Organized Pantry: A Beginner's Guide to Pantry Pride

A working pantry? It's the secret weapon of a well-organized kitchen.

A planned reserve of foodstuffs and sundries used in the home, a pantry saves time, money and stress in the kitchen.

Tap the pantry for unexpected meals and reduce trips to the supermarket.

Stock it with frugal finds to lower grocery costs.

Set aside a supply of food and sundries for a rainy day and protect your family against weather emergencies or financial dislocation.

Properly managed, the pantry is an integral part of an organized home. Polish your pantry pride with our best hints and tips.

A Pantry's Not A Place: It's An Attitude

"Oh, I'd love to have a pantry," writes a reader, "but my house doesn't have one!" Sure it does! If there's so much as a spare roll of toilet paper tucked underneath a sink, the household boasts a pantry.

Don't confuse storage space with the reality of the pantry principle. Certainly, it's helpful to have designated cabinet space for pantry goods--but that's not the pantry. Think of the pantry as a reservoir of consumable goods which may be stored in any area of the home.

Tiny urban apartment or spacious rural farmhouse, all homes can include a pantry. That some houses may or may not feature a specific storage area labeled "pantry" is beside the point. A pantry's not a place, it's an attitude!

Eyes On The Goal

What's the goal of establishing and maintaining a pantry? It's two-fold: household convenience and protection against unexpected events. A well-planned pantry means that the household will never run out of commonly used products such as toilet paper.

More important, a pantry is a reserve against hard times. Whether it's job loss, illness, or natural disaster, a pantry ensures that the family will continue to be fed, clean, and comfortable in the face of adversity.

A beginner's pantry focuses on convenience and contains back-up products for each storable item used in the home. The standard is simple: for each open bag, box or carton in the household, the pantry contains a second, back-up product, toothbrushes to tortellini. A good first goal: a three-day supply of food and hygiene supplies adequate to support your family plus one additional person.

More robust pantries serve additional goals. A mid-range pantry can feed a family for a period of two weeks to a month in case of emergency.

This pantry includes substitutes for fresh foods, such as powdered milk, dried fruits and vegetables, and protein products. A mid-range pantry offers convenience and basic protection.

The most comprehensive home pantries are designed to meet long-term food storage needs. For instance, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) are taught to maintain a one-year supply of food and clothing for their families.

To do so, these premier pantry managers stock versatile foodstuffs with long shelf life, such as whole wheat berries, together with a variety of preserved and dried foods. LDS home managers learn pantry-specific cooking techniques to enhance nutrition and appeal of long-keeping foods.

Inside the Well-Stocked Pantry

Traditional home organization advice often specifies long lists of "recommended pantry items", idea being that you buy them and voila! you've got pantry.

Eighteen months later, you're hauling dusty cans of apricot halves to the Food Bank and wondering what ever possessed you to purchase them in the first place.

Reality check! Each family's pantry will vary according to their own tastes, needs and standard of living. Storage space and financial constraints also affect pantry contents.

For instance, single-income households with young children will build pantries replete with cold cereal, formula, disposable diapers and child-friendly snack foods--all purchased on sale with coupons. Empty-nesters with an active social life and his-and-hers diets will lean toward pickled asparagus, cocktail crackers and tiny jars of caviar for pick-up appetizers and hostess gifts.

Dedicated home bakers include specialty flours, gluten, and dried buttermilk powder in their pantries, while non-cooks rely heavily on microwave entrees and freezer pizza. And just about every family can stockpile basics for kitchen and bath: toilet paper, toothpaste, laundry and dishwasher detergent, disposable diapers and feminine hygiene products, paper napkins and food storage bags.

Where's the best place to discover your family's pantry preferences? A grocery list!

If you buy it, use it, and it can be stored, it's a pantry candidate. Building a pantry from the grocery list is also a powerful antidote to Pantry Mania: the indiscriminate purchase of case lots of canned turkey chili or house-brand soups that no one in the household will eat. Hello, Food Bank!

An expansive view of the pantry principle encompasses more than the traditional dry storage of canned foods and baking staples. Manage your pantry to include freezer storage and a limited amount of refrigerator real estate. Carrots, potatoes, oranges and apples enter the pantry zone when bought on sale and tucked into corners of the vegetable bin, while freezer convenience entrees qualify, too.

