Smart Pantry and Freezer Organization

food cupboard organization

Chances are that you’ve had at least one disgusting experience with food that’s been lost in the back of the pantry or in the bottom of the freezer. Mine was the time I excavated the pantry to discover that a can of pineapple had gone so far beyond its expiration date that the can had bulged and was leaking. That was a sticky mess and I was lucky that the ants hadn’t yet discovered it. I’m still not sure how it happened since I’m usually very good about keeping things rotated in the pantry. Somehow, though, that one can got by me and turned into a mess.

I know many people who are always finding food that’s gone bad in the pantry, stuff that’s molded in the fridge, or gotten severe freezer burn in the freezer. While this is sometimes the result of things just getting missed, it can also be a symptom of poor organization. Over the years I’ve learned how to organize my pantry and freezer so that things don’t go bad before they get used. Good organization also makes my meal preparation easier and quicker since I’m not digging around looking for stuff. You don’t have to invest in lots of organizer do-dads and gadgets to have a well organized pantry, either. Here are some tips:

Put the oldest stuff in the front

When you bring home new groceries, don’t just put them on the shelves in front of or on top of the older items. That’s asking for stuff to disappear. Put the new purchases in the back or on the bottom of the pantry/freezer. This keeps the oldest stuff constantly in view so it gets used up first.

Keep labels facing forward

You don’t have to be as obsessive about this as the guy in the movie “Sleeping with the Enemy,” but it helps if you keep food arranged so that you can see what it is. Mystery cans don’t get chosen for meals and if all you can see is the nutrition label of a box, you likely have no idea whether it’s rice, pasta, or something else entirely. Keep things so you can see what they are.

Keep open items in the front

If an item has been opened, such as a box of cereal or a bag of chips, make sure it stays in the front of the pantry. If it slides to the bag and gets forgotten, it will go bad all the faster because it’s open.

Group items by use

Group your items so that they make sense for the way you cook. Keep all spices, together, for example, or make sure that all your condiments are in one place. Maybe you want to group by meal type, so you have everything you need for spaghetti in one place and tacos in another. However you organize, it will speed up your mealtime prep if you have everything you need easy to hand.

Have “use it up” nights or weeks

If the pantry gets full or you notice that you have a lot of things that are about to go bad, schedule a use it up night (or week, depending). Make all of the items that are about to expire. It can make for some random meals, but that’s also part of the fun. Even making a commitment to eat at home for one week can make a difference and keep a lot of food from going bad.

Have a “most used” shelf or area

In my pantry, I keep part of one shelf dedicated to my most used items. It’s right at eye level so it’s easy to immediately see what I have and what I need. When I’m cooking, it’s very easy to grab those items and when it’s time to make a grocery list, one glance tells me what I need to replace.

Store open foods wisely

Although I said you don’t need to invest in a lot of organizational gadgets, I do have one exception. Invest in a good set of storage canisters. These are great for storing open items like pasta, cereal, and snack foods and extending their shelf lives. If you don’t want to go that far, you can tape boxes shut or use a clothespin or twist ties to secure bags. Even zippy bags can be a viable storage option. Just don’t let food sit around in open boxes. Not only will it go bad faster, it might attract bugs.

A well organized pantry will save you money as well as time. You’ll be able to see at glance what you have and what you need, which makes preparing to grocery shop much easier. You’ll get a good sense of the things you use most and which items you should stock up on when they’re on sale and which you should buy only as needed. You’ll be able to get the to the items you use most when making meals which will save you some time. Most importantly, you won’t be throwing out food because it has gone bad.

(Photo courtesy of Incase.)

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5 Responses to Smart Pantry and Freezer Organization

  1. jay says:

    Great article as usual! Your advice is spot on.

    Having been through years of “stocking up” syndrome, I’ve finally learned that buying in quantity when on sale is seldom economical. As you note, one invariably loses food to expiration, going stale, or even from just getting bored. You lose valuable space (rooms/basement lost to stockpiling, “having” to have a freezer, etc), and it doesn’t force one to think outside the box when faced with making an unplanned meal… ALSO, all too often sale items -often impulse buys: i.e., would you buy if not on sale?- tend not to be the best nutritional choice and thus, again, false economy.

