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Posted on Aug 13, 2008 in Bento, Organize, Tips | 27 comments

Kitchen Reorganization Series: Pantry

Kitchen Reorganization Series: Pantry

I freaked out in anticipation of a photo shoot with Apartment Therapy’s The Kitchn blog for last month’s photo tour of my bento kitchen, and did a sweeping overhaul of my cabinets, refrigerator and pantry before they came. In part one of my Kitchen Reorganization Series, I showed how I reorganized my scary spice pantry. Here’s part two: my main kitchen pantries. Once upon a time these cabinets were organized, but all that remained was a general skeleton of sections where different types of foods went. It was time to get to work before the cameras arrived! (UPDATE: The series continues with the reorganization of my refrigerator and freezer and the remaining cabinets and garbage containers for the prep area.)

Before: Pantry 2 in a jumble

Organization had gone downhill and turned into the disaster area that you see above. The problems were that I often forgot what was in the back of the cabinet, and I needed to get out a stepladder to root around in shelves up high. I did have a single pull-out pantry basket with baking ingredients like cornstarch and baking powder, but this was just a drop in the bucket. This kitchen cabinet needed some serious culling and organization. (Click on any photo for a larger, annotated view.)

After: Pantry 2 organized

Again, enter pantry baskets. To rehash, here’s why pantry baskets work for me:

  • Storing related things together in baskets means that you can just pull a single basket down from a high shelf instead of pulling out a stepladder to root around.
  • Because I pull out entire baskets more regularly, I’m more familiar with what’s in the pantry and will be less likely to re-buy something I already have (I do this from time to time. D’oh!). Any food inventory system should save you money in the long run.

(Read on for the full kitchen pantry reorganization & a request from a Tampa Bay, Florida journalist.)

After: Pantry basket of toast spreads

A trip to Daiso and Ichiban Kan discount stores yielded a variety of organizer baskets and trays for the pantry and refrigerator. (For store information see the online store list and the San Francisco Bay Area shopping guide for bento gear.) I measured the depth of my cabinets before shopping and brought a tape measure with me to the stores to make sure that anything I bought would actually fit inside the cabinets. The cabinets above are relatively shallow, so many of the baskets in the stores were too long. I used many more baskets than I initially thought I would, and made multiple trips to Daiso and Ichiban Kan for additional supplies in different sizes as I made progress. You might not be able to anticipate everything you’ll need for a kitchen reorganization until you’re in the middle of it, sorting through cans. Don’t beat yourself up over this — it’s par for the course.

I labeled some of the pantry baskets to help my husband navigate, but didn’t want to label everything as that would feel too restrictive (gotta give myself some wiggle room going forward as the contents of my cabinets change). Some of the labeled pantry baskets include toast spreads (three kinds of Marmite yeast extract, Nutella, honey, etc.), pasta, starches/grains, salts (fleur de sel, table, sea, rock), baking, dried chili peppers, popcorn, flour/sugar, and soup/beans. (Click on the photo for a view with complete notes.)

Highlights for me are the toast spread basket, the salt basket, and the flour/sugar basket.

  • Having all of our toast spreads together in one basket means I can quickly grab that (and the toast spread tray in the refrigerator) in the mornings for breakfast.
  • The salts used to be scattered all around on the top shelf and hard to reach, now they’re all in one container that I can easily pull down when cooking. Salt is something that my husband uses when he cooks, so he appreciates that they’re easier to find now.
  • Having a variety of flours and sugars tucked in here and there on the top shelf also meant that I had to get out a stepladder when I needed something; having everything together in one large pantry basket eliminates the need for a stepladder. It also speeds up my cooking prep because I’m not spending time searching through the cupboards for what I need.

Verdict: A month and a half later, I’ve been able to maintain this cabinet organization because of my large downstairs pantry area (I have definite packrat tendencies — I realize this!). If I didn’t have excess room to contain the overflow, I’d have to be a lot more disciplined.

* * * * *

I didn’t take a “before” picture of the tall pantry area next to my wall ovens, so use your imagination. The middle shelves were pretty much under control, but the very top and bottom shelves were a disaster area. They had been organized about four years ago when I went through all of our cabinets weeding out glutened items, but over the years I lapsed on maintenance and just shoved things in willy nilly. Pantry baskets and bottle bins were the solution for taming these deep shelves, giving easy access to items in the back.

After: Pantry 3 organized

After: Top of organized pantry 3The top shelf holds three baskets with dry good staples that I use often. Nuts, legumes, dried fruit and cereal are in front, and a basket turned sideways behind them holds all of my corn products (polenta, grits, corn flour, cornbread mix, etc.). Again, click on any photo for a larger view with annotations.