Bottom line: build a pantry to suit your family. Whether it's Chef Boy-ar-dee brand ravioli or Wolfgang Puck's upscale line of condensed soups, feature your family's favorites on the pantry shelves.

Organization and Inventory Tips

To work the pantry principle, you've gotta get organized! Maximum pantry power requires that you know what you have, how long it will keep, and how to store it safely. Good organization and inventory techniques will keep your pantry cycling smoothly.

Beginning pantries are relatively simple, and don't require complex organization systems. Create them by buying twice as many of each item as required for weekly use, then storing the extras. Use the last smidge of mayo making today's tuna salad? Retrieve the back-up jar from the pantry, and add "mayo" to the week's shopping list to replace the pantry jar.

Often, the beginner's pantry can be stored side-by-side with opened or in-use items. For example, stack the open box of detergent on top of the pantry box or line up cans of chicken noodle soup front to back on the canned goods shelf. Remember to rotate! Add newly-purchased items to the back of the stack or row; use the front items first.

Even for beginners, a dedicated pantry area can be a big help. Set aside a cabinet or shelf to hold pantry items. Organize them by category, stacking cans and boxes. Flat-bottomed plastic baskets support and contain bags of dried beans, rice, or pasta.

One exception to the "store by category" rule: complete pantry meals. On a section of pantry shelf, assemble all the makings for three to five pantry meals: a family-sized can of clam chowder, extra can of chopped clams, and the box of oyster crackers shelved together make it easy to replace these items after use. Check your "pantry meals" area before shopping day. Empty spaces will remind you to stock up on the clam chowder as needed.

More comprehensive pantries call for a more organized approach. Larger pantries require more storage space, often sited away from the kitchen. In this situation, a written pantry inventory can remind forgetful cooks of the existence and location of pantry items.

To inventory the pantry, use a clipboard, steno pad, laptop computer or a free printable pantry inventory form from our Household Notebook Forms Library. Record pantry contents, amount and location for easy reference.

Before grocery shopping, check the pantry; will you need to replace any items that have been used? Include them on the weekly shopping list.

Larger pantries may be stored in multiple locations around the house, so pay attention to food storage guidelines as you store. A cool, dry basement room is a good storage environment for root vegetables, apples, or baking staples; canned goods and dried beans can be safely stored in areas with greater temperature variation.

Long-term storage pantries require a thorough approach to selection, storage, maintenance and use of stored foods. Families storing a year's supply of food and water must pay close attention to storage guidelines, safe packaging, and integration of pantry supplies into the daily diet.

Building A Pantry On A Budget

Investing in the pantry principle pays off in savings of time and money, but it does involve an up-front cost. Even a beginner's pantry--a back-up product for each item used in the home, plus ingredients for three to five pantry meals--represents a significant financial outlay.

Try these tips to spread the load:

  • "Tithe" for the pantry: set aside a regular percentage of each week's grocery budget for pantry-building. Even a few dollars a week will start the process of stocking and maintaining pantry reserves.
  • Buy on sale: take advantage of supermarket loss leaders to stock up. Supermarkets routinely offer tuna, tomato sauce, canned soup and canned beans at drop-dead prices to get shoppers in the door. If it's a pantry candidate and it's on sale, buy multiples!
  • Buy in bulk: bulk-buying for the pantry really pays off. Using the pantry "tithe", buy the 25-pound sack of bread flour for $3.89 at the warehouse store, rather than spend $1.39 for the supermarket's five-pound bag. You'll save and stock up at the same time!

Storage tips for small spaces

Even beginner's pantries may have a hard time finding a home in small houses or apartments. Try these storage ideas to tuck away a pantry in the tiniest home:

  • Break the mold: look beyond the kitchen to store pantry items in a small home. Provided that temperature and moisture are not issues, any room in the house is a candidate for pantry storage. Who says cans can't live in the coat closet?
  • Disguise it: integrate pantry goods into the home. For example, stack two large bulk-food storage containers and top with a plywood circle and round tablecloth. Who can tell this attractive end table is really storage space for 50 pounds of flour?
  • Look high and low: make use of storage space under or over furniture. Fill shallow under-bed storage boxes with canned food, labels up, and push them beneath the bed. Similarly, cover cardboard records boxes with gift wrap or fabric, fill them with bags of pasta, beans and rice, and stash them away on top of tall bookcases.

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