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More than 80% of home buyers considered a kitchen pantry “essential” or “desirable,” the National Association of Home Builders reports. In existing homes, there’s a clear drive to add and improve pantries, ranging from walk-in pantries to improvised solutions like open pantry shelving along basement stairs.
Pantries typically hold groceries, but no one says you can’t squeeze in a few platters, small appliances, and baskets to hold linens, paper goods, and cleaning supplies. So go ahead: Add the dog bowl too. In this guide, we’ll look at how an organized pantry can create a functional kitchen.
Organize Your Space with Kitchen Pantry Shelving
What’s key is a good sense of order—another way of saying that even the tallest pantries need a place for everything and everything in its place.
Read on for the details, whether you are building from scratch or reworking what you have.
Take Stock of What You Store in Your Pantry
To start, figure out what you want to stash—or plug in—right there, whether it’s a lifetime supply of vanilla, a blender, cookbooks, your grandmother’s soup tureen, a folding ladder, or fondue forks you unearth once a year. Don’t wait until the shelves and niches are in—plan for your inventory and any outlets first.
Turn the top shelf into a colorful display of occasional-use pots and pans.
Pull forward the ones you forgot you had. (Like you, Mr. Pasta Machine.)
Got a step stool, an ice cream maker, enough kibble to feed a kennel?
Select the Ideal Placement for Your Pantry Shelving
The ideal spot is cool, dry, and convenient. A gut renovation offers the most options but is not the only way to go.
Instead of taking down an interior wall to open up the kitchen to the dining room, consider moving that wall to create space for a pantry on the kitchen side.
Tap a Recess
Pantry shelves can be added to a wall near a prep space or between studs.
Repurpose a Closet
If you aren’t getting a lot of use out of a coat or broom closet, picture it as a pantry. There’s no law against setting aside a spot in it for the dustpan, too.
Colonial pantries were often unheated, shed-like lean-tos. Today’s equivalent is a one-story rear addition that could include a half bath or mudroom.
Repurpose the Basement or Cellar
If you have a cool, dry basement or cellar, pop in a freestanding pantry shelf.
Consider Your Shelving Options
Sturdy, open wire shelves hold just about everything and are easy to access. You can also hang boxed open shelves along the stairs and treat the steps as a built-in ladder.
If you want a more integrated solution, consider adding custom built-in shelving.
You can add wire shelving to your pantry in various sizes, such as 8×8, 12×12, and 18×18, depending on how much extra storage you’re looking for. This extra shelving will help create an L-shape configuration that helps you take full advantage of your space.
You can also add shelving accessories such as wood grain or PVC shelf liners that help prevent smaller items from falling between the wire rungs. You could also consider a divider for wire shelves that makes it easier to organize pantry items, or security S-hooks, which can connect two shelves together.
Size and Depth for Walk-In Pantries and Pantry Shelves
Typically about 5 by 5 feet, walk-ins can be lined with U-shaped open shelves or cabinets and finished with or without a countertop.
Adjustable shelves offer flexibility. Start with bottom shelves 16 to 18 inches deep and spaced about 18 to 24 inches apart for bulky items; make shelves at eye level 12 to 14 inches deep and spaced 14 to 16 inches apart to fit cereal boxes and canisters. Shelves for spices and cans may need no more than 6 inches front to back. When planning for any item, add 2 inches of vertical space so you can tip or slide it in and out easily.
Tips for Selecting Pantry Shelves
- Plywood is the go-to material for shelves—edges can be finished with iron-on veneer banding or wood trim—but other materials can work, too (if you’re careful; see below).
- If you hate looking at stuff, install cabinets. If dust is the issue, not clutter, opt for uppers with traditional glass fronts.
- Avoid door jams by paying careful attention to where doors swing and budgeting enough room for full clearance. If you’re cramped on lateral space, consider omitting doors altogether.
- Light it up with a ceiling fixture or rechargeable puck lights with motion sensors.
- Avoid hide-and-seek by storing smaller items on pantry organizers like lazy Susans and tiered shelf inserts.