The second shelf down includes a refrigerator tray with hot cereals (oatmeal, quinoa cereal, maple sugar, brown sugar), and a small bin with a baggie of individual condiment packets I’ve salvaged (good for packed lunches!) and Indian ready-to-eat foods that we found when my husband was misdiagnosed with celiac disease (gluten intolerance). The foil pouches of Indian food were great when my husband went on business trips and needed to be self-sufficient in terms of gluten-free food not cross-contaminated in restaurant  kitchens.

Also on the second shelf is our blender jar, a Korean barbecue grill for tabletop grilling, an earthenware hotpot for shabu shabu or nabe dishes, and my takoyaki octopus ball maker.

After: Middle of organized pantry 3

The third shelf has a small basket with ramen noodles, mixed nuts, and the rest of our blender. Behind them is a portable gas burner for tabletop or outside cooking, a narrow pantry basket with extra gas canisters, and a chip/dip server. I use the portable burner when making  Korean barbecue or hotpot at home, or when catering outside parties for our friends.

The fourth shelf down has my rice cooker: a 10-cup fuzzy logic rice cooker from Sanyo, reasonably priced for a large, high-end model (found in San Francisco at Kamei for under US$100). Next to it is a large plastic bin with wheels on the bottom that holds all of the nori seaweed that had been cluttering up my main pantry areas above the kitchen counter. Putting all of the nori together and moving it out of the way was a good solution for me to keep things from falling on my husband when he opened the cabinets… Big thumbs up for the nori basket! Behind the rice cooker is a bag of rice and a case with food processor blades and attachments.

After: Bottom of organized pantry 3

The bottom shelf of the pantry holds all of the heavy bottles and bags of rice (it’s good to put heavy items down low). Deep bottle bins from Daiso (US$1.50 each) are the perfect size for containing and organizing random bottles, and make it easier to get at things in the back.

Verdict: Not bad, but I’m having trouble remembering what’s where in the back areas of the shelves (this isn’t a new development, mind you). I’m thinking of using post-its, stickers or labels on the inside of the cabinet door at each level to serve as a reminder. There wouldn’t be many, just a few that say: Burner, Takoyaki maker, Chip/dip server, Nabe, etc. I’ve also bought a few things that don’t have proper homes yet but deserve them, like mango mini pudding cups. I think I see a bento-specific pantry basket in my future; it’s kind of unbelievable that I didn’t create one in the first place.

Request for Source from a Florida Journalist: I got an e-mail from a Tampa Bay Area newspaper journalist looking to interview a local mom who makes bento lunches for her children. If you fit the description and would like to be interviewed for a newspaper article, please e-mail me at lunchinabox (AT] gmail (DOT} com and I’ll put you in touch.

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  1. Wow! Your cabinets look great! I’m really enjoying your Reorganization Series.
    My cabinets aren’t too bad, I’ve got a couple pull out baskets that I love, and due to a nasty infestation of food moths I now have some clear air-tight containers for pasta and crackers and pancake mix and other dry goods. That has really helped out too. Seeing your photos makes me want to reorganize again!
    I can’t wait to see the rest of this Series!

  2. You have to do it so that it accomodates you and then get new storage boxes. After tons and tons of attemps and failed attempts to get organised I managed the latter. I figured out what a storage box was for and then went and got one. So if this type of basket thing with notes works, then so be it :), not everything has to be stamped in a book to be ok.
    It looks really neat – I have my spices, grains and other baking ingredients sorted after how much I use them. The rest of my pantry could use a touch up.

  3. More inspiration! Since I started on my $100/week budget for groceries, my pantry is a bit bare. It was easy to organize. Now, I have to see how long term storage an stockpiling will fit in. I love seeing your kitchen…your pantries are about the same size as mine and your ovens look suspiciously familiar! Since I started putting like-items in baskets, the stuff on the higher shelves is easier to reach and put back. I’m really tempted to pull everything out of my entire kitchen ans start over. Just don’t quite have the time. You make it look manageable.Thank you for documenting all of this, it really, really helps!

  4. I really love what you’ve done with your pantry. I need to employ a similar system soon before things get too out of hand in my house. My problem isn’t a lack of pantry space though, I have about three times what you have! So when I look in the cabinets they look bare and I’m tempted to buy too much. Also, where the large pantry next to the fridge is so big, it will be easy for things to get pushed to the back and forgotton about. I think I too could benifit from baskets lining the back and notes on the door reminding me whats there. I will need to start buying in bulk (I live in HI and the food is so expensive, in some stores a loaf of bread costs over seven dollars) if I don’t want to starve. I would like to see how you label the doors, a dry erase board or chalkboard paint maybe?

