An Orderly Kitchen Makes an Organized Life

Even as a little girl, Alejandra Costello loved to unpack the groceries after shopping with her mother.

Even as a little girl, Alejandra Costello loved to unpack the groceries after shopping with her mother. The kitchen became her domain; she recalls kicking out her family as she set about organizing. All canned goods here, organized by type, labels all visible; dry goods on this shelf, snack items below, thoughtfully placed in easy reach for her and her sister.

By Jennifer Shapira

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As it turns out, the Arlington-based professional organizer would grow up helping others find order in their lives. But the pantry still remains her favorite spot to sort.

“It was just my thing,” Costello says. “In high school, college, when I had roommates. I don’t love to cook, but I love to try new food, go to restaurants. I’m passionate about food and organization, so this is a way I can combine them both.”

“It’s a space that’s easy to maintain if you set it up the right way,” Costello adds.

Think of the pantry as the home’s prime real estate: A place for everything. Everything in its place. And if it doesn’t have a place, don’t buy it.

Courtesy of Alejandra Costello

Local experts say the answers to these questions can ultimately save time and money:

What are your buying habits?

What are your daily needs?

How do you plan your menus?

Pantry organization is about putting a system in place that minimizes time spent shopping, preparing and putting food on the table.

With a little planning, you can be more efficient, ingredients will be close-at-hand, snacks easy to grab and you’ll know what needs to be purchased on the next trip to the grocery store.

While you’re at it, you might even get inspired to spruce up the pantry with a pop of paint color, or tap out labels for a dozen Mason jars.

The kitchen is the social hub of the home. It’s where kids do their homework, where they grab a snack, where parents do the cooking, says Kim Hitchcock, sales trainer at the Container Store in Tysons Corner. As such, she says, “pantries need to be accessible, visible and adjustable.”

Of course, the Container Store’s bread and butter is home solutions and storage, but Hitchcock has an affinity for the snap-in elfa shelving, the store’s cornerstone of customizable organization: It’s flexible, functional and looks good.

“Many customers don’t think to use the back of the pantry door for storage,” she says, of one of her favorite space-saving tricks. “But this can be one of the most commonly overlooked sources of extra storage space.”

That shallow area won’t account for oversize provisions from Costco, but it can accommodate important items you frequently reach for. It’s also a great spot to stash your grocery list.

Arlington-based organizer C. Lee Cawley recalls one client’s clever shopping solution: He snapped a smartphone shot of the family’s whiteboard list.

Courtesy of C. Lee Cawley

“Genius!” she says.

Start simple, says Cawley. If you like your java, create a coffee station. Choose a designated spot for your coffee, filters, a favorite mug, sugar and teaspoons.

“You should be able to stand in one place to make a cup of coffee,” Cawley says.

In a large kitchen you can waste time and steps pulling out ingredients. Think about placement and cut down on prep time.

In the refrigerator, place sandwich meats and sliced cheeses in one common bin, says Cawley. She also likes to add mini jars of favorite condiments. When it’s time to get lunches ready, set the bin on the counter, grab a loaf of bread and start cranking them out.

Cawley recommends a basic system to get the family involved.

Employ three containers for frequently used lunch items. Think of them as bins A, B and C. The savory ‘A’ bin might include snacks like pretzels and Goldfish crackers. The ‘B’ shelf holds staples such as desserts like pudding or apple sauce; and the ‘C’ bin holds juice boxes.

Place them on the pantry’s lower shelves and kids can help pack their own lunches.

When it comes to food storage, Cawley’s motto is: “Round in round, square in square.”

Round items like canned vegetables, oils and vinegars should reside on a lazy Susan. The turntables are also perfect for storing spices—even vitamins and medications. With a quick spin, they also help manage use of older items first and rotate newer purchases.

“Square in square” refers to packages of rice, beans, pasta—anything with right angles and should not be loose in the cupboard. Instead, group them in one bin that, for example, might be tagged “rice and beans.”

Clear, square air-tight containers (organizer favorites include Rubbermaid and Oxo products) should be used for storage of dry goods and baking items for two reasons: Square containers take up less room than round, and transparency allows you to take stock. That way you’ll know if a bag of flour belongs on your next grocery list.

“If you have an organized fridge and pantry, then cooking is so easy,” says Costello. “If you spend a little time planning that out, preparation is easier, clean-up is easier. It just makes sense.”


Professional Organizer Tips

1. Lighter = higher; heavier = lower. On the top shelf of a pantry, place items that are very light, like cereal, chips and paper towels, says professional organizer Janet Schiesl, because if those fall, you won’t get hurt. Alternatively, heavier items should be on lower shelves.

2. Organize your pantry like a store. Put all like items in the same place. And when you buy new, those should take the place of what’s just been used. That way, if you have helpers in the kitchen, you can describe to someone: it’s on the right, fourth shelf down, says Schiesl.

3. Always have an emergency meal at the ready. Make sure the pantry is always stocked with the ingredients for a hearty soup, chili or pasta.

4. Add a healthy snack bin that’s within kids reach. Throw in granola bars, fruit snacks and other easy-to-grab items. Kids will have fun rummaging around, says professional organizer Alejandra Costello.

5. Get at least one Lazy Susan. You’ll save time looking for ingredients because you’ll be able to find them with a quick spin. “You will love it,” says Costello. “I have three in my pantry.”

6. Initiate order. Tap out labels for everything—from individual baking ingredients to specific zones of pantry shelves. “People respect labels,” says professional organizer C. Lee Cawley. “They’re fairly cheap, but they’re worth their weight in gold.”

7. Maximize space. Don’t waste the space behind a pantry door. Find a use for that too. It’s a great space to stow shallow items like spices or tea.

8. Use inexpensive tension rods as drawer dividers to separate dishes or pots or hold lids in place, says Cawley.

9. Designate a space or shelf in a pantry or closet for non-food items like flashlights, batteries and light bulbs.

10. Take 10 minutes on Sunday to plan a week’s worth of meals. Note any unused items in the fridge and pantry, decide to keep or toss, update your grocery list and head to the market.