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Posted on Oct 15, 2008 in Equipment, Organize, Tips | 34 comments

Kitchen Reorganization Series: The rest

Kitchen Reorganization Series: The rest


Newsweek Japan 10/15/08 "Nippon Daisuki"A warm welcome to new readers from this week’s article in Newsweek Japan with a Japanese-language profile of me and Lunch in a Box. It’s a special “Nippon Daisuki” edition with articles about non-Japanese people who like Japan (you know, the “hen-na gaijin tokushu”). There are a couple of minor factual errors in my profile (“Bento Ninki ni Awase Kantan Recipe o Shokai: Blogger Deborah Hamilton”, Oct. 15, 2008, pg. 62), but it’s largely fine. I’ve updated my Press & Awards page to include it, and you can view the full article here.

In other news, this weekend I finished the surprisingly challenging task of switching the site over to a new hosting company, which should hopefully eliminate most of the downtime issues we’ve been experiencing lately. Please e-mail me at lunchinabox (AT} gmail DOT com if you find something on the site not working correctly, and I’ll get it fixed.

After: Organized pantry 4

Finally, the last installment of my Kitchen Organization Series! As you may recall, this summer I panicked and did a sweeping overhaul of my kitchen for For Apartment Therapy’s The Kitchn blog’s photo tour of my bento kitchen. In part one of the series, I showed how I reorganized my scary spice pantry; part two examined the makeover of my messy pantry, and part three overhauled my terrible refrigerator and freezer. Here’s the last bit: the remaining cabinets and garbage containers for the prep area. (Read on for details of the reorganization, with feedback on what’s been working for me over the last few months and what hasn’t.)

After: Pull-out drawer in organized pantry 4

The cabinet above my wall ovens used to be a jumble of snacks, crackers, and seldom used serving platters and kitchen appliances. Getting at anything in the back of these deep cabinets used to involve a ladder and significant time rooting around, pulling out little boxes and foodstuffs and putting them on the kitchen table. The problem wasn’t as much things falling out as general disorganization and difficult access to anything not in the front of the high cabinets.

To tackle this, I used organizing baskets to group like items together. On the top shelf, noodles went into one basket, vitamins in another, and rolled-up kitchen towels in a third. The bottom shelf is more of a a kid snack and packed lunch area for my preschooler’s food: organizing baskets hold snacks and individual furikake packets, and a nifty freestyle stacking drawer system holds powdered drink packs, dried fruit strips, and juice boxes on the bottom. (Click any photo for a larger view.)

The drawer tiers come apart and can fit on top of another set of drawers either directly or on supports, so it’s a pretty flexible setup. I initially bought three separate tiers (shown assembled here) at Ichiban Kan to see if they would fit into my spice cabinet, but they were just a little too long to fit. (This highlights the need to measure your cabinets before you shop for baskets or other organizing equipment!) I’ve also seen these at Daiso in a tan color, although Ichiban Kan appears to be out of stock at the moment.

Sources: I bought most of the organizing gear in this post from Ichiban Kan in San Francisco and Daiso in Daly City, both discount stores with a lot of Japanese kitchen and bento items. Ichiban Kan has multiple branches in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as an online store that ships within the U.S. (check out their Kitchen Organizers, Plastic Basket Storage, and Bento Lunch Box Sets, most of which are priced at US$1.50). Daiso has branches internationally and along the West Coast of the U.S., but no dedicated online store that I’m aware of. I’ve written up local Bay Area Daiso stores here at the SF Bay Area shopping guide for bento gearDisclaimer: I have no commercial affiliations with either Ichiban Kan or Daiso.


  • This is a definite improvement over the old mess. The little stacking drawers lift all the way out easily, making it easy to lift one out and sort through it down where I can see everything.
  • My husband appreciates the basket full of kitchen towels, as these used to be just a stack in the same cabinet area that blocked access to things in the back. The one thing I wound up changing is switching the position of the vitamin basket and the towel basket, as we need to grab the vitamins more often than the kitchen towels. Best that they not be stuck behind the cabinet’s center column (irritating).

* * * * *

After: Above organized pantry 3

Deep, High Cabinet: This is another deep, high cabinet that posed the same problems as the first cabinet above. On the top shelf I put insulated lunchboxes and drink pitchers in front of a huge wooden salad bowl that I use only occasionally. The bottom cabinet holds a basket with salts and grains, a second basket with additional vitamins, and a third basket with dried beans and pulses. The two large baskets have little wheels on the back and a handle in the front, making it easier to drag a heavy basket out. Behind the baskets are more serving dishes that I don’t use very often.

