Home Renovation

How I Downsized My Kitchen (and Created a Dream Pantry)

February 13, 2017

Dennis and I have been married for almost 20 years and, as our friends will attest, we’ve spent most of that time looking at real estate. Even though we loved our home, the search for Our Next Home was relentless and our friends were sick and tired of hearing about it. We looked in 12 states. We considered beach, mountain, city, country. We contemplated restoring a 200-year-old home and priced building on a lake. No one thought we were serious.

Last summer, we stumbled on an unusual condo. Everything about it was exceptional. It met all our criteria and surprising everyone—especially ourselves—we did it. We sold our house and bought the condo. It sounds so simple, but getting from here to there meant extricating ourselves from 2500 square feet, with a basement and a garage, 17 years of things in the back of coat closets and the top shelf of the linen closet and bookshelves stuffed with everything, to 1300 square feet with no extra storage beyond the condo.

Oh dear.

A photo posted by Cathy Barrow (@cathybarrow) on

From the moment we decided to move, every item in our home was examined. Do we keep it, sell it, or give it away? Downsizing was our very own military campaign with lists and tasks and division of labor. We would collapse at the end of every day; the hauling was unrelenting.

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We looked at each item in our home, considered whether it had a purpose in our newly-imagined life. For many sentimental items that no longer needed to travel with us, they could be just as sweetly remembered in a photo.

In the meantime, we gutted the condo, replacing floors, ceilings, lighting, and the entire kitchen. And I began to evaluate everything about my kitchen life as a home cook and as a food writer. This meant planning sufficient space for a lot of different grains and flours, plenty of baking supplies, and a lot of pan sizes and shapes.

Consolidate & Purge Extras

The larger question was about preserving. What did preserving look like in a downsized life? What would I want in my pantry? The list was brief: canned tomatoes, two types of jam, one or two pickles, pie filling, and the pressure canning convenience of home canned beans and stock. I kept almost everything that would support those activities, but sold off duplicates (ahem, three meat grinders, six camembert molds, four canners). And decided whether I needed the dehydrator (no), the pressure canner (yes, but I’ll have to go visit a friend to use it), the wine fridge/cheese cave/charcuterie cooler (yes, absolutely).

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Top Comment:
“That is the lesson I now embrace as I clear my Mom's kitchen to sell her home. My own pantry has not been cleared in over 15 months but it will be done once I finish Mom's. You new space is wonderful, Cathy! Your planning paid off and I wish you many fabulous meals, recipes (and hopefully new books ;)) coming from it. Enjoy it! ”
— cfmcook

As I packed the kitchen, I consolidated, appalled to find two dozen bottles of vinegar, the rogue bags of chocolate hiding among the grains, and a collection of chiles covering most of the Scoville index. Who knew I had a thing for olive oil? 17 bottles. So. Much. Honey.

A pantry that dreams are made of.

Plan out your space

At the new house, I worked with the contractor to make sure there was space for what I wanted to keep, at the same time getting a big reality check about how much I could store. I built three large pantries to hold flours, sugars, spices, chocolates, grocery items like olives and anchovies, as well as all the homemade preserves and empty jars. I built cabinets to hold bins of cheesemaking supplies, charcuterie tools, chiles and spices, canning supplies. I needed space for dog food. And cheese boards. Yeah, evidently I have a thing for cheese boards, too.

I planned pull out drawers everywhere, in each pantry, and drew charts of what would fill each drawer. I planned space for small baking tools and ramekins, deep drawers to stack bakeware. Narrow drawers for knives and my scale. Tall, vertical spaces for baking sheets. One drawer holds tea and coffee and related supplies, like French presses and teapots.

Welcome to baking central.

Use storage containers (and label them)

There were so many jars. Really. Ridiculous. Dennis counted 97 jars IN THE REFRIGERATOR. I repurposed empty jars into storage: some for grains and legumes, pint jars for unusual sugars (caster) and flours (buckwheat) that were lost in the back corners of cabinets. Half-gallon jars hold all-purpose, pastry, and bread flours and white, brown, and 10X sugars. I purchased spice tins and developed a love/hate relationship with my DYMO labeler.

Intense planning paid off. Everything I brought with me fit. And I haven’t regretted anything we sold. I’m still cooking the same way I cooked before, with a practical pantry that’s just a little bit smaller.

Here are my top downsizing takeaways.

  1. Start today. This was a daunting task when faced with a deadline. Don’t delay. Whether you Marie Kondo your life or just sift through the stuff one closet at a time, do it. 

  2. If you are not an organized person, that’s okay. There are professionals who are. Downsizing help is there! People who will come to your home and take things away for you. Sometimes, just sitting with your partner or a friend will make the effort of clearing a closet a little less onerous.

