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Volume III
January 13, 2012

Weekly Home / Cook'n & Eat'n

Smart Pantry Arranging

By Alice Osborne

We've talked off and on over the months about what a well-stocked pantry ought to house - and YOU are really the one to decide that - depending on your dietary needs, your personal tastes and preferences, your interest-level in cooking, and especially the time you have for cooking.

For instance, I cook mostly from scratch, so I don't have many boxed mixes or processed foods in my pantry. I also don't like spicy foods, so you won't find exotic herbs and spices in my pantry. And I have to be careful about the grains I eat, so you WILL find several alternatives to wheat - millet, teff, oat, and rice flours, to name a few.

But pantry contents aside, it doesn't really matter what the pantry holds, if it's not holding it well - meaning, in an organized and easy-to-access fashion. And don't get hung up on SIZE. A very efficient pantry can be as small as a couple cupboards - you don't need the fancy-shmancy walk-in types you see in Martha Stewart's Living magazine. And don't get hung up on location. A very efficient pantry can be a converted linen closet around the corner and down the hall from the kitchen.

So if it isn't size or location, what IS the basic key to a smart pantry - one that serves you, rather than works against you? (Drum roll here...) It should only hold what you actually use, need, like, want, and have room for. The pantry is the spot for 2- to 3-week's worth of provisions. It's not the spot for long term storage, so you don't want to put bulk sized bags and boxes in a pantry. They go somewhere else - a food storage area, if possible. You transfer smaller amounts into pantry-sized containers instead.

Now let's talk about smart pantry arranging. Getting the pantry in shape is a great way to launch into a new year of cook'n! First, on the handy dandy all-sorts-of-information site,, I found some compelling reasons to get this space organized. These validate what we already know!

1. "Saves money by identifying what you're using, what you're not using and what you've bought in duplicate (or in same cases, triplicate)."

2. "Allows you to take stock of your cooking habits." The writer said she once got ambitious and bought a small amount of saffron, which as most cooks know is very, very expensive. That saffron sat in her pantry and moved with her, unopened, to 2 different apartments. When she finally tossed it, she realized she was still in the beginning stages of home cooking and only bought the saffron because she thought it was the right thing to do. Thus, she advises that if you go out on a limb and buy a new product, commit to using it that day or week. If not, it will only be taking up room in your pantry. Haven't we all done this?

3. "Tells you what you should and should not buy in bulk." The author makes oatmeal daily for breakfast so she buys enough to fill a mason jar once a week from Whole Foods. She realized when clearing out her cabinets that she could actually stock up and buy a month's worth. Pasta however, was languishing at the back of her pantry. Going forward, she decided she'd only buy pasta when she had concrete plans to use it - either that day or sometime that week.

When it comes to organizing a pantry, the author suggested the same thing I teach in our DVD, It's Here... Somewhere in the Kitchen: group items together by type. (I say, "Group and store like items together" - same thing.)

As an example, consider grouping all vinegars together: champagne, apple cider, balsamic, rice wine, etc. To that mix you could add white cooking wine, olive and grape oil, and an olive oil spray. While the bottles vary in height and width, they are always in a logical spot when you need them (say, for making salad dressing) - there's no more need to hunt around for things, wasting valuable time and energy.

The author suggested some other common groupings as well:
•  Cans of beans and soups
•  Bags of snack foods
•  Bottles of oils and vinegar
•  Containers of herbs and spices (they need to be tossed after a year, so use 'em up!)
•  Containers of grains such as oats, rice, cereals (to prevent weevil infestation - grrrr - consider freezing these for a day or two before adding them to your pantry)

And I would suggest still more groupings:
•  Sweeteners (honey, maple and agave syrups, brown sugar, white sugar, powdered sugar, stevia, etc.)
•  Milks (coconut, powdered, canned, sweetened condensed, almond, rice, etc.)
•  Containers of pastas
•  Tomato products (canned tomato sauce and paste, canned stewed and diced tomatoes, salsa, ketchup, etc.)
•  Proteins (nut butters, canned tuna and salmon, etc.)
•  Legumes (canned bean varieties, lentils, split peas, etc.)

Now what would you add or subtract from these lists? You get the point though - things are grouped together in categories - it's called the "supermarket system" of organization.

So whatever you decide goes in your pantry, just be sure you put rhyme and reason into its arrangement, the way the grocery stores do.

This organization exercise is well worth your time - smart pantry arranging will not only save time and energy, it'll be a great incentive to cook more - something I bet you'd like to do more of in 2012!

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