Verdict: Thumbs up as the bottom shelf used to be a mess, and now I can just lift a basket out to quickly browse the contents or access serving dishes in the back.The top shelf is pretty much unchanged from before.

* * * * *

The Tupperware Zone: This used to be a truly hazardous area for my husband. This is where unorganized and mismatched food containers and a mountain of jars/bottles went to die, or lay in wait for the unsuspecting to open up the cabinet doors. Then: POUNCE! Fall out onto the counter, the person’s head, the stovetop, or whatever was around.

Food containers organizedOrganized food containers & jars

  1. To organize, I first went through and reduced the number of containers crammed into this cabinet, just keeping a small variety upstairs in the kitchen. Problem’s half solved already.
  2. Tiny food containers are now easily accessible in pull-out organizer baskets instead of getting stacked up loose, just waiting to fall over. This way when I need a small food container, I can pull out the whole basket and browse them easily without fiddling with a ladder or causing a Tupperware avalanche.
  3. I replaced my old “set” of mismatched, stained Tupperware with a new set of Rubbermaid food containers that nest & stack compactly (I picked up the set cheap at Costco). The old Tupperware went downstairs into basement storage, and still come in handy when I want to send dinner party leftovers home with friends. That way I don’t lose my good containers, and don’t need to spend money on those lightweight Take & Toss disposable containers.

Verdict: Good. The baskets with the little containers aren’t super-organized, so it’s easy to just throw more in without feeling like I need to be all compulsive about arranging them. I think my husband is happiest about this area as things don’t fall on him anymore! At least I haven’t heard many expletives emanating from the kitchen lately… ;-)

* * * * *

There’s no good place near my prep area for full-size garbage cans, so they’re actually located across the kitchen. Unfortunately, this would mean a trip across a pretty sizable kitchen every time I need to toss something when I’m cooking, slowing me down. Solution: garbage bowl equivalents for compost, recycling, and plastics that I can empty into larger garbage cans when I finish cooking.

Rice keeper as compost bin

Countertop Compost Bin: The large clear plastic container on the right is actually a rice storage box with a hinged lid that lifts fully off (source: Ichiban Kan, but Daiso and other Asian markets also carry them). I line this with a biodegradable trash bag and use it for compost (vegetable trimmings, paper soiled with food, etc.).

Verdict: So-so to poor, mostly due to my own laziness. I like that the lid can stay open on its own when I’m cooking; it’s easy to toss vegetable trimmings inside without messing with a lid. One drawback is its relatively large footprint: I wish this were more vertical instead of horizontal so that it wouldn’t take up as much counter space. Another drawback is that I don’t tend to throw the compost out frequently enough, and it starts to smell bad. The smell then sticks to the plastic container, necessitating thorough cleaning and soaking. What’s your favorite countertop compost container? A little metal bucket with lid? Let us know in comments!

Countertop Recycling Bin: The light green triangular bin on the left in the photo above is actually a remnant from my years in Japan. Japanese don’t tend to have garbage disposals; instead they use these bins with small holes in the bottom, often lined with plastic mesh bags (sometimes these are built into the sink itself, with lift-out baskets that get pretty disgusting if not cleaned regularly). It’s meant to reside in the sink. Rinse plates with their scrapings right into the lined bin: excess water flows right through the holes in the bottom and retains the compost so that you can dispose of it later in the appropriate garbage container.

Here in San Francisco I do have a garbage disposal, so I used to use the green bin to hold little bits of recyclable paper and metal on the counter when I’m cooking.

Verdict: Marginal thumbs down as it took up too much counter space. I’ve recently switched to a plastic cone from Ichiban Kan that sticks to the door of my microwave oven with a suction cup. Paper and aluminum foil bound for recycling don’t tend to be wet or overly dirty, so there’s no need to line it with a bag.

Plastic bag on over-cabinet hooks

Over-cabinet hook (back)

Over-cabinet Bag for Plastics: For plastics, I use a plastic bag on little hooks that fit over a cabinet door near my knees in the prep area. I got the hooks at Daiso, but you can probably find similar hooks in hardware stores or your local Target or Walmart.

Verdict: Thumbs up for efficiency, probably a thumbs down for aesthetics (which I don’t care so much about when I’m busy cooking). I can throw the whole thing away once it’s full, and it helps keep me aware of how much plastic waste my kitchen generates so I can think of ways to reduce it.

* * * * *

Unpacking Party: My friends Jennifer and Andy recently moved to a new house and threw an unpacking party, which was more fun than it sounds! With a one-week old newborn giving them two children under three, they definitely needed the help. I called dibs on the kitchen, and took a quick photo mid-unpacking. (Like the photo below from my new camera? I finally upgraded to a Canon Rebel XSi digital SLR and am currently figuring out how to use it. I still have a number of photos from my old camera to write about, though. Posts over the next couple of weeks will likely have photos from both.)

