Ever feel like dinnertime is chaotic? If you find yourself frantically running in circles trying to get dinner on the table, chances are you’re making some pantry organization mistakes. You may think that meal planning is all you need to make dinner in a cinch, but the truth is that in order to plan your meals effectively, you first need to have an organized pantry.
Last week, I helped my friend Bibi (pronounced bee-bee) organize her kitchen’s pantry. Bibi is the mother of 3 children (ages 6, 5 and 4), and she spends her days developing strategies to grow both of her businesses: a Real Estate agency, and a properties investment company. So if she’s not showing or listing houses for sale, she’s meeting contractors to evaluate her next property flipping project.
With 3 kids under 6, and two companies under her belt, you guessed it: keeping the pantry organized is a challenge, and therefore dinnertime is always hectic. With this project, I was able to point out 5 pantry organization mistakes she was making that were slowing her down when it was time to cook her meals.
- Failing to identify family needs
- Not categorizing the food
- Keeping too many boxes
- Storing the wrong things
- Not setting the rules
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Mistake #1: Failing to Identify the Family Needs
When I first opened the pantry, I fainted. Just kidding, but almost. I asked her first a simple question.
Q: How often do you cook pasta? Very often.
And then a few more…
Q: So why in the world is it hiding in the back behind the glass jars? And what are the Oreos doing under the instant ramen soup? And why are the Ritz Crackers falling over the jars?
I try to keep the cookies and snacks on a top shelf so the kids don’t grab them easily.
Her mistake here was not identifying her needs. If she cooks pasta often, then the pasta should be stored towards the front of the shelf, and at eye level. The cookies, crackers and other snacks should be stored together on a separate shelf.
Mistake #2: Not Categorizing The Food
She tried to keep the cookies out of easy reach from the kids, but she wasn’t implementing any system. Everything was put anywhere, on any shelf. When food is not sorted by categories, finding what you need is almost impossible. Not to mention, keeping track of your pantry inventory, or simply writing a shopping list becomes a challenge.
Categorizing food makes it easier to find what you need when you need it. Especially if your pantry, such as this one I worked on, has deep shelves and no pull-out drawers. Here are the categories I came up with:
Pasta & Sauces
In the picture below, the pasta might look like it’s hiding in the back of the shelf, but moving the lasagna box in the front, will reveal the name of the box behind it. Every box behind those is the same type of pasta. Rigatoni behind rigatoni, rotini behind rotini, shells behind shells, and so on and so forth. That way she can see at a glance how many boxes of each type of pasta she has. Her words were: ‘I didn’t know I had so much!’ – Three packets of small pasta (alphabet letters for soup) are contained inside an unutilized stainless steel utensils holder.
On the left, I stored all the jars and cans of sauce and cans of diced tomatoes. See a pattern here? Whenever she wants to make an Italian dinner night, one trip to the pantry and she can pull out the ingredients in seconds.
Still looking at the picture above, you can see how I sorted all the can goods in lines. Everything behind each can is the same product (like in a store). She didn’t know she had 7 cans of corn, 5 of chick peas, 4 of black beans, and the last 4 is a mix of chili beans, red beans, and white beans. Easy right? On the right, I made rows of canned soup and canned fish.
Rice & Other Grains
Continuing with the system of lines, I placed 6 boxes of brown rice on the left, followed by a bag of rice (eventually, it will be stored in an airtight container). A small dollar store bin, holds a few bags of lentils, quinoa, instant soup, and two small boxes of wheat salad. See what I did here? I contained small bags and items that make clutter in one single bin. Accessing those is very easy, and the shelf looks clean and spacious.
Breakfast Goods and other Condiments
This last shelf holds cereal boxes, oatmeal, plenty of jelly and preserves for a year (she must belong to the Jelly Club) and other condiments (like mayo, mustard, salad dressing) that once are opened, have to go in the refrigerator. While she keeps cooking oils inside a cabinet near the stove, I suggested she kept the extra one in the pantry too.
Mistake #3: Keeping too many boxes
Boxed food takes up a lot of space, a lot! And Bibi had way too many boxes. Whenever possible, discard as many boxes as you can and place the contents inside small bins. Bibi was ready and she had a stack of dollar store locker bins waiting for me.
Inside the bin on the left, I was able to place 36 packs of gummies, 12 packs of raisins, and 4 packs of pretzels. The bin on the right holds 27 single packs of potato chips. These two bins fit perfectly on that top shelf away from kids reach, but it is easy enough for her to pull them out when packing lunchboxes.
Another four dollar store bins help contain more snacks. Single packs of crackers are easy to store; everything inside that bin was in 4 separate cardboard boxes. Some people like to keep the boxes to have access to ingredients, allergy information, expiration dates, etc. I usually cut out the top of the box with the expiration date and tuck it inside the bin. For Bibi, that wasn’t important since crackers go fast in her household.
Now those Oreo cookies, biscotti, and more chips are contained too.
Mistake #4: Storing the Wrong Things
If you take a close look at this before picture, you can see gift bags peeking out of the bottom shelf. Once we identified her needs (mistake #1) we concurred that, that definitely wasn’t the place to store gift bags and other party supplies.
That bottom shelf is ‘prime real estate’ in the pantry were things like tablecloths and placemats can be stored. So we moved those gift bags and other goodies to a separate cabinet, that had, even more, party and entertaining goods. So the pantry organization turned into organizing other two set of cabinets.
Cabinet 1, holds arts & crafts supplies. This is a cabinet right above a built-in desk where the kids do their homework.
Cabinet 2, holds all party supplies and paper goods.
Mistake #5: Not Setting Rules
Once we organized the entire pantry, Bibi sighed and hoped she could always keep it that way. So, I said to her: your decluttering and organizing efforts will be worthless if you don’t set rules.
While I can not guarantee Bibi that her pantry will always look like it does now (picture above), I can guarantee that it will never look like it did before (picture below)… IF and ONLY IF she sets some rules and they are followed.
Simple rules like:
- Always taking the time to store the groceries where they belong as soon as they’re brought home.
- Make a pantry inventory at least once a month to avoid buying too many duplicates (aka 10 cans of corn)
- Asking family members to put things back exactly where they belong.
If you find that you are making any of these pantry organization mistakes, fix them now and you will see how you will find yourself meal planning more often, and dinnertime will be less chaotic at your home.
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