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Posted on Jul 30, 2008 in Equipment, Organize, Tips | 29 comments

Spice cabinet reorganization

Spice cabinet reorganization


About a month ago Apartment Therapy’s kitchen blog The Kitchn asked if they could come to my house and take pictures for a photo tour of my bento kitchen. Now, I don’t live in House Beautiful with a gorgeous remodeled kitchen, and only parts of my kitchen were organized, so this was a terrifying prospect. I finally decided to treat it as an opportunity to do a massive reorg of my kitchen, incorporating tips that I’ve seen in my Japanese freezing and housekeeping books. It took me over a week to overhaul the kitchen pantry, refrigerator, freezer, deep freezer, and downstairs pantry. It’s way too much for a single post, so join me for the first installment of my Kitchen Reorganization Series with nitty-gritty “before” and “after” photos. First stop: the spice pantry. Behold the unorganized scariness! (UPDATE: The kitchen reorganization series continues with my main pantry, refrigerator and freezer, and the remaining cabinets and garbage containers for the prep area.)

Before: Spice pantry in a jumble

I had previously put our commonly used spices into plastic trays (bottom left) so that I could lift out similar spices and sort through them quickly (salts and peppers in one, whole spices in a second, and ground spices in a third). But noodles and furikake rice sprinkles had encroached on the spice area, and the rest of the cabinet was a jumble of assorted bottles, jars and boxes. My husband was forever asking me where things were and getting frustrated by the crowded cabinets. I had to pull out a stepladder to reach things tucked in the back on the top shelf, and trying to pull down a box of teabags was an easy way to get a shower of boxes on your head. Obviously this needed work! (Click on any photo for a larger, annotated view.)

After: Organized spice pantry

Enter pantry baskets. The first few times I saw pantry baskets in Japanese organization books I didn’t immediately recognize their utilitarian benefit. Yes, you can put like items together, but:

  • Storing things together in baskets also 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 — what’s yours?

(Read on for the full spice cabinet reorganization…)

Anpanman & Baikinman furikake dispensers

I went to Daiso and Ichiban Kan discount stores and bought a mountain 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.) Of course this was the day I was wound up being recognized by a reader in Ichiban Kan — on Cleanup Day at Bug’s preschool, with me looking super-scruffy from cleaning. Oh well! At least I have no pretense of being Martha.

So the top shelf now holds large baskets with light items like teas (left) and cocoa/espresso powder (right); no more box avalanches! I used a metal shelf organizer in the spice area to add storage space for a bin of furikake rice flavoring sprinkles above a tray of salts and peppers. I’m particularly happy with having imprisoned the little Anpanman and Baikinman furikake containers. Mwah ha hah! A new villain is born…

Time to turn my attention to the messy secondary spice cabinet just above my microwave oven, where I keep spices that we don’t use as often. Most of my husband’s barbecue spices and rubs are in here (remember his DIY smoker built out of flowerpots?), but of course he got frustrated by the ever-increasing number of random bags and containers just sort of shoved in on top of the once-organized baskets. Again, time to revisit.

I decided that the biggest issue with storage in this area was the odd-sized bags and containers that bulk spices come in from the various ethnic markets and wholesale clubs. One option was to pour small amounts of spices into little spice bottles that I’ve saved up, but the sheer number of spices I have meant that there wouldn’t be enough room in this little cabinet to store them all that way.

Instead I remembered a reader tip that I’d seen on America’s Test Kitchen, where someone put their spices into one-quart freezer bags, labeled the tops with office labels, and put them all into a lidded box. I didn’t want to do this with the spices I use all the time, but it seemed like a good alternative for bringing my secondary spice jungle under control, taking advantage of the cabinet’s vertical storage space.

I created four boxes of alphabetized spices in freezer bags: two of whole spices, one of ground spices, and one of my husband’s barbecue spices and leftover rubs. I was initially concerned that it would be bothersome to get just a little of one spice out without fussing with all of the bags to get it back in, but I found that’s not an issue if I leave the bag in the box and just remove some of the spice with a measuring spoon. I put the remaining big spice containers in our downstairs pantry area to get them out of the way. I say “downstairs pantry,” but really it’s just a couple of Gorilla Racks in our basement.

