Procrastinating Writers Note: I know blog posts are more fun with pictures, so expect some to be posted in the next few days or so. In the meantime, I'll be charging my camera. Sorry.
The last time I helped my grandma clean out her pantry, we found a canned chicken from 1976. My sisters and I treated that chicken as an honored family member, and, after setting a place for it at the dinner table for a week, we put it in the back of the pantry for our own children to one day find. Needless to say, my grandmother does not have a well-organized pantry. Buckle up though, because after some intensive reading, you're about to.
I promise, organizing your pantry will have great benefits (zero waste and otherwise). First of all, you'll be able to see what you have so you can use it up before it goes bad (something in there already turned? No problem, just compost it). Second, you'll know what foods your family consumes most and least, which will allow you to prioritize your bulk-food hunt. Lastly, having an uncluttered pantry will give you peace of mind and allow you to prepare meals quickly and easily, a boon to any household, not just a zero-waste one.
Let's dive right in by taking everything out of your pantry. Anything that isn't nailed or glued down should come out. If you're lucky, it will all fit on your counter and/or table space, if not, get creative with chairs and other furniture. Now that you have an empty pantry, take some time to clean it out. Scrub away any spills or sticky spots, wipe the dust off of everything, and sweep out the floor or the bottom of the space.
Now take a look at all the things you've taken out of the pantry. Odd items (old grocery bags, cans of WD-40, and stray toys) should be put away in a designated home that makes sense to you. If you like having spare light bulbs in your pantry, leave them ready to go back there, but if those items could be more sensibly stored elsewhere, find them a spot now. Next, look through all the food items. Anything that's gone stale, sour, mushy, or is past its expiration date should be composted, and its packaging recycled. Remember, food has a lot of nitrogen in it, so balance out your compost heap by adding some newspaper for its carbon content if you find you have a lot of stuff from your pantry to dump.
This next part is the step I find most fun, though I understand some people don't quite get the high out of categorizing and ordering that I experience. Again, the idea is to make a system that works for you. Try to put food back in a pattern that makes it simple for you to access and restock your pantry. Some people put like with like (all the spices on one shelf, all the cans on another), and others organize by meal (macaroni and cheese boxes next to the canned peas, noodles by jars of Alfredo sauce). A lot of houses and apartments don't have a pantry, so you may be organizing your food by cupboard, or you may want to put kid-friendly snacks and cereals on a lower shelf for the little ones, while foods that need more preparation find their place on the higher levels. Take some time to figure out what makes the best sense for you and your family, I promise the extra thought now will be worth it later.
At this stage don't worry about what food packaging you're putting back onto your shelves. It's better to eat through what you have than get rid of everything and start with a new and unfamiliar system. We'll address the zero waste transformation of your food later.
Once you've gone through this process with your main pantry, continue through the rest of the food-centered locations of your kitchen. Turn out food storage cabinets, empty out all cupboards, clear off all shelves, and brave the depths of your refrigerator and freezer. Clean the space thoroughly, toss rotten food, and return the rest of your goods in the system you've decided on. Now pat yourself on the back for all your hard work, and take a moment to admire your beautiful new kitchen (sneak yourself a treat while you're at it; what's the good of knowing where the cookies are if you don't eat one?).
Stay tuned for part Thirteen and a Half: Evaluating your Food. This post was getting long, and this really deserves a step all its own. In the meantime, enjoy your lovely, easy-to-use food system.
First time reading about a hundred steps to zero waste? Go here for the introduction and index.