If you’re like most of us, your pantry is full of good intentions. Sometimes they’re pious efforts to not throw out perfectly good food—like those take-out fortune cookies you’ve been holding on since the time of Confucius. Other times, they’re valiant attempts at exploring a new and healthy diet—like that pricey bag of artesian grains that tasted a whole lot like wet bark.
The fact is, these good intentions have a way of taking over our pantries like space-sucking bags of regret. And who has time for that? With a simple strategy and a couple of free hours, you’ll spring clean your way to a cleaner and less cluttered pantry.
Have your supplies handy so you don’t get off track. All it takes is a quick search for labels, and the next thing you know you’re cleaning out your desk drawer in a desperate attempt at procrastination. That said, here’s what you’ll need:
- Basic cleaning supplies, such as multi-purpose cleaner, and paper towels or rags
- A vacuum cleaner
- A label maker, blank labels or scotch tape
- A permanent marker
- Paper and pen
- Storage containers
- A sheet or blanket (optional)
- Self-adhesive shelf liner (optional)
Take out everything—and we mean everything—from your pantry, and place your items in a clean, open area. A large, clutter-free table or counter will work. Or place a sheet on the floor and stack all of the items on top of the sheet or blanket. The idea is to have a clear view of your pantry contents within one area so you can focus on the task at hand.
Once you have everything out, clean, clean, clean! Start with the corners of the pantry ceiling—a common hiding place for cobwebs—and wipe down all of the shelves, starting at the top. Finally, vacuum the floor of the pantry and clean with a damp cloth and cleanser.
After you’ve cleared and cleaned the pantry, start grouping items into the following categories:
- Baking Products: Flour, sugar, baking dry yeast, chocolate chips, salt, baking soda, baking powder, etc.
- Condiments: Ketchup, mustard, soy sauce, barbeque sauce, etc.
- Canned Goods: Fruits, vegetables, beans, tuna, baby food, etc.
- Cereal: Dry boxed cereals, oatmeal, Cream of Wheat, etc.
- Beverages and Sweetener Packets: Coffee, tea, soda, drink mixes, and individual packets of sugar and sweeteners
- Snacks: Chips, cookies, crackers, snack bars, popcorn, etc.
- Pet Food, Treats and Birdseed
- Miscellaneous Non-Food Items: Shopping bags, dishware, cleaning products and miscellaneous in edibles
Once you have everything in separate piles, check the expiration dates. If it’s expired, toss it. If it’s not in its original package and you’re not sure when you got it, toss it. For spices, anything older than 6 months should be tossed.
Next, look to see if there are any duplicate jars or bottles that can be consolidated—like two half-full bottles of ketchup (a common occurrence if you haven’t cleaned out your pantry in a while).
Also, check all containers and bags to make sure they’re sealed without holes, cracks—or worse—animal nibbles. If they aren’t sealed correctly or have visible damage to the packaging, use your best judgment. A bag of chips you just bought yesterday is probably okay. That cereal that’s been wide open in the back of the pantry for three months is definitely not.
If you’ve ever served your guests coffee with salt instead of sugar, you know the importance of labeling. And lists allow you to plan ahead before you run out of supplies. Consider these common ways to put lists and labels to work for you:
- Multiple Products: If you shop at a warehouse store or stock up on sale items, you probably have multiples of some products. In these cases, locate the product that’s already opened—it may be in your refrigerator—and place a small label or piece of scotch tape on the opened container. Mark the label with “1 of 2”, “1 of 3” or so on, depending on how many multiples you have. This will remind you of what you have in your pantry and prevent you from buying more when you run out.
- Unlabeled Products: Label all bulk items or products that have been removed from their original containers. Not sure what it is or when you got it? Pitch it and forget it.
- Diets and Allergies: Labeling can also be helpful for special diets or allergies. If someone close to you has a peanut or other food allergy, you may want to clearly label products that contain the allergen. For special diets or health conditions, calling out important nutritional information and serving sizes can help you stay on track.
- Master List: If you have a large stock of food or hate to run out of essentials, you may want to create a master list of everything in your pantry. Tape the list on your pantry door and when you use the last of an item, circle or highlight it. When it’s time for a shopping trip, add depleted items to your shopping list, then print out a new list to replace the old one.
- Shopping List: Take stock of the items you have and what you need while everything is out and in plain sight, then make a shopping list for your next trip to the store.
Take a good look at your clean, empty pantry. This is your blank canvas, so don’t go messing it up by throwing the contents back in haphazardly. The key to maintaining an organized pantry is logic and consistency. Let’s start from the bottom and work our way up.
- Floor Area: To avoid attracting ants or other creepy crawlers, keep only non-food items or airtight, unopened canned food on the floor. Appliances, cleaning supplies, a small step stool and oversized items can also be stored here. Smaller, grouped items can be placed in baskets for easy access.
- Pantry Door: Place plastic shopping bags in an empty tissue box or a specially designed bag holder affixed to the back of the pantry door. Above it, place a self-adhesive hook for cloth shopping bags, an apron or oven mitts.
- Middle Shelves: Line your shelves with shelf liner or paper, if desired, then place the items that you use most on the middle shelves. Keep them in groups, using one shelf for each group of items. If necessary, put more than one group on a shelf, but make sure the items go together in your mind. For example, you might choose to group cereal and snacks, or condiments and canned goods.
- Spices: Relocate your spices to a drawer or rack. Spices tend to get lost and knocked over when stored in a pantry with larger items. And always make sure your spice containers are tightly sealed—exposure to moisture and air is a sure way to ruin them.
- Top Shelves: Use the top shelf for rarely used items, such as specialty ingredients or holiday dishware, along with unopened duplicates of products. (Opened duplicate products should be stored in the refrigerator or a more accessible shelf.)
Kick Back and Enjoy Your New Pantry
Tada! You’re done! Now step back and take a good look at your hard work. Your pantry should be clean, simple to navigate and easy to keep organized—the perfect complement to your favorite spring and summer recipes. And the best part? You’ll spend less time in the kitchen searching for ingredients and more time enjoying the warmer months ahead.