  3. Plan where every single item will go. Build categories, like: Spices, Pantry, Flour & Sugar, Baking, Tools, Nuts, Dried Fruit, and Legumes & Grains. Then gather similar items together. All the cookie add-ins, for instance, and put them near the Flour & Sugar. Buy or repurpose storage containers and mark them clearly.
  4. Abandon sentimentality. I have no children, so I’m not addressing that side of sentiment, but I am embarrassed to tell you that I had my grandmother’s carrot peeler—plastic with a sad chipped handle—that she gave me in 1975, culling a shoebox of kitchen gadgets from her own cupboards. Yes, really. I never used the peeler, much preferring the handle of the OXO one residing in the same drawer. Successful downsizing means being sentimentally relentless.
  5. You don’t have to throw everything away. If you really love Aunt Mabel’s spaetzle maker even though you never have used it, but you might, and you like knowing you have it? Keep it. Just plan where it will live.

All moved in. Everything fit. #downsized

A photo posted by Cathy Barrow (@cathybarrow) on

Endnote: We contracted with a professional to run a “downsizing” sale including furniture, appliances, linens, cookbooks, art, rakes and shovels, suitcases from the attic, garden ornaments, costume jewelry, old handbags, and coin collections from childhood. We filled two rooms with items for sale. We moved, leaving behind anything we did not want to take with us, and let the professionals do the rest. It was well worth it.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Steven Williamson
    Steven Williamson
  • Melinda
  • julie
  • Debbie
  • cfmcook
My new book, PIE SQUARED. Irresistibly Easy Sweet & Savory Slab Pies is available for preorder and on shelves October, 2018.


Steven W. February 19, 2018
This made me sad and exhausted just thinking about really getting our home in order. Sigh. This was mainly about the kitchen but how did the rest of it go, if I may ask? And being a food writer were you able to claim some of the cost? (Thinking about ways to afford a move like this!)
MrsWheelbarrow February 20, 2018
Oh, don't be sad! This was the most liberating experience. My husband and I were motivated and worked together really well (by dividing the duties and not questioning the other's decisions). And we hired an excellent estate sale expert to move out all anything that wouldn't fit in the new place. Then, we furnished the new place with the $$ we made selling everything. The space is pulled together, the furniture fits where we live and isn't place-holding. And now, 14 months later, I can tell you that my kitchen works beautifully and I haven't once gone looking for something I sold.
Melinda March 2, 2017
My first thought after reading this was, crud, I missed your downsizing sale. However, I would have purchased probably half of your things, and would be downsizing them myself within 15 years. Your article is inspiring, and it's giving me second thoughts about the probably 75 empty canning jars in my basement (not to mention the full ones). Although I suspect I'd take those with me if I were to downsize at some point - it wouldn't seem like a home without jars!
julie March 2, 2017
Hi Cathy, Which cooktop, oven and fridge (make and model) did you decide upon for your new kitchen? We are embarking upon the downsize, empty next remodel in May and all thoughts are helpful.
MrsWheelbarrow March 2, 2017
Hi Julie, There is no natural gas in our condo, so I had to figure out how to work with electric for the first time ever. After a lot of research and reading All The Comments everywhere, I decided on a Bosch induction cooktop. The Europeans have been making induction longer than anyone. I like it a lot and I can do everything I did with gas. I do miss the flame. I understood it. But oh well. Fridge is SubZero. It's my 3rd one. I wouldn't have anything else. Worth it's price for how long food keeps. The oven -- I went back and forth but ended up w/Capitol because it has a misting function that is amazing for bread baking. The Blue Star has French doors, which made it a close second.
Debbie March 2, 2017
Cathy, good advice. Do feel that you have enough food stored in case of an emergency? I'm not sure where you are located but we need to keep supplies for at least a month or longer depending on the type of emergency. I'm not there yet.
MrsWheelbarrow March 2, 2017
Before I moved, I would have said no, but I have outed myself as a hoarder. !! My freezer has a lot of good food in it. And with the pantry grains, flours, rice, legumes, beans and tomatoes, I think I could feed us for quite awhile.
cfmcook February 20, 2017
Ah, yes- excellent advice to get started now. Toss Early, Toss Often! That is the lesson I now embrace as I clear my Mom's kitchen to sell her home. My own pantry has not been cleared in over 15 months but it will be done once I finish Mom's.

