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How To Organize Your Pantry so it Actually Makes Sense

Spring has finally sprung! The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and the golf course is packed again. As we say good riddance to the winter chill and look forward to car rides with the windows down, the arrival of spring ushers in the dreaded (but usually desperately needed) spring cleaning. A great place to start your cleaning day is in one of the most used but often overlooked spaces in your home, the kitchen pantry.

We spoke with a Chicago-based certified professional organizer and accredited staging professional, Elisabeth Shake of Yourganized, to give us the best tips and trips for organizing your pantry. And if you don’t have a pantry and instead use cupboards, you will still benefit from this organizational guide, tips, and tricks.

pantry stacked up on black wooden shelves.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

What Is a Pantry?

A pantry is typically a room or closet-type area where you store food, beverages, and even excess dishes or small appliances. In a restaurant, they have dry storage shelving units, walk-in refrigerators, and a section for most of their appliances. Think of your area as a small restaurant kitchen.

The organization of your pantry will help you keep track of your grocery items, and it will also help with meal preparation.

First: Clean the Pantry

First things first. Take all of your pantry items out and place them somewhere out of the way, like the counters and tables. Grab your favorite household cleaner and some paper towels, and start cleaning the shelves. After the shelves are clean, sweep or vacuum the pantry floor.

After everything is cleaned, you can lay down a shelf liner. The shelf liner will help protect the shelves from moisture and stains. It will also help future cleanup of dirt, crumbs, and spills.

wooden-designed pantry.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Organize and Categorize Your Pantry

One of the best ways to stay organized is by separating your pantry into easy categories. Ideally, you will have a shelf unit for each category. If space doesn’t permit you to have a separation between shelves, you can create dividers for each section.

The purpose of separating is so that spills won’t ruin your other food. For example, if you store your oils and vinegar above the herbs, spices, and dry goods, they could spill and drip onto them.

  • Herbs and Spices: The easiest place to start organizing is with the herbs and spices. Place the spices and herbs you use the most in the front, and the lesser-used items can go in the back. To make things better, grab a foldable spice rack shelf. These can be made to fit any spot, and the tiered shelving helps with different-sized bottles and jars.
  • Dry Goods: Every kitchen should have the basic staples of flour, sugar, bread, and cereal. You should also have rice, beans, and pasta. Sure, there are other dry good items, but you get the idea.
  • Canned Goods: Canned goods are great for those last-minute meal decisions. This is where you will store your canned fruits, peanut butter, jams, vegetables, and sauces.
  • Beverages: Sometimes, you will need to store excess soda, beer, or sparkling water because they won’t all fit in the refrigerator. If space is limited, you can squeeze these in with the canned goods.
  • Opened Bottles: Opened bottles are separate from everything else because you typically open these bottles and use them repeatedly over time. They have a tendency to leak, spill, or drip. You will want to place all of your olive oils, vinegar, and syrups here. And yes, you can keep your soy sauce here. It doesn’t need to be refrigerated unless you don’t use it all in a year.
  • Miscellaneous: Just like that kitchen junk drawer, you will have some items that don’t go with other categories. Potatoes, onions, and garlic like to be kept in the dark. You can put them in a bin on the floor of the pantry, but make sure to keep the potatoes away from the garlic and onions.

“I always ask my client if those categories make sense. For example, one person might like to have a breakfast shelf that might include both cereal and granola bars, where another person might put granola bars with snacks. Knowing what your groupings are and how much of each you have then allows you to select the right location to store those items as you move forward in your organizing project,” Shake said.

spices in containers.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Use Storage Bins and Containers

A great way to keep your dry goods from going stale is to purchase food storage bins. They come in all shapes and sizes and for all purposes. Airtight containers are great for cereal, pasta, and sugar. They will work great for flour, rice, and beans, too.

“While you can have an organized system with no special equipment, there are some items that will make keeping things in place easier. For example, I like to use clear bins to group things like boxes of pasta or crackers together and Lazy Susans for sauces or oils and vinegars,” said Shake.

Make sure you also label your bins and containers, so you know what is what. Trust me -- you don’t want to grab some salt thinking it’s sugar and dump it into your coffee. When you label, you should put the name of the ingredient as well as the date you purchased it, so you know how long it’s been sitting around.

Tips and Tricks for Organizing Your Pantry

  1. Since you have organized your pantry, you will want to use the “First In, First Out” rule. Older items to the front, newer items to the back. This ensures that the food cycles in and out appropriately.
  2. Shake also said, “Decant single-serve items into a bin...nothing like seeing a big box on the shelf (which takes up more room than is needed as soon as you open it) and finding just one...or worse, none in the box.
  3. “Another thing I often find in kitchens and pantries is a lot of plastic grocery bags taking up space. Grocery stores have a bin to recycle these bags, so take them with you on your next trip to the store and reclaim some space in your pantry.”

Why Should You Organize Your Pantry?

“A well-organized kitchen and pantry allow you to know where things are, what you have, and how much you have. Frequently, when I start working in a pantry that does not have an organizational system in place, I find duplicates of items as well as stale and expired items. Usually, my client will say they did not have any idea that item was there because they couldn't see it and there was no system in place,” Shake said.

Just remember that this is an ongoing process. Once you take the time to organize your space, it will take a bit of work to keep it up and refresh items as necessary. It’s well worth the effort.

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John Maher
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