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7 Pantry Mistakes You're Probably Making

Apr 18, 2023

These common mistakes could lead to food waste, dirty pantry shelves and more. Learn how to resolve them and use your pantry to its full potential.

Carlos C. Olaechea has over 20 years of experience writing exclusively about food. He has been published in numerous American media outlets, along with academic publications. In addition to writing, he is a traveling guest lecturer, presenter and instructor focusing on foodways, cooking and culinary tourism.

We all love fresh fruits, vegetables, lean meats, eggs and dairy, and we can't recommend them enough as part of a balanced diet. However, there are many items that aid us in preparing delicious and nutritious meals that don't go in the refrigerator or ripen on the counter. And for some of us living in parts of the world with four seasons, there are times of the year when the selection of fresh produce might be very limited. This is why we have pantries.

Some of us have whole separate rooms where we keep spices, grains, beans and other nonperishables. Some of us have a small closet, and some of us have certain cabinets within our kitchens where we keep these items. Regardless of how big your particular pantry is, we can all benefit from organizing it well so that we get the most use out of it. Also, while we refer to items in our pantries as "nonperishable," that doesn't mean they can keep forever, and improper pantry organization can lead to food waste.

Here are the top seven mistakes you may be making and how they may lead to wasted time, money and food.

While you may not think of your junk drawer as part of your pantry, the catch-all space holds plenty of related odds and ends, like birthday candles, melon ballers, bag clips and the soy sauce packets you got with your takeout sushi. Having a junk drawer isn't inherently wrong, but how you use it can make the difference between an efficient use of pantry space and complete chaos. Junk drawers start to become problematic when they're not thoughtfully utilized and become a dumping ground for anything you don't want to deal with right now.

Set regular reminders for yourself to revisit that junk drawer and its contents. Make it a weekly task on your day off while you're brewing your morning pick-me-up. Spend time organizing the drawers and returning items back to their proper location, like putting that steak knife back with the set or filing that bill you need to pay. You can also use your junk drawer as a permanent solution to those very specific items, like that larding needle you inherited from Grandma. But to prevent it from becoming more chaotic and tangled up than an octopus wrestling match, it's best to have some method to the madness. Drawer organizers are a great way to keep a junk drawer not so junky by separating items into categories of randomness: fast-food condiment packets can go into their own little cubby, while you have another little slot for all those matchbooks you collect.

We understand that the can of pâté or jar of maraschino cherries you purchased a few years ago may not need to be front and center in your pantry, but you should be cognizant of what items will expire first so that you don't end up having to throw them out. That's why we recommend the FIFO system (first in/first out) with products that are the same or similar. For example, if you like to stock up on canned beans, which are a convenient and healthy pantry staple, you want to make sure that the beans you purchased today go behind or underneath the older cans whose use-by dates are coming up sooner.

And we get that there are some very specific specialty foods that may expire soon but don't fit into your weekly meal plans and get pushed to the back. A good way to remember they're there is to have a little whiteboard or blackboard in your pantry that lists items that may be easily forgotten because they're out of sight. Even taping a list to the inside of a cabinet door can be helpful.

Lastly, don't give yourself anxiety by falling prey to expiration-date confusion. The use-by dates on nonperishable foods don't necessarily mean that you cannot eat them past that date. Many times, these dates have nothing to do with a product's safety. Learn what dates on products really mean so you can organize your pantry safely.

Having something that looks organized can often help us feel organized. However, appearances may be deceiving when it comes to having an organized pantry. Many times, we feel compelled to organize our pantry spaces by storing large containers or packages in the back and smaller containers toward the front, or large items on the bottom shelves and smaller items on the top shelves. This may look organized, but it could actually be inhibiting you from being able to find and access the items you need easily, which may eventually lead to stuff being placed and replaced in random spots.

You should organize your pantry based on how you use the items in it. For example, you may have a 20-pound bag of rice in your pantry and a small jar of capers, a tin of snails, a little tub of candied orange peels and a box of cocktail umbrellas that fits in the palm of your hand. Your first instinct may be to put the humongous bag of rice all the way to the back of the pantry and your smaller items in the front. But if you're preparing rice several times a week and only have snails in caper butter with a side of candied orange tiki cocktails once a year, you need to rethink how you organize your pantry.

It's always good to organize like with like but also to make things you use most often more reachable. This may look different to different people, especially if you live in a household with people with mobility issues who may need certain items placed in areas that are easily accessible to them. Make sure you consult with everyone who will be using the pantry so that everyone can easily access the items they need while keeping everything nice and orderly.

