The Kitchn’s Spring Refresh Day 4: Take Stock of Your Pantry Shelves (and Yourself)

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Sarah Coffey)

If the refrigerator is a cook’s subconscious, then the pantry is the conscious ego — the place where we can see ourselves in a colorful, curated spice collection or an organized row of rice and pasta jars. Pantry cleaning offers us not only the reward of a clearer view (and better appreciation) of our grains and dry goods, but also of ourselves.

There’s something so satisfying and so personal in taking stock of what you have in your pantry. In her latest book, My Pantry, Alice Waters writes, “My pantry is always changing, gradually, along with my taste, from season to season and from year to year: This evolution is what makes it distinctively mine.”

As you tackle the following tasks, take note of what makes your pantry uniquely you; it makes the process a lot more fun.

1. Grab the trash can, compost bin, recycling, and a donation box.

We’re following pretty much the same steps we used yesterday for our fridge cleanse, but it’s usually easier to declutter your pantry for the following reasons: You’re not sitting in front of a chilly icebox; your pantry probably isn’t as deep as your fridge, so it’s easier to see everything; and donating food makes it a lot easier to let it go.

Items to Toss or Compost

  • Expired foods
  • Stale foods
  • Rancid nuts
  • Oils that have changed color or smell strange
  • Anything that’s been infested with pests

Items to Recycle

  • Glass jars you don’t need
  • Plastic containers and bags

Items to Donate

These things are often in demand at food pantries. Remember that all donations should be unopened and unexpired.

  • Baby food and formula
  • Canned soups & beans
  • Canola & olive oil
  • Cereals & oatmeals
  • Condiments and spices
  • Holiday foods (stuffing, cranberry sauce)
  • Non-perishable proteins (tuna, peanut butter, nuts)
  • Packaged snacks (granola bars, juice boxes, popcorn)
  • Pasta & rice

For your local food donation drop-off spot, search Feeding America.

2. Take everything out and wipe down your pantry.

Remove everything and fill a bucket with warm water and dish soap. For every quart of water, add 1/8 cup of soap. If you want to proactively pest-proof, make this essential oil bug repellent and wipe down the inside of your pantry with a sponge or rag. Once you’ve finished, wipe down the exteriors of any airtight, waterproof containers as well.

3. Sort and put back whatever you’re keeping.

To make it easy to find what you’re looking for, it helps to group like ingredients together when you’re putting things back. There are many ways to categorize or “map” your pantry. It’s really up to personal preference, but these are the zones I like to use.

Pantry Zones

  • Baking supplies
  • Beans & lentils
  • Coffee & tea
  • Condiments
  • Fish & meats (sardines, tuna, chicken stock)
  • Nuts
  • Preserves
  • Spices
  • Whole grains

4. Consider new supplies.

I don’t often recommend buying new organizational supplies because they usually just add to clutter instead of controlling it, but the pantry is an exception. If your cabinets are full of half-empty flour and sugar bags shoved on top of each other, a few small purchases might help. Mason and Ball jars are inexpensive and effective ways to store grains, while under-the-shelf baskets can help double your space if you’re working with a small pantry.