How to Organize Your Pantry

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The Problem Pantry

I recently moved into a first floor completely redecorated apartment with a great pantry/laundry room. I have three massive shelves that run the whole length of the room and continue over the washer.

My dilemma: I have spices, canned goods, plastics, cleaning items, paper products and a host of many all on these shelves. No order, no rhyme nor reason and I stand in the doorway and I can't find anything--can any of our readers assist me. I usually am very organized and can find anything, this blew me right out of the water. Thanks for any help.

Color and Date Coded

Having always kept a 3-6 month supply of goods on hand in my pantries, I think I can help you. The first thing to remember is that you need to keep track of WHAT you have, WHERE you have it, WHEN you bought it and HOW LONG can you keep it safely. WHAT- I took colored shelf liner in different colors and divided up what I had. I have Red paper in front of meats and meat substitutes, yellow in front of fruits, green in front of veggies, blue in front of baking supplies, etc. Checking what I need to stock up on is simple. This also takes care of WHERE (and making a grocery list). I take care of WHEN and HOW LONG by keeping a Sharpie marker on a string in the pantry. I write the month and year I purchased the item on the item and place it behind any older stock. Every fall I sift through and give to charity any items that are about to "expire". I try to keep multiples of the things I know my family likes, and I jot down reminders of store brands we tried and liked as well as the name brands.

Never store cleaning supplies that are not edible with your foodstuffs. Get the baskets that hook to the shelf to hold small items and envelop type packages. Freeze all flour for 2 weeks, then put in airtight containers with a bay leaf at the bottom. I keep TP in the bathroom, along with soap products. Soap smelling items will make pasta, dry mixes and baking items taste like cheap perfume if stored together. Check with the county extension agent for free info on food storage time and how to spot problems. And don't make the mistake I did-Put removable liners under your stuff for easy cleaning, cans DO leak and it always makes a mess.
Debbie Z.

Crazy Like a Fox

Put all cleaning supplies in one section (alphabetical), put all spices together (alphabetical), place paper products together (alphabetical), put canned goods (alphabetical) together, and finally, put soups (alphabetical) together.

Organizing things in an alphabetical order may sound extreme -- I laughed at it being done in Mr. Mom, or one of those movies, but I recently did my pantry and spice shelves that way and when I need something I automatically know which end of the shelf it will be on and exactly what location. What a blessing!
Kim Q. in Myrtle Beach, SC

Spin a Solution

Remember those plastic lazy-susan type things that were popular a few years back? They spin on ball bearings. I've picked up a few for a song at tag sales (you can still buy them cheaply in the stores, too) and I don't know how I survived without them. They aren't very large, so this isn't an answer for the whole pantry. But the first thing I did was stick my spices on one. Boy, did life get easier! No more digging ... now there are two or, at most, three layers of jars to look at, but arranged circularly, it's easy to see the labels.

I have two kids and always seem to have an overflow of medicines in the winter. This has solved the problem of digging for THOSE. Then I went to the small cans of food, like Mexican chili peppers and so forth. They work pretty well for soup-size cans, too, but not much of anything larger or heavier than that because of the center-of-gravity problem. I use it for thinner bottles, too, like hot sauce and certain olive oils.

I know there are a bunch of closet organizer products out there now, and they will probably help with the larger items, although they're pretty expensive for what they actually are. But I'll bet you can solve more than fifty percent of your problem going the lazy-susan route. Check thrift shops like the Goodwill if tag sales are out of season in your area, or if you don't want to pay retail.

Another option is the "step" method. Plastics manufacturers make what looks like a set of three little steps and market them as spice organizers. Steal the idea, and for larger items, just get blocks of wood in graduated heights and arrange them, depending how deep your shelves are, in two or three steps. Now you can see what's behind the stuff in the front and grab it effortlessly.
Denise S.

Remember Your Food Groups

I arrange my pantry with veggies in one area, fruits in another, and so forth. This way I can tell in one glimpse what I need. Oh don't get me wrong, I have to organize this 3-4 times a year, but it is so much better when I know where things are.

Containers Make the Difference

You did not say what city you live in, but if you live anyplace near a business called The Container Store, take yourself there immediately! There's all kinds of FREE help available. Pick yourself up a copy of "The Ultimate Guide to Kitchen and Pantry Organization." It's FREE! Or, if you don't have a store in your area, they'll send you a copy. Just call 1-800-733-3532. The store does have expensive merchandise, but not all of it is pricey. You can take great ideas from the expensive stuff and adapt it to your use with the budget you've got. They've also got very unique containers and organizing tools to fit unusual situations-for instance, for those of us with short stature and high cabinets, there are shelves that pull out and down that can hold small bottles such as those for spices, medications, etc.

I would suggest you first measure your shelves to see just how deep they are, how wide, etc. That way when you do buy storage products you know they'll fit in the space allowed. I've also seen labeling systems, but the problem with that is that you may not always want that particular item in that exact space. You may start using a different brand of detergent that won't fit in that space, and so you'd have to move it and relabel it-something most of us don't have time to do.

Don't be afraid to spend a little money on this problem-If you can't find the things you need in your pantry, you waste time, and surely your time is worth the price of a few baskets and organizers! In my experience, it's the shelves that are the biggest expense, and lucky you - your house came with them! There are wonderful gizmos and gadgets out there that don't cost much and will save your sanity.
Colleen P.

Editor's note: sometimes it's possible to find other containers that can accomplish the same task. Please look around your house before you go spending any money!

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