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How to manage a pantry

This is embarrassing!

I've been cooking for 40 years so I feel like this is something I should have figured out by now but the truth is I haven't. Either I don't have something I need or I can't find it or I'm buying the same things over and over and over again because I assume I need it. Consequently, my pantry is crammed full but it's still not an efficient resource.

What do I need to know and do to keep things going in and out in an efficient productive way?

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  1. We went through having a poor idea of what we needed and thus buying too much or too little, so our answer has turned out to be very simple. We have a small pad of paper and a pen on top of the microwave (it sits there nicely out of the way, doesn't get lost and isn't really visible). When we think of something we need or run out of something we know needs to be purchased, we write it on the list. If it has to come from a specific place, we note that too--Costco has its own list running down one side. When someone goes to the store--there are only 2 of us--they rip off the list and take it with them. If they don't buy an item, they write it on a new list. Has worked very well for a year now---and if you forget the list you can hopefully call home for a list of what's needed.

    19 Replies
    1. re: escondido123

      Actually, I do something similar in my recipe database.

      It's more about managing the physical items so that I can find and use what I actually have on hand. Then that becomes a shopping list that I carry on my iPod.

      1. re: rainey

        I do not have a lot of space so I keep my canned/packaged items to a minimum, only storing an extra or two of the basics. Since grocery stores/Costco are close by, I've made the decision to let them "store" food for me rather than keeping it in my house. Except for pasta--I buy a dozen boxes of my favorite brand when it goes on sale--I usually have multiple cans of only a few items--canned tomatoes, refried beans, tuna and garbanzo beans which are all items I use frequently. (The cans go into a drawer, on their side, so I can easily see what I have.) My sister does exactly the opposite, buying large quantities of everything which means her cabinets, frig and freezer are always full and difficult to keep organized. To each his own.

        1. re: rainey

          can you do a spread sheet on the iPod (sorry not an Apple/Mac person, though I do like them) and have check off columns of Full, OK and Low on the regulars as you go or before you hit the store? (reminds me - I need sage)

          1. re: hill food

            Hmmmm. I'm not sure but I could do one on my desktop. I do my shopping list on the recipe DB on my desktop anyway because it's easier using a full keyboard. Then the software would transfer the bottom-line conclusion to my iPod and that's the only part I need to be carrying with me anyway.

            Thanks. I'll start working up the construct of what I need to have on hand and where the best place for each item to live.

            1. re: rainey

              I am working on my master list right now and It's giving me a headache!

              So far it's just the abstract must-have stuff based on a couple family favorite go-to recipes and our general dining pattern. Brain aches! After that I'll pull apart all my storage and see what I missed and what I'm just going to ruthlessly dump.

              While I'm at it I'm going to add fridge and freezer must-haves. And then I'll integrate that with my shopping list.

              I'm not enjoying doing this but I think, in the end, it will be a big step forward for my storage needs and organization.

              Wish there were some Girl Scouts doing a food drive just now...

              1. re: rainey

                Would it be easier to take a slower route and jot down what you use over the next month?

                1. re: meatn3

                  Thanks for that thought. I will, no doubt, be adding to it over a period of time. But I really want to get this done before the holiday and my daughter is taking a hiatus from work next week. If I pull everything out of my pantry when she has some time, she can go through what I'm eliminating and then I can find and catalogue permanent places for what will be remaining and being maintained.

                  Here, in case this works, is what I've got so far on my spreadsheet. The shelf locations will have to wait to be determined. Lots still to add too. But this is what I've got so far. Pantry Inventory.htm

          2. re: rainey

            For physical pantry storage, the keys for me are: shallow shelves [to minimize the number of things that are behind other things] and putting like with like -- all tomato canned products together, all the soups, the baking-related items, the backups for items that are in the fridge when open [worcestershire sauce, ketchup, tamari, mustard], the unopened jams/jellies, etc.

            Something tells me too-deep shelves might be at the root of your problem.

            --- Posted before reading all the thread, and they are. Like with like becomes even more important with deep shelving. With those 20" shelves, I reluctantly conclude that baskets and lazy susans are necessary.

            1. re: ellabee

              shallow shelves do make life easier, if one can pony up the expense there are amazing hardware/shelf solutions out there - get to a Hafele showroom (highly engineered cabinet hinges and runners - require a talented cabinetmaker to get them installed right). some friends gutted/re-built a house and their pantry was brilliant, it was fridge deep, the doors held shelves, the interior shelves hung perpendicular to the opening and slid out lengthwise so nothing in the space was ever more than 6 or so inches deep. I don't care for lazy susans, something always flies off and jams the works.

