Organizing

Clear Containers Are in Every Pantry—Are They Really So Great?

We, and our community, weigh in on the prevailing organization trend.

February 22, 2021
Photo by James Ransom

Welcome to Storage Wars, a new series about the best ways to store, well, everything. From how to keep produce orderly in the fridge (or not), to ways to get your oddball nooks and crannies shipshape; and yes, how to organize all those unwieldy containers once and for all—we've got you covered.


While organization is certainly not a new topic (the label maker was invented in 1935, after all), we’ve seen an enormous interest in reaching Pinterest-level pantry perfection in recent years. This is partly thanks to wildly popular shows like Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, in which Kondo gently prods us into parting with things we no longer need, and Get Organized with The Home Edit, where Joanna and Clea bubble and bounce through the homes of celebrities, satisfyingly purging some things while stacking others onto lazy Susans. It’s also likely a result of the affront that is social media, namely Pinterest and Instagram, where we are inundated with photos of closets, drawers, pantries, and cabinets with laboriously-labeled items.

The two overriding themes that run through all these? A complete lack of clutter (seriously, where does all their stuff go?), and So. Many. Matching. Clear. Containers. Everything seems to get a transparent new home: rice, buttons, cereal, pens and pencils, pasta, flour, magazines, winter gear—you name it. Lots of organizers we talk to employ this principle in the homes of clients, and we often include this tip in stories about sorting through your stuff… but is it actually helpful? Or necessary?

Let’s start with the virtues of this method: organizers everywhere espouse the benefits of seeing what you have at all times, which both clues you in to when you need more, as well as prevents you from over-buying and cluttering your space. Rìa Safford, pantry organizer to Chrissy Teigen, also points out that clear bins make a space feel open and airy. Simply put, clear containers are pleasing to the eye, and if you’re at all an aesthetically-inclined person, you might want your pantry to be just as pretty as the rest of your house. Plus, of course, airtight containers keep bugs out of grains and flours, as well as keep ingredients as fresh as possible.

That said, another of our favorite organizing experts, Rachel Rosenthal, points out that storage methods are only as good as their ease of use for you. She stresses that organization is by no means a one-size-fits-all situation, and everyone’s needs and storage space vary greatly. Bottom line: if you tried the clear container thing, and it didn’t work, don’t force it.

So why is it that clear containers don’t work for everyone? Well, we get a lot of comments on organizing pieces, and our community has given us a ton of great ideas, as a result. The fact is, we’ve all got stuff, and we’ve all got our own ways of categorizing it, so the more ideas the merrier.

Says Patricia D., “I don’t understand decanting. What about FIFO-first in, first out? What happens to the bottom of the barrel? And unless I know my water-to-rice proportion by heart, I need the box recipe and the expiration date of the product. Who’s with me?” We are, Patricia! I also find it frustrating to lose 10 extra noodles while trying to force-fit them into a container.

“Wouldn't opening all your pantry items and putting them into different containers make them go stale sooner?” asks Shipreich, “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.” Well yes, this too. I have a bag of jasmine rice in my pantry right now that has a very clever velcro-sealable top, and I simply don’t want to part with it in favor of a generic container.

“The best storage,” M points out, “is the specific storage that fits the dimensions of your pantry space and style. Unless you have a minimal pantry, the best organization is what uses every bit of space you have to the fullest.”

In my own pantry, I’ve found that decanting into clear containers only works when I’ve already opened and used something, and I have a container the right size. For example, if I have half-empty bags of pistachios or walnuts, I’ll plop them into leftover quart or pint containers and tape on a label with the name and date. I’ve found this to be extremely helpful not only in prolonging the life of my dry goods, but in keeping my pantry from falling into disarray.

Senior editor, Jess Kapadia, stocks up on sturdy cardboard boxes to keep her pantry shipshape. “I don't think I have any official organizing gear in my pantry, just stuff I was going to recycle,” she says. Same for Susan P., for that matter. “Cardboard boxes can be painted or covered with contact paper or washable wallpaper to suit your decor,” she notes, “or can be color-coded for the super-organized.”

