How to Organize a Kitchen Pantry

Say good-bye to jumbles of cereal boxes and towers of canned goods. Conquer your culinary clutter with our five-step plan to restore your kitchen's order

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1. Empty It

For a fresh start, pull out everything -- even the shelves and brackets.

  • Ask for help: This is the one part of a pantry purge where kids can pitch in. Get them to move everything (and we do mean everything) from the pantry onto a nearby section of countertop or a table. 
  • Clean up: The last time you wiped down your pantry shelves was probably when you moved in, so now is a good time to give the shelves, walls, and floor a once-over to remove dust, cobwebs, and wayward Cheerios. And if you've been meaning to pretty up the pantry, roll on a fresh coat of paint and apply liner paper to the shelves. 
  • Find floor elsewhere: Walk through your home and examine all the other places you currently store food, especially items you buy in bulk or use for entertaining. Open all kitchen and laundry cabinets; check the garage and basement. Consider bringing more of your household's foods into the pantry. 

2. Sort It Out

Pitch expired, stale, and unappetizing items, then group what's left into categories that make sense for your family.

  • Trash it: If packaging is open and unsealed, you should probably toss it. Crackers, cereals, cookies, and other baked goods simply don't stay fresh for more than a few days unless they're sealed tightly. The same goes for anything beyond its expiration date. Throw or give away items you don't like or won't use. (This is your chance to get rid of the gluten-free pasta you hated or that jar of too-hot salsa.) 
  • Sort what's left: The categories you use while sorting can be anything, as long as they're meaningful to your family. Maybe snacks are separated into "sweet" and "salty" piles, or all sandwich-making supplies stay together. 
  • Write it down: While sorting, take the time to write down the categories on index cards or sticky notes. This may seem like overkill, but writing down your categories keeps you on task. You can always change the categories later if you need to. 
  • Stay out of the pantry: Resist the urge to start replacing pantry shelves and grouping items within the confines of your pantry. You'll get to that in Step 3. 
  • Arrange by date: Prioritize multiples of any item (canned soups or veggies, sauces, boxed cereals, dry pastas, and so on) by sorting one step further based on use-by date. Put oldest items in the front or on top of any pile. Signal which items family members should consume first by circling use-by dates. 

3. Plan, Then Purchase

The spacing of the shelves is vital to a pantry's function. Take two minutes to measure your pantry and sketch it on paper, then strategize what goes where.

  • Out of reach: Reserve the top shelf for seldom-needed party supplies, paper goods, serving pieces, and other lightweight, less-used items. 
  • Space the shelves: Work from the top down, hanging shelves based on what each will hold. Between 12-18 inches is a good rule of thumb. 
  • On the floor: Put garbage and recycling in bins (not bags) on the floor. Pour pet food into a lidded canister (trust us), and corral bottles of soda or water into a foldable crate. 
  • Specialty zones: Cluster specialty supplies (baking gear in this pantry) just above eye level.
  • Maximize doors: Slim extras -- a whiteboard for lists, door-mount bottle opener, and corkboard for coupons -- add to a door's duties.
  • Right height: Reserve the prime midrange spot for meal-making supplies, and designate low areas for things children reach for regularly: snacks, breakfast items, and nut butters.

4. Add Cool Containers

Store-bought helpers make organizing and retrieving pantry items a breeze. they're worth every penny.

  • Translucent boxes: Pile party supplies or paper goods into clear plastic bins. Because you can see what's inside, it's easy to grab what you need. 
  • Risers: Available in 12- to 24-inch widths, risers elevate cans without any danger of toppling. They also let you position cans in rows by type. 
  • Airtight canisters: Repackage dry goods (flour, sugar, pasta, rice, beans, quinoa, and nuts) into airtight containers to extend freshness. Look for square or rectangular models (round ones waste space) with wide mouths for pouring and scooping. Flat lids enable stacking. Our faves are these Oxo pop containers with vacuum-seal tops. 
  • Lazy Susans: Available in different diameters, lazy Susans let you stash bottles and jars two or three deep on a shelf -- and bring what's in back into easy view with a flick of your wrist. Look for versions with nonslip surfaces, or line them yourself with a piece of rubber or silicone. Stack tall, skinny bottles in the center and surround with shorter items. 

5. Label

Well-implemented labels elevate and maintain your pantry's organizational plan.

  • Clear containers: Use a marker and an adhesive label to identify contents, including the date. Affix a clear pocket so you can slip cooking instructions inside. 
  • Solid bins: Tags hanging from hooks or a loop can be removed when a basket's contents change. Position them to dangle at eye level so you know what's in a box on a high shelf.
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