How to organize your kitchen pantry

I’m currently reading the ninth edition of the Culinary Institute of America’s textbook The Professional Chef. I don’t have any desire to be a professional chef, I simply decided to read it to help me step up my game in my home kitchen. I’m only a few chapters into this book, and I’ve already learned a wealth of information.

Much to my surprise, the book is full of fantastic organizing advice. In hindsight, I should have expected this since having an organized restaurant can be a key component in a restaurant’s survival. A poorly run kitchen can produce health code violations, waste money on unused or overpriced food, make for a bad dining experience, and create high employee turnover. The better organized a kitchen and its staff, the more a restaurant can focus on the food and quality of service it provides.

The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) teaches the “Kitchen Brigade System,” which was initially “instituted by [Auguste] Escoffier to streamline and simplify work in hotel kitchens.” His system gives specific responsibilities and work stations to each person in the kitchen, so there is less duplication, cross contamination, and confusion about duties. The system is led by the chef (known as the chef de cuisine in French or the executive chef in English) and can include up to 18 positions that report to the chef (such as the sous chef, saucier, grillardin, all the way down to the commis, who is an apprentice learning how to work a station). One of the most interesting stations in this system, at least to me, is the cold-foods chef, referred to in French as the garde manger (which translates from French into English as pantry).

The cold-foods or pantry chef is “responsible for preparation of cold foods including salads, cold appetizers, pates, and the like.” In many kitchens, the garde manger is also responsible for all the foods stored in the pantry and walk-in refrigerators. In our family, managing the food in the pantry and refrigerator is my job, and it’s a lot of work for just the three of us. I can see how this is a full-time job for someone in a restaurant or hotel, which is feeding hundreds of customers daily. Instead of being just the guy who makes salads, the garde manger is an inventory and organizing guru.

Based off the information I’ve gathered from reading this book and specifically the sections regarding the garde manger, I’ve collected some notes to help you organize your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer (and to help improve the way I manage mine):

  • Cut down on food waste by clearly marking when you purchased an item and when you opened it. Knowing these dates can help you to use food before spoilage and to be sure you only throw away food that can make you sick. Blue painter’s tape and a Sharpie are perfect for these tasks. You can stick a piece of blue painter’s tape to reusable containers and then write the information on the tape, or if the packaging isn’t reusable (like a can or box) simply write directly onto the top of the product. Label the dates as “Bought” and “Opened” so it’s clear what the dates indicate.
  • Refrigerate and freeze foods at their proper temperatures. Use a thermometer to ensure all parts of your refrigerator and freezer are maintaining consistent and proper temperatures. Your refrigerator should be around 36ºF, unless you regularly store fish and seafood, and then it should be a couple degrees cooler (in the 32ºF to 34ºF range). Produce can be a little warmer — lettuce, carrots — at 40ºF, but those temperatures are too warm for all the other foods (meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, etc.), so it’s best to aim for 36ºF. Typically the front of the refrigerator is warmer than the back, so store produce at the front of your shelves and meat, poultry, and fish at the back of your shelves.
  • Never store cleaning supplies in your pantry so no one ever makes a mistake and puts cleaning chemicals into food. You also don’t have to worry about cleaning supplies spilling and ruining your stored foods.
  • When putting items away, arrange the items so the oldest items are at the front of your pantry shelves and the newer items are at the back. This will help you to use the food item before it goes bad. The book calls this the “First In, First Out” rule.
  • Group dry foods in your pantry by type. You will likely have categories for: flours, rice, corn products (cornmeal, corn starch), leaveners (baking soda, cream of tartar, baking powder), thickeners (arrowroot, gelatin), oats, other grains (barley, quinoa), pasta and noodles, legumes (lentils, beans), nuts and seeds, spices, sweeteners (honey, brown sugar, sugar cubes, powdered sugar), oils, vinegars and other non-perishable condiments, cooking wines, extracts, coffee and teas, and fruits and vegetables that do not require refrigeration (potatoes, apples). You may also have a section for packaged snacks and canned items.
  • Clearly label shelves so that it is obvious where items belong. This helps improve your ability to maintain order in your pantry, and also helps other people to find items and properly return them. You can use a label maker or adhesive shelf label holders for this task.
  • If possible, adjust shelf heights to best accommodate your goods. Strangely, this is an easy step to skip but will likely increase your pantry’s storage capabilities.
  • Store the items most often accessed in your pantry on shelves at heights between your hips and shoulders. Heavier items you access less frequently should be at heights between your knees and hips. Lighter items you access less often can be stored on shelves at heights above your shoulders. You may want to keep a step stool in your pantry or nearby, so getting to your food is a simple endeavor.
  • Do not store anything on a pantry shelf at floor level. This is a good place to keep reusable boxes, paper grocery sacks, and other non-food pantry items that won’t have future contact with food.
  • Keep shelves clean and immediately deal with any spills to ward off pests and spoilage. I recently heard a tip to line refrigerator and pantry shelves with Press’n Seal Food Wrap. When it’s time to clean the shelves, pull up the dirty wrap and press down clean wrap. It’s much easier than spending the day scrubbing milk rings off refrigerator shelves and much less expensive than doing the same thing with Contact Paper.
  • At least once a week, do an informal review of your refrigerator, freezer, and pantry. Get rid of spoiled and expired foods, make notes about items that are running low, and clean up any spills you may have missed when accessing items.

