Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Opening Zena Culp’s pantry used to be a dangerous activity — she never knew what might fall out.

That changed in February, when she hired a professional organizer. Now her friends are impressed with her tidiness, and she doesn’t have to be on the lookout for falling boxes of cereal.

“I was totally disorganized, and it was embarrassing to open up the door if anyone was in the kitchen,” says Ms. Culp, of Woodbridge. “I couldn’t find anything in my pantry.”

For those whose pantries look as if a whirlwind went through the kitchen, a few tips can help straighten out the mess.

Having a neatly arranged pantry lessens stress and gives a person the opportunity to focus on other things, says Judy Parkins, owner of Efficiency Experts in Alexandria. Ms. Culp hired Ms. Parkins for assistance in the kitchen. Her hourly rate is $75. She says a pantry can be arranged in about half a day.

“I work side by side with the client,” Ms. Parkins says. “I have ideas about what we should do, but I really need the client’s input.”

She suggests having work centers instead of “catchall” shelves. For instance, the coffee, tea and creamer should be placed near the coffee maker. Convenience is the key word.

“Being organized is really important to give you the time to do the things that you enjoy,” Ms. Parkins says. “I like to help people get the unorganized pieces of their lives in order before they become so stressful that they become unmanageable. It can turn into a vicious cycle.”

Removing all the items from the pantry is the first step, says Deborah Sharp, owner of So Sharp Solutions in Damascus. In the process, outdated items should be discarded.

“I find that my clients get frustrated not having what they need because they don’t know what’s in there,” Ms. Sharp says. “Or they overpurchase because they don’t know they have the items, and things are spoiled and bad because they didn’t use them soon enough.”

Multipacks should be removed from larger boxes. Products the person or family doesn’t like and won’t eat should be thrown out.

“I find that many of these types of items take up ‘real estate’ in our pantries,” Ms. Sharp says. “Next time your [Scout troop], school, work or church is looking for donations, move these items on to someone that will enjoy them.”

While the pantry is empty, the shelves should be cleaned. Then, like items should be grouped. Labels all should be facing the same direction, so when someone looks into the pantry, there is a clear view of what is available.

Determining which groups are used daily will help decide where the items will go on the shelves, Ms. Sharp says.

Place the most-used items or small items on the middle shelves. For some people, this might include bread, pasta, canned goods, spices and dressings. Place the lesser-used items on top shelves, possibly a bread maker, mixer or ice cream maker. Heavier items also can be placed on the floor, which would decrease the risk of things falling.

The bottom of the pantry also can be used for unopened cleaning products, Ms. Sharp says. Other options to put on the floor might be bulky canned goods, soda bottles, potatoes or onions.

Knowing where everything is in the pantry makes it easier to plan meals, says Laura Cambridge, owner of Dynamic Organizing in Silver Spring. Otherwise, it is easy to have three of the same item and not enough of something else.

Making use of organizing products such as Lazy Susans for spices, oils and vinegars is helpful, she says. Stepped shelves for canned goods work well in deeper pantries, where products in the back of the shelf often get lost.

Open-top baskets or bins are good for smaller seasoning packets and snack bars. Stacking containers makes efficient use of vertical space. Hooks on the wall are great for reusable shopping bags or brooms.

Labeling containers, bins and shelves offers a reminder of where the items belong. This visual cue will help ensure that the entire family returns things to their proper place, Mrs. Cambridge says.

After all that has been done, there needs to be light, she says.

“Make sure you have adequate lighting in your pantry,” Mrs. Cambridge says. “There is nothing more frustrating than having such a wonderfully organized pantry and not being able to easily see what’s in it.”

Having a system for the pantry makes working in the kitchen more pleasant, says Ed Bugash of Gaithersburg. Mrs. Cambridge arranged the two large pantries and a corner cabinet in his kitchen. Although his wife, Dianne, has many strengths, Mr. Bugash says organization is not one of them.

“When Laura was finished, all the cans that were the same size were put together,” Mr. Bugash says. “Instead of having a can of tuna fish here and there and whatnot, it’s pretty obvious where they should be.”

Replacing the shelves to appropriate heights also made it easier to find things, he says. Some of the shelves were too close together, and some were too far apart.

Once the pantry is in order, there isn’t any reason it should need to be reorganized in six months, says Barry Izsak, president of the National Association of Professional Organizers, based in Austin, Texas.

“When you take the cereal out, put it back where it came from,” Mr. Izsak says. “That’s called sticking to the system.”

Further, hoarding items isn’t necessary, he says. Understand what a reasonable quantity of an item would be.

“You don’t need to stock up with a pantry that will feed an army or stock enough for a disaster that may never happen with 40 cans of tomato juice, so you can sit there with no power,” Mr. Izsak says. “You don’t need 14 cans of lima beans.”

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