How to Build a Minimalist Pantry in 10 Steps

Melissa Coleman joins the Clever Cookstr to share tips on how to create a more minimalist kitchen, and maximize your joy of cooking in the process.

Kara Rota
5-minute read
Episode #198

You can clean out your clothes closets, add storage bins, fold or hang your clothes in a certain way, and it works. The closet stays fairly clean and organized with very little maintenance. But the pantry is another kind of closet beast. It’s a beast because there are constantly things coming in and out and often multiple people using it. Pantries are known for being full of half-eaten bags of stale chips and nearly empty boxes of pasta. When left alone, they don’t work well. 

Food management in general is challenging, even more so during the busy work week. It takes forethought and planning. Do I have enough pasta and eggs to get us through the week? Keeping a well-stocked pantry and refrigerator is a game changer for everyday cooking. When stocked well, you don’t have to think about it. You can just count on it. 

In order to create an efficient pantry, a new set of rules is necessary. Implementing the system will feel as clunky as trying out a recipe for the first time. But as soon as you get into the rhythm (which won’t take long), you’ll begin calling these rules habits and offering to make over your neighbor’s pantry. 

1. Develop a system

Think of your pantry like a small restaurant. Inventory is constantly coming in and out. You’ve got limited shelving and a bunch of employees (family members) ranging in age. Hire a boss (you), and create a user-friendly pantry system to meet your inventory needs. Then, communicate the system to the employees. A successful system is developed from understanding the personal habits of all employees and creating proactive, intuitive solutions. At first, it’s important that the boss enforce the system for it to take hold. Make changes according to your lifestyle. The system will vary from kitchen to kitchen.

2. Think of everything in your kitchen as an ingredient

From a box of cereal to sliced almonds—treat each item as an ingredient. This helps to give the pantry system context and saves time, money, and mental energy when shopping. Some ingredients can be restocked from shopping the bulk bins at the store, which is typically less expensive due to the lack of packaging. Otherwise, become brand loyal and/or buy the same exact ingredients every time. No two brands of canned chickpeas, for example, are exactly the same. Find your favorite, and stick with it. This loyalty takes the guesswork out of cooking, too. You’ll know exactly how the ingredient performs. 

Some ingredients can be restocked from shopping the bulk bins at the store, which is typically less expensive due to the lack of packaging.

3. Give yourself parameters

It’s OK not to stock every ingredient from the grocery store. In fact, it’s wise to give yourself parameters for the pantry, which will also help guide the recipes you can make. So build your pantry system around what you can feasibly maintain. We stock one type of short-grain pasta, one type of 20-minute brown rice, one type of tortilla chip, etc. Consider dropping your number of spices down to about 20, especially if you rarely use the other 10. What about those pesky cereal boxes? Create a rule. For our family of three, we stock two types of cereal at a time—a box my daughter picks out and muesli. It may seem counterintuitive, but too many options can lead to decision-making paralysis while also creating storage problems. Rules give us context to create. 

4. Buy clear containers

Store-bought food comes in boxes and bags that are designed to look good on the shelf at the store, but they don’t translate well to the home pantry. You can’t see the interior contents, they look disorderly on the pantry shelf, and once opened, they don’t keep food fresh. Buy clear containers to store your dry goods. We use OXO Pop Containers, which come in a variety of sizes for stocking larger amounts of food like pasta, rice, chips, cereal, and oats. We also use quart-sized wide-mouth Ball jars for smaller things like nuts, seeds, and dried fruits. Using clear containers makes it easy to see what’s in stock and what needs refilling. It also makes it easy to find what you’re looking for. Rebuild your spice cabinet, too, using a set of clear glass containers. 

A pantry overhaul can be expensive. Do a little at a time as budget permits. When buying containers, think about functionality. Will it keep food fresh? Will it fit on the pantry shelf? Is it easy to use? Will a hand fit inside? If using Ball jars, swap out the less convenient, two-piece metal lids for one-piece plastic lids, also made by Ball. It’s a cheap upgrade. 

5. Add scoops

Add permanent scoops for ease to the containers that require scooping (like rice, flour, or sugar). 

6. Label the containers

It’s important to label similar-looking ingredients, like dried cranberries and dried cherries. Add cook times and ratios to the labels, too, where necessary. For example, the label on my rice container says 1:2 (1 part rice to 2 parts water) and 20 minutes (for the cook time). Help yourself out as much as possible to make weeknight cooking breezier. 

7. Add bins

Even after overhauling your pantry, you may find puddles of random small things—like kid snacks, liquid sweeteners, sprinkles, and leavening powders. They can often make shelves look cluttered. And clutter seems to welcome clutter. To solve this problem, add small bins to collect those items. Typically, I use clear containers for visibility, but in this case, I recommend hiding the clutter as long as the bins are well categorized. We keep one for kid snacks (located on a shelf they can reach), one for leaveners and liquid sweeteners (like honey), and one for sprinkles and chocolates. 

8. Categorize shelves

Make sure your shelves make sense. With multiple people using the pantry, an intuitive system is imperative. We have a canned goods shelf, a baking shelf, a breakfast shelf, a grains shelf, a snack shelf, a dried nuts and fruit shelf, etc. The more intuitive, the more likely the pantry will stay organized. Also, consider keeping your storage depth shallow, even if you have extra-deep shelves. Out of sight (hidden) is often out of mind.

To handle overflow, designate an unused shelf, either a top or bottom shelf (or a closet shelf), for backup inventory.

Shop from the overflow shelves first before adding the item to the grocery list. We buy quite a bit in bulk for the price break, like oats, sugar, and nuts. We also keep extra condiments on hand (like soy sauce and olive oil) to keep from running out mid-recipe. Shopping in bulk doesn’t sound like a minimalist practice. But in the kitchen, it’s also just as important to consider efficiency and cost. 

9. Add it to the calendar

There’s a common misconception that if you organize and clean really well one time, you’ll never have to do it again. As with most things in life, the pantry requires ongoing maintenance. But if you put a successful infrastructure in place, it’s really easy to maintenance clean. Four times a year or so, set a reminder on your calendar to take inventory of the pantry. What’s not working? Does a shelf need rearranging? Should you buy a couple more containers?

An efficient workflow needs ongoing tweaking. 

10. Know the rules so you can break them well

When you slim down your pantry, it gives you room (literally) to break the rules here and there. Maybe you buy a box of Peppermint Oreos at Christmastime or maybe you decide to start buying pistachios. A tidy pantry will give you space to explore a little. Notice your habits. Is this a one-time purchase? Then let it be. Is this an ongoing purchase? Then give it a permanent space in the pantry by adding a new jar or replacing an item that doesn’t get used.

Excerpted from The Minimalist Kitchen by Melissa Coleman. Copyright © 2018 Oxmoor House. Reprinted with permission from Time Inc. Books, a division of Meredith Corporation. New York, NY. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Kara Rota

Kara Rota headed children’s programming at Chicago’s Green City Market and studied food politics at Sarah Lawrence College. Kara has been a featured speaker at numerous venues including Food Book Fair, the Roger Smith Food Conference, and the Brooklyn Food Conference. She has written about food for Irish America Magazine, West Side Rag, Recipe Relay, and Food + Tech Connect, and is the former Director of Editorial & Partnerships at Cookstr.com.