How to Organize a Pantry The Good Enough Way

by Kimba on September 20, 2011

in Cleaning Stuff,In the Kitchen,Organizing

Last week, I decided it was finally time to organize my pantry. And by “organize”, I mean dig into the back corners of the closet and remove bag-fulls of expired food including a can of sweetened condensed milk from 2004. I kid you not. We moved that can from at least two different houses.

I’ve had “clean out the pantry” on my to-do list for a while, but, like most projects, I started it on a whim and in a flurry of activity. I had a morning to myself so I started pulling everything out of the pantry and stacking it on the kitchen counters and the island. I didn’t start with much of a plan and it was at this peak of chaos that I decided I needed one.

Enter Uncle Google. I started by searching for things like “How to organize a pantry“. I was looking for someone to tell me what to store on each shelf of the pantry. What should go on the top shelf? What should go on the floor?

Instead, I found pictures of the most beautifully organized and decorated pantries that you’ve ever seen. There were color coordinate containers for all the pastas and baking supplies. Labeled wicker baskets for chips, mixes and snacks. The pantries were painted, wallpapered and stenciled. The labels were beautifully handwritten, chalkboarded or printed on the computer.

I wanted to cry. For real. It took everything in me not to stuff everything back in my pantry and call it quits. My pantry wasn’t going to look like that. I didn’t want to spend a bunch of money on organizers. And I didn’t have the time or energy to make it beautiful. I just wanted to get rid of the food that might poison my family and have it organized enough to be able to find what I need.

I hesitate to link to any of these incredible, Taj-Mahal pantries for fear that someone will think I’m making fun. Trust me. I’m not. When I grow up, I want to have a beautifully decorated pantry with a crystal chandelier and matching wall sconces. For now, I just want to be able to find the cornbread mix before it sprouts real corn stalks.

So, after a few deep breaths and a pep talk, I got back to work. Here are a few tips that I learned along the way.

1. Touch everything once.

Some organizers say to pull everything out of an overloaded pantry and then organize and sort once you see what you have. For me, it worked better to sort and purge as I emptied the pantry. If it was expired, it went straight into a trash bag. If it was something we won’t eat, it went into the box for the Food Pantry. The only things left on my counters were the fresh foods that we’ll actually eat. I was slightly horrified that I got rid of 4 garbage bags of food. What a waste.

2. Put stuff where little people can reach it.

For some reason, I’ve always had the cereal and snack foods on the top two shelves of the pantry. That meant the kids had to climb on counter stools or, more likely, ask me to get everything for them. I moved those things down to the lower shelves so that the boys can get their own cereal and snacks. Next up? Moving the cereal bowls and drinking glasses to lower shelves too. I can’t believe it took me 8 years of having children to figure this out.

3. Dollar Tree is your friend.

As much as I would love perfectly mis-matched containers for all my pantry supplies, it wasn’t in the budget right now. Instead, I spend $5 at the Dollar Tree and got a few plastic boxes and baskets to help keep things organized. There are two lidded containers to corral drink mixes and hot cereal packets and three small baskets for baking mixes, bags of chips and other snack foods.

4. Give the kids their own spot.

I used one of my plastic baskets as a snack spot for the kids. It’s filled with raisins, granola bars and fruit cups. Now when they ask for a snack, I can say “Help yourself to anything in the basket!”. I feel like a genius.

5. Get a little creative.

If there was one thing I wanted to buy, it was some of those step-thingies you use to organize your canned goods. But they’re kind of expensive, so it wasn’t happening. Instead, I put a couple of shoe boxes on one of the shelves to stack things on top and in front of. Now I can actually see what’s in there. Yes, I know that creates a lot of wasted space, but that space is where I end up parking cans of condensed milk for nearly a decade anyway. If you’re looking for something a little more sturdy, Danny Lipford made a short video showing you how to use 2×4’s to make your own canned goods riser.

6. There’s not one “right” system.

You’ve got to figure it out for yourself. Every family uses their pantry in a different way. We all use different products too, so the way we organize is going to be different. Here’s what’s working for me right now…from the top shelf down.

