Organizing Your Pantry for a Successful October Unprocessed Challenge

Organizing Your Pantry for a Successful October #Unprocessed Challenge

You’ve signed up for the October Unprocessed Challenge, and now you may open your pantry and despair. But there’s no need for that, Sunshine! I’m here to guide you through setting up your pantry so you’ll have a successful challenge.

Even though I eat unprocessed 75-80% of the time, getting to 95-100% for October can be daunting. By taking the time to clear out and organize your pantry, you’ll remove some of the most common obstacles that make us run for the nearest drive-thru.

How I approach each client’s pantry changes a bit according to the size, starting state of clutter, and whether they’re making any dietary changes. However, here are some key basics that will work in anyone’s pantry (or cabinets if you don’t have a pantry).

  • Work though your pantry and food very systematically row by row, from one end to the other. Start at the bottom and work your way up or vice versa – whichever feels best to you.
  • As you touch every single item on the row, first check the expiration date. If it’s expired, trash it (or compost it!). If not, read the label. Do all the ingredients meet the kitchen test? If not, put it into a pile to take to the food bank. If yes, is this a food item that will actually get eaten? If not, add it to the food bank pile. If so, put it back on the shelf.
  • Once you’ve removed the expired, overly processed, and never-eat foods from the pantry, ask yourself: do you have food in other areas? Many people have spices near the stove, a separate beverage area, or may also have extra food squirreled away somewhere. Hit these places the same way you did the pantry: trashing expired goods and donating anything that doesn’t meet the challenge.

For many, this “tossing” part of the process feels wasteful. It is, but beating yourself up won’t help or change it. Instead, remember the feeling and use it to prevent over-purchasing the next time you’re at the grocery store. If you’re not going to eat it, don’t buy it. When you’re deciding what to eat for the week, look at what you already have and build around that. You’ll come out of the end of the month with a new view on food and will most likely not fall back into some of these old food habits.

Now that we’ve created some fabulous space in our pantry, it’s time to get it organized.  Start by sorting like with like – grains, pastas, canned goods, breakfast, snacks, condiments, etc.

Pro tip: It’s easiest to do this by pulling everything out and using the countertops for sorting. However, if you don’t have the space or won’t be able to finish the job all in one go, sort everything within your shelving.

Once everything is sorted, you’ll want to arrange your pantry in a way that makes good sense. Think about how you plan meals and how often you use things. Staples are best at eye level. With these items, I like to create a flow similar to how I’d put a meal together. A pretty common one that I set up for clients is: rice to pasta to pasta sauce to canned tomatoes to canned vegetables to canned beans to canned soups to broths. Breakfast is then usually near the main meal staples. From that point, are there certain foods you want to eat less or snacks you want a child to ask permission for? These go up higher. Anything else can go lower, maintaining our sorted food categories.

Once everything has a home, maintenance becomes essential. Take a little time at the end of each meal (ideally) or at the end of the day (minimally) to put everything back where it lives. This can be done quickly and easily during commercial breaks. If you Tivo’ed, it’s even easier – just press pause until everything is put back. Daily maintenance assures you to never have too overwhelming of a pantry ever again!

Additional tips:

  • You can expect this to take anywhere from 2-8 hours depending on the size and starting state of your pantry. Plan accordingly.
  • If you transfer some items to canisters, labeling helps if the canisters aren’t clear. I like chalkboard labels because they’re easy to change with the contents.
  • After buying groceries, take some time to put everything away properly. If you place new items behind older ones it helps prevent older items from going bad before being eaten.
  • Check your pantry for expiration dates at least once or twice a year. This ensures that foods get eaten or donated before they go to waste.

Best of luck with your challenge, and if you have any questions specific to your pantry, leave them in the comments below!

About the Author

Melinda Massie is a performing arts marketing coach, writer and performer. Her organizing tips have been featured in Good Housekeeping, Lifehacker, Esquire, SHAPE, Elle Decor, and many other publications. Her books and programs to help you organize your life include Kick-Ass Closets, From Hot Mess to Hot Damn!, and a Fall Meal Plan for One. Find her on InstagramFacebook, Pinterest, and Twitter.

A photo of Andrew Wilder leaning into the frame and smiling, hovering over mixing bowls in the kitchen.

Welcome to Eating Rules!

Hi! My name is Andrew Wilder, and I think healthy eating doesn’t have to suck. With just three simple eating rules, we'll kickstart your journey into the delicious and vibrant world of unprocessed food.

