I Turned My Chaotic Pantry Into an Oasis of Organization

I Turned My Chaotic Pantry Into an Oasis of Organization

All it took was some time, a few shelves, and a reckoning with how my brain works and why.

This story is a part of New Year, New You, a package devoted to small, low-stress home improvement projects that, with a little effort, will dramatically improve your life.

There’s a spot in my kitchen that is a black hole of pure chaos—a weird, narrow closet in the corner that serves, rather poorly, as a pantry. At least once a week, somebody in my house opens the door, shakes their head, says "we need to fix this," and then closes the door and walks away. At some point, there was something like a system, but only its ghost remains. Now it’s a jumble of half-full pasta boxes, forgotten jars of peanut butter, weird jellies, and one giant container of Goldfish crackers that hasn’t been opened in months, because I’d bought a huge box of individual bags, stuck them in another part of the kitchen, and completely forgotten about the giant container.

Various types of garbage bags are scattered across the bottom three shelves. A mini loaf pan, originally repurposed to hold granola bars, is now piled high with shelf-stable Trader Joe’s "Indian Fare" pouches, which didn’t really fit, and the pan is balanced tenuously on top of a bunch of other stuff. I say "a bunch of other stuff," because I have no idea what that other stuff even is. All the other snacks are in a completely different place in the kitchen. The various oils, salt, and one large container of pepper are stored in yet another place, with the Tupperware, in a wholly different cabinet.

Basically, it’s an embarrassing and annoying shambles and a total waste of space. So here’s how I’m fixing it.

Assess the Situation

My best chance of fixing the chaos pantry—and keeping it fixed—was to stop and think about what exactly was going on here before I started moving things around or buying storage solutions. And that meant being genuinely honest with myself about what was going on, and what I needed to change to make this stick. I also knew that I needed a professional’s opinion. "Is it kind of a dumping ground?" asked organizer Dr. Regina Lark when I described the situation to her. Yes. Yes it was. I was losing stuff in the over-full pantry, like the ossified sweet potatoes that tumbled out from the garbage bags, because I couldn’t see it.

Dr. Lark gently (but firmly) suggested that there’s a good chance I either have bad time management skills, "or there’s so much going on in your day that you can’t possibly figure out ‘when can I put this back in a way that makes sense.’" (Frankly, it’s a bit of both.) And so I needed to figure out a system that would work for me, my circumstances (ie, being a busy working parent who’d rather devote 15 minutes of tidying a day to the living room, or just sit down), and the way my brain works.

"The goal of being organized is to be able to get what you want when you need it and to put it back just as easily," says Dr. Lark. "Your current strategy isn’t that. And it’s one thing to organize it—it’s a completely different story to maintain it. So we have to think about how we increase the likelihood of maintaining a cleared space."

A Fresh Start

Step one was very simple: "Collect all the food, all around the house. You take everything out and leave it out, even if you have to put up a folding table," Lark says. "I think we can increase the likelihood of our success if we act on big, broad categories."

Not only did I empty the weird pantry, I pulled the various vegetable oils out of the Tupperware cabinet and I gathered up the snacks from their various homes, and I spread it all out on the dinner table. And while I did it, I checked expiration dates, too, and just tossed a lot of things. In the process I also realized that it’s a fool’s errand to try to stock up on food my kid likes, because she changes her preferences too often and I end up with a quarter bag of hard-as-a-rock raisins. (Much as I love Costco, it’s easier to keep organized when you don’t over purchase.)

Think About What You Really Want the Space to Do

Once I could finally see the blank space I was working with, I thought long and hard about something else Dr. Lark told me: I didn’t have to use it as a pantry. I could use it however I wanted, because it was my pantry. I liked the idea of mostly using it for canned and dry goods, but I didn’t particularly want to squat down to hunt for stewed tomatoes, either. The garbage bags got to stay, but the sandwich bags relocated to live in the tinfoil drawer. The reclaimed space went to canned cat food (which never before had a proper home).

