popcorn, snacks, taco shells and stuffing mix jumbled together on a pantry shelf

What’s behind your pantry problem?

If you don’t have a pantry, it’s tempting to think that having one will solve all your food storage problems. But until you take into account what a pantry means to each member of your family, you can containerize all you like, it’s going to be a mess in there.

I coveted a pantry for years. Instead of cupboards stuffed to the gills with boxes and cans, I imagined a spacious room devoted to holding all our supplies. Neatly organized of course, and impeccably maintained by the pantry fairy.

My parents had exactly three cupboards in their kitchen under the sink and instead of adding more, they put up shelves:

old kitchen 2

And scattered the rest of the food through the house. The jars of home-made jam in the cellar:

old kitchen 3

And the cans and boxes down there too. The cans were kept on top of what we called the “meat locker” but I’m pretty sure (I hope) we never actually kept meat there.

old kitchen 1

I don’t think our solutions for storing food were that unusual back then. I can remember going to friends’ houses and seeing cans stacked along the basement walls. But it planted the desire for a proper pantry in me. A place where everything was right there where you needed it and you didn’t have to trudge off to the basement every time you wanted a can of soup.

A friend recently sent me photos of her newly organized pantry and I literally drooled. She has built in shelving and canisters and it’s just lovely. Look at that rack on the door, and the way she used bins to separate things out.

organized pantry 1
organized pantry 2
organized pantry 3

Short of remodeling, most of us have to work with the storage space we have. Ours is basically a bunch of shelves lining the walls of a very small coat closet but it’s a pantry and I love it. When we first moved in, I set it up with labels and waited for the magic to happen.

The problem with pantries with labeled shelves is that food can’t read labels. You’re dependent on whoever puts the food away to put things in the right place, whether it’s after a big trip to the store or just after grabbing a quick snack.

So it’s important to understand that you will be continually policing the pantry shelves and putting them to rights. I developed a routine of straightening in there when I made the weekly shopping list, and putting away the groceries myself so I could put them where they belonged.

And then I got sick, and gratefully handed off the whole thing to my family, who are allergic to labels and think the idea of putting the tomato cans all together, or the cereal all in one spot, is very peculiar indeed.

Day after day I would find things out of place, all jumbled together in illogical places. The overall effect was that of a cozy magpie’s den.

food on pantry shelf with no organization
neatly organized pantry shelves

There were two problems I needed to address:

  1. No one else was motivated to keep this thing organized.
  2. If I bought a bunch of bins and canisters, I would be the only one refilling them.

And there were two factors I’d failed to consider when I first set it up:

  1. I’d set it up how I liked it without their input.
  2. I have a very different idea of what makes a lovely pantry than the rest of my family does.

For me, a pantry is a way to be able to see instantly what I have, what I’m running out of and need to add to the list, and what we don’t actually eat and can be taken off future lists. It’s a snapshot of our supplies and it’s deeply satisfying for me to be able to take that in at a glance. I also enjoy being able to find what I need without having to forage.

For my husband, I realized that a full pantry, bursting at the seams with provisions, is the goal. The fuller, the better. We have enough, the family won’t starve, in fact we’ll feast! The more crowded the shelves, the more the contents spill over into each other, the greater his sense of abundance.

For my kids, the only things that matter are the snacks and the cereal. If they have to push past useless things like pasta, soup and tuna, them’s the breaks. Easy in and out is what they’re looking for.

How to reconcile all of this without buying a bunch of supplies?

I acknowledged that an organized pantry was important to me and that I was okay with maintaining it. I straightened up one more time, and as I did, I took a good hard look at the extra baking tins and racks. Whittled some.

And then I took the empty space I’d made and filled it. Not with more food but with the binders for our household files I made a while back. They fill a whole shelf. The paper towels crowd pleasingly together above them, and the batteries and light bulbs are squeezed in there too.

Instead of being spread out, the groceries now stand together looking plentiful, creating a sense of fullness, of abundant supplies that will calm any impulse to go fill that empty space with more provisions. That will keep my husband happy.

