Organize your pantry

Start by emptying out your shelves

Move your pantry’s contents onto a nearby counter or table. (If you’re already feeling overwhelmed, it’s fine to begin by tackling just a portion of your pantry, said senior editor Marguerite Preston, who heads Wirecutter’s kitchen team.)

Take stock of everything you have—including items you don’t need. Set aside the following items to toss or give away:

  • any near-empty containers of stuff you seldom use
  • items that are near or past their expiration dates (a good indication that you’re not using some things often enough to justify keeping or restocking them)
  • anything you didn’t remember you even had in your pantry

Organize items by theme, not size

Grouping together items of similar size and shape may maximize space, but it won’t help you quickly find what you need when you need it. Instead of placing, say, all 14-ounce cans or 18-ounce jars together, sort your foodstuffs into themed categories, Naeemah Ford Goldson, a professional organizer and NABPO founder, said in a phone interview. (Goldson previously spoke with Wirecutter for our guide to closet organization.)

Some of these categories will be obvious, including:

  • snacks
  • baking supplies
  • drinks and drink mixes
  • condiments and spreads
  • oils, vinegars, broths, and other cooking liquids

Other categories may be more conceptual. For example, if you frequently make spaghetti and meatballs for dinner, Goldson said, you may want to group together those ingredients (pasta, canned tomatoes, bread crumbs, and so on).

If you’re having trouble figuring out how to categorize everything, think about how foodstuffs are grouped in a grocery store’s aisles, and then use that as a guide. “In a grocery store, things aren’t in identical containers—but because everything has a place and like items are together, it still looks neat and organized,” Goldson said.

Plan out your pantry’s “zones”

Each group you’ve just established should receive its own designated spot (or “zone,” as Green calls it) in your pantry.

Zones can vary in size. One zone might comprise an entire shelf or two, while another might consist of a bin that takes up just a sliver of space. To designate zones in her own pantry, Green uses a set of handled plastic bins from The Container Store, which are inexpensive (about $5 a bin) and easy to clean. Lesley Stockton, a senior staff writer on our kitchen team, likes Uline Plastic Stackable Bins, which come in an incredibly wide variety of colors and sizes.

But before you start loading bins into your pantry, you’ll probably need to use a tape measure to ensure that all of your zones (whether or not they’re contained in bins) will fit. If you have more zones than room to put them in, you may also need to combine groups. For example, those aforementioned spaghetti ingredients could be part of a “staple meal” zone that also includes things you need to make tuna salad or rice and beans.

Locate zones according to how quickly you need to access them. Zones containing your most frequently used items should be placed where you can easily and quickly reach them. With time, you should be able to grab stuff from these higher-trafficked zones without even looking.

Add a “miscellaneous” zone to house hard-to-classify items. This zone can include seasonal foodstuffs (such as holiday candies, hot cocoa, and s’mores fixings), as well as those one-off ingredients you buy on a whim and then tend to forget about. And if you have small children, Goldson suggests setting up a zone on your pantry’s lowest shelf to give them self-serve access to snacks or drinks.

Create more storage as needed

If you still don’t have enough room for all of your zones—or you don’t have a pantry to begin with—our experts have a few suggestions.

  • Add a freestanding cabinet. Senior staff writer Tim Heffernan said a low-slung piece of furniture, like the IKEA PS Cabinet, can serve as a makeshift pantry and a whole lot more. “It’s got solid shelves, which are easier to clean than wire shelves. Its doors put your clutter out of sight. And its flat-top surface can be used as an extra food-prep area or to store small appliances,” he explained.
  • Repurpose a bookcase. Even if it’s not that tall, a bookshelf with a depth of 12 to 18 inches can store plenty of pantry staples, Goldson said. If you’re worried that the shelves will get sticky, or you just don’t like the look of a bookcase in your kitchen, consider lining the shelves with contact paper.
  • Use wire shelving. Industrial racks from commercial-supply brands like Uline are incredibly sturdy, but they can also be expensive. Green recommends using an affordable chrome-coated wire rack from Amazon Basics. This rack comes in different sizes, all of which have adjustable shelving and a listed weight capacity of 250 to 350 pounds per shelf. (Lesley said she’s seen cheap wire shelving buckle under the weight of too many canned goods.) Since wire racks can be annoyingly difficult to clean, you might want to spring for a set of Gorilla Grip shelf liners specifically designed for wire racks; they even have rounded corners to accommodate your shelves’ corner posts. Senior staff writer Doug Mahoney, who uses these liners on the wire racks that comprise his basement pantry, said they “make the shelves a thousand times better.”

Choose storage containers wisely (or skip them altogether)

Some foods do just fine in their original containers, including items that are used quickly, that don’t need an airtight container to stay fresh, or that come in sturdy packaging (beware flimsy, shapeless, un-resealable bags!). And if you know you’re not the type who's going to decant pantry goods into canisters, there’s no rule that says you must use them. (Take that, Instagram!)

When you’re thinking about what type of dry-food storage containers will suit you best, there are several factors to consider.

Containers with an airtight seal will keep items fresher for longer. For longer-term storage of many pantry items, you need to use containers that will lock in freshness. Our top-pick dry-food storage container set, the Rubbermaid Brilliance Pantry Food Storage Containers, kept Goldfish crackers crunchy for three weeks—longer than any other canisters we tested.

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