Looks neater, right? Below the cabinet you can see the top of my microwave oven with boxes of reusable hard plastic food cups, baran food dividers, and cutters of various shapes and sizes (shown in my earlier post on organizing bento accessories). When you remove the front two boxes with whole spices, you’ve got easy access to the back part of the cabinet with the ground and barbecue spice boxes.

I’ve actually been able to maintain this in the month since reorganizing the kitchen, so this portion of the kitchen reorganization gets a thumbs up from me. My husband is quite happy with the labels on the boxes and trays, which means I haven’t heard the familiar, “Honey, where can I find the …” ever since!

Have you done a kitchen reorganization lately? What’s your favorite tip? Share it with us in comments!

(EDIT: Lydia of The Perfect Pantry runs a regular “Other People’s Pantries” event on her excellent blog; I should submit this to her.)



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  1. My vinegar, oils & such are kept on a tray on the counter to the side of the stove. Above that counter the cabinet holds all my spices, I have Tupperware brand modularmate spice containers that stack on their spinner. I also store my other spices on another type of lazy susan in the cabinet. Baking decorations, cupcake papers and all those things are all in containers which stack, again mostly tupperware small items designed to do this. The rest of my stuff goes into shallow baskets purchased at the Dollar Tree stores. Seasoning packets like Goya stuff are out of their boxes as soon as they come in & stored in these open porcelain squared containers found at dollar store for sugar packets and recipe card holders.
    All my dry goods, pastas, sugar, rices, flour, cereal, etc., again all in stackable Tupperware brand modular mates & everything is clearly labeled although contents are visible through the sheer containers.
    I don’t keep anything in it’s original packaging such as cardboard, etc., once in the house it is transferred to the Tupperware and the original packaging goes to the recycle bin.I know it must sound very anal but I didn’t do it all in one day, this happened over time & is always a work in progress.
    Special Note: We are a former military family & the movers will pack and ship food items if they are stored in Tupperware Modular Mate containers, this includes overseas moves as well :)

  2. Very neat. It should be noted spices last for about 6 months before losing flavour. They should be stored in a dark and fairly cool. A regular cabinet will do.

  3. I am working on organizing my spices as well. I have a tiny 1960′s ranch-style home with a galley kitchen. I don’t have a lot of space. So, I turned my linen closet (not too far down the hall) into a pantry. Recently, I purchased a closet organizer system hanger with an over the door kit. I put it on the door of my pantry and am buying bins that clip into the hanger as I can afford them. I’m using these to put in all my spices, small baking necessities and such. When I have enough, I will organize them to type so that I can just grab a whole bin when baking and things like that. I have also been using stackable shelves and other types of bins to better organize that pantry.
    When I’m finished I plan on adding pull out drawer systems in my lower cabinets in the kitchen. Then, I will be better able to see what is in there and use them more efficiently.

    With the spices in the pantry I have the bottom shelf of one of my cabinets to corral my growing collection of bento gear. :)

  4. Well, you’ve certainly been busy! Looks great!

    I have a great spice rack that the boyfriend built for my old kitchen. But it fits well in the new kitchen, too. (Photo here.)

    It’s always jammed full, but it’s shallow enough that I don’t lose things in it.

    I wish I had the spice cabinet I grew up with, which was a converted ironing-board closet in the kitchen, fitted with shallow shelves.

  5. My biggest tip is to label EVERYTHING. If you don’t want labels on the outside of the cabinet (who does?) then stick them on the inside of the door- they won’t help you find stuff from outside, but they WILL remind you what’s supposed to go where, and I’ve found that very helpful in reminding me NOT to just shove the whatever it is wherever I can find space for it.

    (Also, I have a lot of trouble with those stupid flour moths, so I transfer things into moth-proof containers like glass jars, and then a neat label is a huge help in figuring out WHICH jar of white stuff you need to grab, particularly since I used to have multiple types of flour. :) )

    My second tip is to decide how much room you’re going to allow yourself for certain items, and keep to it. This mainly came into effect for me with tubs and jars and other useful looking food packaging, because it always seemed so wasteful to throw it away that I’d end up with a ton of the stuff and not use most of it anyway. Once I allocated one cabinet shelf for jars, it forced me to consider more carefully which jars I was keeping, and that helped a lot. (I did also assign a space for such things outside the kitchen, for containers best suited for creative activities, like painting, rather than food use.)

