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Pantry makeover

By Phillip Rhodes
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Clutter -- or its eradication -- is a national obsession. With more stuff than ever and less time to deal with it, we want better ways to organize. Nowhere is this more applicable than in the kitchen, the highest-traffic room in most homes.

In the spirit of clutter control, Cooking Light ran a contest to find readers whose pantries needed an organizational overhaul. From hundreds of entrants, we chose two -- Dawn McGreevey of Atlanta and Camille Fargo of Medford, Massachusetts -- to receive full pantry makeovers. Cooking Light Projects Editor Mary Simpson Creel headed a team that included professional organizer Jennye McCreary and recipe developer Cynthia DePersio. McCreary supplied the clutter-fighting know-how, while DePersio created dishes to fit the winners' cooking styles and make the most of pantry items. Read on to find ideas that will help you reclaim your own pantry.

Finding the right level

Camille Fargo loves to cook. Every night she makes dinner for her family (husband Jeff, eight-year-old Jeffrey, five-year-old Jared, and three-year-old Jack). Convenience foods don't often find a place at her table; instead, Fargo relies on basics like broth, canned beans and tomatoes, and olive oil. Not that she spends all day planning dinner: Fargo also watches a relative's baby several days a week. Changing diapers and cleaning up spills -- while pursuing a master's degree -- leave little time for organization.

Pantry problem
The walk-in pantry in Fargo's recently built house is huge, but there was no organization. "I've never had this much space before," Fargo says. "I had a hard time trying to figure it out. The pantry ended up being where I threw everything." Cleaning supplies were stacked on the floor, and overstocked staples, like cans of diced tomatoes, took up valuable shelf space. Coloring books, paper, and crayons, along with bottles of wine, packed the back of the pantry. She even stashed her wrapping paper there.

To make life easier for the busy mom, McCreary put items that little ones can serve themselves, like cereal, into plastic containers on low shelves. Candy, cookies, and other snacks that require parental approval were placed on higher shelves. Potentially harmful items were moved away from the food to an easily locked cabinet under the sink. This left eye-level space in the pantry for frequently used items. With ingredients in plain sight, Fargo no longer wonders whether she's low on staples, which makes shopping easier. As a bonus, McCreary organized a hall closet, where she added a Rubbermaid gift-wrapping station to house Fargo's paper collection.

Stuffed storage

McGreevey lives the fast life. Her job as a marketing manager for Porsche means many dinners in fancy restaurants. "That makes it hard to eat healthfully, since you never know what you're going to get," she says. When McGreevey is home, she enjoys cooking for her husband, Ron, and her Cooking Light Supper Club. She stops by the grocery store frequently, instead of shopping once for the entire week. She and Ron enjoy diverse flavors and often try new foods. That's why pantry organization is crucial: "I'd love to have a better pantry so I can cook more spontaneously," she says.

Pantry problem
McGreevey's system of kitchen organization was truly spontaneous. Drawers and cabinets were randomly stuffed. Foodstuffs stacked helter-skelter filled the floor-to-ceiling shelves of the pantry, which is about as big as a Porsche's backseat. Ingredients were hard to find. The canned chipotle peppers for one of McGreevey and her husband's favorite dishes, roast pork with chipotles and honey, could have been anywhere -- behind a jar of peanut butter, under a bag of fusilli, or behind the rice-wine vinegar and olive oil.

First, McCreary made the most of McGreevey's small storage space. Baskets in the pantry provided homes for small packages -- packets of chiles and zip-top bags of nuts, for example -- and allowed McGreevey to store similar items, such as different types of pasta, together. McCreary also installed risers on the pantry shelves, McGreevey's favorite part of the makeover. "When you can see everything, it's a lot easier to come home and put things where they need to go," McGreevey says. "Plus, when I look for something before making a shopping list, I know what I have."

Next, McCreary tackled drawers and cabinets. She sorted the items in each drawer, using utensil dividers to group like with like. "I prefer interlocking dividers that you can configure," McCreary says. "Everyone doesn't have the same setup or the same utensils." Finally, heavy appliances like the mixer moved from their remote location in the laundry room to kitchen cabinets that had previously stored rarely used vases (which moved to the laundry room).

McCreary's storage tips

Let usage be your guide
Keep frequently used items, like pasta, rice, and broth, where you can get to them easily. Reserve high shelves and out-of-the-way nooks for items you don't use as often, like bread machines and stockpots.

Like goes with like
Organize staples according to function. Group flour, sugar, and shortening with sweet spices; put savory spices, jarred sauces, and marinades in another space.

Rise to the occasion
Use risers on pantry shelves so you can see the back row of items as easily as the front row.

Shop for the right fit
Buy more baskets, boxes, and other organizers than you'll need. Even if you've taken precise measurements, some baskets might prove more functional than others. Once you've organized everything the way you want it, return any unused items. (Be sure to save your receipts -- maybe in a newly organized space where you'll be sure to find them.)

Canned staples and other pantry favorites can easily turn into clutter.

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