I also took a shelf in the middle and subdivided it: half of the real estate went to the rice cooker and the toaster, and the other half went to microwave popcorn and Swiss Miss. Was this a system that would make sense to anybody else in the world? Probably not. But it put the popcorn and hot chocolate within easy reach of my kid, who loves to do them herself, and it tucked two weird-shaped items into a perfectly sized place where I’d always know exactly where they were.

Put Everything Where You Can See It

All that was the easy part. Now we’d reached the place where it’s all fallen apart for me in every place I’ve ever lived: the canned and dry goods.

Clearly, part of the problem was visibility. Dr. Lark recommends risers as a straightforward way to make it easier to see at a glance what I have. "Do it by what you use," she says. "Look at the stuff and ask, am I going into the pantry all the time for this? Are you using soup all the time, are you using rice all the time? That stuff needs to be more toward the front. The stuff you use most often, I want you to be able to access it without any hassle."

I was left with three good-sized shelves to devote to canned and dry goods. I budgeted $50 for this project, so I went to Target. First, I bought this $10 plastic riser from their Brightroom house brand, which took up half of one shelf; I spread out crackers and other dry goods on it, one layer deep–and one layer only. On the other side of the shelf, I stuck one of these three-tier risers I already owned, and dedicated it to oils and large spices. Another shelf now houses a second three-tier riser with canned goods and sauces; the second half of the shelf has two plastic Brightroom bins ($8 each) that hold the TJs pouches and other shelf-stable microwavable meals.

3-Tier Graphite Mesh Cabinet & Spice Organizer
3-Tier Graphite Mesh Cabinet & Spice Organizer
This 3-Tier Silver Mesh Cabinet Organizer maximizes the storage potential of your countertops, cabinets and pantry shelves while making items easy to see. The organizer features three levels; your countertop or shelf provides a fourth storage tier.
Wide Plastic Cabinet Shelf
Wide Plastic Cabinet Shelf
This clear cabinet shelf features a rectangle shape with a wide design that easily fits in your cabinet and suits a range of decor styles. Made with plastic, this shelf comes with side cutouts for convenient holding and moving.

My biggest splurge was for the top shelf, which was a big jumble of half-empty pasta boxes. I wanted a way I could actually see the pasta, rice, and granola I had on hand, and I wanted it easily lined up. So I bought this five-pack of Oxo airtight storage containers, which was on sale for $49.49 and completely blew my budget for the project. I stood there for a moment and seriously considered the Brightroom version ($25), but after experimenting with some canisters that were on display, I decided the seal on the lids just wouldn’t hold up to my satisfaction.

OXO Good Grips 5-Piece POP Container Set
OXO Good Grips 5-Piece POP Container Set
Set includes: One (1) 2.1 Qt Container, one (1) 1.5 Qt Container, two (2) 0.9 Qt Containers, and one (1) 0.3 Qt Container


Get Help and Create Some Structure for Yourself

Dr. Lark had another good recommendation, too: call your most organized friend and let them help. And then write your system down. "Let your friend organize the pantry and then you write down on a piece of paper the pantry manifest. The top shelf has this, the second shelf has this, the third shelf has this." Because it’s one thing to organize the pantry—it’s another thing entirely to maintain it. "What I would like for your big takeaway is to honor your brain wiring," she added.

Much as I wish otherwise, when it comes to my space, my brain is not going to spontaneously generate structure. Instead, I have to build myself some scaffolding. I have to set limits. Clearly, part of the problem with the pantry wasn’t just out of sight, out of mind—it was that it was too wide-open. I needed clear rules and limits. I have to be able to see absolutely everything. The minute I catch myself trying to cram something somewhere it doesn’t fit, I have to take a big step back.

Ultimately, too, I realized that I wasn’t done when I finished the pantry. If it’s going to work in the long term, I need to make sure the rest of the kitchen is working in a logical fashion. I need to finish organizing the snacks. I need to find the best possible home for the dish towels I took out of the pantry. But now I can actually see everything, and the canned cat food has a home, and I have the beginnings of a plan. And that’s a start.

Top photo by cemagraphics/Getty Images

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