  6. you’re an inspiration, Biggie! I ordered two of the sukitto baskets from IK and am very frustrated that they’ve been out of stock since, because they are exactly what I need right now for organization. I have one currently in the freezer holding frozen veggies beautifully!

    I always love to see how others use baskets/etc for organization because it gives me real ideas to use in my own cupboards. I have very few cupboards to use in my kitchen, so space is at a premium! I haven’t had a place to store my dishes for months due to all the disorganization of the foodstuffs. It’s taken over!!!! I’ve been hoping that reorganizing stuff would alleviate some of the problem.

    I can’t wait to see how you handle canned goods, as that’s my main problem these days.

  7. Biggie, I’m so glad you’re showing us your before and afters! Our kitchen renovation project (something that has been going on since January T_T) is almost complete, and it will soon be time to start stocking our shelves. We’ve never had this much storage space before, and since I’m “the organized kid”, my mother’s asked me to help her figure out what should go where. This post has given me so many good ideas. I look forward to the rest of your posts. ^^

  8. @1 from Lydia (The Perfect Pantry): I actually thought of you and your blog when writing this post, Lydia! Glad it passes muster. ;-) I use big plastic bins for some things in the basement pantry for the same reason — keep the critters out. They are a bit unorganized inside, though.

  9. @2 from Matt: When I clicked over to your Flickr photo I thought I was looking at my own cabinet for a second! Looks good — that’s definitely a challenge to keep food PLUS cooking gear in the same cabinet.

  10. @3 from Gigi: Will movers not move foodstuffs if they’re not in the Tupperware modular containers? When we moved from Japan back to the States the movers just packed up everything for us, including a FULL kitchen garbage can! Luckily the garbage can only had wrapping stuff in it and nothing perishable…

  11. After seeing your slide show on the Apartment Therapy blog, I was inspired to organize my fridge which has always been a source of frustration for me. I used your plastic bin idea and spent all day Tuesday on it. No when I open the fridge, I smile :-)
    Thanks for all the great ideas!

  12. Very inspiring!!!

    I keep most of my spices in racks that fasten to the inside of the cabinet doors. I know it’s kinda OCD, but I alphabetize them.

    And I know we are often told that spices lose their flavor after 6 months, but at this point, I am convinced that it is just a marketing gimmick.

    I have some spices that are several years old, and they taste and smell fine. For a couple of them, I bought new ones, and did a side-by side comparison, and found either no difference whatsoever, or the tiniest of differences-and that could be less expensively remedied by just using a pinch more of said spice.

  13. @5 from Di: Ooh, pull-out drawers in lower cabinets? I can only dream… Sounds like you’re taking a very methodical approach. :-)

  14. @6 from Kitt: Nice spice rack! Turning those ironing board closets into spice racks is a great approach, too.

  15. I recently created an Excel document with a list of all of my spices. One column with a general type that was useful to me(herb, spice, Japanese, etc.), one column with the name, and a third column with what kind of container it was stored in (McCormick bottle, IKEA bottle, square tin, etc.). I have most of my spices stored in two clear ‘shoe boxes’ from The Container Store. I printed out the list and put it on the outside of my cabinet, so now I can quickly check which spices I have and have a good idea on where to look for it! I’ve double-purchesed spices before… and it gets expensive!

  16. This is great stuff! I’ve only just gotten my very own kitchen and find it frustrating that my cabinet has so many bottles in it, and some stuff is in the back (because it’s taller) but I use it often, so I have to reach back and tilt it to pull it forward… I think baskets are a great idea. I’ll have to look into that. Thanks! (I even have stuff stacked double… which is no good!)

  17. Brilliant! I just popped into my office to read my favorite blogs (ok, I am procrastinating)and here you are writing about my next project! I have canning supplies in my shed, food in my garage and storage stuff in my kitchen. It all needs to be reconfigured. Thanks for the ideas, help and inspiration. My favorite spice organizer is a lazy susan. It gives you easy access. I’m off to organize…after I visit The Perfect Pantry…:)

  18. I use those organization baskets for all of the condiments in my fridge as well. Instead of rummaging through a shelf of glass bottles I just pull out a basket. I can’t wait to try it in my food cupboards too.