    I now plan an 8 day meal cycle. Since I buy mostly from bulk bins, meat counters, the cheesemonger, etc. these days, I only need to buy the amount needed for the week+. I shop once a week using my own containers and bags.
    We were able to get rid of the extra freezer (energy saved, food not lost), reclaimed “storage” space, and have become much more creative. We’ve also lost weight since not buying “on sale” prepackaged junk food. Sadly am still working my way through household supplies bought over a year ago!
    Oh, and we’ve reduced our total waste to less than a gallon a week, as we don’t need to buy/store in elaborate packaging necessary for long term preservation.

  2. rob62521 says:

    We avoid warehouse stores because we found we tended to buy things fully intending to use things up and save money…we often did not because the packages were so huge. I do catch things on sale and stock up, and we often spend a couple of weeks eating from the pantry and freezer to try and use things so they don’t spoil. It sure is nice when I need some pasta to go to the pantry and use some from a box that cost less than a $1 netted on sale instead of having spend far more for the same box. I do have most of my pasta, beans, and rice in storage containers. We don’t buy a lot of processed foods…we do have some canned tomatoes and some chips and saltines, but most of the stuff in the pantry is rice, pasta, flours, condiments, and coffee and tea.

  3. Gail says:

    Learning how often items go on sale helps as well. I realized the other day that some of the nutrional supplements that we have to take go on sale just about every other week. Why was I buying 2 big bottles when it is a BOGO sales, instead of the two smallest (read cheapest) bottles. I use my CVS card and usually get an extra 20% back as well.

    I do try to have a bit of a backlog in the pantry since sometimes it is hard for me to get out to grocery shop. But things have been extra tight lately and I’m seeing a lot of empty space in my pantry and my big freezer is about empty, but I know I want to try doing things a bit differently.

  4. Dee in RI says:

    I have just the fridge top freezer in a 14 cu.ft. refrigerator, plus my pantry. The pantry is organized and items are marked with expiration dates. I also keep an inventory list on the shelf. There are containers for things like sugar and flour, and baskets and boxes to organize items that can’t stand on their own or be stacked. Jumbo paper clips work to keep bags of cereal fresh in the boxes.

    I do shop on sale and stock up on items I know I will use. I make sure that expiration dates are long enough to allow me to use an item. For example, a can of cream of something soup will only be used to roast meats in the oven. Since I don’t use my oven in the summer, I make sure that the expiration dates will be good until the following fall or even fall of the next year.
    Also, I don’t stock up on more than a 6 month supply of any one item no matter how low the sale price is.

    The freezer is full 90% of the time, and didn’t even come with a freezer shelf, so I had to improvise one from another area of my apartment.

    If I buy a roast of any kind, or a whole chicken, I have to cook it and break it down before I can get the leftovers into the freezer. Popsicles? Since they now come wrapped in plastic, I take them out of the box and scatter them around. They fit in the little spaces between containers, and I throw the space consuming box out. Round 48 oz ice cream containers waste too much freezer space, so I don’t buy the round container brand anymore. Happily, manufacturers are starting to package frozen foods in re-sealable plastic bags instead of boxes now, so as the contents gets used up, space is freed up.

    I also keep a basket for meats in the freezer, and all ground meats are frozen flat in that basket. Another basket sits on the shelf for bags of frozen veggies, sauteed onions, red peppers I roast in my oven in winter, and any items that don’t stack well. I use rectangular plastic containers because they fit better than round or square.

    Knowing I can live off what I have in the pantry and freezer for a few weeks makes me feel safe.

  5. Anna says:

    We have “anything nights” twice a week (W nights – Weekend and Wednesdays), where we dig out all the leftovers from the fridge/freezer and use them up before they get a chance to go bad. The kids love it, they get to have whatever they want – that last sausage with a little cheese rolled up in a tortilla makes a delicious sausage burrito, for instance. This way, the new food keeps on a good rotation!

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