Last month, I helped a family of four with a half-day project: The Pantry Clean-out. (you may have seen some before-and-afters on Facebook.)  Here’s a deeper look into the project for you!

This was a pantry that was last really thought out and organized about 4 or 5 years ago, when the two kids were 7 and 9.  The key challenges were making sure the kids could use the lower shelves and get to their snacks, cereal and mac and cheese.    This family has grown up, and so have their needs, but the pantry hasn’t kept up with the times!

We decided to do a no-cost plan, only reusing things we already had in the house. I also knew this was a project that needed everyone’s voice, so that we could get the pantry right for the whole family.

Dad:  “I just want a place where my soda can go. I don’t understand why the pantry is as big as it is, but the soda is out in the garage.”

12 year old daughter: “I want to be able to get to my snacks and to the pasta so I can cook dinner for everyone.  And get to all my baking supplies.”

14 year old son: “I just want it to look neat!”

So, we started with some “before” photos, which Mom graciously agreed for me to share:

pantry before wide

Before close up 1

Then, we started, armed with a good supply of garbage bags and cleaning supplies to wipe every surface down.  We began the clean out, which, in the end, was really 75% of the hard work we had to do.  We went through every single thing.  Tasted every opened box and bag.  Checked expiration dates. Consolidated opened things. Scrutinized the “I thought the kids would like this” choices to see if there was any truth to the experiments. Went through every “Grandma dropped these off for us” item to decide whether any of them were keepers, or if it had just been easier to throw in the pantry and forget about them.   We threw away a lot of things, and we moved many things that were worth keeping, but just not in this space, or were donated:

  • Serving pieces rarely used, put in the dining room with others.
  • Easy Bake Oven and another children’s cooking toy…  the 12-year old now bakes for real!  Give the toys to little kids who will find great joy in them.
  • Liquor bottles.  Time to move them to a place that the teenagers can’t get to!
  • Dishtowels set aside to become rags for cleaning.  Moved to the cleaning supplies area in the laundry room.
  • Extra sports bottles.  Really, a family of 4 didn’t need the amount they had.  Mom picked the favorites, the ones that everyone always chooses anyway, and got rid of the rest.
  • Drinks and popcorn were moved to the family media room, which has its own mini fridge and microwave. (and some napkins moved with them!)

With wiped down surfaces and a clear understanding and view of everything that had to go back IN to the pantry, we got to analyze some of the problems and how this pantry just isn’t working for the family right now:

  • There was a metal wire bin for snacks on a shelf. But the bin was too tall, so the kids couldn’t easily reach into it and grab something. Right idea, wrong product.
  • Mom is supposed to be eating more oatmeal, but it gets hidden behind other cereal, and she conveniently forgets about it.
  • Shelves are too deep.  For some, the extra storage is a blessing, but for this family, things just get pushed back further when new things come in.
  • We found some forgotten potatoes.  Those are  a great example of a product that will do fine in a pantry, as long as they’re in the right place, and not forgotten.  Need a new answer for that.
  • Baking stuff is everywhere, so everything gets touched, moved, shoved aside when trying to gather what the baker needs.
  • The spice drawer in the kitchen cabinets doesn’t quite meet the family’s collection size (and we did get rid of things). More importantly, like lots of us, we have “I should pick some up, just in case” spices. (How many of us food shopping at holiday time think, “Do I have Cream of Tartar at home? Hmmm… I should pick some up, just in case”).  But the overflow is unorganized, and therefore, not a helpful stash to pull from.

Putting things back was so much easier when we had much less to put back!  Take a look at the AFTER photos:

pantry after wide

pantry after closeup

A few decisions we made:

  • The middle shelf, which the 12 year old uses the most, would have all the baking supplies on one side, and pasta and other meals she can cook for the family, a hobby of hers, on the other.  The baking supplies were organized and grouped into smaller plastic storage that the family already had, so she could do things like look at all the sprinkles at once, or just take out the basics, like baking powder, baking soda, etc. at once. 
  • The drinks (including the soda) were all grouped in one station, including grab-and-go for Crystal Lights, the Keurigs, flavorings for coffee, etc.
  • The paper goods/ wraps all organized , and the napkin basket was repurposed, and extra napkins were stored behind the napkin basket.
  • Breakfast cereals (including Mom’s oatmeal) moved to the front of the shelf.  There’s really nothing behind them; just because it’s a deep shelf doesn’t mean we have to use the depth.
  • Overflow spices from the spice cabinet were alphabetized and raised on a rack that had been used for canned goods before.
  • We moved the wire basket, the one that had been too tall for the shelf to hold snacks in an easily-grabbed way, down to the bottom for potatoes and onions. It will be easier to store them down there (it’s cool enough down there for them), and they won’t get lost on a shelf.
  • We kept the bottom EMPTY.  It will be a good space for things that end up being bought in the summer (extra water bottles to have on hand?) but, ultimately, we kept it open because things were permanently lost down there;  that space was not good for this family.

All in all, the whole family was happy with how it turned out.  Once they go out and replace some of the things that we threw away, or add new items from normal living, they’ve got an easier system to know where it will all go, and the items that the kids need access to really can spread in height now.  It’s an important lesson:  The organization and systems of a family need to grow with that family.

Thanks to the client for letting me share her story and pictures!

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