We’ve all moved into a new place, and have been so consumed with countless other required tasks that all the food just gets thrown in the pantry. Every time you walk in there, you think to yourself, “I thought I bought two packages of rice… I have one. Where’s the other one…?” Or, “I should really organize this soon…” but you never do. Or if you do, it gets messy overnight and you figure it’s not worth reorganizing again.
What’s the solution? Zones. Categories. Themes. Sections. Groups. Whatever you want to call it.
The key to organizing your pantry is dividing the food into groups or kinds that make sense together. That way, when you buy something new, you know exactly where it should belong.
For example, if you had a loaf of bread that had five slices left, it’s time to buy new bread. When you buy the new bread, it doesn’t get put with the chicken in the freezer, it gets put with other bread. The cereal gets put with the cereal, candy with candy, fruit with fruit, etc.
Sounds easy until you look at your pantry, right? Let’s go through this step by step.
Here’s a before picture of my pantry so we can see what we’re actually working with.
Not very pretty to look at. Trust me, I know. However, you can already start to see common themes. Bulk items are with bulk items, vitamins with vitamins, sugar and flour, cereal, etc, but it’s all in a mismatch sort of way.
I already had a few canisters working for me, and I had a few that hadn’t been opened yet. If you don’t have food canisters, I’d recommend this canister set, or this canister set, and these cereal containers. If these seem a little pricey to you, let me just say that while we don’t believe in buying the most expensive items, we believe that buying quality is better than a buying as cheap as possible, especially when it comes to food and storage. Buy a quality (and lowest cost possible) item once, and then you’ll never have to buy it again because it will last.
I then laid out all the canisters I had available and took inventory (mostly by looking over my items [I have a very visual memory.. some may prefer to write things down]) of the pantry items. Sometimes it’s helpful to take everything off the shelves and lay it on the floor. Next, I matched up which items I wanted to put in each canister. This can take a bit of practice, so it’s okay to pour food into a canister and realize that it won’t fit. Just find a slightly bigger one and use that. For example, I use a lot of flaked coconut. I thought it would fit in a smaller container that it actually did. I got one bag into the jar just fine, but the second definitely did not fit. I had to use a bigger jar that I was planning on using for my lentils. Fortunately, the lentils fit perfectly in the smaller jar.
I like to put my bulk items, like rice, quinoa, beans, flour, or sugar, in the largest containers. I try to only put items in containers that I know I (and my family) will use, and that I’ll continue to buy more of. This way, no empty containers end up on your shelf.
One tip here is to give the jars a firm tap to help the food settle and provide more room. I did this by giving my jars a firm (but gentle!) tapping on the ground. You can usually get at least another half-inch of room by doing this, depending upon the food.
For example, I used to like to keep one of the jars for Oreos or cookies, but this meant that I had to keep buying treats to keep the jar full and looking nice. I didn’t like this because the cookies weren’t “treats” at that point, but rather just regular, expected snacks.
If you haven’t already pulled everything off your shelves yet. Now is the time to do so. With everything off the shelves, you can start organizing into “groups.”
In the above photo, the bottom shelf consists of all things baking (except any kind of can) The two red jars are flour and sugar. The next two large (empty) plastic canisters are used for whole grain flour and a homemade gluten free flour mix, both of which I consistently buy. Given that we just moved, and I’ve had to take inventory on what we do and don’t have, these two items are on my “don’t have and need to buy” list.
Moving to the right, we see a small canister stacked on top of the others with white material inside. This is baking soda. I clipped off the cardboard piece that says “baking soda” on it and dropped it inside so that I know what the white powder inside my jar is. This saves on having to buy labels, however, it’s not as “cutesy.” Moving down the stack you’ll see a jar of chia seeds and then powdered sugar.
Moving to the right again, on top we have cocoa powder, dairy free dark chocolate chips, and brown sugar. Then baking powder and vanilla behind it.
On the upper row you’ll find most our grains. On the far left we have a glass container of flax seed. I had an extra bag of flax seed that definitely did not fit in the one container, so I left it with my extra bulk items which we’ll get to shortly. Moving right, I have a glass container of mixed brown and black rice, farro, quinoa, split green peas, and coconut flakes.
