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How to Put Your Pantry in Order (and Stop Wasting Food)

How to Put Your Pantry in Order (and Stop Wasting Food)


I always thought my pantry was under control. I like to cook, my wife enjoys baking, and we like to think of ourselves as reasonably organized people.

But when we recently dug into the deep, dark recesses of our cabinet to make way for the additional staples that would support an extended stay at home, we were surprised by what we found: canned goods and powdered mixes that had expired years ago, old pasta boxes containing few noodles and multiple open bags of pecans, which I had bought every year for Thanksgiving, believing we had none.

When we began putting everything back, we were determined to create a more efficient pantry — and stop wasting food — by devising a system that would allow us to easily see and reach everything inside.

I asked several organization and kitchen pros for advice.

A pantry shouldn’t be a dumping ground for things you can’t figure out what to do with.

“It should feel like your tool kit,” said Amanda Hesser, a founder and the chief executive of Food52 (and former Times food editor and writer). “With that mind-set, it makes it much easier to clean it out, so you only have the stuff you really need.”

To get your pantry in order, start by making a mess. “Take everything out,” said Sharon Lowenheim, the owner of Organizing Goddess, in New York. “Once all the shelves are clear, which probably hasn’t happened since you moved in, clean them.”

While you’re doing that, she said, be on the lookout for items that have expired, or that you no longer use, and throw them away. When most of us buy groceries, we put the newest items in the front of the pantry, she said, which pushes everything else to the back, where things can disappear for years.

Once everything is out, look for products that should be grouped together. “As we pull things out, we’re putting them into categories like baking, dinner, snacks,” said Fillip Hord, who founded Horderly Professional Organizing with his wife, Jamie Hord.

The goal, he explained, is to keep items that are normally used together in proximity — pasta and tomato sauce, chips and salsa, flour and sugar — so you rarely have to go searching for things once you restock the pantry.

“The experience of using your pantry should be intuitive, graceful and easy,” said Laura Cattano, a professional organizer in New York. “You want to open one cabinet or one drawer and have everything right there.”

If your pantry is overstuffed, and you know it will be difficult to fit everything back inside, look for things that could be moved elsewhere, Ms. Cattano suggested.

Snacks, coffee and tea are good candidates for being moved to another cabinet. And if you’re using the pantry to store pots and pans, move them out, too.

“There’s wall space,” Ms. Cattano said. “Getting a pot rack can clear up a lot of space in a cabinet.”

Most kitchen cabinets have adjustable shelves, but few people bother to rearrange them.

“When you move into a place, often the shelves are about a foot apart,” Ms. Hesser said, which can lead to wasted vertical space. “When canned goods are all on the same shelf, it only needs, say, six inches between it and the next shelf.”

By adjusting the space between shelves to fit your cans and containers, she said, “You can really maximize the space that you have.”

If there’s enough room, you might even be able to squeeze in an extra shelf or two. Or you could add a wire cabinet shelf with legs — sometimes called a helper shelf — to create an additional, elevated level on top of an existing shelf.

Ideally, you should avoid stacking products on top of each other. “Once you start stacking stuff, things are immediately hard to get to and teetering on top of each other,” Ms. Hesser said. “Yes, you may feel like you’re packing more into your pantry, but you’re also creating an obstacle.”

When putting products back into the pantry, try to keep the items you use for everyday cooking the most accessible, by positioning them at eye level.

“That’s prime real estate,” Ms. Hord said, and an ideal place for things like oils and vinegars. By comparison, she continued, “Baking can usually live up high,” because most people bake infrequently.

If you have children, consider placing their snacks near the bottom of the panty, she said, so they can help themselves.

A few carefully chosen accessories can help ensure you’ll never lose anything in the back of the pantry again. Professional organizers often use clear plastic bins or wire baskets that match the depth of pantry shelves.

“Sometimes grains, pasta and rice come in bags that are impossible to stand up,” Ms. Lowenheim said. Bins can reduce frustration by keeping such items upright while also preventing them from spilling out when you open the pantry doors.

Bins function like drawers, she said, because they can easily be pulled out to reach products that would otherwise be stuck in the back.

Ms. Lowenheim and the Hords frequently use iDesign Linus bins from the Container Store, while Ms. Cattano recommended Elfa Mesh drawers. There are also built-in alternatives with slides that get fastened to a shelf, like Simplehuman’s pullout cabinet organizers.

Lazy Susans can also help keep smaller jars easily accessible, Mr. Hord said, and make the most of awkward cabinet corners.

One of the big debates in organizing circles is whether it makes sense to invest in matching storage containers for dry goods.

Ms. Hesser took the plunge late last year, overhauling her pantry with matching Mepal Modula storage containers. “When I open my pantry now, it is just a complete pleasure,” she said.

While the resulting look can be satisfying, the Hords cautioned that it’s only worth buying containers if you know you can keep up with refilling them over time. “If you’re not going to stay on top of it, it just turns into excess bins,” Mr. Hord said, which creates more clutter.

Ms. Lowenheim recommended finding a middle ground: If you have large packages of cereal or oats that are mostly empty, she said, transfer the contents to a few containers to free up pantry space.

Once everything is in place, “labeling is the last — and most important — step,” said Ms. Hord, who likes to use a label maker for the job.

Ms. Hesser prefers simpler tools: wet-erase markers to write directly on plastic containers and Sharpies to write on masking tape.

Whichever tools you choose, labeling containers and shelves “makes it so much easier to find everything,” Ms. Hesser said.

But perhaps more crucial, labels help preserve all your hard work.

After you’ve finished cooking a meal, Mr. Hord said, “it’s how you know where to put things back.”

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