Organize Your Pantry in 10 Easy Steps This Weekend

Sarita Harbour

You likely open your pantry door at least a couple of times a day to rummage around for something to eat or cook. Over time, that pantry has probably become a bit of a mess, with items stuffed haphazardly wherever there is room. Yet, pantries are highly desirable home features. In fact, a recent National Association of Home Builders survey found that 80 percent of respondents looked for a walk-in pantry when searching for a new home.

Whether your pantry is a walk-in or a few shelves behind a door, it’s time to get it organized. Once everything is in its place, you’ll be able to find what you need more quickly and easily. In addition, you’ll have a better sense of what you have in your pantry, which means you’ll remember to use up items approaching their expiration date. As you won’t have to throw out those items, you’ll save money—especially important if you’re on a fixed income.

You’ll also be able to avoid buying too much of one item because you’ll be able to see what you already have, instead of discovering extra cans or packages at the back of a shelf…after just having bought five more at the store. And if you’re a new empty nester, you’ll be better able to assess how quickly your now-smaller household is going through food and adjust your shopping habits to save money.

Use these ten tips to organize your pantry this weekend.

Note: We recommend reading through this entire article prior to tackling this pantry organization project. Although you may already own several of the required items, you may need to create a shopping list and visit your local hardware store to pick up a few things.

1. Remove Everything and Clean Your Pantry’s Interior

Before tackling the actual organization, remove all the cans, boxes, bins, and other items in your pantry. Don’t sort as you go—that’s Step 3. Just get it all out and either lay it on a clean sheet on the floor or load it up into a few cardboard boxes for now.

Once you’ve removed everything, it’s time to dust or vacuum out the cobwebs, crumbs, dust, and food debris. Finish off by wiping out your pantry’s interior. Use a soft terry cloth rag and a spray bottle of your favorite non-toxic cleaning solution. (Remember, you do store food in here and you don’t want your cereals and crackers to soak up toxic fumes).

One inexpensive and safe option is to mix up a solution that’s half water and half vinegar. Lightly spray the interior of the pantry and then wipe down. If your pantry has a door, leave it open so that your shelving and interior pantry walls can dry and air out. Allow at least an hour for this.

2. Throw Out Expired Items

Sort through the items you removed from your pantry and set aside anything with an expiration date that has already passed. The amount of expired food items hiding in your pantry may surprise you. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that Americans toss out a whopping $161 billion of food annually.

There are conflicting ideas about how safe food is past its expiration date. A 2016 Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic survey found that 37 percent of consumers say they always or usually throw out food that’s close to or past its expiration date, 47 percent occasionally do so, and 16 percent never do so. For the purpose of this project, let’s err on the side of caution and get rid of anything that could make you sick. Going forward, you’ll be so organized that you’ll use up your food well before that expiration date arrives.

3. Apply Shelf Liner or Non-Skid Rubber Matting

Once your shelves have completely dried, it’s time to lay down new shelf paper or non-skid rubber matting. Use one of these even if you plan to use glass or plastic containers to organize your pantry staples. It will help to protect the shelf from scratches, spills, and stains.

Vinyl shelf liner is a great option because it’s fairly easy to clean and replace. Shelf liner comes in a wide variety of patterns to suit all decors. Some shelf liners have grids printed on their backing, which makes measuring and cutting easier. Rubber matting is simple to measure and cut (it doesn’t tend to roll back on itself like shelf liner), and is available in solid neutral colors.

Measure your shelf carefully. Then cut your liner or matting to fit, and roll it into place. If you’re using vinyl shelf liner, be sure to smooth out any air bubbles; try using an old gift card to make the application process easier.

4. Create Pantry Zones

Measure the height between shelves. You’ll use this information to organize your pantry into “zones” to accommodate your family’s pantry staples.

If your pantry is more than 16 inches deep, consider investing in a roll-out pantry tray. This will make it easier to access those hard-to-reach cans in the back that expire because you can’t see them and forget that they’re there.

