Pantry Makeover and Organization

Our pantry has been bugging me for a LONG time, and Craig (boyfriend/partner) and I have spent the last few weeks gradually renovating our tiny pantry on a very small budget.

As some background, we normally have one or two renters, which means storage space for four of us is at a premium. Our pantry doubles as a utility closet (what builder didn’t think anybody would need a broom closet or coat closet??).  More about that later. 


The main issues with the pantry were shelves that were poorly constructed of very uneven particle board with some kind of Contact paper permanently adhered to the shelves. Other areas had old paint that had been slopped on rather haphazardly. Over time, the paper became torn and stained, and things just looked dirty and disgusting–definitely not where you’d want to keep your food!

The space, also, wasn’t working for us. This is one of two spaces in which we keep emergency preparedness supplies. As of this photo, we had about six months of food and other supplies on hand. Sounds great, but things became so disorganized that we found that much of the food expired before we could use it—or worse, it was food we never liked in the first place (why oh why did we have umpteen cans of various kinds of beans?).

Getting to Work

Anyhow, here are the steps we took to renovate our pantry without having it in our budget to rip out the shelves and start completely from scratch (click images to enlarge them):

First, we took everything out, wiped down the shelves, removed what adhered paper we could, and then spread some drywall compound in a thin layer with a putty knife.

Next, Craig sanded the shelves (a very messy job–be sure to cover everything you can or it’ll be coated in a layer of dust!), wiped down the shelves, and then repeated the drywall-then-sanding process.

After that, he painted using a semi-gloss paint in an airless paint sprayer. We used two coats of paint and then touched up any remaining areas that needed it using a brush.

Now came the fun part! I measured the shelves (depth, height and width), and then placed those measurements in my iPhone so I could retrieve them when looking at potential bins for our pantry. I also like to keep a tape measure in my purse for just that purpose, and it really helps take out the guesswork of organizing space as well as reduces the trips back to the store to make returns.

Dollar Tree (headache)

I ended up settling on some inexpensive bins from the Dollar Tree, and I wanted the color white only. After repeatedly visiting something like seven or eight Dollar Trees and only finding a few bins, I started calling various stores and asking them for help. The store manager at one Dollar Tree told me that I could place an order for a case of 36 bins that came in an assortment of blue and white bins (SKU# 206196). I could later cancel the order and then only purchase the bins I wanted at the store.

Now I want to caution you that this process was not without stress, and if you’re wanting a particular color like I was, you should check with your Dollar Tree store manager to ensure this is an acceptable procedure for their store. There were some communication errors, as some staff didn’t know anything about the process of canceling orders and purchasing only the items needed, and for a while I wasn’t sure whether I’d get my money back or the bins I wanted. In the end, I got the white bins and liked them so much that I bought extras to use in a hall closet.

Organizing the Pantry

I had a lot of fun arranging the food in bins and figuring out a good way to organize the pantry. I decided to put sweet items (like fruit, jelly and pancake syrup) on the first shelf, savory items (soups, pasta, sauces, etc.) on the next shelf, and so on. I labeled a couple of the shelves as “sweet” and “savory” just to help us as we get used to our new pantry organization. (If you’d like a review of my favorite label maker, just let me know in the comments!)

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that I had noticed we had wasted space at the top of the pantry where we kept alcohol and glasses, and I asked Craig to put in a second shelf high at the ceiling for these items. I loved the result immediately! A motion-activated light that causes the light to come on when the door is opened added a nice touch as well.

The Final Result

So we started with about six months of food, and we’re down to maybe two months’ worth. I’m happy with that for now. If we had a basement or cellar in which to store lots of food in an organized manner so that things wouldn’t expire before use, that would be great, but this is a workable solution for our space.

One thing I recommend regardless of your space is to take a permanent marker and write the expiration date on the front of all cans, bottles and boxes. That way it’s easy to see what needs to be consumed first. Using the Sharpie to label food right after shopping becomes an easy habit that saves time later. I keep the things that are expiring first near the tops of the bins and bury the rest.

As I mentioned, I’m not keen on having a broom and mop hanging from the inside of the pantry door, but this is real life; we have to work with the space we have. I’ve managed this limitation by only keeping sealed items in the pantry–boxes, cans and bottles that have never been opened. I also try to keep the food items higher than the broom and mop. As you can see, the bottom shelf also contains some accessories for the food processor and Instant Pot. I simply wash these items when I’m ready to use them.

In closing, I’m really loving the new pantry, from the clean white shelves and bins to the optimized space! It’s easy to keep track of the food that we have and need to use. Total cost of the pantry renovation was less than $60 (not counting time, of course!). I think it was well worth the cost and will continue to save us money in food that is used rather than wasted.

I’ve included a video from my YouTube channel about the pantry renovation below. How organized is your pantry, and what do you do to ensure you’re using up food items before they go bad? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!