  • Top shelf: Baking mixes and pasta
  • Shelf 2: Side dishes, chips and pretzels, oils and some seasonings
  • Shelf 3: Condiments, dressings, sauces and peanut butter
  • Shelf 4: Cereal, drink mixes and kid’s snacks
  • Shelf 5: Canned goods
  • Floor: Oversized items like jars of oil, vinegars and drink mixes

And there you have it. My mostly organized pantry. It’s may not be stunningly beautiful, but it’s good enough.

Tell me about your pantry? Is it beautifully organized, good enough or a total disaster?

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1 Kelli September 20, 2011 at 10:35 am

My pantry is actually pretty organized. All my cans are lined up and the boxes are sorted by type {rice, pasta, ect.}. But there is one shelf in my pantry that is like a junk drawer. All the kids snacks are there plus it is a dumping ground for all the random candy and stuff the kids bring home from birthday parties and school. I need to hit up the dollar store for a few bins to get that shelf organized for sure!
Kelli´s last blog post ..It’s a Tradition

2 Gina September 20, 2011 at 10:37 am

here’s a post I did about the same thing:

i agree with you about that whole decorating the pantry thing – they are lovely to look at, those beautifully decorated food closets, but is that really practical? Not for me. My kitchen is a working kitchen. I invested in those storage containers that keep the buggies out of my baking goods. And I love baskets – we do the snack basket, too! It just mainly has to stay clean in there. And mine is small enough so that I don’t accumulate a lot of expired stuff. Plus, I’m kind of a weirdo when it comes to organizing and cleaning…I like it.

3 Jessica September 20, 2011 at 10:42 am

Oh my goodness! You read my mind exactly! I have been googling how to organize a pantry and getting all those beautiful pics that did nothing but tell me I would never have that too! My pantry really isn’t a closet type pantry, it’s the two large floor to ceiling cabinets that are deep and I get a ton of things lost in the bottom shelves because if they get pushed to the back, I don’t see them. I’m glad i am not the only one! 🙂 God bless!
Jessica´s last blog post ..Organizing the Handbags!

4 Christine September 20, 2011 at 10:51 am

I am not american and I am just kind of speechless with all the food you have at home (not just you, it seems to be the same on most american blogs). Like, why to you have two bottles of that green stuff, two cans of what I guess is peanut butter and so many mushrooms soup? How come?

I suppose that if you live in an area where there is danger of natural disasters then I totally understand it, but it has been the same on all blogpost about pantries that I have seen.

I am not meaning to criticize, I am simply surprised by the amount of food you americans seems to gather in your kitchen. My best advice would definitely be to not buy so much, but stick to the favorites. That really is a way of both getting a more organized pantry and not having to throw food away.

5 Elisabeth September 23, 2011 at 10:15 am

I have 2 or 3 of some things if it’s something I use regularly. Some people might find items on sale or a good price (like around Christmas time) and want to stock up on it.

I live about 25 minutes from town and choose not to drive to town for items I’m out of, so I will stock up on items I use frequently.

But you are right, Americans can be very wasteful – me included. Although I try not to be, it still happens.

6 The Chubby Dove September 20, 2011 at 11:29 am

You made me laugh out loud with the statement, “I just wanted to get rid of the food that might poison my family.”

7 Judy September 20, 2011 at 11:47 am

Oh this post made me laugh out loud. Especially about the chandeliers and sconces and the part where you said you felt like a genius for putting the kids food on a low shelf. My pantry looks like your before pantry and I don’t have the time or money to make it a taja mahal pantry either. Thanks for keeping it real! I would love to have a professional cabinet maker come in and put roll out shelves in our pantry. But in the mean time, I’m going to be a genius too and move the kids food down to a low shelf!

8 Qwendy September 20, 2011 at 12:25 pm

My pantry is actually cabinets with pull out drawers, but I have the “snack basket” too for my kids. I love that they can help themself whenever to applesauce, granola bars, or crackers.

I have a snack basket in my fridge on a low shelf with yogurt, hummus, and carrots.

