How to Organize a Small Reach-In Pantry

Do you drool over those gorgeous walk-in pantry organization photos in magazines and on Pinterest? Me too! The only problem is that I don't have a walk-in pantry to make gorgeous! But after living in a condo for years with no pantry at all, even a smallish reach-in pantry seemed like such a luxury when we moved in to our current home. It took me years to figure out how to organize the pantry to make the most of our space, but after some failed attempts, I've finally figured out how to create a pretty and organized pantry that's easy to maintain!

At first we had so much extra space that I didn’t really need a great organization plan to keep things relatively tidy. But over the years, a lot changed. We now have two kids and we eat at home way more than we used to. Over time, the pantry filled up and, without an organization system, it quickly went from spacious to overflowing {and embarrassing}. When hosting dinner parties and book club, I always made a huge effort to make sure no one saw the hot mess behind the door!

Pantry Organization

In fairness, you can see in the embarrassing before photos that I pretended to organize the pantry once upon a time... I mean, I put a few bins in there... But, yeah, it didn't really work out! There were some bins and baskets on the shelves, and even some drawers down there on the floor {yeah, that’s right, the drawers that couldn’t be opened because there was so much STUFF in front of them}. But clearly bins and baskets aren’t enough if you don't have a solid plan in place.

I knew that I needed to get the pantry whipped into shape, but I also knew it was going to take some real effort to find a system that would work for our family. And since I often work best under a deadline, last spring I volunteered to share my organized pantry as a guest post on another blog. Nothing like a little motivation, right?!

Here's the really good news... more than a year later, the pantry is still just as organized, and we've even made a few new improvements to take advantage of every available inch of storage space!

Pantry organization ideas

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Now that I know this system is really working for us, and sustainable in the long run, I decided it was time to share my top five pantry organizing tips! 


I started by completely emptying the pantry, throwing away anything that was expired, and creating a donate pile for any non-perishable items that we just weren't going to use. I cleaned the shelves and swept the floor, and then I gave it a facelift with some fabulous grey chevron shelf liner. But rather than lining my shelves {most of which are above my eye level}, I instead lined the wall behind the shelves!

Back of pantry lined in shelf paper



Next I sorted all of the food that was now spread all over my kitchen counters and grouped like items together. As I sorted, categories started to take shape. Once all of my food was sorted, I made a list of the categories that I needed to accommodate in the pantry {breakfast foods, side dishes, cans, baking supplies, misc. bottled items, etc}. 

Measure Twice.

Once I had a list of items that needed to go back in to the pantry, I began to make a plan. I took detailed measurements of my shelves {including the width, height and depth - taking into account the shelf supports on the edges}. I drew myself a sketch of my pantry before shopping for containers, which made it much easier to ensure the items I bought would actually fit when I brought them home.

Place Daily Use Items at Eye Level. 

Then I began to sketch out what I wanted to store on each shelf, taking into consideration which items we use most frequently. I recommend you store the items you use daily on the shelves nearest your eye level. If you have kids, consider dedicating space on the lowest shelves for the items that you want them to have easy access to.

Place the food you use less frequently {like baking items} or that you want to eat less frequently {like desserts} on the higher shelves – ideally still within reach without the assistance of a step stool. This not only ensures that you are not taking up prime real estate on the lower shelves, but the concept of out of sight, out of mind also works wonders. We eat many less cookies and dessert like snacks now that they are less conveniently placed in a bin above eye level {this works especially well since my husband and I are both short!}.

The very top shelf of the pantry {the one you likely can't reach without a step ladder} is a good place to store primarily non-food items that you don't use often. 

In our pantry, this includes my large roasting pan, my bread machine, and baskets full of bread machine mixes and seasonal items {such as cookie cutters and pumpkin carving tools}.


Baskets are a Great Alternative to a Custom Pantry System. 

I would love to someday install a custom pantry system with pull out drawers in place of shelves, but since that wasn’t in the budget at this time, I determined that baskets would be the next best thing for storing most of our food items. Baskets allow me to corral like items, and are easy to lift off of the shelves to see all of the contents {ensuring that nothing gets lost and forgotten just because it’s not right up front}. I took careful measurements of the pantry, and then went shopping for baskets that would best fit the space.

I love the Sterilite stacking baskets because they are sturdy, affordable, come in multiple sizes, and can be easily stacked. I used sticky notes to indicate the categories, and began to fill them up with food.

As I filled the baskets, I had to make some tweaks to my list of categories - splitting some in to two.

Use Containers Within Containers.

I like to immediately remove certain items {like granola bars and oatmeal packets} from their original boxes as soon as I bring them home from the grocery store because those boxes just take up to much room in the pantry {especially once you've eaten some of the contents and the box is half empty}. But small items can quickly become disorganized inside large baskets, so I recommend using smaller bins to contain loose items within your larger baskets or drawers.