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Gwin Grimes
September 28, 2013 6:45 am

About donating processed food: anything to eat is better than nothing. A huge amount of the food I see at our food bank is processed. Sad, but true. But it will keep someone alive! Donate it, please.

Linn Steward
September 28, 2013 2:44 am

Once you get used to eating cleaner, something magic happens. You stop buying the stuff in the first place.

September 27, 2013 4:01 pm

Here’s my issue with donating processed food…if it’s not suitable for me to eat, why would I feed it to someone less fortunate?

September 27, 2013 2:15 pm

So, I did this about a month ago. My cupboard and fridge look empty. Not really, but everything requires cooking.
I have very hungry boys…and girl 🙂 I feel like I can’t keep them full and I don’t have enough hours in the day to bake bread, muffins, snacks, and every other meal in the day, plus everything else. I’ve been trying to get into a routine, meal plans, cooking extra, etc. for months. We rarely eat out any more. I just can’t keep them fed though. I don’t have money to buy tons of expensive pre-made foods. What do I do?

Reply to  Melinda @ Organizing with a Side of Fabulous
September 28, 2013 3:26 pm

Thank you. You definitely gave me some ideas. I say I’ve been doing meal planning, but I haven’t been consistent. It’s those weeks where I really plan that go the smoothest, so I’ll definitely make a commitment to that. We feel so much better when we’re careful, so it’s definitely worth it.

Reply to  Melinda @ Organizing with a Side of Fabulous
September 29, 2013 9:24 am

Yesterday was a baking day. I made bread, double recipes of rosemary crackers, cheese crackers, muffins, tortillas, etc.
Today I’m going to sit down and plan for the week and hopefully do a little prep work. Thank you for the encouragement. We need that sometimes 🙂

Reply to  kelly
October 2, 2013 9:26 pm

Been there, done that. Even now, it’s October Less Processed here because there just isn’t budget room for donating. But there will be no more buying of couponed plus sale Froot Loops. 🙂

If you can, consider buying an inexpensive rice cooker. You can almost certainly get one at a store for less than $20. And being able to start rice after you’ve come in and dumped your shoes and purse, makes the start of dinner so much quicker.

Ditto for an inexpensive crockpot. I know it’s two more things that take up room and everything but they can make it easier. I haven’t managed the add dinner makings before running out the door in the morning but I know people do make it work.

Chili, stew, beans, sweet potatoes, regular baking potatoes, chicken breasts with seasoning, etc. all work well in the crockpot.

Batch cooking on the weekends helps.

September 27, 2013 12:10 pm

Great advice, except: Tossing the “expired” stuff shouldn’t necessarily go at the top of the list. Use the things whose use-by dates have passed, as an indicator that your household doesn’t eat much of whatever it is, and buy less in the future, but don’t assume it has become toxic. Dry goods (pasta, grains, dry beans) can go at least 2 years after their expiration date – they may need to soak/cook longer, but they’re perfectly OK! Canned goods ditto, if the can is not dented or rusty. If it’s bulging, obviously, get rid of it! The dates on cans and boxes are not the date on which a food will go bad; they’re more like a “tastiest if used before” approximation. And they’re not regulated by the FDA, except on baby food. They’re the packagers best guess. Many food banks won’t take past-date food, out of caution, so check… Read more »

September 27, 2013 11:10 am

These are great tips, Melinda. Thanks!

September 27, 2013 10:47 am

I am both anxious and excited about this challenge. I want to rid myself of the clutter and get those expired foods out of my space. Thank you for the tips. This weekend it happens. Wish me luck!

Melody C
September 27, 2013 10:34 am

We have a galley kitchen, and the laundry room was at the end of the galley. We had a washer/dryer hookup installed in our garage, and that old W/D area got used as a small office for a while. Well, now it’s a full-on walk-in pantry, and I LOVE it! All of my non-perishables are organized, and also my pots and pans and other small appliances. There’s still too much processed food, but I don’t feel so bad about getting rid of it now, as it’ll be fun to fill it up with the good stuff. I’m hoping to add a grain mill and whole wheat berries to my pantry at some point.

September 27, 2013 10:06 am

Great tip! I did this a few months ago, it was amazing all the food items I never used that I had stockpiled in the pantry. I now meal plan and only keep the staples on hand, I go once a week to buy what I need.
This is a must when eating clean!!

September 27, 2013 8:51 am

Great tips, especially putting certain foods that you use less up higher. I love cleaning, de-cluttering and organizing my pantry. You always feel so good afterwards. Doing this tomorrow!