No need for Marie Kondo here, but when it comes to spring-cleaning your kitchen, its pays to be ruthless.
Having a well-stocked pantry is essential if you want to get tasty, nutritious meals on the table with a minimum of fuss and expense. But “well stocked” has a tipping point. If you are overstocked or disorganized, you lose track of what food you have. This can lead to food waste and duplicate purchases, both of which waste money, too.
Doing a spring clean of your pantry lets you get rid of expired or unwanted items that are taking up valuable space. It also refreshes your memory about what you do have on hand, which can spur your meal-planning creative juices.
The rule of threes
To get started, gather some boxes or large bags and designate three as “to toss,” “to use ASAP” and “to give away.” Use additional boxes or bags to sort keeper items by category so you can put them away in an organized manner. Three questions to ask yourself as you sort, toss and clean:
1. What kind of food do I enjoy and make regularly? Specific cuisines? Simple vs. gourmet?
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2. What kind of food can I expect to make this year? For example, do you plan to experiment with more meatless meals, more fish instead of meat, more vegetables?
3. Does this food fit with my health and wellness goals? Read the ingredient list and nutrition facts panel on packaged foods to help you decide. Foods that contain hydrogenated oils or are high in sodium or sugar are good candidates to let go.
Step 1: The Freezer. Ruthlessly toss:
• Anything of indeterminate age (or that you know has been in there for well over a year).
• Food that’s coated in ice crystals or has other signs of freezer burn.
• Anything else that you are pretty darn sure that you’re never going to use.
When you put items back, group them together (nuts together, frozen fruit together, frozen veggies together, recent leftovers together, meats/poultry/fish together).
Step 2: The Refrigerator. Ruthlessly toss:
• Bottles and jars in the door shelves that are of indeterminate age.
• Leftovers that have turned into science projects.
• Rotting or badly yellowed produce.
• Anything else that you are pretty darn sure you’re never going to use.
Step 3: The Pantry. As you purge, decide whether you can donate a food or if you need to toss it. Ruthlessly remove:
• Any gifted food that doesn’t suit your tastes, lifestyle or goals.
• Any foods that have attracted pantry moths or other pests (enough said). Look very closely at grain products and dried fruits, since pests love these.
• Any open packages of food that have gone stale.
• Any packages/containers of flour, cornmeal, whole grains, dried beans, nuts or seeds that don’t smell fresh.
• Any open bottles of oil that smell rancid.
• Foods that are well past their sell-by or best-by dates. These dates are a bit arbitrary, so slightly expired pantry goods are probably still fine. Give away unopened foods approaching their use-by date if you don’t have firm plans to use them.
• Foods that you realize don’t meet your health goals. If you can’t afford to (or bear to) give them away, plan to look for healthier replacements once you use these foods up.
• Aspirational foods (i.e. ingredients suited only for a cuisine you aspire to cook or a lifestyle you aspire to live … and you know in your heart of hearts that you never will).
Consider transferring foods from their original packaging (boxes, bags) to airtight containers, such as jars with tightfitting lids. It will be easier to see what you have, and foods will stay fresher (and pest-free) longer. Mason jars are an inexpensive option (especially if you can score some from garage sales or thrift stores), and you can buy reusable plastic lids anyplace that sells canning supplies.
As you sort, toss and reorganize, make two lists. One of basic items that you need to replace, and one of meals you could make with ingredients you already have, prioritizing any foods that need to be used soon. Keep the second list where you will see it often, to save yourself time when planning dinner menus. This practice of “shopping” your pantry (etc.) is a good practice to get into, as it reduces food waste, which benefits the environment, the economy and your wallet!
One word of caution: Don’t let yourself fixate on “sunk costs.” Yes, it can be guilt-inducing to part with “perfectly good” food, but if you won’t use it, or it’s no longer fresh, then it doesn’t matter what you paid for it. Simply resolve to be more thoughtful about what you buy going forward.
Tuna and White Bean Salad Pantry Non-Recipe
This is my favorite “I have no leftovers for my work lunch, what am I going to do?” meal, because I always have tuna and beans in the pantry, and capers and olives in the fridge. It’s quick, convenient and delicious.
Drain one can of tuna. Put in a medium-sized bowl and flake with a fork. Drain and rinse one can of white beans. Add to bowl. Toss in a few tablespoons of capers or quartered Kalamata olives. Add olive oil, vinegar or lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste. Stir it up and serve over salad greens. Optional: chopped walnut halves (freezer staple) and diced jarred roasted red peppers (pantry staple).