Pantry Priorities: Part 1

Today you are hearing from a friend who recently tackled a pantry organization project in her home. She shares a great strategy with a few pro-tips along the way. Enjoy!

“Ready?”

I looked sideways at my housemate standing nearby in the cozy but comfortable kitchen of her 1918 home. Our other housemate had just moved out, and the anticipated task of re-organizing the pantry had arrived. Thankfully, we both were eager to have it done.

“Let’s do this.”

While re-organizing the pantry could certainly be tackled in smaller chunks, shelf by shelf, what I’m about to outline is the whole hog approach. Given the pantry’s modest size, this was deemed feasible within a 2-3 hour timespan. A perfect weekend afternoon project. Preferably with an open bottle of wine. And thus we began. Pro tip: if you’re not particularly gifted in spatial reasoning or organizing, find a friend who is, and ask them to help you with this project; their skills will be invaluable.

Clear the deck

Stand aside, Kitchen-Aid. Throw that crusty dish drying pad in the washer. Do whatever is needed to get as much space as possible to temporarily set your pantry items.  Counters, dining room table, stovetop, non-walkway parts of the floor, etc.  Get the space ready for you to set and easily see all the items in your pantry.

Containers to the rescue

Containers to help organize and categorize smaller items are helpful. Wire mesh containers can be purchased pretty cheaply at places like Dollar General, Michaels, etc. I recommend using something transparent, so that items are easily visible. Having a variety of sizes is helpful too.  Pro tip: keep the tags on so that you can return any containers you don’t use.

Empty the shelves

Just as it sounds — empty your pantry items into categories, using a separate area for each.  Basic categories are key: the goal here is put items of related use together.  If you’re a visual person, consider using sticky notes to denote each category (i.e. baking, spices, dried pasta, canned goods, etc.). Adjust as you go, changing categories to match your pantry and shopping habits. This will likely be the most time consuming part of the project. Stick with it; the reward is great!

Toss or transfer

Check the expiration date on items as you go. Recall when you last used each item.  As a general rule, if you don’t remember when you bought it, or if you haven’t used it in over a year, either toss it or put it in a box to donate or give away (if it’s not yet opened or expired).  Also ask yourself, "Does this need to be in the pantry?" In the process of clearing our pantry, my housemate and I determined that the disposable plates & utensils didn’t need to live in the pantry but could be stored in a separate bin someplace else.  Whatever is used irregularly can be considered a candidate for relocation.  Don’t use up precious pantry space with things that can easily be stored elsewhere.

Refine & review

As you toss or relocate, refine your categories as needed, or combine them. Get a sense of the relative size of each category, and plan for growth.  You may not have many cans now, but perhaps you still need to shop for non-perishables that month. Plan ahead for that space. Review your shelves with the new categories in mind.  Based on the arrangement of your space, and the frequency that you use particular items, where should that category live in your pantry? For my part, I kept the canned goods easily visible and accessible (middle shelf, straight ahead) because storing them out of sight would put them out of mind. Smaller baking items went into a little tub easily removable for whenever I bake (side note: it’s so much easier to pull out the vanilla, baking powder and baking soda all at once rather than hunt them down individually).

Pack it up, pack it in

Okay, now is the fun part! Time to give your newly organized pantry items a home. Grab your containers and begin putting things away. There may be some trial and error as you figure out what works best in your space and for your needs. Pro tip:  consider storing lesser used appliances, such as that waffle maker that makes only a monthly or quarterly appearance, in the back corners. You don’t want the corners to go unused; you just want to ensure there aren’t valuable food items wasting away back there.

Stand back and admire

Take a deep breath, do a happy dance, and feel the satisfaction of your newly organized, much-more-useful space! As you begin using it, make additional changes as needed. The space should work for you and your shopping habits.

Slow and steady

The key to maintaining the organization is having a set container or area for similar items, so that everything has a place. Maybe you’re a seasonal baker and want to keep baking items more accessible during some months than others. The containers should make this adjustment easy. And like maintaining anything, finding a rhythm of reviewing and purging is the best way to ensure the system keeps working over time.

The tips above are suggestions as you approach the “how” of pantry re-organization. But I haven’t said much about the “why.” As I reflected, I realized that the “why” would be better served in a separate post. There are legitimate reasons for putting a pantry re-org on your to-do list for this fall, and I’m eager to share some thoughts for your consideration. Until then, get your ducks in a row. Secure a project buddy and assemble some containers. Once you read the why, having these things ready will ensure you meet with as little friction as possible. The hardest part is starting!

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