Setting up a new kitchen

Kitchen Organizing Tip: When setting up a new kitchen (or reorganizing the one you’re in), take some time before unpacking to think about how you use your kitchen, and let that help you decide where things should go. Use Post-it notes to basically draft your organized kitchen layout and step back before unpacking anything. Is everything going to fit? Are your most commonly used things easily accessible? Have you set things up efficiently so that you won’t waste movement when cooking or cleaning? Have you gathered like items together for speed? (I set up a breakfast shelf for Jennifer with all of their cereals, toast spreads, coffees, teas, and vitamins together.)

Feel free to swap Post-It notes around before unpacking or midway through, essentially trying out different kitchen layouts. A little time spent early on planning an organized kitchen will pay off in faster prep time and less frustration down the road.

Another benefit to using Post-Its when setting up a new kitchen is that once you’ve labeled the cabinets and drawers, you can then enlist your family and friends to unpack boxes without having to personally tell them where each and every thing goes (ugh). Just put up the Post-It notes and set them loose! Stuff will get in generally the right areas, and you can fine-tune the arrangements later. Your kitchen will get set up faster with more hands helping out, and you’ll be well on your way to cooking in your new home.

Want to see more of other people’s pantries? Have a look at Lydia’s series on Other People’s Pantries on her blog The Perfect Pantry. Have you solved a kitchen organization challenge in a clever way? Let us know in comments!



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  1. I so love the idea of the garbage disposal on the counter top. I need one of those, and I love the compost. But I could see how you would need to be on top of it so it would not be so stinky.

    Where can I get stuff like that in L.A I wonder. I’ll have to ask around I know I will be able to.

  2. Wow, I’ve really enjoyed reading your reorganization series! It’s given me some good ideas to make my own kitchen orderly and user-friendly.

  3. Congrats on the recent coverage in Times! Very nice!

    For a compost bin, I have a large margarine tub. It’s tall but sits nicely right on my counterop right by my cutting board when I am prepping and stores underneath my sink when I am done.. Also, line it with a compostable bag to facilitate removal. Finally, the tub has a reasonably tight fitting lid so it “helps” keep smells at bay.

    BTW - I took a page from you and organized my pantry over the weekend… Can’t tell you what a relief it is to have a clutter free pantry!! thanks for the inspiration.

  4. I’m going to be moving here in about 6 months but I’ve already started to uncluttered my kitchen by tossing what I can and putting things into containers. Looking forward to the move so I can actually put your tips to good use. Thanks!

    Oh and I have a question for you. So I’m in an apartment now that has a corner cabinet. I just hate it to bits but what can you do. So it feels like wasted space since I hate to put things in there that I can’t see. Right now I have my teas, some food storage containers and my husbands bottles for beer making. Any idea’s for me? I’m hoping the next place doesn’t have this but it seems to be the “in” thing. Whee!

  5. I got fed up with tupperware avalanches and put all my containers into a basket about a month ago. it is great! No more rummage cupboard

  6. I bought a composting bin like this at the Green Living store in Dallas:

    Kitchen Compost Bin with Filter Lid

    It is a bit tall to put on the kitchen counter, and not extremely attractive, so it’s stored under the sink when not in use. And, it has a filter to help keep the stinkiness at bay.

    If you want to keep a compost bin on the countertop, there’s this which is more attractive and also has a filter:

    Norpro Ceramic Compost Keeper

  7. For Waste Disposal:
    I have the trash cans right under my sink, but I don’t keep my biodegradable trash inside (I forgot it too many times and seriously, after 3 days it’s not pretty, but imagine two weeks… ewwwwwwwww I know)
    Anyway: Depending on how much biodegradeable trash I’m going to be producing (peeling an onion vs. preparing 3kg of carrots for the freezer) I either use a small paper lunchbag or a paper grocery bag, or a bowl. Once I’m done I tip/toss the trash right into the trashcan outside. If the trash is kinda icky (meat/fish leftovers) and I used a bowl I might grab an old newspaper, lay it on my counter and tip the trash onto that and then wrap it up (like a very disgusting present) so we won’t get swarmed with flies.

  8. Just wanted to say thanks for this blog! We live in the midwest and pack lunches for my food allergic kid, your blog keeps me excited about doing this creatively and not getting grumpy!! We just returned from a trip to SF and Ichiban Kan and Daiso were on our schedule thanks to you!! I picked up some great stuff! Have fun with your XSi, I purchased mine a few months ago and love it!

