Tips for better pantry organization

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Photo by Natalie Williams

Between the racks filled with spices, bags of loose grains and stacks of cans, pantries can quickly get out of hand. By following a few simple tips for better pantry organization, you can not only improve the cleanliness of your kitchen storage, but you can also streamline your cooking and grocery shopping

“You save money and you save time,” said Karen Howell, professional organizer and founder of Organized and Functional an organizing service based in Lee County, Florida. “You save money because you’re not buying stuff that you already have. You save time because you can just look in [your pantry] and hopefully you can just find [what you need].”

Pantries tend to fall into disarray because the entire family — not just the person who organized it — will go into the pantry and move items around. A good organizational system makes sense for everyone who uses the space.

Whether you have a walk-in pantry or a couple cabinets, here are 12 tips for better pantry organization from professional organizers.

Before you start, notice where you put items naturally

It may seem counterintuitive, but when Howell starts working with a new client, she asks them to leave the disorganized pantry exactly how it is.

“When I walk into a space, it is really helpful to see where things are naturally being placed,” Howell said. “Maybe a family has pasta and rice a lot, so those need to be somewhere up front where it is really easy access.” 

Keep such high-use items and the locations you tend to keep them — certain spices or oils right by the stove, for example — in mind as you organize your pantry.

First, take everything out of the pantry 

After you have made a mental note of where you naturally put things, take everything — and we mean everything — out of your pantry. 

By taking everything out, you can easily purge expired food. You can also get rid of items that are no longer used in your pantry, which is especially useful if you have limited pantry space.

“If you haven’t used it in six months, you’re probably not going to use it,” said Emily Possemato, professional organizer and owner of Home Made POSSible, an organizing service based in Naugatuck, Connecticut.

“If it’s still good, donate it to a food pantry or something,” Howell added.


Being able to see everything you have available will also inspire meals with items you already have.

“Unlike grocery shopping you probably do want to organize your pantry when you’re hungry so that you eat what you have,” Possemato laughed. “You’ll be able to come up with more meal ideas with the things that you find.”

Sort like items together

Once all your pantry items are laid out in front of you, Howell and Possemato both recommended sorting similar food items together into categories: bakery items, canned vegetables, processed food, cereal, snacks, salad toppings, and so on.

Howell said to think of your pantry like a miniature grocery store, where like items are grouped together so they are easier to find.

“Think of how is the grocery store is laid out,” she said. “For example, the bacon bits are with the salad dressings. That is how we tend to sort things in our mind.”

Label everything

No matter whether you use a label maker, sticky notes or tape and a marker, labeling unmarked items and their designated spots in your pantry is key to keeping it organized.

“I love labels,” Howell said. “It just makes things mindless. Anybody who walks into a space can say, ‘Ok, this is where this goes.’”

Labeling is especially important if you buy food items in bulk and keep them in unmarked containers.

“Labeling is a big thing,” Possemato said. “Make sure you have everything labeled that’s in a jar. If you put anything in a basket make sure you label the basket accordingly so you know what’s in it.”

Howell and Possemato recommend not only labeling containers, but also labeling the spots where you think you will put your items. 

“You want to assign where you think you want to start putting it back,” Howell said. “I like to use sticky notes or a basket with paper.” 

Labeling things can also help save you money.

“By not having a designated labeled home, buying multiples of stuff because you can’t see what you already have,” Howell explained. 

Ditch the original packaging

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Buying in bulk may also lead to bulky packaging. Howell and Possemato both recommend removing items from their original packaging in favor of more streamlined containers.

“It’s totally ok to take things out of the package,” Howell laughed. “You can put them in a basket or a bin, or spice racks or something, and get rid of the bulky box.”

“[Items] take up significantly more room when you leave them in the original boxes instead of taking them out and putting them in containers,” Possemato added. “Glass jars and things like that will help.”

Use containers

Quality containers will not only help you reduce the number of bulky boxes in your pantry, but they will help keep your pantry items fresher and more organized.

“[Airtight containers] keeps food fresher, and that way you know how much you have,” Possemato said. “I always keep [my loose grains] in containers, clearly labeled. It allows them to be stacked, too, using that vertical space.”

Using containers can also help you save money.

“One of the good things about containers is that they naturally limit the amount of stuff that you put in them,” Howell said. “If the basket that we keep popcorn in is full, we don’t buy more popcorn.”

If you are shopping for new containers, Howell said to opt for clear containers.

“I love clear stuff,” Howell said. “It’s easy because again if somebody could just open the cabinet and see what they want.”

Possemato recommended exploring the thrift store to save money on containers, too.

“You can always use baskets, which you can even buy at [the thrift store],” Possemato said. 

Howell warned against rushing into container shopping before you take stock of what is in your pantry.