You new space is wonderful, Cathy! Your planning paid off and I wish you many fabulous meals, recipes (and hopefully new books ;)) coming from it. Enjoy it!
MrsWheelbarrow February 20, 2017
Thank you!
tamater S. February 20, 2017
I LOVED reading this!
MrsWheelbarrow February 20, 2017
Thank you!
Judy S. February 20, 2017
I love your pantry ideas for baking. Congrats on your new kitchen! I crave a "baking center" for flours, sugars, cookie cutters, etc. instead of wandering around my kitchen when trying to bake a batch of chocolate chip cookies. I also noticed your Kitchen Aid mixer is sitting on the counter, instead of tucked away. I'm with you on that! Can you share any sources for the awesome containers you use for food storage?
MrsWheelbarrow February 20, 2017
Hi Judy, I had a LOT of jars. No kidding. Hundreds of them. And they make great storage containers for everything. Reusable, recyle-able - they just made sense to me. Old canning jars are everywhere. They show up at garage sales and flea markets and junk shops, on craigslist. For spices, I turned to ULine metal tins with see through tops that Amanda recommended years ago. (I can't find the piece but someone at F52 will!)
txgreyhound February 19, 2017
I am speechless (and almost unable to pound out a reply). This is a heavy duty reduction, and I congratulate you for taking it on: the planning, sorting, gifting, not to mention the general upheaval 17 years in the making. Your new kitchen is so tiny with little counter space. You must be a tidy cook. I do love your pantry ideas, and plan to incorporate a number of them in my next kitchen (we move every 6 years or so). Enjoy your new abode.
MrsWheelbarrow February 19, 2017
Ha! So funny. I think I have TONS of counter space. It's all what you're used to, I suppose. It was a big reduction but it feels wonderful to have less.
Frank February 19, 2017
Beautiful kitchen. Glad to see someone not give in to conventionality and do what THEY want to do. Only one question. Looks like that shelf above your cook top is going to either be in the way, wind up greasy and dirty or you aren't going to actually use it. Guess that wasn't a question, huh?
MrsWheelbarrow February 19, 2017
That shelf is high enough that it's not in my way. We sheathed the bottom in stainless steel (while making the backsplash and countertops) so it's fireproof and easy to clean.
MrsWheelbarrow February 19, 2017
The counter w/the cooktop is 30-inches deep, by the way, instead of the standard 24-inches. That allows appliances to sit back far enough that the counter space is more functional.
Fresh T. February 16, 2017
I have moved 3 times in 3 years across the US and I'm hoping to settle into our current place for 3 entire years..... each time I need to restock my pantry. So expensive! But, it does mean I cycle through everything fairly frequently and I have to limit myself.... super frustrating sometimes. :) But, such is life. Your kitchen looks gorgeous! I can't wait to have a permanent one of my own. - May I ask a question? How come you decided to keep multiple Dutch ovens up at the top. I always thought if I got one that would be enough. Not so?
MrsWheelbarrow February 17, 2017
Hi, Fresh Tomatoes, Yes, I do have quite a few pieces of Le Creuset (including that yellowish one from the 50s that I found at a flea market in France. It's what I collect, and use almost every day. I worked for Le Creuset back in the 70s and collected all the blue pieces then.
Fresh T. February 17, 2017
Thanks! :)
SarahM February 14, 2017
Cathy, the new kitchen looks beautiful! Are the pantries custom-made? Or...?
MrsWheelbarrow February 16, 2017
Hi Sarah, The pantries are IKEA! Nothing custom at all. The wood-fronted cabinets on the outside of the kitchen "L", below the granite counter and sink, was made from leftover flooring applied to the front of standard IKEA cabinetry.
mcs3000 February 14, 2017
97 jars! Too funny. BIG congrats on the new home and dreamy pantry, Cathy!
MrsWheelbarrow February 16, 2017
Oh, Mary. I'll never hear the end of it. 97!!
Panfusine February 13, 2017
simply breathtakingly beautiful.. (I'm probably sounding incoherent, but the beauty of your cooking space is GORGEOUS!)
healthierkitchen February 13, 2017
Saving for when we do this!
Mimi February 13, 2017
So, no gas cooktop in your new place? Was that an induction cooktop I spied? How is that working out for you?
MrsWheelbarrow February 13, 2017
Ha! Good eyes! Yes, that's induction and it was a little bit of a learning curve, but I'm happy with it. I prefer gas, I won't lie, but the rest of the apartment was so perfect, I couldn't imagine saying no simply because there was no gas stove.
Amanda S. February 13, 2017
So inspired by your organization (and determination!).
MrsWheelbarrow February 13, 2017
Thank you!
Amanda H. February 19, 2017
Me, too! Such a great post. Thank you MrsWheelbarrow!
Heather February 13, 2017
Start early AND KEEP GOING. When I moved, I started early but ran out of steam - as a result, once I'd moved, I knew PRECISELY where every last little used item was (packed early) and NO IDEA where useful things (like all my knives) were until I'd unpacked all the poorly labeled boxes :(
MrsWheelbarrow February 13, 2017
Heather, Because my husband and I had a strict division of labor (he got us out of the old house, I got us into the new one), he was responsible for packing everything. We got to the new house and not one box was marked. We're still married, don't worry. But it was certainly exciting to unpack each box and only three things I can't find.
CareyMM February 19, 2017
What was the professional company you used to come into your home to sell your items? Sounds great
MrsWheelbarrow February 19, 2017
They were wonderful. http://www.bethesdadownsizing.com/