If you’re looking for visual inspiration, check out Better Homes and Gardens’ slideshow on how to store more in your kitchen. My favorite images are: Use Clear Containers for Dry Goods (I love how the cooking instructions and nutrition facts are taped to each container), Store Stuff on the Doors (the additional storage is perfect for teas, sweeteners, and other items accessed frequently), Pantry Drawers (perfect for homes without traditional pantries), and Cubby Organization (marvelous for small appliances).

Stay tuned for an article next week with dozens of interviews from large families talking about how they organize dinner preparations, cooking, feeding, and cleanup on a nightly basis. The strategies they employ to feed their families of five, six, seven, eight or more can help everyone — and that includes singles and small families like mine — to get a nutritious meal on the table every night without stress or breaking the bank.

17 Comments for “How to organize your kitchen pantry”

  1. posted by Diane Balch on

    Excellent list, I would never had guessed that it would have been in that book!

  2. posted by Fiona on

    Love the suggestions and would like to add to this, from earthquake hit Christchurch, NZ.

    – Make sure bottles (especially oil) are not near the front of cupboards or up high. They make a big mess when they fall out of cupboards.

    – Put cans on the most secure shelf and also away from edges as these are heavy when they fall down and can squash other containers.

    Another idea I read about for the fruit and vege bins in your fridge is to move everything old to one bin when you next buy groceries, that way you know which food to eat or cook with first.

    Always enjoy reading your blog.

  3. posted by Lynda on

    Erin, I so appreciate your distillation of useful information from books I’d never read. This is particularly timely, as I haven’t completely unpacked my kitchen (it’s been in storage during a home renovation), and am looking to configure it differently than before.

    The tips on arranging dry goods, and using painter’s tape to date perishables are great.

  4. posted by WilliamB on

    For a funny take on the same subject, here’s ReadySetSimplify’s Ten Ways to Waste Food:

  5. posted by Amanda on

    I find the suggestion to use press and seal wrap on refrigerator shelves to be truly thoughtless. I know this is not an environmental blog, but do we really need to create more plastic, non-recyclable, non-reusable trash because it takes too long to use a sponge to wipe up a spill now and then?

  6. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Amanda — That sponge you’re referring to is going to wind up in the trash, too. And, most sponges sold in the U.S. are made from the plastic polymer PVC, which contains environmentally damaging chlorine and isn’t food grade. Saran Wrap, however, is made from low density polyethylene (LDP), which doesn’t contain chlorine and is relatively environmentally safe in comparison to the polymers in that sponge. It also uses less plastic in a roll of Wrap than in a single sponge, and is food safe.

    If you’re using a natural sponge, then you’re actually killing a sea animal … taking a life just to clean your refrigerator doesn’t seem very helpful to the environment, either.

    Sponges used to be made of cellulose from wood pulp, but the vast majority of manufacturers in this country have turned to plastic polymers in the past decade. Wood cellulose sponges still end up in the trash … same as the Wrap … when you’re finished. Both will eventually break down and neither will be releasing chlorine into the soil, but both will still end up in a landfill.

    Just saying our suggestion wasn’t “thoughtless,” we most certainly thought about it …

  7. posted by Amanda on

    I’m a different Amanda.

    We compost our cellulose sponges. No waste!

