An organized pantry makes meal prepping and kitchen inventory SO much more efficient and more joyful. It’s also is a HUGE money saver by cutting down on food waste, and allows us to stock things that align with your own health goals.
What belongs in the Pantry
The pantry is the place for all non-perishable food items, such as…
- Dry beans & legumes
- Canned & bottled items (olive oil, tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, honey, coconut milk, etc.)
- Snack/school lunch items
- Breakfast items (dry oatmeal, cereal, etc.)
- Grains, flours, and baking items
- Some produce (onions, potatoes)
- Dry Herbs & Spices (or organize these in your spice cabinet)
Depending on the size of your pantry, it may also be a storage place for…
- Cookware & Bakeware (pots, pans, lids, baking dishes, etc.)
- Small kitchen appliances (Instant Pot, microwave oven, etc.)
- Serving pieces (platters, plates, bowls, etc.)
Keep in mind that many items can be stored in the Pantry when they are unopened, but as soon as they’re opened, they retain the most freshness in the fridge or freezer.
Step 1: Survey
First things first– open your pantry door and start by looking at the big picture. Is it overcrowded? Or maybe you could fit more and clear out another cluttered space in your kitchen?
Answering this simple question will dictate if you are on “Mission: Clear Out”, or “Mission: Make Room for More”.
Depending on your answer, you may either:
1.) move things out of your pantry that never belonged there in the first place (I’m looking at you, random plastic grocery bags) OR
2.) Look around your kitchen to see what other areas are overcrowded that you may be able to organize into the pantry (ie declutter countertops, small appliances or cookware in other cabinets, etc.).
Step 2: Group
Start by grouping things together that go together based on the categories above. Canned & Bottled in one section, Fats/Oils in another, etc. (No need to be fancy– just clump them together for now.)
Now is also the time to decide which groupings work best for you. If you have a lot of breakfast items, it may make sense to have a group exclusively for breakfast items that you could pull out quickly in the morning.
My personal fav is to group items by where they’re found in the grocery store. This makes doing your monthly inventory much easier! (See my Clean Foods Kitchen Inventory sheet on how I have grouped our pantry)
As you group items together, label each with the category name by writing it on sticky note (don’t worry about how it looks for now).
Step 3: Declutter
For this step, gather 3 things: a Garbage can, a Donation box, and a pen/paper.
After Step 2, you may be realizing you have 20 cans of black beans, or that the bag of walnuts expired in 1998. Let’s take care of that.
Trash or Donate
Go through each group–1 at a time– and decide if you are trashing or donating:
Trash: Expired items
Donate: This is the time to purge any foods that don’t align with your current health goals. If it’s not serving you, donate it to your local food pantry or church to serve someone else.
As you are doing this step–compile a grocery list of healthier switches. For example, as you toss the Taco seasoning packet, write on your list to buy dry herbs and spices and make a healthier homemade taco seasoning blend.
You don’t have to trash and switch these things out all at once, but making a list now will help you remember to be intentional about moving in the right direction. I suggest choosing 1 category at a time to focus on making healthy switches, as this is most sustainable.
Unbox when necessary
With the remaining items in your pantry, anything that can reasonably be taken out of it’s original box/packaging should be. This cuts down on recurring clutter and allows you to clearly see when you need to buy more after doing inventory of your pantry. These things include…
- Individually packaged items— such as granola bars, oatmeal packets, etc. should be taken out of the larger box.
- Oils— To save money, I buy a large container of Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Costco, but I don’t want this lug in my pantry. So, I pour some oils into dark oil jars and store the refill container in another area.
- Baking ingredients— Bags of flour or flimsy bags in general can make a huge mess. Finding containers for things like flour, baking soda, chocolate chips, oats, etc. will make a pantry stay clean and pretty.
- Bulk Items— anything you buy in bulk that doesn’t reasonably fit on a shelf should be repurposed in a different container. My rule of thumb is that the things that deserve a primary place in my pantry are those that we’ll use in 1-2 months time. The rest goes into another storage area.
Notes: If things aren’t individually packaged, make sure to use ALL of the thing up before refilling the container (oils, flours, etc.). This will ensure the old stuff isn’t always getting left at the bottom of the container and going bad.