My pantry has zero sconces and chandeliers, and I learned my life will never look like a magazine.

9 Lisa September 20, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Hi Kimba, it’s so funny that you posted about this today! I just got through cleaning out my pantry and my “after” is not a Taj Mahal either, but at least it’s organized! I’m giggling to myself after putting all the chocolate chips and marshmallows (that my kids like to break into when I’m not looking – especially my 13 year old who has an insatiable appetite!) in a box labeled “recipes”. Lets see how long it’ll take them to figure that one out! 🙂

10 Cameron Clay September 20, 2011 at 1:13 pm

I found a can tiered stacker thing at MARSHALLS for only $6.99! 🙂 It was fate because I’ve been wanting one for FOREVER but couldn’t talk myself into buying one because they are entirely way too expensive. A few days later I was browsing at Marhsall’s and I nearly had a heart attack when I spotted it 🙂 It totally helps with the organization, however, I love your super cheap method as well!

11 Richella at Imparting Grace September 20, 2011 at 1:14 pm

I’m with you, Kimba. My pantry organization was a real-life project, and I’m proud to say that more than a year later, it’s still organized. Is it beautiful? No, not really–although not having a bunch of wasted food looks pretty good to me most days. You can see my pantry project here if you like:

I think you ARE a genius, by the way.

12 Erin @ Two Story Cottage September 20, 2011 at 3:35 pm

I was thinking of your post when I read this, Richella! Glad to know yours is still organized. 🙂

13 katie September 20, 2011 at 1:39 pm

I think you are reading my mind- or guilty conscious. I’ve been going in and out of the pantry and fridge for the past two weeks thinking, ” i really need to organize this mess.” Your post has motivated me! Cracks me up too because your shelves are organized the exact way mine are (as far as what is on each shelf).

14 Cindy Sue September 20, 2011 at 2:45 pm

so i’m yelling, dollar tree, dollar tree,and finally scroll down far enough to see that you have already discovered that perfect store of a place, haha… i find it a great place to find items to keep long term food storage to decorating, surprising what you can do to alter some of the items found there. you did a great job on your pantry and thanks for all the info and tips. glad to have found you!
Cindy Sue´s last blog post ..Sunday Dinner: Pork Tenderloin w/ Cherry Preserves from King Arthur

15 Kary September 20, 2011 at 2:56 pm

Oh mine is “good enough”!! But I appreciate your help on the shelving ideas too. I have a BIG walk in pantry that I really coveted when I saw my friend’s. So, when we built our log home, I had this pantry in mind. It holds so much more than just food. I have large appliances in there, china, pitchers, knick knacks, etc. So, when I go in I am overwhelmed at all the “stuff”. But, I do relate to the “clean out” you performed and to stacking the canned goods, etc. so you don’t overlook something for 15 years!! I would love to have the qualities I’ve read about that can put a BIG pantry in order. Thanks for sharing yours!!

16 Erin @ Two Story Cottage September 20, 2011 at 3:39 pm

Loved this post! My pantry is actually a tall cabinet with pull out drawers but is not particularly organized. We just moved 6 weeks ago though so I’m giving myself a break on that one. When we moved I got rid of breadcrumbs that had been through 2 moves. They had no expiration date so I was never sure what to do but you can bet I hadn’t used them in 4 or 5 years! I do hope I can do some baskets & labeling but that will probably be the extent of it. Also, I’m willing to bet a lot of those blogland beauties were staged because I mean you do have to keep the food somewhere. 🙂

17 Amanda @ Serenity Now September 20, 2011 at 6:01 pm

I. LOVED. this post, Kimba! I enjoy reading posts with those fabulous, perfectly coordinated pantries…but for us, right now, it’s more about filling the pantry for “rainy days” rather than decorating it. I always feel awed and slightly insecure when I read those posts. Your tips were so helpful! I’m hosting a Family Friendly Food Week this week and people are linking up recipes, pantry/kitchen tips, meal plans, stuff like that. I’m going to try to feature this post on Friday. 🙂

18 Merrie September 20, 2011 at 6:31 pm

Good for you! Great ideas and tips — I want to have a snack basket now, And great idea on putting the food lower — I have our cereal up so high that my daughter always needs a stepstool, but I also don’t have a pantry, so it would take some shuffling to make that work. Something to think about, though!
My goal tonight is to start making room on an old entertainment center in my garage to turn it into storage for my scrapbooking business. I feel inspired to get that going now – thanks!