    Oh and the tiered spice racks they sell in stores (like this one ) also work really well for medicine and in bathroom closets for storing bottles, tubes and makeup!

  19. How infrequently do you use the infrequently used spices? I ask because, like many other things, they will last much longer if stored in the freezer.

    The six month rule for ground spices usually applies to those bought in stores with the knowledge that you have absolutely no idea how long they have been sitting around before you bought them. If you buy in bulk, you can put a good portion of it in the freezer - this works for ground spices and dried herbs.

    I keep the bulk of my whole spices in the freezer and remove them when I need to refill the smaller amounts I keep in the pantry. Especially my peppercorns. If you fill up your grinder and it takes you a year to go through them, the whole point of having “fresh ground pepper” is kind of moot. I only put as much as I can use in a couple of months in the grinder.

    You could put your plastic tubs with the labeled bags directly into the freezer. Of course, all of this assumes that you have the freezer space. I don’t know what I would do without the chest freezer in my basement.

    I also keep a sharpie handy in a kitchen drawer and I write the date I opened something on pretty much everything I open. Both pantry and refrigerator items. Then I know exactly how long something has been hanging around open.

  20. Congrats on the AptTherapy post! A fun read, I love their blog(s). Is the artwork saying Otosan Arigato something Bug did of your husband? very cute.

  21. again, you put me to shame.

    want to meet me at daiso sometime?


  22. @7 from Kris: Good tip on deciding on an upper limit for how much room one kind of thing will be allowed to take up. My jar & bottle area used to be terrifying and jam-packed until the kitchen reorganization. I retired & relocated most of that underused collection, and now there’s so much more room for well-organized bento gear and Tupperware! Big difference, and it’s one I wouldn’t have gotten around to absent the Apartment Therapy photo shoot

  23. @8 from Sile: Okay, I’ll show the cans for my next Kitchen Reorganization Series post — no biggie. I think reorganization has to be ongoing as you go through things and get more different-shaped things in your kitchen or house. It might stay under control for a little while unassisted, but gradually it’s going to get out of control again without a little maintenance and attention.

  24. @9 from Mary: It’s funny, right after the photo shoot when things were at their Most Beautiful, we had a sitter over to watch Bug for an evening while we went out. This time, I was embarassed that things were TOO PERFECT and ORGANIZED — I encouraged her to feel free to mess things up and cook dinner if she wanted to, don’t feel intimidated by the organization. My husband was laughing at me: first I’m embarassed that things were too messy, then that they’re too neat. Starting from a clean slate at your mother’s is a great opportunity, though — make the most of it!

  25. @27, Biggie, isn’t it also that your needs change over time? The spices you use, utensilts etc, the needs and likes and the family requires re-organisation. I reorganise and I live by myself. To get a handle on keeping things organised, that’s a different matter.

  26. @29 from Jessika: Absolutely true, Jessika. The “stuff” in your house isn’t the only changing element in the equation. Our kitchen needs definitely changed with the addition of a child in the house, so we’ve been through at least two minor kitchen organization variations to accommodate his dishes and baby food.

  27. Congrats on the photo shoot…wicked cool, that! And thank you so much for posting your organizing efforts. Your posts inspired me to get off my tush and get my things organized before jumping back into photographing bentos again. My spice cabinet is about half the size of yours so the tip on putting them in freezer bags and alphabetizing was dead useful! I ended up putting them into Reynolds resealable bags instead. I figured they’d be fresher that way.

  28. This post is particularly great because it inspired me to order a whole box of lovely organizer bins and boxes from Ichiban for my bento supplies, pantry items, and fridge. The box just arrived and I am getting ready to dive in and start organizing. Thank you!

  29. How many times you eat during a normal … every day life?
    are you the type of person who eats a bit and often?
    or rarely and too much?

    i usually have 3 and i’m the 2nd type of person (though it’s not that healthy)

    8 am breakfast

    3pm lunch

    9pm a snack.