  5. maybe a sheet of paper taped to the inside of the cabinet with a ‘whitman’s sampler’ type guide to what is where?

    mmmm….chocolate….

  6. Wow. If you don’t mind me asking, how many baskets is that in total?

  7. My husband and I recently moved into a 30 foot motorhome, up from a 21 footer. Our new pantry (which is also a step up from the old one) is basically a small closet with 3 shelves and a drawer put in it. But the shelves are deep, and I kept forgetting what was in the back and on the top shelf (which is above my head). So weekend before last, we bought a dry erase board that I mounted on the inside of the pantry door. I now have everything in the pantry written on the dry erase board, broken down by shelf. When we run out of something, it gets erased, when we add something, it gets written down. It’s working so far. We’ll see how long it lasts. :)

    But I’m going to have to get me some of those baskets and bottle bins!! Those are great!

  8. @1 from Heather: Glad you’re enjoying the reorganization series; it took me over a week to do the kitchen overhaul — now I get to enjoy the results. Next stop: the refrigerator and freezer, I think.

  9. @2 from Jessika: What are you referring to when you say “storage boxes”? The lidded boxes that can stack on each other, like I used in my spice pantry reorg? Or something else? I want to make sure I understand what you’re using.

    Organizing by the most frequently used items makes a lot of sense. When setting up my kitchen for the first time, I also liked to be sure that supplies were near the station where they’d be most often used. Helps create an efficient workstation where everything’s at hand, speeding up prep.

  10. @3 from CarrieK: It really is easier to organize a kitchen without a lot of stuff in it, isn’t it? But oh my goodness, it took a long time or reorganize my messy kitchen! Like putting together a puzzle, I totally emptied out one entire cabinet at a time, then lined it with empty pantry baskets to see what combination would fit where, then methodically went through everything I’d pulled out to put like things together. Now that I’m at the other end, I think it was worth it, but it really did take a photo shoot to get me to reorganize dramatically.

  11. @4 from koolchicken: As for the door labeling, I’m leaning toward proper labels rather than a whiteboard or chalkboard as the contents that I want to note are few and unchanging. I just need a little something to remind me which shelf the takoyaki maker is on, you know?

    BTW, I’ve got more upstairs pantry cabinets in the kitchen that I haven’t shown yet — stay tuned!

  12. @5 from marci: Yes, that’d definitely do the trick! It doesn’t need to be elaborate; there are only a few items in the back in the middle, and they don’t change.

  13. @6 from freecia: Golly, you would ask that, wouldn’t you? ;-) Hmm, the tall pantry above took 11 (I had 2 previously that I’d used in my messy spice cabinet). The short kitchen pantry above took 17 (2 of which I already had). The big spice cabinet in my previous post took 15, 6 of which I had previously (including a plastic box from Crayola Sidewalk Chalk). The small spice cabinet in my previous post took 4 boxes and 1 basket (I had the basket previously). Plus more for the additional kitchen pantry cabinets, refrigerator, freezer, Tupperware container cabinet, and downstairs pantry. The bright side was that I got all of the organizers for about $1.50 each, and you can even repurpose other containers for this for FREE (hello, empty Sidewalk Chalk box!).

  14. @7 from Kylie: I’m using a dry erase magnetic sheet on the top lid of our chest freezer — that’s working beautifully! That way I don’t have to let energy out to figure out what’s inside, and I don’t overbuy anymore. Hooray! I’m also trying out dry erase magnetic sheets on my upstairs freezer, but the jury’s still out on that one because I haven’t been keeping up with them as faithfully as the chest freezer.

  15. @9, Biggie. In this particular case it was regarding medication actually. Battling some chronic conditions I don’t have enough space in the bathroom cupboard to fit them all. Secondly, the on/off humid environment of a bathroom isn’t the best for medicines. I bought storage boxes without thinking where I’d fit them and how useful they actually were. Finally I found a low see through lidded plastic box on wheels, low enough to fit under my bed, large enough to hold medicines, fact sheets etc., all in one spot.

    For my kitchen “closet” that is for vacuum cleaner etc., to hold vacuum cleaner bags and associated household items I found a very convenient and stackable module drawers. You can make it as high as you want with as many drawers as you like.

    And the kitchen itself. In many instances: god bless IKEA ;). Not that I am done in anyway.