19 A Mother's Thoughts September 20, 2011 at 7:43 pm

I just cleaned mine out too, no fear I had a can of something (there was no label on it), from 1998, it must be something of importance if I kept it all these years. lol I am a huge condement girl so for me cleaning the fridge is what I don’t look forward to. Good job, I’m sure that that is a relief though.


20 Laura September 20, 2011 at 8:59 pm

Sometimes I just covet having a pantry! Our house doesn’t have one, but I do have a cupboard and a Hoosier cabinet with food in it (and phone books in the drawer, and a couple of coolers in one of the bottom sections). Still trying to figure out where I could make a pantry, or whose bedroom I could turn into a butler’s pantry! In the grand scheme of life, it probably doesn’t matter where I store my food, but in the here-and-now, I sometimes covet the “taj-ma’s”! Nice job organizing your personal mahal. Care to stop by and work at my house?

21 Andrea @Oasis Accents September 20, 2011 at 9:18 pm

Cleaning out and organizing my pantry has been on my list of things to do for longer than I care to admit. While it is really just a very, very small closet it has been somewhat intimidating. I plan to add a couple more shelves and clean out whatever may be lurking in the darkness. Oh yeah, and replace the light that had a pull string that broke….2.5 years ago.

22 Pati @ A Crafty Escape September 20, 2011 at 9:54 pm

I actually just organized my pantry last week. Like you, I hit the dollar store and found some awesome containers that are helping us keep it organized and clean.

23 Amy in PA September 21, 2011 at 8:34 am

Great post!! I got married last fall & moved into my husband’s house. One of the first items on my to-do list (after discarding some very tacky hand-me-down mauve & williamsburg blue decorations from the mother-in-law 🙂 was to organize the pantry. Your 2004 condensed milk has NOTHING on the stuff I found in his pantry. While he may have been a non-cooking bachelor, he is a neat freak so I was rather appalled to find steak sauce that expired in 2003 & condiments from 2001. Our pantry is good enough for us & only has a few labels – which came about after the near-miss of beloved husband filling the sugar bowl with kosher salt!

24 Susie September 21, 2011 at 9:51 am

Great ideas on organizing. I just redid my kitchen and am still trying to decide where I want everything.

25 Dana @ Cooking At Cafe D September 21, 2011 at 12:44 pm

As usual, you offer amazing tips.
My pantry it gonna get a do-over!
Dana @ Cooking At Cafe D´s last blog post ..Wordless Wednesday (Part 2) Find the Hidden Message!

26 Dana @ Cooking at Cafe D September 21, 2011 at 2:03 pm

Oh, I didn’t answer your questions.

Our pantry it nothing special – it’s a double wide 1950’s linen cloest that is only 11 inches deep. Ack!

For years the shelves were falling down and help up by canned food! Now, the shelve are sturdy – not much to look at, just plain wood – but safe.

The best part about having a pantry that is only 11 inches deep? It’s difficult to lose the condensed milk! (But, I should check, never know!) That’s a pic of our “Nothing Special – But Totally Works For Us” pantry – at the bottom of the post. I should still do some re-arranging…
Dana @ Cooking at Cafe D´s last blog post ..Wordless Wednesday (Part 2) Find the Hidden Message!

27 Leighann September 21, 2011 at 10:28 pm

Confession: Our new pantry is half the size of my old one so it’s a mess. I keep meaning to organize it, but in the month and a half we’ve been in the Burgh, it hasn’t made the cut.

Tip: They don’t work on wire shelves, but I’m addicted to lazy susans. My old pantry had wood shelves and the lazy susans came in handy. Now I have wire shelves and half the space…. not pretty.

