Feeling daunted by your over-stuffed fridge and that disaster zone you call a pantry? Fear not: Getting organized doesn’t mean you have to submit to a Pinterest-fueled cleaning frenzy.
The truth is, there isn’t one “right” way to be organized. It’s all about creating systems that work for you. To help get you started, we spoke to professional organizers and coaches who shared their best advice on cleaning out and shaping up your fridge and pantry, including creative and unexpected ways to solve your biggest storage dilemmas.
STEP 1: CLEAN OUT
Toss Five: One of the hardest parts of getting organized is simply getting started. To avoid being overwhelmed, begin with one simple task. New York City-based organizing coach Maeve Richmond of Maeve’s Method recommends her “Toss Five” approach: Open the fridge and pantry and identify five items to discard. Think expired condiments, old produce, or that artisanal jam you can’t figure out how to use. Toss them without guilt or regret; they’re just taking up space.
Look At Ingredient Lists: If healthy eating is a priority, use labels to decide what to toss, suggests Maria Marlowe, an Integrative Nutrition coach in New York City and author of The Real Food Grocery Guide. When you find foods containing ingredients you wouldn’t buy on their own, such as high-fructose corn syrup, as well as foods that list sugar as the first or second ingredient, get rid of them.
Toss Mindfully: “When you’re emptying out, you learn a lot about yourself or your family and how this space functions—what’s there and what’s not being utilized properly,” explains Declare Order’s Leslie Gail. Use the cleaning-out process to find patterns that lead to unhealthy eating or food waste and consider how to change them.
STEP 2: ORGANIZE
Group Like With Like: Think about how and when you use different foods and group them accordingly, Gail suggests. If you and your family love to bake, for example, gather all those supplies and create a baking zone. This can be especially helpful for families with young children: If you establish a designated spot for kids’ snacks, they can learn to help themselves and gain independence in the kitchen, Richmond says.
Separate Your Spices: Spices are one of the trickier items to store. Rather than thinking about how you can possibly store all those small canisters neatly in one place, Gail recommends thinking about how you use them and store accordingly. If you use particular spices for marinating, store those together. If you use others for grilling or baking, group those in one place. There’s no rule that says you have to keep all of your spices in one place all together.
Don’t Shop For New Containers: When you’re starting a new system, use the boxes the food came in, shoeboxes, or whatever you have on hand, Gail says. Test your new system out for a few weeks and then evaluate whether you need new storage solutions, so you don’t spend unnecessarily.
Make it Accessible: Along with using boxes, Richmond suggests repurposing trays and bowls for storage. Both are attractive and make it easy to see what you have on hand. Plus, if you infuse your storage with some of your own personal style—a pretty ceramic bowl you bought on vacation or a tray in your favorite color, for example—you’re more likely to stick to your new system.
Shop The Hardware Store: Once you’ve determined that your system works and you’ve used up all the storage items you have, Gail suggests buying stackable tool bins—the ones that are open in the front so you can easily see and access what’s inside—to corral smaller items. They’re affordable and come in a variety of colors, which is helpful for zoning different foods and ingredients.
Keep Food Fresher Longer: If and when you invest in new storage, glass is a great option because you can see what’s inside, and it’s got staying power. Marlowe prefers Mason jars for storing grains, legumes, and other foods you buy from bulk bins, because they’re pretty and their airtight lids help keep food fresh. Keep them, and spices, in a pantry away from light and heat.
Use Your Pantry Door: To create more storage in the pantry, Gail suggests adding an over-the-door rack or shoe holder. This often-unused space is good for jars and cans, and it opens up more space on pantry shelves.
Try Labeling: Larger families or those creating an entirely new system often find labeling helpful because it communicates where everything is located, Gail notes. You can label everything or just certain items, depending on your needs. If you’re always searching for nuts, for example, label the bin you store them in, she suggests. And consider different labeling options, says Richmond. While words may be helpful to some, others may respond better to pictures or color coding.
STEP 3: RESTOCK
Beware Of Bulk: Shopping at big-box stores can be a great way to save, but Gail stresses that it’s not practical for everyone. Before you buy in bulk, make sure you have the space for all that food, as well as a system for using it efficiently.
Keep Essentials: Marlowe advises her clients to always keep onions, garlic, high-quality olive and/or coconut oil, good salt, and black pepper on hand. “If you have those, you can pretty much make anything taste good,” she notes. Marlowe also urges clients to add a few key spices to their shopping list. She loves turmeric for its anti-inflammatory benefits and recommends keeping oregano, thyme, and rosemary.
Look First, Shop Second: If you’ve created zones in your pantry and fridge, shopping becomes a breeze. Before you head to the market, always do a quick inventory so you buy only what you need. With everything in zones, notes Gail, you can just take a quick look and know immediately what you need to stock up on.
STEP 4: KEEP IT UP
Work The System: The great thing about creating an organization system that works with your lifestyle—and speaks to your personal aesthetic—is that you won’t need to continually reorganize, says Richmond. Once you have that structure in place, to stay organized all you really need to do is put food back in its designated place. And with whatever method you use—labels, trays, baskets, or even new containers—the entire household will know where everything goes.
Refrigerate/Freeze: Even with a great system in place, sometimes we don’t eat everything we bought. Refrigerate bread, especially preservative-free loaves, which can go stale quickly, or freeze it, Marlowe recommends. When you find yourself with about-to-go-bad fruits and vegetables, Marlowe advises freezing them to avoid waste and save money. Be sure to peel and chop produce as needed and store it in airtight plastic bags. Make a plan for how you’re going to use up your frozen items so the freezer doesn’t get overstuffed.
Bio: Lauren Salkeld is an NYC-based writer, editor, and recipe developer who works on cookbooks as well as print and digital media.
Also published on Medium.