Lucy H. keeps Bonne Maman jam jars “for making and storing salad dressing,” as well as “storing pantry items like nuts, seeds, or chocolate chips.” Genius, and adorable. I happen to agree with Sally C., as well, who cuts the instruction panel out of ingredients like rice or pasta, and stores it in the container with the product. “That way,” she says, “I can take advantage of space saving and/or pretty containers but always have the recipe.”

While I really do wish there were organizing principles that fit every kitchen, closet, and dresser, it’s simply not possible, made clear by the very varied ways in which our community organizes their things. The big question now, though, is what do you think about putting all your things into matching clear containers? Do their benefits outweigh their drawbacks? Tell us below, we’re dying to chat about it.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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7 Comments

KarenSiena February 24, 2021
I did not like the decanting method. I’m back to original packaging. More visually oriented to the picture of the package in my head than I am to contents in a clear container. The exception is coffee.
 
Akruse February 23, 2021
I get the case for not decanting. Or at least I did until I got my first pantry pests...
 
adrian February 23, 2021
For me, being able to find stuff easily in the kitchen is definitely a problem, not a "non-problem". I struggled for years with a pantry cabinet where cans and jars would disappear into the back of the cupboard and then we'd discover them again. It was hard to know what we had. And hard to find things.

For me, the critical aspect of the solution is that every storage container needs to be the full depth of the cupboard. I have loose dry goods in small stackable containers that are 11" deep but only 4" tall and 4" wide so nothing can hide behind. And to manage the cans and bags of stuff I have pull-out bins that are the depth of the cupboard, so again, it's easy to get to and inspect the back items. Keeping things in original bags certainly has its advantages with regards to labeling, but for me dealing with 20 bags of different items is an organizational and access nightmare. (Someone with a less diverse pantry might find bags of stuff more tolerable. The number 20 is not an exaggeration.) The overstock bags, from which things get filled, are in the basement on pull-out bins on wire shelving. Maybe in a (much) larger kitchen it would be tolerable to translate that basement system into the kitchen and keep the bags in pull-out bins, but it would be harder to keep track of the location of things and wouldn't be as usable, and it would use space less efficiently. I don't repackage things like crackers or pasta that come in boxes.

Note that my setup looks nice and tidy, but it's absolutely not about aesthetics. It's 100% about function. I want to be able to know where something is and grab it, not hunt around for things.
 
Smaug February 22, 2021
To sort of paraphrase Thoreau, one should avoid all enterprises that require buying new equipment. Which lets out most of these retail-driven "trends". There are so many people out there selling solutions to non problems, who can afford to support them all?
 
Sarah R. February 22, 2021
I like clear glass jars for things that come from the bulk section or that come in bags—we buy a lot of nuts, legumes, grains, dried fruit etc and if we didn’t have glass jars the pantry would be a mess of half-used bags! I also use clear plastic OXO pop containers for my baking supplies (the 50 different bags of unusual flours I seem to accumulate, sugar, etc.) But if something comes in a box like my pastas or crackers, there’s little need to repackage because boxes are easy to store on their own.
 
Dominique D. February 22, 2021
A lot of this is about aesthetics...It's wasteful to BUY plastic (or glass) storage tubs or containers just to pour out your pasta from it's packaging, or your flour, or nuts. Flour is packaged in paper; which is much less wasteful than your new reusable bins.

What we do to organize is take plastic packaging from berries, flats of tomatoes from costco, etc., and use those to organize things that need it, like all the medicine cabinet, or all my half-full boxes of tea sachets. It's not pretty, but it's certainly more eco-friendly.
 
Sarah R. February 22, 2021
Before the pandemic we were mostly buying nuts, beans etc from the bulk section. It’s better to use reusable bags then decant into a glass jar than using the plastic bags at the grocery store.
(I also agree that pouring your box of pasta into a separate clear container seems unnecessary! But a one-time purchase of reusable kitchen storage isn’t a particularly big contributor to the world’s overconsumption problems.)