How to Organize Your Pantry—& Keep It Shipshape

Who knew it was as simple as a few swaps?

August 11, 2023
Photo by Rocky Luten

As a result of my job (home writer) and my personality (perfectionist), I’ve done a lot of research about how to best organize every little space in my home. I’ve long heard the praises sung of clear containers, listened to people preach the merits of a label maker, and seen pantry organizes topple off the shelves at TJ Maxx in the most ironic ways. Suffice it to say, I feel like I’ve heard and seen it all—from legitimate overhauls to unrealistic hacks. It wasn’t until this year, though, that I really decided to tackle the lid-flying, carton-crashing space that is my pantry.

For some context: When I get home from the grocery store, I’m so exhausted from lugging my tote bags from store to train to train transfer and finally, to my apartment, that I can’t be bothered to really organize things as I shove them into cabinets. Know the feeling? This is where the unraveling of intention begins. Three more grocery trips, an overstock on Trader Joe’s apple banana fruit crushers, and a teetering bag of rice later—game over. Still, being at home and cooking more than I ever have has really prompted me to reassess my pantry storage and put my own advice into action.

These tips for containing the clutter are the real deal. I’ve implemented them myself, and have had far fewer things fall on my head as a result. Well, some things still fall on my head though, because nobody’s perfect.

1. (Maybe) Put Everything Into Clear Containers

This one is controversial, I know. I scoffed at this idea for so long. “Why should I spend money on clear containers when the food already comes in containers?,” I asked. Because, future-me insists that seeing exactly everything you have in the pantry is an invaluable asset. I can’t tell you how many duplicate bags of jasmine rice I’ve purchased just because I couldn’t easily take inventory of it before I hit the store. Cereal, rice, pasta, quinoa, couscous, oatmeal—get 'em all into clear bins! If they come with specific instructions, I cut them out of the package and tuck them inside the container so as not to overcook my farro.

You don’t need to run out and purchase all new storage bins, either. Collect clear vessels little by little, and before you know it, a complete organizational collection will be amassed. Some ideas for repurposed clear containers: quart containers leftover from takeout, washed-out sauce jars, and plastic bins from Costco-sized snacks (yeah, I’m talking about the giant tub of peanut butter pretzels… you know the one). And if you've tried the clear container thing and it made you nuts? Skip it! Your pantry, your rules.

2. Label Everything

It doesn't need to be a fancy machine-made label, I just use Scotch tape and a Sharpie to mark a container with the expiration date and the date I opened the package. I learned this all-important tip from my mom who’s fastidious in her labeling of pantry, fridge, and freezer items. It’s easier than we'd like to believe to let things go past their expiration dates, especially if they’re out of their original packaging. Take this extra step and save yourself the stress later.

3. Elevate items to create more space

Let’s say your cabinet shelf is a foot tall, but you’re leaving 8 inches of space above the jar of peanut butter... you can definitely be storing more efficiently. If you have yet to be introduced to shelf risers, well, are you in for a treat. They are the simplest addition to your pantry, but they completely transform the amount of storage available to you. By elevating just one layer of items (spices, dry goods, jars of sauce, etc.), you can create more space. Bonus points for clear tiered shelving that keeps everything on display—like stadium seating for spices.

4. Add Hooks to The Inside of Cabinet Walls

Take advantage of every last bit of space by adding hooks (Command-brand or otherwise) to the interior walls of cabinets and closets. These are the perfect places to hang oven mitts, tea towels, utensils (with a hole in the handle), aprons, and mugs in order to make room for more pantry items. Pro tip: always, always clean the surface with some alcohol for the most secure hold.

5. Keep All Seasoning and Sauce Packets in One Place

Salad dressing mixes, taco seasonings, and other miscellaneous packets have a tendency to get lost in the shuffle of everything else in the pantry. Instead of losing and rebuying every packet-ed item, file them away in a recipe card box or clear containers like this.

6. Add Wheels to Bins

If you’re working with a pantry that has room under the bottom-most shelf, it’s ridiculously helpful to either get bins with wheels or add wheels to existing bins to create sliding storage. The wheeled bins slide out far easier than ones sitting on the floor getting dragged in and out, it’s a total no-brainer.

