They say a cluttered home means a cluttered mind; does that mean a cluttered pantry means a cluttered….stomach? I don’t know, we’re in week four of quarantine and my brain is roughly the consistency of rice pudding, forgive me. But as we all spend more time in our homes, living and working and cooking, let me give you one important piece of advice that will help get you through these difficult times: clean out your pantry.
If you’re like my wife Julia and I, the pantry is just a black hole you throw your nonperishables in, only for them to disappear from memory. It’s a pile of redundant potato chip bags and a million half-depleted tortilla packages. And like most big messes in the house, it’s easiest to just close the door and pretend it doesn’t exist.
But as soon as Julia and I figured out that we were going to be in this perpetual work-from-home/cook-from-home situation for quite some time, we set aside a single Saturday to do what we should have done a long time ago: clean our goddamn pantry. It turned out to be not only a good exercise in cleanliness and home organization, but a way to bring an immediate sense of calm to such a confined living space.
Our pantry is a little unusual. In our two-bedroom apartment, it sits next to the fridge in a little walk-in room where the washer and dryer were supposed to be, back when our apartment building was going to be condos. Instead of normal shelves—which weren’t provided in the tiny room—we have a 5-shelf wire rack where we keep our stand mixer (wedding gift, never used, naturally), extra glassware, FoodSaver vacuum sealer, all our other single-use gadgets, and everything too big to fit in our cabinets. Then, there’s a smaller corner shelving unit just inside the door, and an over-the-door hanging rack. These act as our main pantry, where all our food is stored.
Being the project managers we are, we laid out a pantry organization plan of attack and held ourselves to it. We came away from the experience with some useful tips, ones that could prove useful for anyone else who needs a pantry revamp right now, at a time when we should all be doing ourselves the kindness of decluttering our homes and our minds.
Take everything out of your pantry.
If you’ve got the available counter space to set everything out there, great; if not, set it on the kitchen table, or the floor. But wherever you put it, remove every item and set it aside. This will feel momentarily far more stressful than having a cluttered pantry, but this is fleeting.
Cull what you won’t use—and be merciless about it.
Obviously, get rid of the old, moldy bags of tortillas, or those potatoes that are just a little bit too squishy. Same goes for everything that’s more than a few months past its expiration date. As for the rest, identify what you’ve got too many duplicates of (three cans of hearts of palm?!) and try to think of a dish you can incorporate them into. Otherwise, consider giving those extra cans to a neighbor who might need them more.
Assess the remainder and start grouping things together.
Take stock of the rest of the stuff sprawled out on your countertops and organize items not just by type, but by size/shape: bags of rice go with bags of beans, boxes of pasta with boxes of soup mix, etc.
Wipe down surfaces.
Make sure your pantry shelves are free of dust, stray bits of onion skin, and any other detritus before you fill them back up. And check the bottoms of things like molasses jars or syrup bottles, which might have some sticky residue on the sides and bottom that could transfer to your now clean pantry.
Designate shelves for certain foods in advance.
Our reorganization was as follows, from bottom to top: cans/jars; rice/grains; pasta/miscellaneous; potatoes/onions (I know it’s a bit dicey to store them together, but we have them in separate compartments and we just don’t have room to stash them elsewhere!); and chips/paper towels. This system corresponds to the items we need to grab most often, but yours might be different depending on your cooking habits.
Don’t store smaller items with larger ones.
As for the over-the-door-shelves, we focused on keeping smaller items there, such as containers of nuts, smaller boxes of rice and broth, Ziploc bags, and the like. This is where reorganizing items by size and shape comes in handy: the fewer smaller things cluttering up your main pantry area, the easier it is to see everything you have. Plus, it gives the illusion of being cleaner all around.
Make an inventory and plan a meal for each of your pantry items.
This last step is maybe a bit obsessive, but make a list or spreadsheet or something of everything you’ve got. Even the cleanest pantry tends to hide a few of its secrets, and it’s easy to lose track of everything once it’s no longer hanging out all over your countertops. So, as you’re restocking your now tidy shelves, tally up what you’ve got and make a meal plan of how to actually put this stuff to good use. Even if you don’t have a recipe for that huge bag of black beans right now, think of one thing you can use it for within the next month. Find dishes that use up some of your smaller items and carve out a bit more room in your pantry. (For our part, we rustled up a mean Greek salad using hearts of palm, a jar of kalamata olives, and roasted red peppers.)
Obviously, you can play fast and loose with these rules. But at the end of the exercise, we felt a strange sense of accomplishment and calm, something that’s made us feel a bit more prepared to wait things out in our modest little apartment, with our modest little pantry.
It’s hard enough to live in a small space when you’re stuck inside for days on end, but all the more so when your cooking space is a mess. At a time when we’re making more inventive use of our pantry items than ever before, it’s downright empowering to have a clear sense of what you’ve already got on hand. We might not have control over a lot of what’s happening right now, but maybe, maybe, we can make our homes what we want them to be.