“Getting containers is like the fun part,” Howell said. “The stuff that’s going into it needs to fit. If you buy a container without knowing what’s going into it, you’re fifty-fifty as to whether you’re going to get it right.”

Save money by upcycling single-use containers

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Howell also said to consider potential containers that you already have before you go shopping for new ones.

“If you have stuff that can be used in a space, just use it,” Howell said. “I don’t care if it’s not pretty enough to go on Pinterest. If it works, and it’s functional, that’s what’s important to me.”

If you are looking to save money, Howell said you can make your own containers from upcycled materials. For example, you can use cereal boxes to create mini-shelves for your spices.

“Another one that I really like is using Coffee-mate containers to store dry things like beans, popcorn and rice,” Howell said. “There was also a time I transferred all my spices to baby food jars.”

Possemato also said that upcycling is a great way to save money, but be sure to label your DIY containers.

“You can use things you have around the house, but try to label everything so you know what it is,” Possemato said.

Be sure to consider your climate when upcycling containers, too.

“It’s humid in Florida. Cardboard can draw insects,” Howell said. “Plastic would be more of an option for me.”

Consider creative vertical shelving

Howell and Possemato both recommended vertical organization systems to utilize all the space in your pantry, especially if you have a small space.

“If you don’t have a lot of shelving, use the vertical space any way that you can to optimize it all,” Possemato said. “If you can your goods, stack them, or [buy] can organizers to use vertical space”

Walls and doors provide a great opportunity for creative shelving.

“Absolutely utilize the space on walls and doors,” Howell said. “You can get chip clips, and if you have a hook mounted on the edge of your pantry, you just hang [your bags of chips or seasoning packets] there.”

Hanging organizers and tiered shelving are especially useful for displaying spices so you can easily see what you have available.

“You can get back of the door organizers for spices, which I like,” Possemato said. “There are also three-tiered shelves, so you have each one displayed so you can see them.”

Miniature shelves will help keep all your items on display.

“I try not to stack things behind other things,” Possemato said. “I try to face it so you can read all the labels and see what you have.”

Howell also recommended lazy Susans, which are rotating, stackable shelves that easily display all the available items they store.

“They come in many sizes and if it’s something that would fit, I highly recommend them,” she said. “They work wonderfully for storing lots of similar items like spices [and] seasonings in an easily accessible way.”

Put things where it makes sense for your family

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When you start putting items back in your pantry, circle back to when you originally considered where things were naturally situated. Using those observations as a guideline will help you to best organize your pantry to suit your family’s specific kitchen quirks.

Howell said that in her house, for example, she keeps the bread, cinnamon, honey and sugar in a cabinet above the toaster instead of in the main pantry.

“It might not make sense to everybody, [but] it makes more sense for our family,” Howell said. “All that stuff is typically used together on toast.”

This also means keeping frequently used spices accessible.

“I have spices in a couple of different places,” Howell said. “Right above our stove, I keep the spices we use all the time. I keep everything else in a drawer.”

If you have children, you can designate areas in the pantry for them, too. 

“Specific people need a specific spot for things,” Howell said. “If your children each have their own snack basket, does it need to be lower? Maybe keep the rest of the snacks up high so they don’t have a feeding frenzy.”

Howell recommended asking your family what they want.

“A lot of times, they don’t care, but invite the opinions of other people that use [the pantry],” Howell laughed.

That way, Howell explained, your family will also be more likely to stick to your organizational system. 

Find a different spot for non-food items

Pantries can easily accumulate assorted cookware used to make your kitchen dreams a reality. 

“Keep it limited to food,” Possemato said. “A lot of people put Crock-Pots and things like that in the pantry. If you’re short on space, you can store them somewhere else because they’re not everyday use items.”

Only buy what you need

Possemato said that changing your grocery shopping habits is essential to maintaining an organized pantry.

“The best advice that I can give is buy with intent,” Possemato said. “Plan your weekly meals around what you have instead of trying to put something together. Buy things for a purpose.”

This is especially important if you have limited storage space in your pantry.

“If you don’t have a huge amount of pantry space, use what you have,” Possemato said. “Don’t keep buying things. Use it until it’s gone.”

Reevaluate your organization system

Howell recommended revisiting your new pantry organization system after about two or three weeks to see if items are going back where you designated them. 

“You can start to see [if] they’re not putting this back, [and start to think] why,” Howell said. “Is it about habit? Is there not enough space? Is it because they have to open something?” 

Howell said to consider the ease of your organization system and adjust accordingly.

“We’re naturally lazy,” she laughed. “It has to be easy to put it away. Every extra step is just lessening the chances of it getting put back where it should go.”

Once you have an effective pantry organization system in place, you will easily be able to access all the items you need when they need them instead of rummaging around in a cluttered closet. These tips for better pantry organization make streamlining your food storage system that is simple and catered to your family’s needs.


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