7. Employ Turntables for Spices

Just like an upscale breakfast table, but for spices in the pantry! Add turntables for spices, sauces, shakers, and more to easily access all of them within your pantry. Now, instead of fumbling through the cinnamon and turmeric to reach the cayenne pepper, you can just spin on over to the side where it’s located.

8. Get Canned Goods Their Own Rack

You know how satisfying it is at the grocery store when you remove one can of soup, and the next one just plops right into the empty slot? You too, can experience this feeling in your pantry, because there are racks that exist solely for this purpose. For a surplus of canned goods, try a rack that stores them all on their sides. The less stacked-up, wobbling cans in the pantry, the better.

9. Stack Bins for Snacks

Items like apple sauce pouches, bags of cheddar bunnies, and peanut butter packets exist most harmoniously in stackable bins. Open-front bins make small snacks and loose items easier to keep an inventory of, as well as easier to access.

10. Give Your Spices Some Love

A couple of our community members had differing opinions on how to organize spices. Mary says it “makes life much easier,” but Carolyn says “I never wanted to alphabetize my spices because I wanted the ones that I used the most within the easiest reach (hello, oregano and smoked paprika!).” And I happen to agree…with both of them. While I don’t have my spices alphabetically, I do have them in a drawer with some semblance of organization. I recently transferred all my spices into matching jars with adorable little labels, and they’re so much easier to find than when they were in their original containers. I thought for a long time that I’d memorize what each bottle looked like and therefore never lose a spice… but that was simply not true.

11. Try an Over-the-Door Shoe Rack

Says community member, Jerri D., “In addition to lazy Susans in several cabinets, I also use a hanging shoe rack on the inside of the utility room/pantry door...there are dozens of pockets for all kinds of products (i.e., pasta, lentils, dried fruits, pet treats, plastic storage bags, reusable produce bags, etc.). It saves tons of cabinet space and is surprisingly versatile!” Genius.

More from Food52

This article was updated in August 2023 with more of our favorite pantry-organizing solutions.

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Pamela L. February 1, 2022
I keep my baking spices in a separate batch in the cupboard that contains all my baking goods. The rest, herbs and spices used for savoury cooking, live in a basket in the main pantry cupboard. Rarely have to cross over while cooking ... Ginger and coriander being two, easy enough.
tia March 3, 2022
I do this, too. Clear bins hold the jars, and I label the lids so I just pull the whole thing out of the cabinet and can immidiately lay hands on what I want. I have WAY too many spices for commercial spice racks.
DulcieJules August 11, 2023
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Jerri D. May 12, 2021
In addition to lazy Susans in several cabinets, I also use a hanging shoe rack on the inside of the utility room/pantry door...there are dozens of pockets for all kinds of products (i.e., pasta, lentils, dried fruits, pet treats, plastic storage bags, reusable produce bags, etc.). It saves tons of cabinet space and is surprisingly versatile!
Barbara B. October 29, 2020
Magnetic hooks for the side of my refrigerator hold my potholders. Easy to grab in a hurry!
Susan P. October 28, 2020
Cardboard boxes in the required sizes make inexpensive organizers. They can be painted or covered with contac paper/washable wallpaper to suit your decor, or can be color-coded for the super-organized.
shipreich September 3, 2020
Wouldn't opening all your pantry items and putting them into different containers make them go stale sooner? Also, sounds like a lot of investment of time to not have to root around in your pantry for a few minutes. I'd much rather have a bag or two of extra rice (they'll last a long time if you don't open them...)
M July 6, 2020
Some of these are good (cabinet doors and walls are very useful for hooks, reference notes, etc, so you don't clutter the kitchen), others are pretty impractical for anyone who has a diverse pantry and/or limits on space.

It's an irony that plagues a lot of organizational solutions and tips -- drawers for cupboards that don't use the full depth of a cabinet, lazy susans and specific storage solutions that waste space and limit growth and vessel variety, etc.

Clear containers are great until you buy a bag of something that doesn't fit, or have to store the rest of your teabags when you re-stock, or wish they were 2 inches taller to use the wasted space above them. Lazy susans are wonderful until you buy 2 more spices, have to jam them in the corners, and your susan stops turning.

The best storage is the specific storage that fits the dimensions of your pantry space and style, and the space required for any one thing. Unless you have a minimal pantry, like the video above, or an excess of space, the best organization is what uses every bit of storage space you have to the fullest.

