Before & After: Ina Garten’s Instagram Just Completely Changed How I Organize My Pantry

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Three years ago, I moved into a house after spending my entire life in apartments and dorms, and one of the things that most excited me was that the house had a small pantry — a little closet in the kitchen for all my shelf-stable staples and dry goods. This tiny space, I hypothesized, would make meal planning and healthy eating a breeze!

Before my family could stock it with food, though, we started using it to catch all the random things that would enter the kitchen without any other specific place to go. Every time I put something in there, I assumed it’d be temporary, but my poor little pantry has spent the past three years as a very large junk drawer.  

I kept a Pinterest board full of organizing ideas and had vague plans to straighten out the pantry … someday, but most of my inspiration images took the organizing way too far. They looked like container store advertisements, and nothing seemed to apply to the food I actually kept in my kitchen. Then one day Ina Garten posted a photo showing off her pantry after a Spring Cleaning Session, and I thought, “Hey, I could do that.” 

Ina Garten’s pantry looked neat and orderly, but most of all, it looked practical and functional. It’s an accessible version of organized. It doesn’t look like a Pinterest pantry. There are no special storage boxes or equipment. Her food is in its original packaging, not decanted into matching jars with cute chalkboard labels. (I love the look of the matching jars and pretty labels — I’ve even tried to achieve it myself, with no lasting success. If I can leave things in their original packages, I’ve found that they become much easier to recognize, and it cuts down on, say, accidentally pouring a box of confectioner’s sugar into the flour jar. ) 

I decided to tackle my pantry using Ina’s photo as inspiration. I started by emptying the pantry entirely and promising that only food and pantry items would go back inside it — no random appliances or empty boxes. I also got rid of anything that had expired.

Here’s what I learned from looking at Ina’s pantry and what I did to make over my own.

1. Everything needs to be in sight.

In Ina’s pantry, everything is easy to see. That was an important lesson for me because as I cleared out my kitchen cabinets I realized that if I can’t see something, I won’t use it and will probably forget it exists. That led to a lot of expired food, and several cases of redundant shopping where my husband or I would need an ingredient, assume we didn’t have it because we couldn’t see it, and then buy something we already owned. That’s how we wound up with three cans of baking powder and six bags of all-purpose flour. So in my new pantry, everything has to be immediately visible and recognizable, even if it means I can’t cram as much in there. 

On the highest shelf in Ina Garten’s pantry, the food appears to be placed at the front of the shelf, with nothing behind it. The empty space in the back might seem like a waste, but as a relatively short person, I know that anything pushed to the back of my top shelf might as well be in the Bermuda Triangle. I arranged several different bottles of oil and vinegar at the front of the shelf, but most of the area behind them is empty, and that’s OK. The back of the top shelf is also a good place to store extras of things you’ve purchased in bulk. My husband has dubbed it the “Costco shelf.” 

2. It’s okay to leave things in their original packages.

Ina’s pantry is really what gave me the courage to accept that I’m just going to leave things in their original packages from now on. The original packages are fine, and they’re instantly recognizable, unlike several random jars I pulled out of my cabinets, whose labels had long since worn off. What’s in this Ball jar? Is it couscous? Polenta? No, it’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of taking things out of their original packages! 

I re-labeled all the mystery jars after tasting their contents and made a plan to buy a label-maker in the near future. 

3. Spices can go in the pantry.

I don’t know why I thought spices belonged in a spice drawer or on a spice shelf, but Ina’s bottom shelf is full of spice jars, and I can’t believe this idea never occurred to me. I’ve had all my spices crammed in a small cabinet for three years, which meant that any time I wanted a spice, I had to take all the spices out to find the one I was looking for, then put them all back in afterwards. It was a precarious situation. Once my husband dropped a whole jar of turmeric while doing that. It was all over the kitchen, and everything was orange for the rest of the day. 

I added some little baskets to the side of the pantry to hold my spice jars; now I can see the spices I have, and my old spice cabinet is free to hold other things. I also have a lot more room this way, which means I can buy more spices! 

4. Some storage baskets may be necessary.

I tried to avoid buying special storage containers for the pantry. Ina doesn’t have them, and I wanted to organize the pantry without having to buy more things. But a lot of my objects fell down, knocked each other over, or turned into a pile if I put them in the pantry by themselves. So I got three wire baskets from the hardware store and used them for rice and pulses, packaged sauces, and tea. They allow me to take advantage of the depth of the pantry, too. If I want to get behind something, I just have to pull the basket out a little bit.

5. You need a plan to keep things up.

Visibility is the overarching theme of this entire organization project. From the use of shelf space to the embrace of original packaging, it’s all about making sure everything is readily identifiable and in reach. I am 100 percent committed to this mode from now on. Nothing can go in the pantry if it blocks the view of something else. Things can go in front of other things only if they are all the same thing, like several boxes of the same product, or if the objects in the back are taller and immediately recognizable by their packaging. For example, I’d recognize a box of Annie’s macaroni and cheese anywhere, so those can be stashed behind some toddler puffs. 

The biggest hurdle is going to be reminding everyone in my house that the pantry actually exists and should be used. It spent so long as a junk drawer, nobody even thinks to look for food in there. Now that it’s functional, I need to make sure it stays stocked with things that will make people go in there. (Keeping the spices in the pantry will go a long way towards that.) After reorganizing, I was surprised to discover that we’re almost out of lentils, and we’re out of chickpeas entirely. But now that I can see where everything belongs, it makes it much easier to know when I’m running low on something. So in addition to being much easier to use now that it’s cleaned and stocked, I expect it will be much easier to keep it that way, as well.