  9. I just use a regular kitchen bowl for garbage on the counter and then I empty and clean it with every dishwasher run. I cannot stand any rotting food smell in my kitchen and this keeps me diligent about it. Perhaps on Saturday or Sunday, I might let it hang out on the counter all day, collecting waste, but generally, I use it for the meal I’m cooking, empty it and clean it. It’s really not that bad when I consider I’m only making one trip to the garbage per meal prep rather than 10 or 12.

    I love the new organization and also the feedback on what worked and what didn’t!

  10. I’m using a tall Ichiban-Kan plastic container for my green-waste. I tried those biodegradable bag-liners, but my green-waste collection people keep pulling those out of my green-waste bin and putting them in the trash- they think they’re plastic! I’ve tried putting large notes on the bin, calling the company, etc. but they still do it, so I’m going to stop using them.

    I do have to wash out my collection container occasionally, so I’m still looking for a better method. I’m almost tempted to just throw stuff out the window into my yard… (kidding)!

  11. I don’t use a compost bin currently, but Amazon (and I’m sure other places) have several stainless steal options that look nice (if you do a search on “stainless steel compost” you’ll see what I mean), and there are also carbon filters designed to be used with compost bins to cut down on the smell. I think any old kind of activated charcoal may actually work (like what you get from the pet supply store for fishtanks?). My grandmother used to use a mixing bowl that we would empty over the fence in the back yard (into a wooded pasture area) about every day.

  12. @1 from Lydia: Now THAT’S something I’d be curious to see — The newly reorganized Perfect Pantry! Feel free to post a link if/when you do. :-)

  13. @4 from Hungry Gal: Hmm, a margarine tub, huh? If it’s that small I might be less tempted to let it sit on the counter for too long… I’m looking for something smaller & vertical with a lid (plus a filter to control the smell sounds like a good idea, now that I think about it).

  14. @5 from Bethany: Hmm, you’ve got a little less flexibility with an apartment as you probably won’t want to install new hardware to help access the corner cabinets. My friend Jennifer’s new kitchen has a big, low corner cabinet with two lazy Susan turntables (one on each shelf) for easy access to things in the back. You could try picking up a cheap lazy Susan to do the same thing, or just put bigger items that you use less often back there. If you wind up putting smaller things there, try using organizing baskets or trays so that you can pull them out easily without spending serious time sitting on the floor rooting around…

  15. @6 from Metanoia: Oh man, do I ever hear you about the Tupperware avalanches! I once lost a very nice crystal wine glass (wedding present) that way.

  16. @7 from Crystal Brown: I like the look of that ceramic countertop composter, thanks for the link!

  17. @8 from nicole: Okay, I sure got a good laugh out of your “disgusting present” comment — ew! :-)

  18. @9 from SpeedbumpKitchen: So glad you had a chance to visit Daiso and Ichiban Kan on your SF visit! They’re a lot of fun just to wander aimlessly around, picking up things and figuring out what everything’s for… Many ingenious products.

    I’m really enjoying my XSi so far — makes me wonder why I didn’t take the leap a long time ago. Oh yeah, I remember — the pricetag! Still, I’m satisfied with the results and looking forward to mastering it a little better.

  19. @11 from KittyPants: That steams me that your garbage collection company keeps bouncing your biodegradable bags to plastic waste after you went to the effort to separate things correctly. Are you going to stop using the bags, or the company?

  20. I once embarassingly bought the tub of frozen mini cream puffs from Costco (I love them straight from the freezer-like little ice cream bites). It’s the perfect counter top compost bin.

    It isn’t too big so it needs to be emptied before it gets stinky. I line the bottom with a small piece of newspaper so the potato and carrot peels don’t stick when you’re emptying it.

    Of course it’s so NOT apttherapy, but free (if you don’t count the millions of calories) and functional.

    Size: 6 inch sqaure footprint;
    7 inch square lid;
    7.5 inches tall with lid on

  21. Nice site. I used to pack my kids lunches with leftovers. One thing they liked that was different was when I would heat up a hot dog and put it in a thermos with hot water. Then I’d pack the bun and a packet of ketchup. The hot water and thermos kept the hot dog hot and all their friends were jealous. ;)

  22. I had already read in your previous fridge or freezer organisation the tip to use baskets, so when I placed my bento items order at Ichiban Kan obviously I have added nice black baskets to organize everything in it. Thanks :) (I cannot wait for Monday to receive my parcel… I have never bought so many bento stuff in the same time. It was so cheap comparing at my Japanese shopping in France)

    About the compost bin, in almost all houses of my family, we are using Tupperware ones. They are triangular so fit well in a corner of the counter or near the think. The size is just perfect to have a biodegradable bag (although now in France you almost don’t have anymore these kind of bags in supermarket, so we will have to change the method). In addition the lid is not flat but more like a dome, so it is not too much in contact with garbage and tends not to get so messy. Usually I removed the lid totally during rush cooking time so it is always wide opened. (so bad I don’t have one here in Boston to take a picture)

  23. @22 from Lynnie: Do you have a link to the “container your bags were meant to go in” that allows air circulation? You’ve got me really curious!