Pantry zones look different for each family depending on pantry size, food preferences, and packaging preferences. For example, if you usually have four or five large boxes of cereal in your pantry, you’ll need a “cereal box” zone. If you only have one pantry shelf with enough “height” to accommodate the boxes, that’s where they’ll go. (Note: If needed, store your cereal boxes on their side and slide them out like long books. Alternatively, store cereal in glass or plastic containers that fit your pantry.)

Armed with your measurements, take a good look at all the items you removed from your pantry, minus the expired ones. Now make a plan for what will fit on each shelf. Try to group foods according to your habits. For example, you could have a “breakfast” shelf, a “healthy snack” shelf, and an “appetizer” shelf. This helps you find foods quicker and easier so you don’t forget about them before they expire.

5. Choose Baskets, Plastic, or Glass Containers for Your Pantry

What type of storage container should you choose? It depends on your pantry, your preferences, and your lifestyle.

Baskets are pretty for open pantries, but food won’t stay fresh unless it’s sealed in other packaging. And baskets can be expensive.

If you have a closed pantry and want to maximize your storage space, look for rectangular or square pantry storage sets to make use of every available square inch.

If you’re on a budget, check out garage sales, thrift stores, and online classifieds for used Tupperware sets. Consider reusing glass jars or large yogurt containers. Or just leave your food items in their original packaging.

And if you have kids or grandkids in the house, remember that glass can break if it’s knocked over when Junior reaches for a snack, so consider plastic as a safer option.

6. Label Your Shelves

Although labeling containers is generally a good idea for everyone, whether you should also label your shelves depends on how many people use your pantry, how often, and how good their memories are.

Labeled pantry shelves are a good idea for large families. Whether they live in your home or visit you and your pantry on a regular basis, labeled shelves help keep things organized if your son-in-law or granddaughter routinely raids the pantry.

If you and your spouse are the only ones who use your pantry and both of you have no trouble remembering where things go, forego the bother of labeling shelves.

7. Buy or Make Tiered Pantry Shelves to Maximize Space

Some pantries have deep shelves with plenty of space between each level. If you don’t want to add a roll-out pantry tray, buy or make tiered pantry shelves that will sit on the existing shelf. Here’s how it works: You can place a shelf (that looks like a small table) on your existing shelf, and if there’s enough room, you can place another shelf on top of that one. Stacking these mini shelves on existing shelves makes the back rows of cans more visible.

8. Find the Wasted Space

Does your pantry include minimal shelving? Sometimes shelves are so far apart that they waste valuable vertical space in which you could store more of your favorite pantry staples. Instead of cutting wood and drilling holes to add more shelving, consider adding vinyl-coated baskets. These clip-on baskets are available at kitchen and hardware stores. They sit below a shelf and can hold light items like bread or rolls. Measure before you buy, though. A basket that’s too big will start to encroach on the items sitting below it.

9. Add a Behind-the-Door Organizer

Your pantry door is yet another great place to find extra storage space. Even a small space between the closed door and the pantry shelves will provide enough room to add a calendar, wipe-off board, or mail organizer. If you have a little more space, add a behind-the-door spice rack or a holder for tin foil and plastic wrap. Look for these at your local hardware store.

10. Arrange Items by Order of Use

After all that organizing, you’re finally ready to restock your pantry. And although this is Step 10, this may be the most important step of all.

Arrange your food items within each shelf zone (Step 4) by expiration date. Place those boxes or cans with the most immediate expiration date at the front. When you place your groceries in your pantry after a shopping trip, store the items with expiration dates further in the future at the back of the shelf. This way, when you’re reaching for food, the items closest to their expiration dates will be used first.This will mean less waste—and more money in your pocket.

Organizing your pantry shouldn’t be hard, but to do it effectively and efficiently, it helps to have a plan. Grab your supplies, roll up your sleeves, and get started this weekend.

READ MORE: 3 Kitchen Clean-Up Guides