Enjoy Food

Refresh Your Pantry To Save Money And Get Organized

Aly Walansky  |  January 11, 2022

It’s time for a pantry refresh! If you do it the right way, not only will it help you get organized, you can save money while you’re at it.

Anytime we embark on a New Year, we may start to feel that various parts of our lives need a refresh or a reset — even some areas that might surprise us. For example, if we’re considering a new job or moving to a new home, we’re probably also looking to update the space we’re in.  For many of us, that involves cleaning out some long-forgotten spaces. If we’re cleaning out our homes, there’s perhaps no better place to start a clean-out than with your pantry. Lurking there, you’re likely to find expired goods, some things you bought and just never got around to using, and other items that have simply seen better days, and it’s time to toss them (or donate them!) and make a clean sweep. 

How To Start — And Get Organized Even If You Just Have 10 Minutes 

Don’t try to reorganize your entire pantry all at once. According to Sasha Marx, Senior Culinary Editor at Serious Eats, this can easily become an overwhelming experience that will lead to more clutter. Instead: “Break up the contents of your cupboards into categories, such as spices, canned goods, grains and legumes, baking ingredients, noodles and pasta, oils and vinegars and other bottled goods, and tackle them one at a time,” says Marx. If the items in your pantry are stored in a more random order, you can also work shelf by shelf.

For each category, pull everything out of the cupboard, onto your kitchen counter. This will enable you to make decisions, allow you see everything clearly, and it will also force you to clean out the space that these items occupied, says Marx. Separate ingredients into three groups: Stuff to keep, stuff to toss, and stuff you recognize but don’t use often.

Throwing Out Old Items 

If you’re looking to reorganize and refresh your pantry in the New Year, you’ll want to start by throwing out any items that are past their expiration date or no longer safe to eat. “While canned food items have a long shelf life, food safety still applies,” says Terah Barrios, Community Nutrition Educator at Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida. 

Food manufacturers suggest storing canned foods for no longer than a year. However: “Tomato products can last for around 18 months and low-acid foods such as canned vegetables are storable for over two years,” says Barrios. Do not use a can that is dented at the seam, leaking, or has signs of bulging no matter the age of the can.

Some items, however, that say expired, are fine to use. “I like to smell and taste them first but in general things like packaged snacks, flours etc tend to be true to expiry date but goods like jarred sauces or spices can outlive their shelf life,” says Nealy Fischer, founder of The Flexible Chef.  So, make sure to not only check dates but also smell, taste, eyeball and use common sense.

Make Use Of What You Already Have  

If there are items that are still good but you’re not sure how to use them, the New Year is a great time to get creative with new recipes. Common pantry staples like canned green beans, corn, and peas can be served in various ways, both hot and cold, according to Barrios, while canned tomatoes can be used to make soups, chili, or salsa. Legumes, such as black beans, chickpeas, and black-eyed peas, offer a time-saving convenience and add plant-based protein, nutrients, and fiber to many recipes. “Canned meats, such as chicken or fish, are convenient and high in protein and can be used in many ways adding to a healthy, well-balanced diet,” says Barrios. 

For example: 

  • Smash chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil with a fork and make chunky hummus – no fancy equipment is needed. Or, roast or pan fry them with spices to make a yummy, crunchy snack. 
  • Add beans to soups to make them more filling and increase the nutritional value substantially. Or, use them to make plant-based burgers for a “Meatless Monday” option. 
  • Out of pasta sauce? Simmer canned tomatoes and canned zucchini with a few dried herbs. Use your creation to top your favorite pasta or pizza dough.

Sort + Organize Your Spices 

Rather than having a lot of large, dusty jars of ground spices, try to buy your spices fresh or in small batches. Whole spices hold their flavor longer! “Practice FIFO (first-in-first-out) by rotating your spices as you purchase refills and using what is oldest first,” says Michael Kimball, kitchen and product manager for Savory Spice, an online spice shop. 

Also, make sure your spices are clearly labeled. “Honey powder and onion powder look surprisingly similar and you do not want to mix them up!” says Kimball, and that you can see all of them at once so you can easily find what you need. Spices in the back of the cupboard will be forgotten and grow stale. “Store spices away from direct sunlight and heat to protect their color and flavor,” says Kimball.

The best way to tell if your spices are past their prime is simply to smell them. “If they are no longer aromatic or smell weak, it is time to replace them,” says Kimball. (No, stale spices won’t hurt you but you will be missing out on so much flavor!) 

If your spices have clumped up over time, try breaking them up with a spoon and pressing them through a sieve or putting them in a food processor. “Store spices that tend to clump in the fridge or add a few dry beans to the jar to help control unwanted moisture,” says Kimball.

Get Organized By Doing The Following… 

Once you’ve sorted through your pantry for things that needed to be tossed, it’s time to get a better handle on what remains. “Evaluate your stockpiles and bulk. Do you have so much food that you don’t have space to store it all? It’s important to have dried and canned food on hand for emergencies; however, is your space optimized for this? Can you build a higher shelf for these items as you’re not reaching for them daily? Even emergency supplies should be decluttered and restocked annually, as your needs may change,” said Jane Stoller, founder of Organized Jane, author of Decluttering for Dummies.

Stock “like” items together. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s also the best way to evaluate whether your space is really working for you. “If you have so many of one product that it’s overflowing and none of another type of food item, why is there an entire shelf devoted to the one with the least amount of stuff?” says Stoller.

Stock “related” items together. Similar to the previous tip, keep items from the same category together as well. This includes items such as your baking supplies or ingredients for dishes that you are always cooking. “Storing related items together instantly makes your space more efficient,” says Stoller.

Evaluate your bulk. Do you have so much food that you don’t have space to store it all? “It’s important to have dried and canned food on hand for emergencies; however, is your space optimized for this?” says Stoller. Can you build a higher shelf for these items as you’re not reaching for them daily? “Even emergency supplies should be decluttered and restocked annually, as your needs may change,” says Stoller.

Make a plan – and stick to it

You’ll often end up with a bunch of items that you’d like to keep, even if you don’t really know what to do with them. “Maybe you picked up a few tins of fancy seafood or a few bags of dried beans in the spring of 2020 that you then forgot about,” says Marx. 

Before putting any non-staple ingredients back in the cupboard, think about ways to incorporate them into your upcoming meal schedule, suggests Marx. Make that lentil soup! Combine what’s left of those opened boxes of dried pasta to make pasta mista for pasta e fagioli. “You’ll always be surprised how many dinners you can get out of the ingredients that you already have,” says Marx.

Eating healthily and budget-friendly in 2022 + beyond

The goal is to have a better handle on your ingredients and stockpile so you use what you have and have less waste in the coming year. “Menu planning increases the likelihood of increasing the consumption of fruits and vegetables,” says Barrios. Planning meals using what’s already in your pantry is both cost-effective and nutritious.

If there are items that you’re holding onto that you know you won’t consume but are still good – bring them to your local food bank! “All donations make an impact in helping feed the food-insecure in your community,” says Barrios.

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