top of page
  • Writer's picturedeborahreinhardt

Try these hardworking pantry organizing tips

Start 2021 with a clean and orderly pantry.

It must be in our DNA to approach a new year with a need to improve something. Given a fresh start, most of us want to get the year off on the right foot. If you turn this renewed energy toward your kitchen pantry, you’ll be better organized and more efficient in your meal prep. Let’s dive in.

cluttered kitchen pantry
This is NOT a clean and orderly pantry! But after a few hours and a trip to the Dollar Tree for a few supplies, my pantry was transformed.

This is a photo of my sad pantry. As you can see, it needs help. Now, I’d love to spend thousands on a beautiful custom closet, but I don’t have the funds or the space. So, I did a little research on how a pantry can work hard and smart for you and your family.

Experts at the St. Louis Closet Company suggest I start by addressing the clutter (hello, clutter) and purging cookware I do not use. Toss expired spices, canned goods, and other items. (I found a can of black beans that were two years old and a small jar of allspice from the 1990s.)

After everything has been removed and the space cleaned, it’s recommended I visualize what I want the pantry to look like. In my pantry, the two issues are the wire shelves and the wasteland at the bottom of the closet. It would also be nice to have space to store soft drinks other than the case sitting by my back door.

Time to visit the Dollar Tree store by my house, which is always a good time. It reminds me of the days when we visited the Woolworth dime store at River Roads Mall in north St. Louis (which has since been demolished). It was such a treat to go to the mall on a Saturday night. When we moved, our dime store became Ben Franklin on South Grand Avenue (also closed). Sigh.

It’s usually best to go into Dollar Tree with an open mind and flexible plan. When I go with something specific in mind—like this time after I watched a number of pantry renovation videos using Dollar Tree products—I couldn’t find exactly what I wanted, but I could buy what I needed. I had to mix white with blue for bins and baskets because there wasn’t enough of one color. The cute black chalk tags seen in a video were not in any of the three stores I visited, so I found colorful peel-off stickers to label containers. All told, I filled my cart at Dollar Tree with nine containers, plus a package of tags, permanent markers, two pie plates and a small bag of glass marbles (to make a baking spice Lazy Susan) for under $20. While cleaning out the pantry, I found several glass apothecary jars that I emptied and sent through the dishwasher so I could incorporate them into the design.

To put the pantry back together, St. Louis Closet Company experts suggested I keep frequently used items easily accessible. Canned goods should be easily identifiable. I didn’t have a pull-out drawer, but I found a tiered wire shelf in the basement that holds about a dozen or so smaller cans. The large cans of tomatoes stack next to the shelf.

a clean kitchen pantry
With inexpensive bins and containers, it's easy to organize your pantry to assist in easy meal planning.

Bulky packaging can take up a lot of space, so food storage systems help me organize flour, sugar, and dry pasta.

What should the well organized pantry have in it? For that, I went to trusted sources: experienced home cooks. The most popular pantry items were oil (mainly olive, but also avocado), vinegar, canned tomatoes and tomato paste, dried pasta, chicken and beef broth, and garlic.

Anne Miller also keeps dark chocolate in her cupboard; we are sisters of cacao. My college roommate Barb Anderson makes sure the number for Imo’s Pizza delivery is inside her pantry door. She’s not wrong.

Peanut butter got a thumbs up from a couple people, including Pat Fisher who also keeps tuna and raspberry jam in her diverse pantry. Ramen noodles and rice were tagged as necessary items by a few cooks, and Melissa Corbin advised a cook keeps red and white wine in her pantry. Mushrooms of the canned (Marcy Epps Watson) and dry (Neala Schwartzberg McCarten) varieties were mentioned.

Cooks Linda Jarrett and Lory Cosner, as well as Carol Schlitt and Elaine Warner keep a variety of canned beans on hand; I bet they will like this featured recipe from University of Missouri Extension. Cathy Babcock Johnson gave a nod to her Japanese heritage by sharing she’s never without good soy sauce, ginger, and mirin. And Fran Folsom passed along wisdom from her mother, who told her you’ll never go hungry if you have a can of Spam in your cupboard. Fran, I’d offer this also works in a quick fried rice.

enchiladas on a table
Keep canned beans and tomatoes in your pantry and you can make these vegetarian enchiladas, a delicious and filling family meal.

The spice rack should include, in addition to salt and pepper, garlic powder, and minced onions. Cousin David Klausmeyer added smoked paprika and curry powder to that list. David, we are not only related by blood, but by spice, as I have a variety of paprika and curry powders at home.

To this list of staples, I’d have to add pickles plus green and black olives. But no matter what we purchase, I think our well-stocked pantries will be of particular importance to us this year as America stares at winter during the season of COVID-19.

But take heart; pantry cooking can be adventurous (maybe not as adventurous as cooking with Spam, but I digress). This recipe for meatless enchiladas will serve a family and is packed with protein. To the original recipe, I added the cumin and coriander—I mean, the spice rack had been organized by alphabet, so why not? For a side dish, serve fried corn but leave out the bacon to keep the meal completely vegetarian.

For more ideas about cooking from a well-stocked pantry, visit the Canned Food Alliance.

And if you do a pantry makeover this year, drop a photo or description in the comments! Happy 2021, everybody, and stay well.


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page