Lazy Susans Are Great - But Not Ideal For Cans. 

I had previously been using a large lazy Susan for all of my cans, but this solution wasn’t working well for me anymore. Since most cans are relatively short, I was stacking my cans two or three high to take full advantage of the vertical space, which created a situation where I was constantly knocking things over as I tried to get to the cans in the center of the turntable. I looked at a number of other options for can organization, and really liked these gravity fed can racks.

With all of my cans transferred to the new racks, I was left with an empty lazy Susan which I quickly filled up with all of our various bottled food items, including things like peanut butter, cooking oils and sprays, and hot sauces. I felt that these items were better suited for the lazy Susan because of their height and because they would quickly become too heavy if placed in a basket.

I was careful to place the more frequently used items around the outer edges of the turntable, and the less frequently used items in the center. The lazy Susan now gives my husband easy access to all of his favorite condiments.

Consider Transferring Some Items to Reusable Containers.

I love the look of pretty pantries where every single item is in a matching, labeled container. But it's important to be selective and realistic when deciding which items to place in reusable containers, and which to leave in their original packaging. If you plan to transfer too many items, it will be hard to keep up after each grocery shopping trip. Instead, choose those staple items that you have in your pantry at all times, and which are otherwise hard to store {due to inconvenient size or packaging}.
For example, our pantry shelves are just a bit too short for cereal boxes to stand upright, and when turned on their side, the contents often ended up spilling out. To solve this problem, I utilized the same plastic canisters that I used for organizing all of our latex paint in our utility room. I love these canisters because of the built-in handle and because they are an excellent value {only $1.99 for the 2 quart size and $2.99 for the gallon}. The larger canisters are the perfect size to hold a full, large box of cereal, and when stacked three deep on the pantry shelf, these canisters allow me to store three varieties of cereal in very little space.

I also used these same plastic canisters to contain various staples - like pasta, rice, flour, sugar and other dry goods. Since most of these items originally come in bags that are not easy to reseal and not easy to store on shelves, I prefer having transferring them to canisters that allow me to more efficiently utilize my shelf space, and to quickly see how much I have left at any given time {making it easier to add items to my grocery list when I'm starting to run low}.


No matter the size of your pantry, you can make the most of it by taking advantage of every available inch - including floor space, the walls, and the back of the door!  

Don't Let Floor Space Go Unused. 

Prior to our pantry makeover, the floor space had become a dumping ground for anything and everything {whether it belonged in the pantry or not}. With 24" inches of height below the bottom shelf, this was a lot of real estate that I needed to utilize, and the best solution I found were the Like-It brand stacking drawers. I purchased enough of these drawers, in various sizes, to fill nearly all of the space, leaving open just enough space on the left side to stack extra beverages {finally, no more cans of pop freezing and exploding in our garage!}.

Once I had the drawers in place, I had to think long and hard about how to best utilize them. I determined that with two young kids {at that time the boys were nine month old and a two year old}, the drawers would be the perfect place to store bibs and baby/toddler foods {like fruit and veggie pouches}. These were items that were previously taking up a lot of room on our shelves, but since we’ll slowly be transitioning away from these foods over the years, I didn’t want to plan the entire pantry space around them. 

As the boys get older, it will be easy to repurpose these drawers without having to reorganize the entire pantry, and in the meantime, my toddler-age sons love the independence of being able to help pick their own snacks {although I still control their access with a childproof doorknob lock}.

As I said, I wanted to use every available inch of my pantry space, so this meant even taking advantage of the extra five inches between the top of the drawers and the bottom of the lowest shelf.

One of my challenges has always been finding a place to store potatoes, but I found a shallow, mesh basket that fits perfectly on top of the drawers and provides a spot for potatoes and uncut onions.

To further utilize the space above the drawers, two canisters turned on their sides hold my sons' favorite snacks – whole wheat goldfish crackers and pretzel crackers.

Utilize Any Available Wall Space. 

Of course, when looking for more storage space, you can never ignore the walls. There is about 18" of space between our pantry door and the front of the shelves, leaving a narrow strip of wall to the right and left of the shelves. 

As I completed phase 1 of our pantry makeover, I started brainstorming ways to use that wall space, and I determine that the space to the right would be a perfect spot to install spice racks.

You can read the details about our pantry spice racks in this post, but {spoiler alert} installing 7 narrow spice racks on the pantry wall allowed us to clear off an entire long shelf in one of our cupboards! There's nothing better than gaining more storage space!

Spice Racks on Wall of Pantry

On the other side of the pantry, I hung two DIY chalkboard clipboards {featuring my boys' own artwork} which we use for notes and preschool reminders, and I added two Command hooks for hanging my sons' lunch bags.

Put the Back of the Pantry Door to Use.

