My husband is good at everything. He can calculate large mathematical figures in his head, juggle a career,fatherhood and his own personal interests seamlessly, make me laugh without even trying, and has crazy-accurate encyclopedic knowledge of all things music, movies, and pop culture. But most importantly, he is the “stable” one in the relationship. He always knows what to say, how to make me feel better, and how to handle any dilemma or social situation with poise and intelligence. One day a few years ago, after coming to him for advice yet again, I teasingly whined, “What do I ever do for you?” After a few too-long minutes of silence, my husband – God bless his heart – responded with all seriousness, “Well, you do keep an organized pantry.” It was instantly a hilarious moment and has become an inside joke that we refer to constantly, because he was being completely and legitimately serious. While I’d like to think that we can both recognize more noble traits that I bring to the table (maybe?) the truth is that he wasn’t inaccurate. I guess I do keep a pretty organized pantry!
As silly as that may sound, having your food storage areas controlled and systemized is, in my opinion, one of the most effective practices to both limit food waste and eat frugally. Knowing you have a reliable and efficient pantry can allow you to meal plan quickly and knowledgeably. If everything is a mess, or even looks OK but there isn't a clear system, how are you best able to know what to eat and when, and what to buy versus what you already have? In order to start spending less at the grocery store, you need to keep one very important word in your kitchen vocabulary – inventory. I can’t stress this enough. An organized pantry allows you to inventory not only what you have, but lets you see how you use everything on a constant basis. You’ll learn to track patterns in your usage of items and ingredients, making it easier to know what to plan and shop for.
I don’t have the fanciest kitchen, and my pantry is just a closet. But I’ve developed a “Bin System” over time, and it works so well for me I’d love to share why. Whether you have a small pantry closet, a bigger fancy area with lots of built-in racks, or even just an area of cupboards you use as your pantry, the Bin System is adaptable to work for any space. It’s super simple. Essentially, the Bin System consists of grouping like-items together into categories, and designating a clear storage bin (I like these inexpensive ones from Target) for each, as opposed to just putting things on your shelves. That’s it!
Here’s why my Bin System works so well:
1. Visibility. Clear bins allow you to see everything easily.
2. Clean-up. The bins are ideal for containing spills and for easy clean-up when there is a leak or mess. For example, those little dusty-looking bits of pasta that seem to fall out of their cardboard boxes only stay at the bottom of a bin, rather than the entire shelf. A drippy bottle of soy sauce will not destroy the entire pantry anymore. You can empty a bin, wipe it clean, and refill.
3. Mobility. It’s so easy to take the bins in and out of the pantry. Rather than futzing around for that bottle of red wine vinegar behind everything else, or trying to find that bag of ground flaxseed you're sure you bought once, the bins pull out effortlessly and you’ll know exactly which one to look in. The ease of this is also great for kids, who can pull their own designated bins out to find what they are allowed to look for. You can even “assign” a bin to each family member if you want to.
4. Consolidation. Every time you shop and add things to the pantry, the bins are great for consolidating and condensing items to save space (e.g. that last granola bar can be squeezed into the new box and you can better clear out unnecessary bulk and packaging).
5. Fast inventory. The simplicity and portability of the bins make for efficient inventorying when menu planning. Does a recipe call for one cup of cocoa powder but you can’t remember if you have it or not? Just pull your baking bin out and check.
Here’s a look at how I make my pantry work for me:
• My bin categories include: rice/pasta, bottles/oils/vinegars, breakfast/cereal, bagged snacks, kiddie snacks, grown-up snacks, and the “Naughty Bin,” which is for all naughty things my kid is not allowed immediate access to, such as Halloween candy. My two baking bins are separated into things I use all the time, like bags of flour and sugar, and baking miscellany, like lollipop sticks and specialty sprinkles.
• Everyday items like peanut butter and plastic wrap are organized on a rack hanging along the door.
• Large items and breakables such as giant containers of vegetable oil and cooking wines are lined at the bottom, as well as our stock of K-cups.
• As for canned goods, I’ve found this is one category that I prefer not to bin. Rather, I use a step shelf organizer to line them in rows.
There are a million and one pantry “hacks” out there to try, but for me, simplicity is best, and the Bin System can’t get any easier. Play around with it and see what works for you. If your food storage areas are already super organized, you can experiment with labels and more creative methods to house your stock. But just remember to keep it simple. In the end, your pantry should work for you so you can maximize efficiency and time, when it comes to both food prep and making a grocery list. Let the Bin System work for you!