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Organize your pantry with a five-step makeover

Organize your pantry with a five-step makeover

From the Make the most of your time at home: Recipes, workouts, home projects and more series
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Editor's note: This story ran in 2015, but we figured now was a good time to revisit.

We confront it everyday, morning and night, for one of our most basic needs — the search for food.

If your pantry is a mess, it can bookend your day in frustration.

Fortunately, it’s also one of the quickest organization projects that offers one of the biggest returns in improved efficiency and peace of mind. We turned to two professional organizers to makeover two different types of kitchen pantries.

The first one, a floor-to-ceiling cabinet with six pull-out shelves was my very own challenge. The second, a closet pantry combined with a mudroom, was a neighbor’s.

It took about an hour to complete the cabinet pantry, and it took two organizers about two hours to make over the larger one. Each one, however, followed the same basic steps:

1. Assess your needs.

Take note of what works about your pantry. Then, list the things that make you crazy about it.

Lisa Bianco, director of marketing for the National Association of Professional Organizers St. Louis chapter and owner of Perfectly Organized in O’Fallon, Missouri, says she starts every project with a conversation with the client about how often the items in the pantry are used and by whom.

Tips on Organizing your pantry

A shot of the pantry before professional organizers Lisa Bianco with Perfectly Organized STL and Gretchen Bender with Creative Spaces Organizing sort pantry items into organized bins on Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015, at the home of Dr. Nadia Zia in Ballwin. Photo by Laurie Skrivan,

The stuff that gets used every day needs to stay near the middle. The things that children help themselves to should be within their reach. The less often an item is used, the higher or lower up it can live.

Gretchen Bender, owner of Creative Spaces Organizing in St. Louis, says the first question she asks is: What is your goal?

“A lot of time people have the space, but they don’t know what to do with it. They just see a series of shelves.”

The organizer starts envisioning what can be grouped together, taken out and added to improve the functionality.

2. Empty it out.

The next step is to empty out the entire pantry. It sounds daunting, but it’s truly the only way to get a handle on everything that is hidden there. People will often discover they own multiples of the same product or have a backlog of expired foods.

Tips on Organizing your pantry

Professional organizers Lisa Bianco with Perfectly Organized STL and Gretchen Bender with Creative Spaces Organizing used black bins to organize pantry items on Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015, at the home of Dr. Nadia Zia in Ballwin. They threw out expired times, eliminated bulky storage items and stored like items in labeled bins to achieve organization. Photo by Laurie Skrivan,

“If you don’t see it, you won’t use it,” Bianco said. We discovered several unopened bottles of vitamins and supplements that had been purchased with good intentions but lost in the recesses of the pantry.

3. Sort into categories.

The next step is to group like items. Bianco brought a few storage containers in which she grouped all the protein bars, and fruit and nut bars roaming around. She created a section for snacks, one for breakfast items, pasta and dinner, spices, grains/rice and an entire shelf for baking.

4. Toss the excess and expired.

First, you purge, Bianco said. Get rid of things that are stale or expired. I threw out some year-old granola and half a package of stale shortbread cookies. (I don’t even like shortbread cookies.)

We also tossed the Tupperware that was missing lids and consolidated things into empty jars that kept turning up.

Taking note of the redundancy in the pantry can help cut down future costs. “It can be a money saver,” Bender said. Think about the money wasted on food that gets thrown away, excess items and impulse buys. It can help with menu planning to keep a grocery list on the inside door of the pantry and make a note of things you needs before you shop for the week’s meals.

5. Put the puzzle back together.

In the case of both the pantries our organizers worked on, they added a few storage baskets that grouped together certain items, such as teas, spices or lentils. In my pantry, Bianco added Lazy Susans for soup cans. She also added labels on each shelf as a reminder for everyone who uses the pantry.

Bianco moved the largest box of cereal to a middle shelf where our children could reach it more easily. She grouped it with the oatmeal and other breakfast foods. She also suggested tearing the loose box tops off of boxes to make the overall space appear cleaner.

For shelves that don’t pull out, it’s important to use the vertical space, so everything is within eye level. This may require buying a few tiered shelves, she said. She added two small containers, two medium ones and two Lazy Susans, all from Target, which cost about $35 in total.

In the closet pantry, they added a few more storage containers for a total cost around $45.

In both cases, they played with a few different ways of putting the contents back together.

“It’s like putting together a puzzle,” Bianco said. Some pieces fit better in different configurations and it takes a little bit of trial and error.

A pantry project is a good start for those who want to become more organized, Bianco said. “It doesn’t take as long. It gets you motivated and lets you feel successful.”

In less than an afternoon and less than $50 in supplies, you can make enough tweaks in an area of the house you use every day to have a significant impact on the rest of your day.

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