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Pantry Organization Tips

Is your pantry organized?
Is your pantry user friendly?

Doing more of your own cooking is an important way to get healthy. Choosing nutritious ingredients and making some of your own meals helps you avoid the high fat, high sugar and high calories you get from take out and many packaged foods. To do that properly, you have to be organized.

It's not enough to have the ingredients, you have to know where the ingredients are. It shouldn't take more than four or five minutes to gather everything you need for a recipe. The longer it takes to whip something up, the less likely you are to do it when you're tired and hungry.

Here are the tips and tricks I used to get my pantry in order.

Start by grouping things into various categories or zones. These should be based on how you use your pantry. The categories I chose won't necessarily reflect how you might arrange things, they're merely suggestions to get you started. 

Spices Zone 1 - Spices. There are lots of small jars and irregular sized packets. I like using a turntable (lazy susan) that has a couple of tiers on it. That way I can stack things and see both what's behind the first item, and what's in the back by spinning it around.

The thing about spices is that they lose their potency over time. If they've been hanging around for more than three years, it may be time to throw them out. When I buy a spice, I look on the bottle for an expiration date. If it doesn't have one, I put a small round sticker on the bottom, mark X and date it three years from when I bought it. If I haven't used it by the expiration, I toss it but don't replace it, until I'm cooking a dish that needs it.

Labeling the spice sections also helps when other people cook. That way they know the general location things should go back to when they're done. Small bottles of liquid, like vanilla and other extracts, I put in a bin to keep them contained if they spill.

Baking & Dried Goods Zone 2 - Baking & Dried Goods. This is where you put flour, sugar, baking powder, pasta, beans, rice and other dry goods. Because these often come in paper or thin plastic bags, I always transfer them to clear plastic or glass containers that I can seal. Then I label the containers so I know what's inside. This keeps insects and pests out but allows me to see how much I have so I can tell when to restock.

Canned Goods Zone 3 - Canned Goods. I like using graduated step organizers so I can clearly read the label on each row of cans. When I buy them, I write the expiration with a big marker on the top. Every six months I take a quick peek and cook or donate to my local food bank any cans that are getting close to expiring.

Grab and Go Foods Zone 4 - Grab and Go Foods. Use baskets or bins to group things together for quick eating. For example, I have microwave oatmeal packets in one bin for breakfast. I put bags and tins of nuts for between-meal-snacks in another. One bin is just for protein bars that I eat after a workout. You might also have one for microwavable soups.

Zone 5 - Treats and Guest Food. I like to put the indulgences like cookies, mints, candies and crackers in a decorative basket. Put a towel over the top and set it somewhere that's a little harder to reach. Then I don't keep looking at it and get tempted, but it's still ready for when you want something special, or when company stops by for a visit.

Bowl of Fruit for Kids Zone 6 - Kids Food. Put together a basket of fresh fruit, crackers and age-appropriate individually wrapped treats for children. Put it at a level that they can reach easily and encourage them to serve themselves. This way you can monitor what they're eating (by what's gone) and teach them how to make healthier choices at the same time.

Some people like to keep a special zone just for holiday foods. Cans of cranberry sauce, pumpkin mix and fixings for stuffing. You can do that, but I prefer to donate what's left to the local food pantry and replace it with what I need for my recipes the following year. Space is a premium in my home and I don't want to clutter it up with a can of cranberries I won't use for a year.

When you're ready to start re-organizing things, make a list of what you'll need. Pick up turntables, step organizers, labels and other items before you start the job.

Once you have the items you need, completely clear everything off each shelf. Clean it and then put the organizing elements in place. Finish it off by arranging the items that belong there and then label things so everyone knows what goes where.

A few more tips to keep things manageable.

  • Unwrap excess packaging. Those boxes and bags take up valuable space, especially as you use up the items inside.

  • Don't be afraid to toss or donate things you haven't touched in six months. Quit hanging onto those boxes of diet shakes that you hate the taste of. Toss that bag of exotic spices your aunt gave you two years ago for your birthday. If you haven't used them by now, you're probably not going to and they're just cluttering things up.

  • Embrace the label. If you live alone you don't have to worry about people putting things away wrong. But if you share your home, don't be afraid to clearly label what should go on what shelves or in what areas. It makes keeping things organized a whole lot simpler. Remember a label isn't permanent. If you discover a different arrangement works better, peel the label off and print a new one. It's not a lifetime commitment.

  • Use bleachers to create shelves where there aren't any. Pantry areas are often built with shelves that are fixed in place. Stands and bleachers turn one shelf into two or three.

  • If you're buying new, choose square containers. They hold more, in the space they occupy than a round container.

  • Give containers the one-hand test. Can you open it with a single hand or do you need to use both? Containers that seal, but that are easy to open when you need them, cause less frustration over time.

  • Remember that you don't have to spend money. Pasta sauce jars can be cleaned out and re-purposed to hold rice or dried beans. A small scrap of lumber can be used to make a step organizer. Clear tape can be written on and used to label containers or shelves.

  • Don't get giant bags of things just because they're cheaper. You shouldn't buy a 10-pound bag of rice if you only cook some up a couple of times a year. Buy in bulk only those things you use often. You'll save money and space in your pantry.

  • Finally, put a pad of paper and a pen in the pantry to write down when you need something. Then just grab the list before you head to the store. I use a dry-erase board that I simply take a picture of with my phone when I'm ready to shop.

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