Everything in its Place: Organizing your pantry can simplify shopping and cooking

Steve Peters / Photo

Steve Peters

You could say I like organization. I regularly try out new ways to manage my workflow using the latest productivity apps. And much to the dismay of my girlfriend, I often rearrange and reconfigure everything in our condo, from the furniture to our kitchen cabinets. The question is, do I like to be organized, or simply enjoy the act of organizing?

When I had the house to myself the other week and a little free time, I went to work on addressing one of my long-standing frustrations: the pantry. Despite previous attempts to categorize like items and group them together in bins, it still wasn’t all that productive of a system. You had to take out certain items just to access others. But worst of all, you couldn’t locate most of what was in the pantry because the deep shelves, while spacious, only allowed the items directly in front to be seen.

The result was a ton of wasted space, and frustration and inefficiency in the kitchen. If I want to be a better cook, which I do, and if you’re reading this column I’m guessing you do as well, it’s not just about mastering techniques, understanding flavor profiles and having the ability to follow or create your own recipes. It’s also about being organized and efficient with time, resources and space. An impractical pantry prevents much else from being done well.

You could understand why then I had a bit of fun grabbing a hammer and smashing out the existing shelving system — a system that was no doubt installed by someone who didn’t spend much time in their own kitchen. I took out the shelves and the supports that held them in place. I then patched up the walls and gave them a quick coat of paint. And then I got to work with the new shelves.

The difference with the new-and-improved shelving was that it wraps around the three small walls of my pantry. Although the size of the shelves is smaller, I can now see virtually everything I have with a couple of quick glances. My calculations indicate I did lose a few hundred square inches in the process, but I actually ended up being able to add more into my closet in the end. The entire project took about half a weekend to accomplish, and cost only about seventy five dollars.

No, this isn’t just a humble brag piece about my new-and-improved pantry. It’s not all that fancy compared to anything you’d find at Ikea. Maybe this shelving idea could apply to your own pantry. Or maybe not. The point is to find the organization process that works for you. Because keeping your food organized leads to an overall better cooking experience. Here’s why:

Saves you time shopping

I always say don’t go grocery shopping without a list. But how can you make a list when you can’t see what you already have? An organized pantry, cupboard, shelf, fridge or wherever it is you’re storing your food, sets you up for success way before you even get to the point of cooking. If you have a designated space for your cans of crushed tomatoes and can see that it’s empty, you know you need to add that to your list without even thinking about it.

Makes meal planning easier

This is along the same lines as shopping. Knowing what you have allows you to plan to use it. Looking into the pantry and seeing nothing but a black hole mess of bags and boxes doesn’t help anyone.

Makes cooking easier

Imagine it’s the end of the day, you’re standing in your kitchen and you need to make dinner. You feel accomplished because you picked out a recipe without difficulty. Now you’re ready to cook, but first just need to get everything on the ingredients list together. This should be a quick and easy task. Grab items and get them out on the counter. Except you need to search behind a bunch of boxes for the container of bread crumbs, dig through a drawer of dozens of spices to find the dried oregano, and you only now realize you have elbow pasta and not linguine to serve with chicken Parmesan. No wonder why takeout sounded so appealing. You just spent a half hour just finding what you needed.

Prevents waste

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bought something only to bring it home and find out I already had it. Not only do I not have room to store this new and unnecessary item, I may not even get around to using it while it’s still good. I wasted time, money and food because I couldn’t find what I had in my pantry before I made my list and headed to the store.

Does it sound like it’s time to get your pantry organized? Here are a few quick tips that I’ve previously discussed in detail:

Get rid of the messy bags and boxes. Use clear jars and containers that fit your space so you can see not only what you have, but how much as well.

Follow the rule of first in, first out. When you buy a new item, such as a bottle of olive oil, put it behind the one you already have. That way, you use the older bottle first.

Group like items together on the same shelf or contained together in a bin or other vessel.

Steve Peters

Steve Peters is a cook, gardener and baker living in Rutland.

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