EXPLAINER

How to organize your pantry — and keep it shipshape

Who knew it was as simple as a few swaps?

By Caroline Mullen

Published January 16, 2022 1:30PM (EST)

Shelf in Kitchen Pantry with Legumes (Getty Images/cemagraphics)
Shelf in Kitchen Pantry with Legumes (Getty Images/cemagraphics)

This story first appeared on Food52, an online community that gives you everything you need for a happier kitchen and home – that means tested recipes, a shop full of beautiful products, a cooking hotline, and everything in between!

As a result of my job (home writer) and my personality (perfectionist) I've done a lot of research about how to best organize every little space in my home. I've long heard the praises sung of clear containers, listened to people preach the merits of a label maker, and seen pantry organizer upon pantry organizer topple off the shelves at TJ Maxx. Suffice it to say, I feel like I've heard and seen it all — from legitimate overhauls to unrealistic hacks. It wasn't until this year, though, that I really decided to tackle the lid-flying, carton-crashing warzone that is my pantry.

For some context: when I get home from the grocery store, I'm so exhausted after lugging my tote bags from store to train to train transfer and finally, to my home, that I can't be bothered to really organize things as they go into cabinets. Know the feeling? This is where the unraveling of intention begins. Three more grocery trips, an overstock on Trader Joe's apple banana fruit crushers, and a teetering bag of rice later — it's game over. Still, being stuck at home, cooking more than I ever have, has really prompted me to reassess my pantry storage and put my own advice into action.

Take it from me, these tips for containing the clutter are the real deal. I've implemented them myself, and have had far fewer things fall on my head as a result. Some things still fall on my head though, because nobody's perfect.

(Maybe) Put everything into clear containers

This one is controversial, I know. I scoffed at this idea for so long. "Why should I spend money on clear containers when the food comes in containers?" I asked. Because, future me insists, seeing exactly everything you have in the pantry is an invaluable asset. I can't tell you how many duplicate bags of Jasmine rice I've purchased just because I couldn't easily take inventory of it before I hit the store. Cereal, rice, pasta, quinoa, couscous, oatmeal — get 'em all into clear bins! If they come with specific instructions, I cut them out of the package and tuck them inside so as not to overcook my farro.

You don't need to run out and purchase all new storage bins, either. Collect clear vessels little by little, and before you know it, a complete organizational collection will be amassed. Some ideas for repurposed clear containers: quart containers leftover from takeout, washed-out sauce jars, and plastic bins from Costco-sized snacks (yeah, I'm talking about the giant tub of peanut butter pretzels . . . you know the one). And if you've tried the clear container thing and it made you nuts? Skip it! Your pantry, your rules.

Label everything

It doesn't need to be a fancy machine-made label, I just use Scotch tape and a Sharpie, marked with the date opened and expiration date. I learned this all-important tip from my mom, who's fastidious in her labeling of pantry, fridge, and freezer items. It's easier than we like to believe to let things go past their expiration dates, especially if they're out of their original packaging. Take this extra step and save yourself the stress later.

Elevate things with wire racks 

Let's say your cabinet shelf is a foot tall, but you're leaving 8 inches of space above the jar of peanut butter . . . you can definitely be storing more efficiently. If you have yet to be introduced to shelf risers, oh man, are you in for a treat. They are the simplest addition to your pantry, but they completely transform the amount of storage available to you. By elevating one layer of items (spices, dry goods, jars of sauce, etc.) you get an entirely new level of space with which to store things. Bonus points for tiered shelving that keeps everything on display — like stadium seating for spices.

Add hooks to the inside of cabinet walls 

Take advantage of every last bit of space by adding hooks (Command or otherwise) to the inside walls of cabinets and closets. These are the perfect places to hang oven mitts, tea towels, utensils (with a hole in the handle), aprons, and mugs — in order to make room for more pantry items.

Keep all packets in one place 

Salad dressing mixes, taco seasonings, and other miscellaneous packets have a tendency to get lost in the shuffle of everything else in the pantry. Instead of losing and rebuying every packet-ed item, file them away in a recipe card box or a dedicated clear container.

Add wheels to bottom bins 

If you're working with a pantry that has space on the floor (as in, under the bottom-most shelf), it's ridiculously helpful to either get bins with wheels or add wheels to existing bins to create sliding storage. The wheeled bins slide out far easier than ones sitting on the floor getting dragged in and out, it's a total no-brainer.

Employ turntables for spices 

Just like an upscale breakfast table, but for spices in the pantry! Add turntables for spices, sauces, shakers, and more, to easily access all of them within the pantry. Now, instead of fumbling through the cinnamon and tumeric to reach the cayenne pepper, you can just spin on over to the side where it's located.

Get canned goods their own rack 

You know how satisfying it is at the grocery store when you remove one can of soup, and the next one just plops right into the empty slot? You too, can experience this feeling in your pantry, because there are racks that exist solely for this purpose. For a surplus of canned goods, a rack that holds them all on their sides seems to be the only way to go, yes? The less stacked-up, wobbling cans in the pantry, the better.

Stack bins for snacks 

Items like apple sauce pouches, bags of cheddar bunnies, and peanut butter packets exist most harmoniously in stackable bins. These kinds of open-front bins that nest on top of each other make small snacks and loose items easier to keep inventory of, as well as easier to access.

Give your spices some love 

You'll see below that a couple of our community members had differing opinions on how to organize spices. Mary says it "makes life much easier," but Carolyn says "I never wanted to alphabetize my spices because I wanted the ones that I used the most within the easiest reach (hello, oregano and smoked paprika!)." And I happen to agree . . . with both of them. While I don't have my spices alphabetically, I do have them in a drawer with some semblance of organization. I recently transferred all my spices into matching jars with adorable little labels, and they're so much easier to find than when they were in their original containers. I thought for a long time that I'd memorize what each bottle looked like and therefore never lose a spice . . . but that was simply not true.

Try an over-the-door shoe rack 

Says community member, Jerri D., "in addition to lazy Susans in several cabinets, I also use a hanging shoe rack on the inside of the utility room/pantry door . . . there are dozens of pockets for all kinds of products (i.e., pasta, lentils, dried fruits, pet treats, plastic storage bags, reusable produce bags, etc.). It saves tons of cabinet space and is surprisingly versatile!" Genius, Jerri!


Caroline Mullen

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