  24. @23 from Ellen: Really ingenious idea on the hot dog in the hot water bath, Ellen! I like it; thanks for sharing!

  25. @24 from Fiquo: Do you have a link to your triangular Tupperware compost bins? Are they sold outside of France? You’ve got me intrigued! Hope you like your Ichiban Kan loot, BTW — like an early, cheap Christmas!

  26. Hi,

    Your site is totally great, and I love reading your posts. Thanks!

    For on the counter compost we have used many things over the years, but we come back to the same thing my dad always used when I was a kid, a rinsed out juice or milk carton with the top busted open so that you can get stuff in. It’s not very lovely to look at, so when people come over I stash it under the sink, but it has the great advantage that it is something that would be thrown out of recycled anyway, so you use it once and then after dumping your compost you get rid of it. That way it doesn’t stink or need washing like many other compost containers. We tend to make about enough compost to fill one every couple days, and we also tend to drink up a carton of milk or juice every couple days, so it usually works out perfectly. I hate compost containers that need washing all the time, so it works well for me!

  27. i got an attractive counter top compost container from the garden supply company it has a carbon filter to keep smells to a minimum.

  28. For countertop compost (to store it before we take it to the bins outside), we use a cheap metal container with a glass lid from Target. (Like the middle or tall one of this set.)

    It keeps bugs out, is air-tight and cleans easily, and we can tell how full it is without opening it. The only drawback is that the lid sometimes sticks shut when it’s closed firmly, making it difficult to open with a mess in one hand and an eggshell or handful of vegetable trimmings in the other.

  29. OK, trying a third time to get the website link up, how hard can it be? Try that.

  30. @31 from Lynnie: That ventilated compost bin looks like it makes a LOT of sense; I’m going to order one and try it out. Thank you so much for pointing this out; I hope it’s the kitchen composting solution I’ve been looking for!

  31. Great ideas all around for kitchen organizing! I can’t wait to get started on my own Tupperware nightmare!

    For composting, I do things a little differently. I live in an apartment, so I use a worm bin instead of a backyard pile. Unfortunately, if you give the worms smelly (i.e. contaminated with anaerobic bacteria) food, it can kill them. So, I use (and reuse, after a good wash with soap) a gallon size ziploc bag to hold my compost. I keep the bag in the freezer and just fold down the top to keep it open on the counter while I cook. I peel things right into it (the wide mouth helps… a lot) and then squeeze the air out (for space saving) and stick it back in the freezer. At the end of the week, the worms get to eat all of our (thoroughly defrosted) scraps. Though this method takes up some freezer space, it works out marvelously for our needs and really helps us to manage our kitchen scraps.
    To help make our freezer space more efficient, we make sure to feed the worms before going on a big grocery shopping trip, making sure that there will always be a space for our worm bag.

    Hope this comment helps! Keep up the great work, Biggie!

  32. Incidentally, the reason we freeze our compost (because I could’ve been more clear about it in my 1st comment) is so it stays fresh. We took a composting class for free in L.A. and the instructor recommended to empty your collection (feed the worms!) every other day, or freeze the scraps until feeding time approached. No smell, less mess, and by using (and reusing) a plastic bag, I don’t ruin my tupperware with stinky produce.
    With the easy and cheap addition of worms, we produce about 3x less garbage. The worm bin sits outside on our shared porch, but we could easily bring it inside (no smell, because the worms keep all the anaerobic bacteria at bay) if it were to get too chilly for the worms. This website has a great how-to for getting started:

  33. @34/35 from psulinkie: Thanks for the info and the link about worm composting; I’ll have to check it out and educate myself!

  34. Hi Biggie,
    I’m a first time visitor to your blog and hoping to become a Bento convert. I have lots of good intentions and two small, picky children too. I love what you’ve done with your pantry, I work with a similar container method. On the composting front, I generally just keep a small bowl beside me when I work, but I have a little worm farm compost bin that I keep in my garage. That way, it is only a very short trip to empty the compost each day, rather than making a trek to the back of the property. I believe you can get worm farms so tiny they can be kept in the kitchen cupboard and conquer all scrap laziness problems.