- Keep it cool and dry, ideally below 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 45% humidity.
No AC? Plug in a small dehumidifier.
No outlet? Try a moisture absorber like those made by Arm & Hammer.
TIP: Think about adding outlets behind shelved small appliances, including a microwave.
Make Sure There is Enough Space Between Shelves
Before choosing a material for the shelves, we recommend using WoodBin Woodworking’s free Sagulator tool to figure out how far the shelf can span before bowing.
Reach-ins are typically about 5 feet wide and 2 feet deep, but they can be as shallow as 16 inches—a natural fit along a recessed wall or soffit. The reach-in shown above has custom-paneled sliding doors and enough vertical space to stash your kitchen trash can.
Decide How Big Your Pantry Should Be
- Maximize floor space by installing a sliding or pocket door. Keep in mind that they can be heavy and require maneuvering to get full access. Doors that swing out ease access; just make sure they don’t block traffic if left open. You can always skip the doors, of course, but they can conceal things nicely.
- Accommodate oversized items by leaving ample enough room between the floor and the bottom-most shelf.
- Measure and allocate space to meet your needs—extra head space for tall canisters, for example. Create cubbies, maybe one for trays and platters, another for a coffee station or bakeware. (You remembered the outlets, right?)
- Unify the pantry and adjacent space with coordinated finishes, especially when omitting doors.
TIP: Doors that slide or fold are prone to wobbling and sticking, so don’t skimp on the track hardware.
Wall-to-Wall Pantry Ideas
Wall-To-Wall Pantry with Sliding Barn Doors
If you have a windowless wall in the kitchen or a nearby hall or mudroom, consider building in shelves with or without doors. Open shelves offer the convenience of being able to quickly grab what you need, but they can also be a magnet for clutter and dust.
Wall-To-Wall Pantry with Open Shelves
Open shelves typically have a uniform depth. Pro organizers favor shelves no deeper than 14 inches to keep everything front and center.
Group similar items so you don’t have to scan the entire wall or move doors looking for the pretzels.
Use baskets and ceramics, as shown above, to create an attractive shelfscape.
Pantry Cabinet Ideas
To answer the call for pantry-style storage, cabinetmakers now offer options that blend in with the rest of the kitchen storage, from simple upgrades like a tall pullout to full-blown built-ins with a hutch-like appeal.
TIP: Before lining cabinet doors with extra shelves, make sure there’s room inside for the doors to close.
“Batwing” pantry cabinets mirror French-door refrigerators, with restricted door swings and bottom-mount drawers. Custom models, like the one shown above, allow quick access to essentials, while drawers hide other stuff.
Cabinet Pull-Out Shelves
Narrow slide-outs (pictured above) are open on both sides and make use of awkward space.
Rev-A-Shelf makes a retrofit pull-out cabinet organizer that’s just 3 inches wide.
TIP: Heavy-duty hardware is a must for slide-out pantries.
Cabinet upgrades include wooden rollout trays that come in different widths and depths and can be installed at varying heights, depending on what you want to store.
Again, it’s worth paying extra for heavy-duty drawer slides. They should operate smoothly under a weighty load.
Repurposed Pantry Ideas
Older houses aren’t famous for their surplus closets and rooms, but they do have nooks and crannies that can be converted into pantries or colonized by freestanding furniture.
Tucked under the stairs, this hideaway makes creative use of former dead space, complete with push-latch doors that blend with the paneled wall, shallow built-in shelves, lighting, and a baking cart that rolls right into the kitchen.
Freestanding Kitchen Pantry Cabinet
Freestanding storage like this unpainted vintage hutch can add warmth as well as function. Look for strong shelves that keep everyday items easy to see and reach.
Ways to Spice Up Your Pantry
Yes, your pantry is a hardworking space where function trumps frills. But that doesn’t mean your it can’t strut some style. Are three colorful upgrades to consider.
Round Sharp Corners
Rounded shelves eliminate sharp corners; shallow ones for spices and condiments can be made with perforated aluminum.
