’s handwriting. Nanny’s was a very distinctive, vintage-like script cursive and my mom’s was much more rounded and modern. Most of the handwritten cards went into the ‘yes’ pile, but I am guilty of populating the ‘maybe’ pile with a number of handwritten cards because they were hard to imagine not needing.

I immediately threw away anything clipped from a magazine after reading what it was. Any recipe that had been in print, I could probably find on Pinterest, and I didn’t see anything she’d ever made for me.

Being too sentimental is what will make your ‘Maybe’ pile unmanageable:

  • Sort the ‘maybe’ pile again after you have three complete piles.
  • A full sense of what’s in your ‘yes’ and ‘no’ piles will make it easier to pare down the ‘maybe’ recipes you don’t need.
  • If you’re still having trouble consolidating the ‘maybe’ pile, sort your ‘yes’ pile into food categories and see what’s lacking. You may realize you have 50 desserts and only 5 appetizers.

3. Keep Your Cookbook Goals in Mind

cover of heirloom book

After you’ve de-cluttered the bulk of your family recipe card collection and you still have way more than you expected, it’s time to set goals. I knew in the very beginning what I wanted to do with my recipes, but that doesn’t mean you need a clear vision from the start. I’ve outlined basic goals you can consider for your own project, and your ideas will grow as you continue sorting!

1. Basic Recipe Card Organization

Consolidating a formerly unwieldy collection of notecards, clippings and handwritten notes into an organized and segmented assortment of recipes your family knows and loves is a project in and of itself. If you’re not planning to create a cookbook or family keepsake, you should still consider this task a job well done and be sure to store those recipe cards in a cool, dry place for use in future projects or when you’re ready to digitize. You can reference our post on for tips on keeping documents like recipe cards safe before digitizing.

2. Creating a ready-to-use family recipe cookbook

If you want to make a book so everyone can share the recipes you’ve sorted, there a number of simple solutions for creating a cookbook they can get dirty and make the most of that won’t cost a fortune.

For this kind of project, your recipe card sorting & organization may include subcategories within your main categories. For example, if you have a limited number of entrees, you can keep them together in one category, but you may expand your dessert category into Pies, Cakes, Cookies and more. It depends on what your family likes to eat!

family recipe

3. Heirloom Cookbooks & Photobooks to treasure

When you want your family recipe book to convey your family history, we call that an Heirloom Cookbook. A cookbook and photo book hybrid, these books include more than just recipes – and they’re priceless.

If you are thinking of doing an heirloom book, take time this holiday weekend to work with family to collect a few things beyond recipe cards:

  • Family recipe cards
  • Old family photos
  • Photos of the recipes
  • Quotes from family members
  • Stories & contributed recipes
  • Or whatever else you want!

inside spread of heirloom book

We’ve seen more and more of these projects since the first heirloom cookbook we made, and you can see that cookbook here. You could get them dirty, but you probably wouldn’t want to! If you’re not quite ready to start designing your cookbook, but you’ve come this far in your recipe organizing, take a cue from The Crazy Craft Lady and consider framing some of your favorite recipes.

We hope you’ve decided on making a cookbook for family to tell your story through recipe cards and photos. If you’re considering making a recipe book as a gift, there’s still time! We’ve covered organizing, sorting and selecting your favorite family recipes. Here’s what we’ll cover in our next posts:

  • Adding photos, quotes & stories
  • Recreating family recipes & DIY food photography
  • Digitizing family photos & recipe cards
  • How to design & build the perfect family cookbook
  • The best cookbook printers we know
  • Advanced DIY cookbook creation
  • Downloadable cookbook templates, graphics & recipe cards for your personalized recipe book

Read our next post Create Heirloom Cookbook from Old Family Recipes | Part Two here!

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