28 Jewel September 22, 2011 at 11:24 am

Hi Kimba, this is really a helpful ideas in organizing a pantry… I have to admit, I am always bothered how can I keep my pantry organized and you just have give me the ideas. Thank you for sharing…
Jewel´s last blog post ..US Supreme Court Agrees to Review Constitutionality of Arizona Private School Tuition Tax Credit

29 jeanne winters September 22, 2011 at 1:53 pm

Doesn’t it feel good to get it organized! A morning well spent. My pantry is not pretty, but it is functional. And that’s what’s most important! 🙂

30 Tracey September 22, 2011 at 8:02 pm

A few years ago I lined the back wall of our pantry with scrapbook paper and I still love it. Every time I open the pantry it makes me smile. Now I’m off to move my cereal to a lower shelf.
Tracey´s last blog post ..Favor On Your Life

31 Tamara September 23, 2011 at 4:55 pm

Just a note – those large jars or jugs of oils/vinegar, etc. on the floor – set them inside of a grocery sack or ziplock bag so that any overdrip or leakage doesn’t end up on your floor.

I use the large boxes that my COSTCO snacks come in and rip off the tops – they are sturdy boxes and I can keep things contained that way. I too made my lowest shelf in the pantry for the kids snacks and lunch packing stuff – they can help themselves.

I’m positive that we all have some outdated evaporated milk somewhere in our cupboards! Actually I think mine is sweetened condensed milk…

32 Megan September 23, 2011 at 8:11 pm

Wow, I just got done doing the same thing with my pantry. I wish I would have seen this first. A lot of great tips. I, too, was able to find a ton of helpful suggestions by looking online. Next time, I definitely won’t wait so long!
Megan´s last blog post ..Hamilton Beach 33967 Slow Cooker Review

33 Meowie September 23, 2011 at 11:22 pm

Nice tips!
I battle my cupboards one by one slowly haha I hate the feeling of opening up a cupboard and seeing a mess!
Meowie´s last blog post is nice

34 Diane @ kitchen-dreams September 24, 2011 at 9:50 am

Thanks for the inspirational and hilarious post. Because I don’t enjoy going to the grocery shopping I try to have several of something we use regularly on hand. More and more I am “shopping from home” to try to reduce the amount of things I have in my pantry and become more organized.
Diane @ kitchen-dreams´s last blog post ..Welcoming Fall

35 Jessica September 24, 2011 at 12:45 pm

I had to just smile at this post…I have SO been there; when my children were young, there was stuff in the very back dark corners of my pantry…that I am certain was not edible…Now, I force, yes, force myself to clear it out at the end of summer, and entering spring…

PS, why would one have a chandelier in the pantry??? I know Earl Grey may be lingering nearby, but…really.

Enjoy your day!
Jessica´s last blog post ..A September Day…

36 ViVO September 25, 2011 at 2:17 am

I finally have enough room to organize…I guess that means no more excuses! Bummer
ViVO´s last blog post ..Soy Tealights- Apple Cider Soy & Coconut 7 hour burn Tealight Set

37 Jo September 25, 2011 at 4:03 pm

Every once in a while I try to organize my backing supplies, but I always find out that something has expired for a week up to couple of months 🙁 Most of the things are located in the different cupboard- So mine is no Taj Mahal either!
Jo´s last blog post ..Grow herbs indoors

38 laura September 28, 2011 at 11:56 am

Pantry was No. 1 on my list to get accomplished this year. I write about it here:
I did paint and put clear contact paper on the shelves so moving all those cans around wouldn’t ruin my paint as has happened in the past. The contact paper also helps the items slide easier. I shopped the house and found baskets in storage that I could use. I did buy a few containers at Walmart. Took measurements and went shopping. I didn’t spend much money though. Since I don’t like things posted on my refrigerator [well I can’t anyway b/c it’s stainless steel] I bought a removable dry erase sheet to put on the inside of the pantry door. I put all of our sporting practices/games, homework due dates, music instructions to school, etc. on that door.

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