If you buy bulk, you can buy for your containers, which should either be the height of your shelf, or stack to the height. Any round storage solution will waste space. Look for rectangular options and avoid space-wasting flair on lids, etc. Always opt for straight sides, or your unused space will grow with every new slanted-side container. Don't force everything into clear containers. Consider whether top-open rectangular storage would be a better way to store your collection of bagged nuts, grains, etc. (I fit double the things on one shelf when I stopped using clear containers for each thing, and switched to clear tubs with handles that let some food stay in their much smaller bags.) Consider rectangular boxes for some dried pantry items. They stack well and are easy to scoop from, all the way to the bottom. (Tall and narrow can be a pain for access.) Don't buy a lot of storage units that require a specific size object, unless you only buy that specific size. (Can holders are great until you have a can a little bigger, a little taller, etc.)

The only place I willingly waste space is in tiered storage for spices, where seeing all of the jars is more useful than some jars getting buried and forgotten. And only alphabetize spices if you can access each spice with the same ease. Otherwise, put your most-used spices in the spots with the easiest access.
Susan P. October 28, 2020
Amazing how different people can be. I have 3 lazy-susan’s full of spices. They are just the depth of an upper cabinet and keep things from getting lost in corners. Each one is for a general spice category (ethnic, common American, baking) and I can spin them to assess what need to use or buy. On the other hand, I dislike tiered shelves for all the lost space underneath. Prefer wire shelving and pull-outs. Much depends on what and how one cooks. Kitchens are so personal.
Mary July 5, 2020
You forgot to alphabetize the spices! Makes life much easier. Good info!
Carolyn September 3, 2020
I never wanted to alphabetize my spices because I wanted the ones that I used the most within the easiest reach (Hello, oregano and smoked paprika!). I promised myself that I would organize my spices before school started and I did! :). When I took my spice jars out of the cupboard and realized how many I had, and how many that I really, really wanted to keep, I knew I needed a strategy. I bought 2 spice racks that stacked 18 jars each, jars on their sides, labels toward me. At eye level, I alphabetized my most frequently used spices on the first rack. The shelf above, I sorted and alphabetized my less frequently used spices, like ground cardamom and cumin seeds. Stacking the spices also gave me room for larger containers, like steak seasonings and seasoned salts. Before I organized, I would have sworn on a stack of bibles that I had very few duplicate spice jars. Ha ha ha! My eyes were opened to the humbling reality that I had several of the same jar, many unopened. Loved the article, loved Mary’s comment, loved the organized spices in my cuboard!
Susan P. October 28, 2020
I also try to have jars in a size that fits the full height of the shelf, and some in half-size that can be stacked to the same height. Because some spices are only used in small quantities (cloves, garlic powder) and some in larger amounts (curry, chili powder). Rather than alphabetizing, I group the ones that are commonly used together—baking spices, “stuffing herbs” (sage, rosemary, thyme), Italian herbs (basil,oregano, savory)—and try to keep overlaps near each other. But I’m a real believer in each person working out or adapting their own system.
disue52 November 9, 2020
Can you please share your racks that stack spices on their sides? That would be awesome!
I like the gist of your article, but looking at the video made me laugh at the sparsity of items. Mine has at least 10 times as much. I am in the process of organizing (yet again), and just obtained 17 clear plastic sealable containers (because I don't want bugs in my grains), which I think will probably not be enough. I also have wire shelves in the pantry, so some of the items you promote will not sit on them without some way to be leveled. I have easily 10 times as many spices in several different sizes. The lazy susan turntable doesn't begin to be enough even for the ones I use most often and they waste space in the square corners of the shelf around the turntable. Things I like about your article: hooks on the cupboard doors or empty wall space, labeling with dates using painters tape, using clear containers (for snacks I have some clear drawers from an old refrigerator), using space on the floor (wheels!). I will look for shelf risers and can racks that work with wire shelving - I'm sure there must be some available. I can make one more suggestion - put spices in alphabetical order. This was a big one for me. Thanks for the additional tips.
Marguerite T. July 11, 2020
If you have wire shelving (like Container Store's Elfa), you can use plastic liners. Container Store sells them (stiffer) OR try regular plastic shelf liner.