You’ll then notice that we have our nut butters next, then plain rolled oats, and our kitty’s food. This (other than the oats) seems a bit counterintuitive because they’re not grains and I just said this was our grains shelf. Well, we like to put our most used and most nutritious items on the shelf that is eye level. That means we see it first and it’s easiest to grab. Instead of putting the nut butters with the candy on the top most shelf, we put it on the eye level shelf, so that we don’t get any funny ideas (melted dark chocolate goodies and peanut butter, anyone?). Sometimes, we like to put peanut butter in our oats. Having the peanut butter right next to the oats makes it a super easy, healthy, and quick breakfast to grab, make, eat, and put away. HELLO, organized kitchen! We also need to feed the kitty cat every day as well, so making that as accessible as possible is the greatest thing ever.
You’ll also notice that we don’t actually have any cereal. We love cereal, but we don’t like all the additives, flavorings, and preservatives in cereal, or how it makes us feel, so we just don’t eat or buy them. We also tend to eat too much cereal when we do have it, and it wrecks our eating flow. So, we usually don’t buy cereal (except rolled oats) anymore.
However, if you do buy cereal, the cereal canisters are amazing! They’re definitely among the cheaper items for food storage and you can use them for a lot of different things. We like the Sistema brand because you can take the top on and off for easy refilling, and the top and opening clip back into place every time. We’ve had ours for over two years and it still works like it’s new! With other cereal canisters, I know others have had problems with the opening to pour out the contents loses it’s stiffness and won’t lock shut after a while. This will make your food go stale quicker.
Then we come to our top shelf where the goodness is! Actually, I really prefer the baking shelf… it’s just so much more fun! Okay, back to the top shelf. I purposely put snacks and treats on the top shelf so that it’s not the first thing you look at when you walk into the pantry. You have to make an effort to get it off the top shelf to get it down as well. This means that you’ve purposely walked into the pantry to choose a specific snack or treat off the shelf and have given effort and thought into our choice. This might also be called “mindfully” choosing your foods. No mindless snacking around here!
Starting from the right this time and working left, we have our dried fruits, raisins and figs, then pecans and walnuts, a tall glass jar of granola and fruit bars, vegetable chips, and then a mysterious white bin. I only recommend using an opaque bin if you can remember what you put into it. Although I highly recommend keeping your opaque bin supremely organized, if you use a transparent bin, basket, or shelving unit, you’ll need to take some time to make sure it’s visually appealing as well.
I use my opaque basket for items that I don’t consistently buy, but might last a while such as cornmeal, gluten free flours that I make my gluten free flour mix out of, small odds and ends that don’t count as bulk but I couldn’t fit all the contents into a jar (for me that was about a handful of chocolate chips), etc. These items are usually the things that make our pantries look messy or untidy, so organizing them into a bin that you can’t see into gives them a proper place, keeps them out of sight, and organized.
Last, but not least, is the floor space. I use the floor space for anything that is heavy or stored in bulk so that I’m not lifting those things overhead. I also try to make sure everything on the floor is visible and accessible. If you’re buying items that you’re only using once a year in bulk, stop. This is wasting your money and precious space in your pantry! Only buy in bulk the things that you know you will use and go through.
From left to right, we have baking flour (in the big white jug), flax seed, brown rice, two extra virgin olive oils, avocado oil, red pepper chili flakes, sea salt, coconut aminos, coconut oil, two apple cider vinegars, and balsamic vinegar. We use a lot of all of these except for the pepper flakes and coconut aminos. We know that we will eventually use all of these, and do consistently (but maybe slowly) use them. Only in this case would I recommend buying something in bulk that you don’t use every week.
Now let’s explain the box. Because we live in student apartments that are relatively small, and old, we had run out of shelf space in the pantry and I wasn’t about to stack these on my kitchen count (no way, Jose!). So, we kept one of the medium sized boxes from Costco and have used it as an organizational piece. In the far corners we have sweet potatoes stacked upright to conserve ground space, onions, and garlic. Then we have our cans of black beans, garbanzo beans, artichokes, coconut milk, and pumpkin organized by name so they’re easier to find and sort through.
You’ll also notice that I don’t have the vitamins stored in the pantry anymore. I relocated these to our utility closet next to the pantry because they aren’t used often. Another place they could be moved to is the medicine cabinet if you have one, or with your first aid supplies. Just make sure they’re out of reach from little ones running around.
Drum roll please…. ahem…. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Before and After!
And that should wrap it up! Considering that you won’t have the all the same items in your pantry, use these concepts to organize your foods into groups and sections that make sense, and that items frequently used together are next to each other.
The trick to keeping it organized is first creating sensible groups, and then putting things away in the place you got them from. When you buy new items, place them in the group that makes the most sense. It’s never a one and done, but rather a constant upkeep. If you do it every day, by simply placing things back in the proper place, it will stay beautiful forever!