In this post: If you’ve always wanted one of those perfectly organized functional pantries, you’ll love this guide to kitchen pantry organization.⇒
“Oh my God! Did you see this?”
That’s what my daughter’s friend said to her when she opened our pantry on a recent visit.
As it turned out, my daughter hadn’t seen it yet, so there they both stood, marveling, as they peered through the open doors.
Now, to be honest, I’m a pretty neat person, so the before picture isn’t quite the disaster you might expect. But apparently the transformation was significant enough to evoke that kind of response from 2 young adult women.
Below you can see what the pantry looked like the day I decided I couldn’t stand it anymore.
You can tell I had tried to set up regions and keep duplicate products more or less next to each other. I tend to keep things in rows so the general set up is orderly, but the only rows that were staying in tact were the infrequently used items. By contrast, the things we use all the time are nearly falling off the shelf (I’m looking at you hubby’s pretzel crisps!)
The breaking point was the combination of what was going on up top and on the floor. As I’ve mentioned many times, a collection of plastic bags drives me crazy. I rarely use them and I certainly don’t need them in multiples. Add to that the water bottles on the floor that look like they’ve begun to march out of the closet and you have a recipe for much needed change!
What we needed was a system that would not only corral the items but that would be easy to maintain on a day to day basis. Any organization effort is only as good as its ease of use. If it’s too difficult to put things in their designated containers, the system will break down.
I’m happy to say the photo below was taken this week, while the incident with my daughter’s friend happened over the summer. That’s right! We’ve been able to maintain this system for 6 months and it looks as neat as the week I set it up.
So what exactly accounts for that success? Here are my tips for simple and functional kitchen pantry organization.
As you can see, our pantry is pretty average. It’s not a full blown walk-in pantry with wall to wall shelves, but nor is it a tiny kitchen cabinet. It’s a two door closet with 6 wire shelves. I truly hate wire shelving but I chose to spend the money on useful containers rather than investing in better shelves. I had put plexiglass liners on the shelves when we first moved in so that things wouldn’t topple. No doubt the pantry would have a cleaner look with solid white shelves, but that will have to wait.
1. Have a Plan
My most important tip is to take time to plan. Do not just run out and buy containers and hope they’ll fit your space and what you want to store. I spent quite a bit of time staring at our pantry in its state of disarray, because that’s the best illustration of how we actually use our space.
I measured not only the space, but also what we use. It’s easy enough to figure out how many containers of a certain width will fit on your shelves, but determining if they will accommodate the foods you intend to store is the real key. I did a detailed sketch with measurements, which I kept updating as the plan evolved.
2. Select Your Container Types
I determined I would use 3 types of containers: air tight pop-top containers, open plastic bins and water hyacinth baskets. The decision was influenced by a few different things, including the the most convenient way to store the item, the sizes available, as well as the way they’d look in the pantry. There’s no question that a cohesive use of containers gives the appearance of a neater pantry.
For this reason I decided I would use all one type of storage on each shelf, opting for water hyacinth baskets for the bottom 2 surfaces, plastic bins for the middle two, pop-top containers for the eye level shelf and a bit of a combination up top.
3. Don’t Be Afraid of Pop-Top Containers
I think a lot of people are intimidated by the pop-top containers that you decant your food into. For one thing they can be pricey, but more importantly, I think some people are afraid they will be too inconvenient to use. This was certainly the reaction I got from hubby, who told me it would be too difficult to get to his beloved pretzel crisps. I walked over to the pantry, pulled out the container and popped it open in one second. We erupted in gales of laughter and I’ve never heard a complaint since.
Quite the opposite, the pop-top containers can make your life much easier. You can see what’s inside, the food stays fresh, and you can stack them, maximizing your pantry space. Keeping them at eye-level also creates the neatest looking pantry.
I opted to use these for items that come in boxes (as opposed to jars or cans). This is where I took the most time to plan, studying my existing pantry and planning out what sizes I needed. Before I bought a thing I planned the whole thing out, estimating what would fit in each size container. Then I laid it out on my counter with the boxes before I poured anything in.
I would avoid buying the sets and instead buy exactly the sizes you need. Buy them on sale and save the money that way. You’ll waste more money if you wind up with extra containers that are not the size you need.
The first time you set it up is the most effort you will expend. After that they’re a breeze to upkeep. I never have to refill more than one or two in a week (always the pretzel crisps!) and I just tape the expiration date to the back of the container where it won’t be visible unless needed.
4. Buy Multiples and Keep Them in Front
If you’ve read any of my other organization posts, you know I’m a big proponent of the convenience of multiples. I tend to be brand loyal and so for things that I use often I like to keep one or two extra in stock. The bonus of this practice is that in your pantry, placing identical items next to each other makes the pantry look neater. This is especially the case for the clear plastic bins, that otherwise don’t look much different than placing the items directly on the shelf.
5. Some Items Need Creative Solutions
I mentioned above that I reworked our kitchen pantry about 6 months ago, but I actually hadn’t completed it until very recently, because I was stumped at what to do with the upper shelf. For one thing, there was the issue of the grocery bags we keep and then use for the trash. I tossed all the plastic bags because I don’t use them (and usually instruct the delivery person to not even bring them), but I still had all the folded paper bags to deal with. They fit perfectly in the water hyacinth bins, but were too tall to stand up. I wound up turning the bin on its side which was an excellent solution because the bags are easier to get to than they would’ve been upright.
On the opposite end of the same shelf are some less often used cleaning items that we don’t keep under the sink, which is where I keep those that we use all the time. I’m not sure why it took me so long to come to this conclusion but I finally selected open plastic bins with handles, which makes them easy to pull down and get to the things at the back when needed.
6. Keep Nothing Loose on the Floor
This is basically one of my defining principles and one I stick to for all of my closets. To avoid a mess of things piled on the floor, I make it a rule to keep nothing loose on the floor. This is the perfect spot for waters or other drinks, neatly arranged in water hyacinth bins. They’re easier to grab than when they fall over on the floor and roll all around, and they look so much better. I also take the time to make sure the labels are all facing in the same direction and once again keep duplicates together.
7. Keep a Step Stool Where You Can Easily Get to It
This may be less important for those of you who are taller than me, but having a little step stool that I can easily pull out is essential for reaching items on the top shelves. Nothing messes up a closet faster than throwing things up to the top shelves because you can’t reach them. Note, the stool is only useful is you can get to it easily. This means nothing in front of it and nothing on top of it. Ever.
Of course, it goes without saying that you should toss expired foods, things that came in gift baskets that you will never use and things no one in the family even likes.
I absolutely love having a pantry that stays neat week after week without constant cleaning! This is my real pantry that we actually use, photographed on an average day without staging (which is why a lot of the containers are not completely full).
Which leaves one last question. What’s in the random water hyacinth basket on the upper shelf next to the garbage bags?
The giant Costco-sized refill bag of pretzel crisps, of course!
Pantry Organization Resource List
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