Step 4: Clean & Contain
Let me say that the goal here isn’t necessarily a Pinterest-worthy pantry. Finding containers for your items could be as simple as finding old baskets or even shoeboxes from around the house and labeling them. 2 key things to keep in mind:
1.) The goal is you want to be able to SEE and ACCESS everything very easily. Gone are the days of random half-eaten bags of things getting shoved to the back only to be wasted.
2.) To maximize your pantry space, I suggest measuring the dimensions of certain shelves to see which containers to get. The goal is to use every square inch of that pantry, and containers that aren’t deep enough can waste too much space in the back.
How to Contain Your Groups
When choosing containers, its key to consider your space. If your pantry shelves are adjustable, you can utilize vertical space and opt for some taller containers, whereas shorter shelves may require shorter/wider containers.
Now is a good time to decide what you want shelved together and how high each shelf needs to be to fit your container of choice.
Here are some containers I have found to work best for each category:
Dry beans & legumes
The cheapest place to buy dry beans & legumes is in the bulk bins of the grocery store which I pour into our wide-mouth glass mason jars or plastic deli containers. I use these 1-piece mason jar lids to make it less cluttered.
If I buy them in the smaller bags, I just leave them in there and put them in our “beans & legumes” bin.
I have found turntables to be the easiest way to access all bottles items these. For larger items like oils, vinegar, etc., I use a large 16” turntable. A small turntable may be best for smaller items like unopened condiments, sauces, and dressings depending on how many you have and what fits best in your space. If you have a taller pantry shelf, this 2-tiered turntable would be awesome!
Since I buy things like Olive Oil in bulk from Costco, I transfer it into a dark Olive oil bottle. The dark-colored bottle keeps oils fresh, and is a more reasonable size to handle when cooking.
Depending on how many canned items you have, a large turntable can work for about 8-10 cans. Since we have more cans, we have loved our can rack, which is stackable if you have lots of vertical or floor space (each rack hold 36 regular size cans).
Another nice feature is that you can adjust the sections to make room for larger cans. To take it a step further, you can organize each row by things like canned veggies, nut butters, coconut milk, canned fish, etc. –whatever you have!
Keeping kids snacks all in one section is a MUST. This makes packing school lunches easier, and allows them to get their 100th requested snack of the day for themselves 😉
I suggest putting this in a place that they can reach easily–a bottom shelf or even on the floor. This may mean that some ground rules need to be set as to when it’s OK to grab a snack. (I should mention that we separate ‘treats’ and ‘snacks’. Our ‘treats’ are not within reach.)
If you have floor space, you could use a clear plastic bin or basket from any store. These clear containers are the ones that we use.
Grains, flours, and baking items
This is a section that it can be easy to get lost in! I recommend putting your most frequently-used items in their own containers (ie flours, sugars, etc.).
Then, to make these containers both accessible and visible, put them on a large turntable or on an expandable riser.
Note: I have stored all of our less healthy white flour, white sugar, etc. in their own separate containers, but they live in our downstairs storage pantry. They’re out-of-sight out-of-mind, but easy access for chocolate chip cookie cravings ;).
Here are some details on how to choose containers for what you have:
Plastic Pantry Containers
Plastic pantry containers should have an airtight seal, be stackable, be made of BPA-free plastic, and have a larger wide-mouth openings so you can fill & scoop out ingredients easily and wash well!
Ask yourself if you have more horizontal or vertical space in your pantry, as this will help decide if you want taller/thin or short/wide containers.
Containers with side-clips tend to be less expensive, while fancy ‘pop-top’ containers will be more expensive– so you decide how much you want to spend for pantry beauty 🙂
- 5.2 Liter: bulk items– holds 10 lb bags of Flour, oats, sugar, etc.
- 4 quart or 3.5 L: fits 5 lbs bags of flour, oats, sugar, etc.
- 2.4 quart: rice, dry beans, etc. (taller version)
- 1.5 quart: cocoa powder, baking soda, smoothie ingredients, etc.
- Clear bins: Holds smaller bags of items that I don’t want a separate container for—small bags of chocolate chips, random flours, sugar substitutes, etc.
(You may also be able to find these for a good price at TJMaxx, Home Goods, etc., especially if you don’t mind them all matching.)
If you prefer glass, these air-tight jars are great. I love that they’re square and fit better in a pantry. The only thing I don’t love is that the mouth of the jar is smaller, so you’ll have to measure in 1/2 cup increments. As for sizing, I have separated items in the following jars:
- Large (2-liter): Flours, oats, and things you use a lot of
- Medium (25 oz): sugars, coconut flakes, etc.
