I “Mind Mapped” All the Ingredients in My Kitchen and It’s Changed the Way I Cook

updated May 24, 2021
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I’m what you might call an ingredient hoarder. I was like this before the pandemic, although the situation in my pantry has become noticeably worse over the past year. I can’t resist picking up a bag of obscure flour, grabbing spices I’ve never heard of, or tossing cans of tinned fish impulsively into my shopping cart. I get the same thrill out of trying a new condiment that some people get from unboxing fresh sneakers. 

As a result, my kitchen is in a constant state of flux. I’m always reorganizing to make space for the new, and inevitably forgetting about some of the old. It’s hard to remember to use up your existing bonito flakes, for example, when the bag is hidden behind a wall of different cans and boxes of coconut milk, crushed underneath a mountain of instant noodles. After a recent expedition into my freezer in search of a pack of beef tips I swore were definitely in there (this turned out not to be the case), I knew that something needed to change. 

I love lists almost as much as I love hoarding ingredients, so I decided to use that to my advantage. I’d heard of mind mapping from reading life-hack articles and thought Why not apply this concept to my kitchen? What’s a mind map, you ask? Mind mapping is basically the process of making a visual representation of your ideas. It’s great for brainstorming, which is more or less how I approach everyday cooking. It turns out that this was exactly the tool I needed to get my kitchen in check. 

Credit: AT Video

Because I’m prone to losing and neglecting physical notebooks, I decided to use the app Mindly for my experiment. I chose it because it’s super customizable and I liked the app’s minimalist aesthetic, although there are tons of other ways to approach this process.

I started by breaking my kitchen storage into zones: fridge, freezer, spice rack, cabinets. Next, I thought about what types of ingredients I tend to keep in each zone. In my fridge, for example, I typically have a mix of dairy products, produce, pickles/preserves, and condiments. I made a separate map on the Mindly app for each of my kitchen zones, then created ingredient categories within each map. 

Next came the hard part. Once I had each zone broken down into categories, I took everything out of the zone I was working on, logged the ingredient in the appropriate category, and noted the quantity and expiration date. I tossed anything that was no longer usable, then put everything back where it came from in a slightly more orderly fashion. I avoided cramming bags of chips into the crevices of cabinets, and decided not to keep that jar of pickles that had been open for way too long (even though I had developed a sentimental attachment to it!). If I was going to take the time to add something to my map, I reasoned, I had to be able to actually cook with it or eat it. 

Credit: Carina Finn

The end result: several colorful maps (one for each zone) with different circles for each item in that zone. They’re oddly pretty and very satisfying to look at. I can look at a map and notice ingredients that I might have overlooked if they were staring me in the face in my pantry. And I know that a bulleted list would have been quicker to make, but I’ve tried that and my eyes tend to glaze over. With my inventory turned into an artistic infographic, I just see it all better — a clearer picture.

Giving myself the time and space to take stock of what I already have in my kitchen has changed the way I cook and how I shop. If I’m sitting at my desk in the afternoon lamenting that there is nothing to make for dinner, I open my mind map, scroll through my ingredients, and the ideas start to flow. If I’m at the grocery store and can’t remember whether or not I have rice at home, I can pop into my grains list and see that there are in fact five different kinds of rice in my pantry, thus avoiding doubling up on items unnecessarily. Since starting this experiment, I’ve become more creative with my pantry meals instead of relying on my old standbys. And when I buy an interesting ingredient on a whim, I’m much more likely to actually cook with it while it’s at its prime. 

If mind mapping the ingredients in your kitchen seems like a lot of effort, that’s because it is. But it was actually kind of fun to do and I’ve learned that it has a high payoff.

How do you keep track of what’s in your pantry, fridge, and freezer?