  8. posted by Sky on

    I LOVE the Saran Wrap in the fridge idea….thanks!

  9. posted by JustGail on

    Writing the opened date is a big help for me in 2 ways – I see the date and think “must use this soon” or “yeeesh need to toss this now!”. I don’t use the tape, just the Sharpie on the lid or label. As far as the plastic on the shelf, maybe this is one of those things that the plastic garbage bags could somehow be put to use?

    The group by type (my categories are a bit different) also works great. I wish the put new-in-back rule was carried out a bit more often, but then I’m glad when the DS actually helps do such things.

    Many of you probably have already seen the Perfect Pantry blog – on Saturdays they feature real-life pantries, not staged perfection. While most do not show the inside of the refrigerator, they do show how people organize the pantry, or whatever serves as a pantry. All the way from gorgeous room sized ones to ones that are just a couple of shelves, and those are not always in the kitchen. All are quite interesting to see what’s considered essential to have on hand in various parts of the world.

  10. posted by Cheryl on

    Thanks for this post. Lots of good ideas. Never would have thought of reading that book but now that you have opened my eyes I just might. Thanks.

  11. posted by karen on

    My mother in law writes the date she opened a jar or package on the package. The last time I was at her house I found three jars of salsa, all with varying dates on them, from the year 2009 to the year 2011. YIKES. Writing a date won’t help unless you also do the weekly checkthrough, which i do when I’m making my grocery list each week.

  12. posted by EngineerMom on

    I personally don’t find maintaining a fridge/freezer and pantry to be that much work, even for our family of 4. The key is to have whoever is doing the majority of the cooking to also be responsible for inventory management.

    One thing I would add is to keep a whiteboard on the fridge. Any time someone uses something up or takes the last item (including TP, shampoo, etc.), write it on the list. If it’s not on the list when I make my grocery list the night before I shop, it doesn’t get purchased.

    It only took one episode of this to get my husband on board with remembering to put things on the whiteboard when they run out!

    I shop once per week.

  13. posted by Austen on

    Beware of any enterprise requiring more plastic containers…

  14. posted by danielle on

    Thanks for the book recommendation – sounds interesting! I just moved into a smaller kitchen and am having challenges getting things organized in a way that makes sense to me. There is fairly adequate storage space, but many of the shelves are higher than normal – and I’m kinda short – and one cabinet in particular that is huge (pantry-sized) but had no shelves of any kind. Very strange! As I’m renting, I’m trying to find creative ways to store food that doesn’t require buying lots of plastic storage, miscellaneous shelves, etc. Thinking I will check out the Perfect Pantry blog mentioned above as well!

  15. posted by Katrina on

    Some great hints.

    I avoid plastic unless it is BPA-free. So I find glass jars, especially Maccona coffee jars, to be a great alternative for pantry goods.

    Re the plastic wrap on the shelves… it’s easier and cheaper to get into the habit of wiping the bottle with a cloth before putting it back into the fridge.

    On the main shelves, cheesecloth teatowels would also be good in place of the plastic wrap. Or a tray which can be removed and put in the dishwasher (eg a baking tray which is not-so-non-stick-anymore). Both are washable and reusable

  16. posted by Katrina on

    @ Danielle: “and one cabinet in particular that is huge (pantry-sized) but had no shelves of any kind. Very strange!”

    Could it have been for an ironing board & mops? I’ve often seen those kind of cupboards in small kitchens and no cupboard in the laundry.
    Or perhaps it had an insert that was removed by a previous tenant/owner

    @ Danielle: “As I’m renting, I’m trying to find creative ways to store food that doesn’t require buying lots of plastic storage, miscellaneous shelves, etc.”

    If you want to find something to put in that second pantry to increase its storage but not have something that’s sole purpose, I suggest you have a hunt around yard sales, good will shops etc for a small table or a little bookshelf unit that would fit in the cupbard. Either could be reused elsewhere later or sold when you no longer need them.

  17. posted by Ann on

    I use a spreadsheet to record what’s in the freezer:
    beef, chicken and veggie stocks
    left-over meals
    raw ingredients – beef cubes, mince, chicken, fish, etc.
    pizza dough

    I try to update it each time food is used up and also when the store is added to. I re-do the list every month or two. If something is still on the list after a couple of months I make sure I use it up, which avoids waste.

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