              1. re: hill food

                I don't care for lazy susans either; especially the whole cabinet carousels because you have to disassemble them to clean the cabinet properly. They work in the middle of a table but not in a pantry/kitchen cabinet.

                1. re: HillJ

                  Oooo... lazy susan! Thank you! I have a large wooden one from Ikea that I'm not using. It would be perfect on one of my pantry shelves for the stockpile of condiments I have. (I have 3 units - this is it, but ours are black: http://www.homedepot.com/h_d1/N-5yc1v... )

            2. re: rainey

              Erasable white board attached inside of pantry. Also every 2 months or so I'll do a physical inventory of my pantry & freezer writing everything down. I'll then plan meals around using those items up.

            3. re: escondido123

              When UPC codes first came out, I figured it wouldn't be long until home kitchens were equipped with a scanner. You could scan the empty can of tomato paste and it would automatically get put on the shopping list. Yet, today this facility is not part of the pantry.

              1. re: GraydonCarter

                Ever see the modern techo kitchen model MS put together for some of the trade shows. In that design scanners were installed throughout the kitchen and recipes & shopping lists could be pulled up on the kitchen PC and printed out. Flaws, appliance issues, etc. it was quite remarkable.

                1. re: HillJ

                  I did see the MS kitchen, weren't scanners going to be incorporated into microwaves as well for folks too lazy to read the package directions? and in refrigerators to do exactly as GC expected?

                  1. re: hill food

                    all sorts of gizmos were featured including a recipe file that printed on the countertop and a refrigerator monitor that "knew" when you were out of something.
                    Some 10,000 high tech features, big and small,....I'm all for progress in the kitchen but it was a bit too Jetson even for me.

                    1. re: HillJ

                      Because you know what happens when we count on machines to do the work. They fail. And if we don't have a clue because the machines do all the work, then WE fail. I love technology, but there is a limit to how much of it I want in my life. And that above? No way. Not for me.

                      1. re: kscooley

                        So true. Whenever I am thinking about a purchase I always consider the cost to own it, repair it, maintain it...and then decide. Unless I had an MS tech person living in my guesthouse (of course the guest house would have to be tricked out too!) then the value to operate such a high tech monster won't be worth the WOW.

                        1. re: HillJ

                          yeah I used to be so good at remembering phone numbers, now I just punch up 'recent' or 'missed'

                          I can see where this might lead.

            4. Crammed might be the key word. Sounds like a lack of organization. If you describe the size of your pantry and any organization you have going on, I suspect you'll get some pretty good tips. Is it just spices? Food items? Small appliances?

              I have a narrow walk in pantry that was always a jumble until I bought some carts on wheels and Lock&Lock. Everything's fairly mobile in there, so I can rewiggle things as needed. Spices stay in a cupboard, and all jars and cans sit in an over the door shelf system. Bulk baking items (flour, sugar, etc.) are either in Rubbermaid bins (flap lid front for scooping) or Lock&Lock on shelves front and center. Nothing gets stored on a deep shelf unless it takes up the entire depth, otherwise things do get crammed and lost. Lables and a sharpie are your best friends.

              As far as spices go, they do lose their oomph so I tend to rotate them. I'll do a lot of Japanese cooking for awhile, then switch cuisinies when I start to run out of seasonings. Then I've got a whole new fresh set. Use and rotate seems to work really well for me, and once in awhile I'll notice things I don't even remember and do a little purging. Not saying I'm a genius at it yet, but I seem to have stopped that cycle where everything in the cupboards and fridge gets old and goes to waste.

              11 Replies
              1. re: mlou72

                Yes. Organization is precisely the issue.

                My baking ingredients and spices/herbs are in good order. My vinegars and oils are pretty good.
                It's the canned and dry goods that are out of control -- what I think of as pantry items.

                I have two storage areas. One is a tall cabinet next to my fridge on one end of the kitchen. It's about 55" tall and has 5 drawers that are 15" wide and 20" deep. The other is a bank of shelves on the other end of the kitchen. It has small appliances, etc but the area left for food storage is about 55" high, 22" wide and 14" deep. There are 5 shelves available for pantry storage. That 14" of depth is just about deep enough to mean that anything 2 layers deep is in a black hole.

                I use some baskets so that I can lift out or pull out categories of things but it's hard to find sizes that make good use of the space and contain logical groups of things.

                I will be very grateful for ideas that make the space and my efforts/discipline/organization more workable.

