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A Professional Kitchen Organizer's 7 Rules For Organizing Your Kitchen Without Losing Your Mind

Clear containers, full label maker, can't lose

by
Sharon Greenthal

When I was a professional organizer, there was never a home I walked into that didn’t have a kitchen with big, cluttered, and even odd problems. One client stored her shoes in the pantry on the lowest shelf since, as she rationalized, it was right near the garage door and made it simpler to grab her footwear on the way out the door. We resolved that with a basket in the garage where she could leave her less-than appetizing flip-flops and sneakers.

I heard "I don't know where to start!" from every client who needed their kitchen organized. It can be daunting, for sure. But there are a few simple rules for getting your cabinets, pantry, and drawers arranged so you can see what you have and find what you need. Investing in a few essential (and amazing) products will save you tons of money over time since you won't buy duplicates of things you didn't realize you have stowed away.

Rule number one: Don't make extra work for yourself.

For example, putting your spices in cute containers with handmade labels may look good, but is it really necessary? No. Get yourself a couple of the correct size clear (ALWAYS use clear) containers and keep your bottles of spices in them. You'll have a much easier time finding what you need if you can pull the container out of the cabinet or off the shelf to look through it, rather than rummaging around a dark space. Before you do that, though, check the expiration date. Chances are a few of those spices are long past their "use by" date and need to be tossed away.

Clear containers are the only containers I use because not only are they easier to keep clean, they allow you to keep track of what you need to replenish and what you have plenty of on hand.

Rule number two: Label everything you can.

Clear storage bins are the first step. Remembering what you have in each one can be a little tricky, though, so get yourself an inexpensive and indispensable label maker. You may think you'll be able to recall where you put the taco seasoning or raisins, but you probably won't. Organize by item type: nuts, cereal, crackers, etc. Label the storage bins with their contents. You don’t have to make it fancy or use swirly fonts or list everything in the bins. "Canned beans” will suffice; there’s no need to detail if the beans are garbanzo or pinto. If you have small children, use pictures to help them find what they want. Labeling simply and clearly will make it easier for you and it will help those people who live in your house who never put anything away to put things away—in the right place.

Beware: Labeling can become an addiction! I have labeled every container in every closet and cabinet in my house. Labeling is particularly important for storage containers that you rarely open, especially in the garage, attic or basement.  If you have a storage unit, label all of the boxes there, too. You’ll be glad you did in a few years when you have no idea what’s in that cardboard box with things in it you just couldn’t part with that you’ve completely forgotten about.

Rule number three: Dividers are your drawers best friend.

Forget the pre-sized plastic dividers that you've used forever. Customizable drawer dividers are magical. Utensils come in a wide range of sizes—so should their spaces in your drawers. Your measuring cups and spatulas will thank you.

Another trick: instead of leaving your baggies in boxes that take up extra space, take them out and store them in a drawer using dividers, too. This will also make it easier to see when you need to replenish your supply.

Rule number four: Trays should be placed in an upright position (like on an airplane).

Store your trays, cutting boards, pot lids, and platters vertically if you have the room. They will be easier to grab when needed, they're less likely to be damaged, and most importantly, you'll be able to easily see them. Invest in a couple of these high-quality units, and you'll use them forever. Cutting boards and platters can be really heavy, so eliminating the need to haul them out of a cabinet or drawer will be super helpful.

Rule number five: Take things out of bags and put them in containers.

I know. I said it's a waste of time to put spices in containers, and it is. But spices don't take up a lot of room, and they rarely spill all over the counter when you open them as flour and sugar do. Storing bags of half-eaten chips, even with a chip clip, will usually result in stale chips. The OXO pop-top containers are my absolute favorite storage tools for pantry items. They come in lots of sizes, and they keep things fresh much longer. Use the label maker you bought for your storage bins to label these, too. You can use them to store everything from Oreos to oatmeal.

The OXO brand really is the best there is for sealed storage, but it can be a bit pricey (ok, very pricey). If you want to do your entire pantry, it could drain your bank account quickly. Whenever I need OXO products, I go to Bed Bath and Beyond online where the options are much more extensive than in store. I purchase their annual 20% off pass each year for $29.00. If I buy a couple of the OXO containers—or even a new set of sheets—it more than pays for itself. Buy a few containers at a time and make sure you need what you purchase.

Rule number six: Storage items that rotate are fantastic.

Anyplace you can fit a lazy Susan-style storage item, do it. This one, which I use under my kitchen sink, has made it so much easier for me to find the cleaning product I need without having to get down on my hands and knees and take everything out of the cabinet (you know you've done that dozens of times). Use turntable storage in your refrigerator, too.

Rule number Seven: Don't stress out about any of this.

Being well-organized is in the eye of the beholder. One person's mess is another person's filing system. If your cabinets are kind of organized and they work for you, that's great. If you want your shelves to be as meticulously inventoried as you can get them, go for it. For most of us, making a few changes can have a big impact, but no one has to redesign every cabinet and drawer to feel a sense of calm and control. Also, there's no rush! Take your time to figure out what will make you happy in your kitchen so you can enjoy cooking and, maybe, even cleaning up.

Sharon Greenthal is a former professional organizer who has written for the last decade about empty nesting, midlife, and parenting. Photo by Charlotte May.