And I’ll be able to find stuff and straighten things up easily. Win-win. The final step was to gather all the snacks and give them prime real estate. If a kid can enter, grab a snack and leave without rummaging, he’s happy and so am I. Win-win-win.

pantry after
utility shelves organized in one side of walk in pantry
pantry with food items organized together

So, what are the hidden factors you need to take account when organizing your pantry? They’ll most likely be different than mine, but until you uncover them and address them, your pantry will stay cluttered and disorganized.

Things to think about:

  • who uses the pantry?
  • what do they use it for? Do they use it for getting cooking ingredients, for grabbing a can of soup, or for snacking?
  • what does it represent for them? Is it a storehouse, a source of comfort, proof that they’ll never be hungry again?
  • how can I make it easy for this pantry to meet everybody’s needs?

In my case, I kept the snacks easy to find, so my kids don’t trash the place looking for them. And once I’d realized that my desire for order and not to spend our entire budget at King Soopers was conflicting directly with my husband’s desire for an overflowing food resource, I compressed the pantry food space so our regular shop fills the space available.

I asked my friend with the gorgeous pantry how she keeps it looking good. Like me, she acknowledged that an orderly pantry matters more to her than her family. Her solution is to set it up so there’s open space at the front of the shelves. That way, the rest of the family naturally put things away there and she can get food to the places she’s set up for it when she’s got time to straighten her pantry.

What about your pantry? Is it good to go or does it need some work? I’d love to see photos of how you’re managing one of the most used spaces in most people’s houses.

And if you don’t have a pantry, how do you handle food storage without it? Do you use kitchen shelves like my parents or have you come up with a better solution?

READ MORE >>> How to declutter and organize

by Lucy Kelly


  1. I love the way you wrote, “Food can’t read labels” because it would be so much easier if they did and could unionize and self-organize so you didn’t have to depend on the family! I have never had a pantry (but I’m a singleton who doesn’t cook, so I’ve got more cabinet space than I need). My mother designed our house in 1971, however, and had a brilliant idea; since there wasn’t going to be a panty (they weren’t common back then) she had them put in a tall cabinet, about the dimensions of a telephone booth, and inside, there’s a multi-level Lazy Susan. There are maybe 5 or 6 copper shelves, with lipped edges to keep things from falling out, and it’s taller than I am. You never have to worry about things being too far away/too deep and getting lost. But if one does have a *real* pantry, following the advice you gave here is absolutely spot-on!

  2. “Food can’t read labels”– hahaha! This is so true, with pantries and other spaces. Kids and spouses often aren’t motivated by having things all in order. I’ve worked hard with my husband, but basically he doesn’t go in there much, other than for coffee. I would like the coffee cans all lined up, facing forward. He just wants to get the can of coffee (over and over throughout the day!).

    I think this is a great example of establishing zones. By adding the binders in, and putting like food together, you still have order even when people just drop things. Terrific post about realism vs. magazine-ready photos!

  3. I love the thought process you went through to tease out what works best for you and your family. And honestly, that IS what it’s all about. We have a few of kitchen cabinets that hold some regularly used food supplies (granola, olive oil, nuts, etc…) Our actual pantry is quite small. It is one tall, shallow cabinet with about ten shelves. Next to it is another open shelf that houses mostly tea. Yes. We seem to have a lot of tea! I actually like that it’s small. We keep some extras, but not too much, so pantry management is just that… manageable.

  4. Great post! We didn’t have a pantry for years, we added shelves to the wall going down the basement to store food. And, added a curtain to the front so people didn’t see it when they went downstairs. Then, we changed half of our wide hall closet into a pantry. I added shelving and made half of the closet a pantry. After we remodeled our kitchen we added a pantry cabinet.

  5. This reminds me to revamp my pantry before we bring in the holiday fixings. I dream of an elfa pantry with sliding shelves for cans and drawers for chips. I agree it is so important to talk to the others in your household about how the pantry is set.