  16. This is really helpful and giving me a LOT of ideas! I’m not sure about using baskets for cans, though, since it’s not easy to see the cans through the basket. I was thinking of getting something like this, which is a little more pricey than the baskets, but I think it would work better in the space I have.

    You are so lucky to have so much cabinet space. I’m totally taking a picture of my cabinet area when I start the serious restructuring. (It’ll happen after I get back from my trip in September along with a GIANT bento goods review of stuff I’ve bought at Ichiban Kan) I have ONE cupboard for food and dishes. Granted, it’s kind of big, but somehow it never seems to have enough room!! :D

    Thanks for sharing this!

  17. Hi Biggie. I have a question. I’ve never shopped for quail eggs before and I just wanted to know, what’s considered the “normal” price? I stopped by Whole Foods yesterday and they were selling them for $0.59 per egg, but I didn’t know if that was considered expensive or not. There’s an Asian market near me, but I haven’t checked their prices yet. Those are the only two markets I know of that sell quail eggs in my area.

  18. @17 from Laura: US$0.59 PER EGG is outrageous!!! I pay about one dollar for a container of 10, so $0.10 per egg. Do check out your Asian market; they might be cheaper.

  19. Haha, wow! That’s crazy. I just read that quail eggs are considered a delicacy to some and since they’re not available in all markets, I thought maybe that was the case in the U.S. I was half-expecting $0.59 to be “normal”. I will definitely be stopping by the Asian market. Thanks for the info, and your prompt response!

  20. This is great. I’ll be in the SF area in mid-September again and will definitely be picking up some stuff. This is the first time I have my own kitchen, and I’m having trouble remembering I have things and then they don’t get used. Yesterday I was rummaging around, horrified to discover I had no corn starch (must’ve thrown it out or lost it in the move, maybe left at my mother’s?), and then found smoked grey salt and some sea salt. Both unopened. I was like I should try that stuff… and then a – get this – A JAR OF TRUFFLES. (Well, one good sized one). INSANITY! not that I know what I shall make with it, but still! There’s a whole truffle in there!

  21. Wow, you are (still) amazing!

    I think Food Network ought to have you do a weekly show on bento-preparing and another weekly show on kitchen organization/reorganization.

    Wouldn’t it be great if they did a kitchen reality show? I’d love to see a real mom preparing a 30-minute dinner (from scratch) while helping two kids with homework, keeping them from fighting, keeping the dog from sneaking food off the counter, keeping the cat off the table–all while wearing the baby in a sling, of course!

    And we never get to see clean-up on cooking shows, do we? That would be where the bento-packing comes in, of course!

  22. @21, Alison, oh I’d love seeing the shushing off of cats and dogs, tending to children while cooking and then cleaning afterwards, done by Martha Stewart, in a Martha Stewart kitchen.
    Once a friend commented, when she made a wonderful and fast dish in an hour that would accomodate both adults and kids, that an hour was 45 minutes too late. With two kids, dinner in 15 minutes is preferred. Then war errupted in the friends household between two kids and the cat. So that would be a true Martha Stewart challenge wouldn’t it ;). And I like to watch food shows for the shear joy and stress relief that it is but sometimes they are not really fit in with actual and real life.

  23. @20 from Yvo: I hear you on pantry discoveries! I unearthed a number of interesting things in my kitchen reorg that I’d totally forgotten about — almost like finding a $20 bill folded in the pocket of a jacket or jeans you haven’t worn in a long time. :-) See you in September.

  24. @21 from Alison Fujito: Ha, sounds like Jessika and I would both tune in to see that kind of “frazzled mom” reality show. Martha’s kitchen is beautiful and aspirational, but my three-year-old would do a number on her house pretty quickly.

  25. I really like your containers and the closest I could find are at our local Container Store. See http://www.containerstore.com/browse/Product.jhtml?CATID=71223&PRODID=69607

    I imagine the prices on CS’s website are higher than those of the Japanese supply stores available to you.

    Many, many thanks to you for posting such a useful entry. I’ve been inspired and driven to streamline my cabinets ever since you posted this 2 weeks ago!

  26. @25 from MozzareElla: Ow, $6 for a basket? That IS more than I paid (about US$1.50 or less per basket). I wonder if your local dollar store with no-name knockoffs would have something for less. I used SO MANY baskets that paying four times as much per basket would have put a spanner in the works.

  27. We just moved from Hawaii to DC area, and now I wish I had bought more of those organizer baskets before we left. Having a hard time finding a Japanese store, much less a discount store around here — lots of Korean retailers, but their organizers are 2-3 times more expensive. I probably need about 2 dozen more organizers. At least the move has motivated me to do a serious reorganization — thanks for some great tips!