In most homes, the kitchen is a communal hub where everyone works and gathers. Because of that, it can be one of the hardest rooms to keep neat.
Luckily you don’t need to hire an expert or spend a bunch of cash on fancy containers to get your kitchen in working order. We asked professional organizer Gilat Tunit of The Project Neat for her best tips on decluttering and organizing a kitchen — and keeping it that way. The system she uses is surprisingly accessible and can be applied to every inch of the room.
Your first impulse is probably to dismantle your entire kitchen in a weekend. But Gilat says that it’s important to work on one area at a time so you don’t totally overwhelm yourself. Pick a section — the fridge, freezer, cabinets, drawers, or pantry — and pull everything out. “If you don’t take everything out, you’re just rearranging what’s already there,” says Gilat. “That’s not going to get you anywhere.”
If you’re hung up on the pantry, you’re not alone. Gilat calls it the biggest catastrophe area in the kitchen. “Things go there to die,” she says. “People just cram everything they buy into the pantry and it builds into clutter until you don’t know where anything is.” For that reason, you’re probably going to find a lot of expired or totally unusable items. Spices, grains, canned goods, and baking items all lose quality and can even go rancid after a year or so. If you don’t recognize an item, toss it. If you’re finding items you would otherwise never use, offer them to friends when they stop by or donate unopened items to food banks.
The fridge and freezer are easier to tackle, but you’re probably still holding items that you don’t want or should no longer eat. Food can be frozen for as long as a year, but some items need to be thrown out in as little as a month! The FDA has a great chart that’ll tell you the shelf life of your refrigerated and frozen items.
And don’t get soft when it’s time to purge kitchen tools! It’s so easy to accumulate food containers with missing lids, duplicate kitchen tools, and cool appliances that you thought you’d use every day but ended up gathering dust on a shelf. Once you clear everything out, you might realize you don’t actually need that giant kitchen you’ve been dreaming of.
It’s so easy to buy duplicates of things you already own when everything is jumbled together. Make piles of items that go together (grains, baking staples, snacks, measuring tools, gadgets, etc.) and evaluate how much space each category will need. You’ll then create zones in your kitchen where those categories belong. Maybe you’ll only need a half of a shelf for snacks but need a whole drawer for food containers. Doing this will prevent you from overshopping and cluttering up your kitchen in the long run. “You can see what you have so that you’re less inclined to just go and pick random things off the grocery store shelves,” says Gilat. Before you head to the store, open the pantry and fridge to see which zones need to be filled and which are fully-stocked. Make a list, and stick to it.
This is, of course, one of the most crucial steps of the organization process. “It’s all about containment,” says Gilat. “Keeping everything separate is very important.” Clear bins, baskets, expandable step shelves, trays, and lazy Susans are some of her favorite tools, but if you’re more concerned with efficiency than aesthetics, household items can be just as effective. “I’ve repurposed desk organizers, baskets, old egg cartons, makeup organizers, even trash cans!” she says. Labeling those containers will help you maintain the system, especially if you have kids who tend to shove things in any empty space they can find.
It can be tempting to just throw everything on the counter when you’re in a rush and deal with it later, but doing so can throw the whole system out of balance. “You’re not saving time, you’re creating a major mess and a major headache,” says Gilat. Instead, put things away right when you’re done using them. Easier said than done, right? But Gilat says it’s just a matter of mental change. It can take awhile to get used to the rule but it’ll save you a lot of aggravation in the long run.
Sticking to the system doesn’t mean you have to give up your Costco membership, but it does mean you need a separate space for storage. “You don’t want to empty all of your bulk into your pantry. You only want to keep what you need,” says Gilat. Utilize dead zones like upper cabinets or shelves that are too out of reach for regular use. You can store large appliances that you use infrequently in a hall closet or the garage. If neither of these options are available to you, consider hanging tools on the wall or investing in a new set of shelves to free up space.
This post originally ran on Apartment Therapy. See it there: Try This Pro Organizer’s 6-Step Plan for Decluttering Your Kitchen
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