                1. re: rainey

                  There is a shop in the UK that sells various racks that lift up the cans at the back of the cupboard so they're above the rows in front and therefore visible. You could improvise with a cut length of 2x4, I suspect. They also sell rotating carousels so you can bring stuff at the back to the front. They make a lot of money out of people trying to be more organised, I think :P

                  If I have several cans of something, I will store them front to back so I know that all the cans behind the baked beans are also baked beans. When I buy new cans I put those at the back. I do tend to keep a lot of food in - a month's supply is my goal. I also make liberal use of stickers on the front of the shelves to jog my memory of what lives on that shelf.

                  I don't have a huge variety of different dry goods in, just large amounts, so it's easy for me to group things in a logical manner. Spices go in small rectangular baskets roughly sorted as to cuisine which stack on top of each other - a bit wobbly but it does the job. I have a small section of shelf that is devoted to one-off purchases that I intend to use quickly, so they don't get lost behind the endless cans of beans.

                  1. re: DunkTheBiscuit

                    Thanks for the thought about the hardware but those things, I think, use up a tremendous of the storage space themselves. I'd rather have food in there than hardware.

                    1. re: rainey

                      Very true, and so would I (note that I didn't say I owned any of them :P )

                      However, if you have a few inches of headspace above your food, which you don't normally stack more food in, then the piece of wood or whatever that you stack your rear cans and packets on isn't taking up any extra space - it's just moving that empty space from above your cans to below them and bringing enough of the label into your line of sight that you can't forget what's back there. If, like I usually do, you stack your smaller packets on top of your cans and stuff as much as you're able to in there, then no, they're no help to you :)

                  2. re: rainey

                    I know what you mean about "the black hole". It isn't perfect, but two things that have helped with that are stacking like cans on top of each other, so I can look in the back and know if I see a can of garbanzos I know every can under it is the same, and I also use baskets with items of each ethnicity so I can lift an entire basket out and hopefully have all the ingredients I need for a dish. If it isn't in the basket, then I need to buy it.

                    My pantry has a regular door on it, and although I don't have one now, I used to have a great wire rack that hung over the door and I could store can goods, jars and spices in a single layer over the entire door. I should probably find another one since it sure would be handy.

                    I have a freestanding rack about 6' tall across from my pantry and that is where I store all of my pastas, rice, nuts, flours, bulk foods, etc. I love storing everything just about everything in glass jars, I think it is not only pretty but also easy to find the correct pasta or rice in a hurry.

                  3. re: mlou72

                    Organization. Precisely!

                    My spices, baking ingredients, oils & vinegars and small appliances are pretty good. It's the canned and dry goods and my management that are out of control.

                    I have two storage areas. One is a tall cabinet on one end of my galley kitchen next to my fridge. It's about 55" tall. It has 5 pull out drawers that are 15" wide and 20" deep. On the other end of the kitchen I have a bank of shelves. It stores small appliances and also has 5 shelves that are available for food. That area is about 55" tall, 22" wide and 14" deep. That's just about deep enough for everything more than 2 layers deep to be a black hole.

                    I have some baskets that act as pull out or lift outs but they're a double edged sword. It's tough finding baskets an appropriate size and even harder to find ones that enable groups of logical things to be stored together.

                    Finally, there's my own management/discipline that keeps things going in/being used/being replaced in an efficient manner.

                    I'd love ideas for how to get this all operating effectively.

                    1. re: rainey

                      I think you almost stated your own solution, "everything more than two layers deep...a big black hole." Just because you have the space, doesn't mean you need to use it. Keep things to two layers...get a plastic tub or basket and place it upside down so you don't put stuff there. You've got to see it to use it. Let us know how you do...you're certainly not the only one with this issue!

                      1. re: berkleybabe

                        Agree with berkley babe - your shelves are too deep and things are getting lost there. If you can't make a physical divider to make the shelving shallower, at least commit to putting a mental divider in there and going no deeper than two layers. Another consideration would be to maybe try to store less stuff. If things are getting lost in your pantry maybe you didn't need them in the first place? I try to keep pantry items to a minimum by utilizing a written meal plan, and having a written plan not only makes life easier and more organized, it results in less waste.

                        1. re: janniecooks

                          There is certainly an element of "maybe I didn't really need it in the first place". Still, I'd like to have couscous and red lentils on hand even if I only use them once a month...

                          It's also true that I probably have more canned diced tomatoes than I really should because if I can't find the can I need when I need it, I go out and buy one to use and another one to store and, god help me, I probably can't find *that* one when I need it either and repeat the whole process. =o

                          I think the spreadsheet plan above that inventories everything and identifies the location and shelf would at least limit me to pulling apart a single shelf to find the canned chipotle in adobo that I really need once every 4 months.

                          1. re: rainey

                            'Still, I'd like to have couscous and red lentils on hand even if I only use them once a month...'