- Small (17.5 oz): cocoa powder, baking soda
Dry Herbs & Spices
Most of us have a spice cabinet of some kind, but since I buy most of my spices at Thrive Market, I like to store the little baggies in a plastic container in the top of our pantry.
This makes for easy access when spice jars need to be refilled or homemade spice blends need to be made!
See How to Organize Your Spice Cabinet for more details (coming soon)!
Certain veggies, such as onions and potatoes, are best stored at room temperature, and the pantry is the perfect place. To prevent mold, store them in a small basket with holes to let them ‘breath’.
I store onions in their own basket (on the bottom shelf) so everything doesn’t taste end up with an onion taste. Sweet potatoes, white potatoes, etc. go in the other basket!
Nuts, Seeds & Nut-Butters
If you noticed nuts & seeds aren’t on here…you’re right!
I used to store all of these in the pantry, but found that they went rancid quickly. Unfortunately, once nuts & seeds go rancid, the benefits of healthy fats are no longer available (and may even be harmful!).
To prevent nuts, seeds and nut/seed butter from going rancid, they are best stored in the refrigerator/freezer. We use these large and small deli containers to store nuts & seeds.
Read more about storage of nuts/seeds in this article.
Cookware & Bakeware
After organizing, our once over-crowded pantry had lots of open space, so we moved our pots and pans over! Yeehaww!
We decided to declutter some other spaces and move our pots & pans, and some small kitchen appliances into our pantry.
This rack for pans can be used vertically or horizontally and is great for de-cluttering the pan situation.
To store lids, we secured magnetic strips to the walls. You’ll want to measure your space, and see which size you have room for– we pieced together the 16-inch strip and the 10-inch strip. For larger lids–you will likely need 2 strips–one at the top and one at the bottom. Just make sure your lids are magnetic (aluminum lids are not magnetic)!
Note: I tried to secure these with heavy-duty mounting tape and they fell, so ended up using the small screws provided in the kits)
If you want to get cute with labeling, you have a few options…
- Buy glass jars with a chalkboard surface already on them–these are dishwasher safe and most durable of the options. Use a regular chalkboard pen, and erase & change anytime!
- Self-adhesive chalkboard labels and chalk pen.
- Waterproof stickers or Vinyl labels which you could find on Etsy!
- Masking Tape–the least cute, but most budget friendly…and easy to change!
Step 5: Maintain
The key to an organized & functional pantry is keeping it that way 🙂 Here’s how:
Create a back-stock space
Choose a place in your basement, garage, etc. that you can keep some extra shelf space. We use a metal shelf unit (bought ours at Costco) to store bulk items, food and cookware/bakeware (so they don’t take up space in our main pantry).
A few extra accessories to keep this space functional:
- These shelf liners make this space easy to clean and prevent small items from falling through.
- Hanging bags, brooms, clipboards (for inventory), etc. on these wire shelf hooks helps to maximize space.
- Labeling is key– Shelf label holders and labels can be easily moved around as organization needs change.
After you unload the groceries, unbox and remove larger packaging from items and put them in their place. Use the FIFO (first-in, first-out) Method by putting the newest stuff in the back and don’t refill flour, sugar, etc. until the container is completely empty.
As I mentioned in this article, I consider this part of my “meal prep”, because functional organization makes cooking so much easier.
Any bulk items or things that can’t fit can go into your back-stock space!
If your pantry is overcrowded, try limiting variety of what you buy. If you have 6 kinds of chips, encourage your family to choose 1 or 2 each week and not open another bag until the others are finished. This will also cut down food waste and save money too!
Every 3 or so months, evaluate how the organization is working for your kitchen with the following questions:
- Is it easy to access everything? Do I regularly have to dig for any certain items?
- Is it easy to keep organized?
- Do we need more space allotted to a certain group? (ie less turntables and more space for can storage)
- Are you maximizing all potential space, and could anything else fit? (cabinet doors, height of shelves, etc.)
This is a great time to change things around to serve the ever-changing needs of your family at that time (this is also a great time to clean shelves with a damp towel).
See more Keys to Maintaining a Clean Kitchen (coming soon!)
Now it’s time to step back and admire!! Then hug yourself…because meal prep is about to be so much easier!
Comment below your best pantry-organization tools & tips…I’d love to hear!
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