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How to Make Even the Smallest Pantry Feel Like a Gourmet Food Store

Plus, every container in my pantry.
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A few weeks ago, Jonah and I hosted guests for the first time in our new house. Seeing it through their eyes opened mine to some of the projects I'd been putting off: Namely, our eye sore of a pantry, which had also become an avalanche risk. Our kitchen pantry is less than two feet wide, with a structural column taking up the majority of the interior. It's even smaller than the one we had in our 400 square-foot apartment in L.A., which immediately posed a challenge to two people who cook and bake often. As soon as our friends left, I set to work: I began categorizing the products we actually use and ordered storage solutions from The Container Store. To my amazement, our pantry actually feels roomy now—which, as you'll see from the "Before" photos, I never thought would be possible. With a few smart products (like this spice rack), and tips I shared below, we have a pantry that feels like a specialty food store:

1. Take everything out for a "pantry audit."

Approach your pantry overhaul the same way you would a closet edit. Borrowing from the KonMari Method (I also love her line of ceramic organizing products), I took every single item out and began by removing expired products (thankfully, there weren't too many!). From there, I placed "aspirational" and soon-to-expire products in a separate pile to use that week. If I didn't use the milk powder to make this bread or kombu to make dashi, it was out. Taste any foods you think might be stale, so you don't end up putting rock-hard crackers or dried cherries back in.

Before (in case that wasn't glaringly obvious) 

Before (in case that wasn't glaringly obvious) 

2. Start with the containers. 

This is a bit of a "chicken or egg" situation, but my advice is to start with the containers, then fit your food into them (you can always return or swap out the containers that don't end up working). Begin by measuring out your space and buy a variety of containers to maximize that space, estimating as best as you can what you'll need.

I broke our pantry down into five primary sections, based on shelf space: 1.) Spices and oils/vinegars, 2.) grains, 3.) cans and frequently-used items, 4.) specialty items/overflow on the bottom, and 5.) a separate area for baking. For our grains, I used primarily OXO 1.7 qt. Short Rectangle POP Containers, which are the perfect size for most grains and pasta we rely on regularly: Farro, quinoa, orzo, brown rice, and arborio rice. From there, I used a few OXO Cereal Containers (for white rice and cereal), and OXO 1.2 qt. Short Rectangle POP Containers for items that spoil quickly, like raw cashews and slivered almonds. 

1. Divide food between "cooking" and "baking."

Once you've audited your pantry, divide items between cooking and baking. For any items that overlap, decide which you use it most often for and add it to that category. 

2. Separate your "cooking" food into three primary categories.

While the bulk of baking items comes down to flours and sugars, the "cooking" category can be a bit trickier to divide up. I found, after some trial and error, that it was most useful to separate them into three main categories:

  1. Regular use: Things you use regularly to cook, like grains, oils and vinegars, canned items, and spices.
  2. One-time use/"to finish": There are plenty of items I buy for special, one-off occasions, then have hanging around my pantry for months. Think: holidays (matzoh, hot chocolate), camping (graham crackers and marshmallows), and hosting (chips and crackers). Lumping these together actually makes them easier to seek out and pull from, when we're feeling snacky or like making something out of our regular wheelhouse. For example, last week, I made my favorite latkes, which call for matzo meal, after discovering a treasure trove of nearly stale matzo in the back of our pantry. 
  3. Specialty items: The majority of my accessible pantry space was being taken over by specialty items I use maybe once a month, like candied ginger, sushi rice, preserved lemons, and oil-packed sardines and capers. Place these items to the side, to corral in bins (see below).

3. Organize "Regular use" items from "Most Used" to "Least"

At this point, your "regular use" items should be, by far, your largest pantry category. To make it as useable as possible, here's how I recommend organizing each category:

  1. Oils and vinegars: Line up all of your oils and vinegars from "least-used" to "most-used," and let that guide their pantry position. Side note: If you have any gourmet olive oil that's "too expensive" to use, don't save it! Oil isn't wine—it turns bitter and spoils relatively quickly. You want to use the good stuff while it's as fresh as possible. 
  2. Spices: If you're like me, you have approximately one million spices. But here's the thing: You likely only use, at maximum, twenty or so of those regularly enough to warrant a prime pantry location. While I previously corralled my spices on a Lazy Susan, I recently switched to a container that only holds 24. After selecting my top spices, I organized them in alphabetical order with clear labeling and placed the remainder in my "specialty" bin.
  3. Grains, Pasta, Legumes: If you're a regular cook, you'll likely have four small containers of grains, two medium sizes, and two large sizes. Decant those you use regularly into clear, labeled containers, roughly the size of the box they come in, and keep any irregular purchases (mine include bulgar, grits, and Moroccan couscous) tucked away in their original bags.
  4. Canned Food: The best storage solution for canned food is a soda can holder, which makes use of vertical space and is easy to access. I make sure to keep no more than what fits in my holder (roughly twelve cans), prioritizing chickpeas, beets (great for salads), tuna fish (great for quick lunches), and crushed tomatoes (for pasta). I keep nut butters in the fridge now, after having too many go rancid in the pantry. 
  5. Misc. Frequent Use: As you go through your "regular use" items, pull out the ones you use daily. For me, that included honey, olive oil, coconut oil spray, finishing salt, and red wine vinegar. These should be placed in their own section of the pantry, wherever they're easiest to grab.

1. Use containers from the same brand for consistency.

In the past, our pantry used a motley crew of containers—bell jars, bags, bottles. This time, we decided to expand on our existing collection of OXO POP Containers in varying sizes to create a more cohesive look that looks streamlined. For our pantry, we used these clear, airtight containers from The Home Edit, which are perfect for items like flours, oats, and sugars.

2. Corral one-time and specialty items in matching, labeled bins.

Corral any free-floating items you can. Place bottles of sparkling water in wire baskets, potatoes and alliums into smaller containers, and miscellaneous items into bins, with labels. I used several "Nordic Baskets" in Medium and Large, with matching bamboo lids and hangtags, to keep our pantry items organized—then used them to corral pet items nearby for consistency.

3. Decant almost everything. 

Whenever possible, decant items into clear bins. Not only does it look better to have your cereal in a clear, plastic bin, but it's also easier to see when you're almost out. The exception to this is items that go bad more quickly, when removed from the bag, like chocolate chips, which we keep in their bag in a container.

1. Not taking expiration speed into account.

Food can expire at a variety of different speeds—raw nuts, for example, will often go stale faster than processed foods and grains. To avoid wasting food, keep fast-expiring items in smaller containers for quicker turnover.

2. Buying items in bulk. 

Buying bulk saves a lot of time, and is great if you have a larger pantry and family that can sustain it, but unfortunately isn't the best solution for a small pantry. Instead, I go to the grocery store more frequently for smaller buys (it helps that ours is walking distance!), so I don't feel the need to "stock up."

3. Subscribing to items.

As tempting as it is to subscribe to items at a discount—a feature sites like Amazon and Thrive offer—it can also frequently result in too many of one thing, and in wasted space and money. Subscriptions are only convenient for products you reliably turn through on a schedule, like snacks for kids' lunches.

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