                            Exactly!!! It is late Sunday afternoon and I just got home from South Texas after a weekend of working horses and cattle and the drive itself is 3 1/2 hours each way. I barely dragged myself into the house, half my stuff is still in the car, and tonight is just gonna be Pasta Con Sarde (out of the can) with bucatini. Oh, and wine, lots of wine to help my aching muscles. :)

                        2. re: berkleybabe

                          You might also want to label shelves with contents. I did this on the outside of my freezer - level 1 meats, level 2 frozen veggies, level 3 fast meals, already made stuff, level 4 desserts/ice cream, etc. and a final "misc." Works pretty well if the others in the household stick to it...but as I mainly do bulk shopping, it stays pretty organized.

                    2. A suggestion for you would be to take a rainy afternoon, pull everything out of you pantry, and take a little inventory. Check expiration dates as you organize the shelves, keeping like ingredients together in a way that will work for you. Plan meals over the following few weeks around using up some of your overstocked items.

                      Going forward, a shopping list is key. Plan your week's worth of menus, which I do based on the sales ads for the stores I shop in. Check your pantry for needed items and add what you need to the list. If you see a good price in the ad for an item you use, check your stock before you buy. I really think planning ahead and the ongoing shopping list is key.

                      1. Get yourself organised and put everything in clearly labelled containers. Then you know where everything is and you won't have situations where you have packets of stuff in more than one place.

                        Then get yourself a mini whiteboard and put it up in the kitchen. Everytime you run out of something, write it up on the whiteboard. Then you know what to put on your shopping list. Don't forget to wipe it off the board when you buy it!

                        1. My "pantry" space is a deep metal metro shelving unit. I was having a terrible time seeing what was there. The configuration encouraged stacking based on size/shape rather than by food category.

                          I finally removed everything and started experimenting with groupings that fit the way I use the ingredients. I purchased (massive sale at Michaels) coordinating baskets in several sizes. I rigged up a few shelves to make some of the larger spaces more manageable.

                          Some categories which worked for me:
                          *Breakfast - dry cereal. oatmeal, grits
                          *Hot beverages - teas, coffee substitutes, cocoa, mini marshmallows
                          *Salads - dressings, croutons, items I only use for salad ie shelled sunflower seeds, canned heart of palm, etc.
                          *Grains
                          *Pastas
                          *Dried - broken down further by fruits, legumes and other (tomatoes/mushrooms, etc.)

                          I labeled each basket with a letter. Tried to make it easy B - beans, F-fruit. A cheat sheet is in the pantry. I just pull down the basket and it is easy to find what I need.

                          I did purchase a can storage thing - similar to this:
                          http://www.amazon.com/FIFO-Tracker-St...
                          Mine has different sized slots, so it accommodates small tins of tomato paste, soup sized cans and larger sized tomato products. It is easy to see whats there. It is a bit bulky though.

                          It took a while to figure out the best way to group for my space/brain/cooking style. But it was time well spent. I haven't had to revamp it and I seldom buy something I don't need due to it being buried away.

                          4 Replies
                          1. re: meatn3

                            OH, this is a good idea. I have been watching this thread intently. I have been cooking for a long time as well and never even knew how to put a pantry together. I mean, other than flour, sugar, baking powder, soda, etc. I never knows what goes into a pantry, let alone organize it. I think I waste more time and money looking for things, buying double of things, not using what I got. So this thread has been enlightening.

                            1. re: ezzirah

                              We can be pantry-building buddies while we organize a plan and inventory that work for us. ;>

                            2. re: meatn3

                              Thank you for sharing the idea. I am going through this thread to look for ideas for myself, and realize that yours is quite similar to what I am doing, only even more organized. It makes so much more sense to group by category. I have pretty much all your categories! With the addition of:

                              - cookies, snacks and candies
                              - flours and other supplies for baking (dried fruits, nuts, although they sometimes end up in my grains/breakfast bin)
                              - cans and jars of anything preserved (I do not have many and they usually all fit into one bin)

                              1. re: vil

                                Glad it helped!

                                I ended up with 38 baskets of various sizes!

                                I have 9 large baskets over the top cabinets. They hold things I seldom use, such as cookie cutters, electric carving knife, holiday themed towels and dishware, kitchen aid attachments, etc.
                                The ones over the fridge have every day dish towels, and assorted plastic-ware for leftovers and bag lunches.

                                Most of the rest are for food and beverages. I've worked in the natural foods world and still have many friends there, so I get a lot of sample products. Since they are usually not something I routinely use I find I have to make an effort to remember to use them. This system has helped a lot in whittling down the surplus!