An organized pantry won't help you if it's dirty. Just as you can end up wasting food and money by not having items organized, failing to keep your pantry clean can invite unwelcome pests that will ruin your food. Plus, few people feel confident about cooking a meal using a dusty or sticky container of food.

If you're planning on doing a complete pantry reorganization, then the first step before arranging items is to do a deep-clean. There are multiple benefits to doing this—for starters, you can take inventory of everything you have in your pantry. You may find that you have several half-empty bags of all-purpose flour that can be consolidated into a single container. Or you might discover you have 12 cans of tuna because you forget how many you have and keep buying new ones. Doing a deep-clean of your pantry can prevent you from buying items you already have plenty of while also allowing you to discard items that may be past their prime. Another benefit of doing a deep-clean is that you can assess if your pantry is being visited by some uninvited guests, like mice, rats or bugs. You can also check for leaks, spills, mold or other situations that can render foods unsafe to eat.

Just as you should set regular reminders to organize your junk drawer, you should set regular reminders to clean your pantry. This doesn't have to be a weekly occurrence, but taking the time to dust, vacuum and disinfect your pantry at least once a month can help maintain an orderly kitchen while also preventing your family from getting sick from contaminated foods.

The internet is full of gorgeous photographs of beautifully designed pantries worthy of winning interior design awards. But remember that interior designers are not cooks, and most importantly, they're not cooks in your kitchen preparing food that you and your family will eat. Pantry spaces are rarely part of a home tour, and few guests are expecting you to show off your pantry. Don't get discouraged if you cannot buy dozens of matching hand-blown glass jars for all your snacks or if you couldn't salvage 18th-century cathedral doors for your shelves. Your pantry needs to be functional so that you can prepare meals efficiently. And we're sure many of those pantries you see online don't look that nice 100% of the time.

One thing to keep in mind while designing your perfect pantry is how much light your pantry gets. Natural sunlight and even artificial lighting can reduce the quality of many of your pantry staples. If exposed to light, herbs and spices can lose their flavor, requiring you to use more of them to season your food. While seeing a rainbow of different-colored beans, grains and spices can be visually appealing, clear containers may actually be hurting your wallet in the long term. As well, sometimes the prettiest storage containers are the least effective and can expose your foods to air and humidity, causing them to become stale or grow mold. In the worst scenarios, a pretty but impractical container can become an all-you-can eat buffet for insects and other contaminants.

One of the biggest mistakes home cooks make in attempting to organize their pantries is not storing foods correctly to prevent spoilage. No matter where you live and how clean you think your home is, bugs can still get to your grains, nuts, flours and other items. Many home cooks make the mistake of storing nonperishable goods in the containers they came in. For canned and jarred foods, this is an excellent idea. However, you may be throwing away a lot of food and a lot of money if you keep flour, sugar, rice or even pasta in the original packaging.

Flour and sugar are two of the most appealing pantry staples for pests, as well as some of the easiest for them to access. It's not uncommon to see a paper sack of sugar nibbled around the corner with a trail of ants bringing food back to their nest, or to open a sack of flour to see a swarm of weevils having a gala dinner. Placing these items into large zip-top bags may help in the short term, but bugs and rodents are known to gnaw through those, too, and we all know how we can often forget to properly close those bags. It's best to purchase airtight containers for flour, sugar, grains and similar nonperishable items.

Keeping an organized pantry is an ongoing process, and a pantry is never intended to be picture-perfect. If you can't find a specific container or perfect-size corner to store something, don't feel discouraged. Your pantry isn't a chemist's laboratory, and there is always room for just a little clutter or chaos, as long as it allows you to prepare meals and access foods you need efficiently and without creating a mess. Don't try to force yourself to adopt an organizational approach or method that just doesn't work with your personality or preferences.

As well, many of us may fall into the trap of feeling like we have to spend a lot of money to get purposefully manufactured storage containers or other storage aids. Once we visit an organizational store or even peruse items online, we may become discouraged when we see how much it will cost to purchase all those tools, and we may abandon our attempts to organize our pantries. Don't let "perfect" be the enemy of what is good for you, your lifestyle and your home. Many of the most organized home cooks repurpose mayonnaise jars and iced tea bottles to store their nonperishables. You also don't need to invest in a label maker in order to organize all your items when some colorful masking tape and a marker will do the trick. Don't let the idea of creating a "perfect pantry" prevent you from organizing it for your needs.