With autumn and colder weather around the corner and no end in sight to the coronavirus pandemic, many people may be cooking at home more often during the months ahead. But it’s hard to get inspired when your pantry is a jumble of half-full boxes of pasta, expired canned goods and spices that are long past their prime. How can you know what to cook when you don’t know what you have, or if it’s even usable?

Having an organized and uncluttered pantry will make trying ambitious baking projects or cooking up some comforting soups and stews less stressful. We spoke with professional organizers and a food bank employee for tips on how to quickly — and inexpensively — get your pantry in order. Here are their suggestions.

Sort, toss and donate

Before attempting to organize your food, go through everything in the pantry and toss out expired products, said Vernestine Laughinghouse, founder of Absoulute Organizing Solutions in Washington, D.C. After that, think about what foods and supplies you’ll really eat and use. Keep those things and donate or compost the rest, she said. Research your local food donation and compost options; when Kacy Paide of Silver Spring, Md., reorganized her own pantry, she learned that her neighbors had helped establish a community composting initiative in her condominium complex. Local grocery stores and farmers markets often have composting stations, too.

The problem of excess food is a privilege, particularly now, as the coronavirus pandemic has ravaged the economy and caused record unemployment. Feeding America estimates that more than 54 million people, including 18 million children, may experience food insecurity in 2020. Organizers suggested donating unwanted — but fresh and edible — canned and dry goods to local food pantries and organizations. Don’t try to donate expired food or items with dented, compromised packaging. “I’ve seen clients insist on giving canned food that’s way expired,” Paide said. “You don’t want to burden a food pantry with the work of filtering through what’s good and bad.”

Fill shelves back to front

Enormous quantities of food move through the storage facilities at Second Harvest Food Bank, which serves Santa Clara County in the San Francisco Bay Area. Maya Murthy, Second Harvest’s nutrition director, said the organization served 500,000 households last month — double the number it usually serves — including many people who sought food assistance for the first time. Efficient organizing helps volunteers and staff get food where it needs to go, she said, and a backbone of that system is putting items with later sell-by dates at the back of the shelf and refrigerator and placing older items closer to the front. (These dates don’t indicate when items spoil, but rather when they are at peak freshness, Murthy added.)

Group ‘like with like’

Creating separate zones in the pantry to store similar items together makes it easy to glance at a shelf and immediately find what you’re looking for. Paide suggests categorizing items by use; for example, keep baking supplies together, and group pastas and canned goods each in their own area.

If you’re storing more than sealed containers in the pantry, research how the foods interact. Storing some fruits and vegetables together may cause them to ripen or go bad more quickly. Murthy doesn’t recommend storing fresh fruits and vegetables in the pantry, because they could rot if you forget about them; store them in the refrigerator, and keep a small amount, if you’ll eat them, out on a counter in a bowl. More hardy vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, onions or garlic, can be stored in the pantry, though storing potatoes and onions next to one another could cause potatoes to develop sprouts more quickly.

Use reusable containers

Matching containers look great for Instagram and Pinterest, but Katrina Green, founder of Badass Homelife in Sacramento, Calif., wants to relieve would-be organizers of the pressure of uniformity. Buying matching containers can be expensive and can detract from the objective of the project, which should be to structure the pantry so it’s one less thing to worry about. “It’s about creating a system that makes your life easier,” she said. Buying containers and then having to take time to take food out of packaging and sort it into containers could have the opposite effect.

Using containers you already have around the house or repurposing items, such as cardboard boxes from the mail, is a free and sustainable way to create storage within your pantry, Green and Paide said. Look for spare boxes, and cover them in decorative scrapbook or wrapping paper to make them look nicer, Green suggests. Laughinghouse and Paide also suggest washing old jars — ideally clear glass ones — and reusing them to store dry bulk goods. Or you can find containers in every shape, material and price range at big-box stores and online.

Create simple labels with paper, tape or stickers to identify what’s inside; they don’t have to be fancy or professional-looking. “It’s nice when your pantry looks almost like a kindergarten classroom, because then you can very quickly and easily move through your kitchen without as much guesswork,” Paide said. She adds that you could even write the date you opened or bought the item on the label to easily keep track of freshness.

In some cases, removing products from their original packaging may help save space. Some older buildings or spaces with smaller kitchens may not have perfectly square cabinets, said Patricia Lee and Jeanne Taylor, co-founders of Tailorly Home, an organizing firm based in the San Francisco Bay area. Find containers that stack or can fit into odd nooks and crannies. Paide, who has a small pantry, says she uses little rectangular plastic containers from OXO because she “can’t afford to have a really big jar that’s one-quarter full.”

Other items are better left in their original packaging, such as canned, pouched or tinned food, or items with preparation instructions printed on the package, Laughinghouse said. Neatly stack them or place them in containers with the labels turned outward.

In-cabinet solutions

If you don’t want many individual jars or containers piled up, Laughinghouse suggests getting some larger baskets or boxes and putting separate categories of items in each one to corral them. To tame small items that can easily get lost, such as spices or cooking oils, Laughinghouse, Lee and Taylor all recommended using a rotating Lazy Susan inside a cabinet; get a single or double version depending on your needs. Adding extra shelving, such as a free-standing wire shelf, expands cabinet space vertically and makes it easier to stack items. Installing a pullout drawer or shelf on a rolling track is an easy way to make items more accessible; this works especially well in deep cabinets, Lee and Taylor said. Or add large tubs that pull forward.

Every organizer warned against creating new spaces to store pantry items, unless there is an immediate and specific need. Even if you have a storage unit, garage or spare room, loading those spaces up with extras won’t ease clutter and could risk creating it, Green said.

“You want to make sure space is used smartly, because people expand to fill the space they have,” Paide added. Keeping to the available space will help you avoid overbuying and waste.

Ultimately, how much space is necessary to store pantry supplies depends on the household; what’s needed for one adult looks different from the needs of a larger family, Laughinghouse said.

“If you’re purchasing anything, think about how you plan to use it before you buy it,” she added. “Have a specific use for it. Don’t just buy it because it’s on sale.”

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