The back of the pantry door is another prime piece of real estate that should be ignored {this is true of the closet doors throughout your house!}. There are many ways you can use the back of a pantry door - including adding storage, like the Container Store's door rack systems.

We decided to use the back of our door to hang a large bulletin board, which provides us a place to hang our calendar, display cards, and keep track of invitations. You can read all about our pantry door bulletin board in this post.

Bulletin Board on Back of Pantry Door


Finally, let's talk about labels. Once all of my baskets, canisters, and drawers were full, it was time to label everything. I know this isn’t news to any of you – but labeling is SO important! Obviously I’m not the only one using this pantry, so labeling helps to ensure that everyone can quickly find what they need and that things get put back in the right places. Click here for tutorials on each of the three types of labels I used in our pantry, and for free printable labels!

Labeling Baskets. 

I firmly believe that organization can be pretty, and I know that if I make the extra effort to make a space pretty, I’ll be much more motivated to keep it up. For that reason, I wanted to keep the pantry labels pretty, but a since the baskets will be constantly moved on and off of the shelves, it was also vital that my labels be durable. By tying the labels to the baskets with baker's twine, they can easily be replaced if we later want to change the contents of the baskets.

Organized Pantry

Labeling Canisters.

Since I need to wash the clear storage canisters from time to time, I opted to label the lids rather than the fronts of the containers. This way the canisters can be popped in the dishwasher, and the lids can be quickly wiped down. And since I also anticipate that the contents of the canisters will change over time, I used colorful, I made them easy to relabel.

Labeling Drawers.

Additionally, because the contents of the drawers on the floor of the pantry will change over time, I wanted to ensure that the labels could be easily switched out as well. I considered using sticker paper, but I have found that the adhesive is strong and it can be difficult to cleanly remove. Instead, I used printable window decals to label the drawer fronts, assuring that the labels will stay firmly in place until I choose to remove them, but will be easy to remove when the time comes to update them.

When I completed this pantry makeover last year, I was thrilled to have it looking clean and prettied-up! More than a year later, I am thrilled because the organizing systems I put in place are still functioning perfectly! When it's time to make my grocery list, it's quick and easy to check each bin and make a list without ever over purchasing, and when I return from shopping, it's quick and easy to unpack the groceries because everything has a place.

Organized Pantry


I know that's a lot of information, so let me summarize...

Five steps to an organized & pretty pantry:

1. Start with a Clean Slate     

2. Sort, Categorize, and Form a Plan
  • Categorize
  • Measure Twice
  • Place Daily Use Items at Eye Level

3. Choose Appropriate Containers

  • Baskets are a Great Alternative to a Custom Pantry System
  • Use Containers Within Containers
  • Lazy Susans are Great, But Not Ideal for Cans
  • Consider Transferring Some Items to Reusable Containers

4. Use Every Available Inch of Space

  • Don't Let Floor Space Go Unused
  • Utilize Any Available Wall Space
  • Use the Back of the Pantry Door

5. Add Pretty Labels, But Keep it Durable and Flexible

  • Labeling Baskets
  • Labeling Canisters
  • Labeling Drawers
And finally, one more look at the before and after:

Pantry Organization Before and After

Click here for the pantry label tutorials, including some free printables!


  1. Great ideas, I have a similar pantry and have been planning on organizing it for a while....you have inspired me!

  2. Where did you get the wire shelves for cans?

  3. Wow. I'm inspired. We have almost the same size pantry and have been looking for ideas. Thank you!

    1. So glad to be of help! This pantry system has been working for us for almost 2 years, so I hope the tips work for you as well!

  4. Brilliant! Thank you for the really detailed details! You explained things so thoroughly that I don't feel that intimidated about trying to imitate what you have done. Very well done. Thank you so much for this help!

  5. I re-did my pantry last weekend and did exactly as you did-- I am OBSESSED with how it turned out! One thing I changed: I didn't have the patience for the contact paper behind the shelves so I decided to paint the entire pantry (walls, shelves etc) all a really pretty sea foam green. It looks amazing. Thanks so much for your thoughtful and detailed post. (I wish I could download a before and after picture!).

  6. I love it when other people show their embarrassing before pictures...thank you...that alone is motivation it :-)

  7. You said you got the baskets at the Container Store, do you have a number to something for them? I've looked online and can't seem to find them. Any help!


    1. It looks like the Container Store doesn't sell them any more, but I found the same ones on Amazon (affiliate link): http://amzn.to/2bqC5qj

      I used a variety of large, medium and small stacking baskets (the first three on the list at the link above). Note that they are sold in sets of 6 on Amazon.

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  9. This is looks amazing! I can't wait to organize my pantry using your suggestions. Where did you get the small containers you used inside the larger baskets?

    1. The smaller containers all came from the dollar section at the front of Target (I think they call it Bullseye's Playground now). They don't have the same containers all the time, but they almost always have some good small container options.