Hang a Decorative Door
Help define the space while offering glimpses inside with a salvaged screen door or a high-quality reproduction like this beauty from Vintage Doors.
Trim It Out
Pantry Products We Love
Food Safety and Storage Tips
Store your goods in containers suited to their contents. Here are just a few of our team’s favorite storage ideas.
- Woven baskets with handles, like Crate & Barrel’s Sedona totes (from $25), are ideal for linens and come lidded or not.
- Rubbermaid Brilliance containers (from $14.99) are BPA-free, dishwasher-safe, and make rapid-turnover items like cereal and pasta easy to see.
- Stoneware canisters (from $65.95) feature tight-fitting, gasket-equipped lids to protect whole spices like cinnamon sticks and bay leaves from light and premature aging.
- Erasable food labels (from $9.99) allow you to label however you like. Use them to denote everything from contents to expiration dates.
It’s Not a Morgue
Always a good idea to check an item’s shelf life, available online, or you may risk SES (sudden expiration syndrome).
- Olive oil is vulnerable to heat, light, oxygen, and time. Open it within 6 months, then store it in the fridge.
- Whole grains like brown rice, popcorn, oatmeal, and flour can get stale in months. Think about refrigerating or vacuum-packing them with a FoodSaver (from $164) or another high-quality vacuum sealer.
- Nuts can also turn rancid—pine nuts after only 1 month, pecans after 4. Hoarders should stash them in the freezer.
- Ground spices fade fast. Freezing can cause condensation, so we recommend storing your spices in the pantry and replacing them once or twice a year.
What Not to Store in Your Pantry
Once you’ve designed the perfect pantry for your home, you should also be cognizant of what you’re storing in it. Some food items will have a shorter shelf life when stored in a pantry instead of a refrigerator or freezer, and some may cause a mess that could be difficult to clean up and possibly even ruin your pantry.
Here are some items that are better off staying away from your kitchen pantry:
- Chocolate: Believe it or not, refrigerated chocolate will taste much fresher than chocolate left in a pantry. If you don’t want it cold, take it out of the fridge a couple of hours before eating it.
- Cold-pressed oils: Oils such as sunflower oil and truffle oil will expire quickly if put in a pantry. To extend their shelf life, keep them in the fridge.
- Cured meats: Cured meats like salami will dry out quickly in a pantry. Put them in the fridge wrapped in butcher paper to preserve the shelf life.
- Fish sauce: Storing any fish sauce in your pantry could be a disaster in the making. Should it ever topple over and spill, the smell will linger for months, if not longer, no matter how you try to clean it out.
- Mustard: Mustard can ferment if kept in a cabinet, even before it’s opened, which could lead to a huge mess in your cabinet.
- Nuts: As mentioned earlier, nuts can go bad quickly, and storing them in the pantry could lead to them not being sealed properly in an airtight container, reducing their shelf life.
- Syrup: Storing maple syrup could cause it to go moldy outside of the fridge, and syrup that spilled is a huge hassle to clean.
Pantry Storage FAQ
What’s the best way to organize a pantry?
Some easy hacks you can use to keep an organized pantry include:
- Use clear food storage containers
- Organize shelves by keeping similar food items together
- Keep an inventory of what foods you have
- Label food storage containers to know what’s inside
- Add shelf liners to protect your shelves from leaks and to prevent items from sliding or tumbling off the shelves
What are the best items to store in a pantry?
The best items to keep in your pantry for food storage include snacks, breakfast foods, pasta and grains, spices, baking supplies, drinks such as coffee and tea, and canned foods.
Should food be thrown out after its expiration date?
It depends on what the label states. If an item has a “sell by” date, that is the date that grocery stores must sell the product by, but it doesn’t mean it’s unsafe to eat after that date. If it is labeled as “best if used by,” the product will likely have a less fresh or worst taste after the date listed, but won’t be unsafe to consume. However, if a product has a “use by” label, you should only eat it if it is before that date to ensure peak quality. You should also use common sense and not eat foods that have mold, a rotten smell, or are overly stale.