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Pro Pointers For Organizing Your Pantry

What's languishing behind closed doors? Perhaps it's that can of spinach that expired three years ago, a bag of brown sugar that's a fossilized lump, or an opened box of cereal that's getting more stale by the day. If it's been awhile since you've shown some love to your pantry—whether it's a single cabinet, a whole closet, or a walk-in room—it's time to make it work smarter. "The more efficient and organized your pantry, the easier and more stress-free your day will be," says Julia Purdy, a Florida-based organizing pro with Neat Method, a home organizing company. Follow her lead with these ideas.

1. Empty and Edit

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"The most important part of any organizing project is the edit," Julia says. That means doing a deep dive on the messes piling up on shelves (especially if the photo at left hits a little too close to home), and not merely plopping items in pretty bins and calling it a day. "Organized clutter is still clutter, so the first step—always—is to empty the space or drawer and start sorting and purging," Julia says. Toss expired items and, if you unearth multiples that you know you won't get around to using anytime soon, donate them to a food bank.

2. Yes, You Need to Measure

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Failing to measure shelves—the space between them and the depth—can be the downfall of any organizational project. "A lot of well-intentioned people get so excited that they buy all these baskets and bins and canisters, which end up not fitting," Julia says. Save measurements (or photos of your shelves showing the measurements) on your phone so they're handy when you shop. Factor in hardware, screws, or other details that could impede. And double-check the shelf setup. "A lot of times people think they're stuck with a certain height between shelves when actually the shelves are adjustable, or you might be able to remove an entire shelf so you have more flexibility," Julia says.

3. Add Protective Layers

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A few protective (and washable) layers can improve efficiency and minimize messes. If you have wire shelves, top them with a plastic-like liner to create an even surface and keep small items from falling through. (Julia likes the Elfa transluscent liners from The Container Store.) A lazy Susan—an organizing superstar, even inside a cabinet—is good for containing liquids that may spill or drip; place the tallest bottles in the center, surrounded by short ones, for easy viewing while spinning.

4. Organize in Zones

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"Group items by broad categories—baking or grab-and-go-snacks, for example," Julia says. "If you have children, think about if you want them to 'self serve' or not. That will play into the container you choose and where you place it." Give the least-used items the least accessible spot, such as on a top shelf. Heavy items, such as bottled water, are best for the floor or a low shelf.

5. Be Realistic About Decanting

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If you're considering transferring dry staples into containers don't be swayed soley by aesthetics. "Be honest with yourself about what works for your family," Julia says. "That beautiful picture from Pinterest with all the items decanted may be too time-consuming for you." Bulk items, such as flour you don't go through fast or cereal you want to easily see so you know when to restock, are good decanting starting points. Julia prefers the practicality of nonbreakable airtight containers (such as OXO containers) to keep items fresher and pest free. "Make sure the container is large enough to hold all the contents so you're not left with partial bags of flour or chips to store," she says.

6. Label It

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"Labeling is the finishing touch that helps everyone know where things live and belong," Julia says. She likes chalk labels (either adhesive or tie-on) and a white Sharpie instead of a chalk pen, which can smudge. Keep in mind that labeling isn't just about marking what goes where. On canisters holding decanted foods, labels can be used to note the purchase or expiration dates, as well as cooking instructions. For a simple label, use washi tape.

Photo: Neat Method

7. Get Creative

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A little creativity in finding new uses for products you may already have on hand can help you rein in clutter affordably. "We always say if you're out shopping for organizational products, think about looking in different departments to find an unexpected use for something," Julia says. One of her favorite hacks: Use a stackable wine rack to store water bottles. And her rule to avoid water-bottle hoarding: Limit your stash to two bottles per person—one in use, and a clean one ready to refill.

8. Divide and Conquer

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Shelf and drawer dividers allow easy customization. In a cabinet, a divider keeps cutting boards and cookie sheets upright for easy access. In a drawer, they compartmentalize kitchen gadgets so you're not rummaging through a heap. Julia prefers spring-loaded or adjustable drawer dividers for max flexibility and fit. And, she notes, the steps for organizing a drawer are like that of a pantry: Empty it, whittle, and get rid of duplicates.

Photo: Neat Method

9. Maintain the Order

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After you've shaped up your pantry, how do you keep it organized? Julia suggests doing a quick inventory at least twice a year. "That spice you bought for a recipe you made once a few years ago might be lingering, and definitely won't do your cooking any favors now," she says. And be prepared to fine-tune your system, swapping storage containers from different rooms as your needs change or something simply isn't working. "It takes some trial and error," Julia says. "You really have to be brutally honest with yourself about what's realistic for you and your family to maintain."

Photo: Neat Method
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