What’s in Your Pantry?

By Kathleen Seaman

Three families share how they stock and organize their pantries

Pictured: Photos by Cecy Ayala, photographybycecy.com

My husband and I recently moved into a developing subdivision. While we waited on our own construction to wrap up, we’d often walk around our new neighborhood, regularly popping inside the other under-construction homes to scope out the different spaces. It was always interesting to see what a family might see as essential simply by the space it was allotted. One feature that could always run the gamut in both size and importance was the food pantry. Whether it’s a roomy walk-in, a corner closet or a convenient cupboard by the stove, what’s in your pantry, where it’s located and how it’s organized (or not) can reveal a lot about your family. This month, we spoke with three women about how they’ve made their pantry space work for them and asked them to share a favorite family recipe and what their staple ingredients are. Meet a home-schooling mama who loves a good label, an empty-nester who always cooks meals from scratch and a gluten-free mom who likes everything nice and tidy.


The Nazarians
Homemade blends of spices and tea

Sarah Nazarian actually doesn’t keep any food in her home’s pantry. Nazarian is the mother of five — Emery, Ruby, Mabry, Judah and Suzy — and her school-aged children attend Valor Preparatory Academy, where her husband, Jared, is the headmaster. It’s a university-model school, so on Tuesdays and Thursdays the kids are home-schooled. The closet which many families might have designated as their food pantry, the Nazarian family chose to use for school supplies. On its shelves, in place of flour and sugar, you’ll find things like workbooks, textbooks, readers, math games and Play-Doh. For the bulk of their food items, the Nazarians use the water heater closet in the utility room instead.

“It’s a little more functional for us,” Nazarian said. “I like our pantry being right off of the garage for bringing in groceries, and it’s closer to the fridge, so I like the setup. It’s worked out well.”

To make the space more functional, they added shelves along one wall and a wire shelving rack behind the door. Everything on the shelves is organized into sections — dry goods, produce, paper products, snacks, loose-leaf tea — and placed in wire and wicker baskets or glass jars and repurposed plastic restaurant containers.

“I like things to be in their place,” Nazarian said. “It doesn’t always happen as often as I’d like. I like [items] to have a home and then also so the kids can help put things away. I have them help unload groceries. That’s one of their jobs that they help with.”

The pantry is organized mainly for accessibility. Things that are grabbed frequently, like the fruit her children snack on, Nazarian tries to keep lower and within easy reach. Items for meals or ones that are used less often are stored higher. Canned goods are housed in a secondary pull-out cabinet next to the dishwasher, and Nazarian’s many spices and her homemade spice blends are in a cabinet next to the stove. Nazarian buys most of her spices in bulk from H-E-B and then transfers them from their plastic bags into one of her labeled spice jars when she gets home.

In addition to spice blends, she also makes her own tea blends.

“I feel like it tastes better, and it’s just fun to find out what everybody likes,” she said. “One of my daughters wakes up every morning and wants to pick out what kind of tea that we’re going to have. She’s just really into it. She’s used her own money to buy some teacups recently.”

Nazarian’s husband’s family is Armenian, and one of their go-to meals is a rice pilaf dish, so they always have plenty of chicken broth, rice and thin noodles on hand. Her other pantry staples are, of course, her spice blends, which she uses for everything from dips for the kids to a blackened salmon dish.

In the pantry is a brand-new chalkboard sign featuring the days of the week. Nazarian said she plans to use it to plan out meals.

“We go through a lot of food, and I feel like I have to think through that a lot more than maybe a family with just one or two kids.”

Armenian Rice Pilaf

  • 1/2 stick butter
  • 2 ounces angel hair pasta (about 1/8 of a package)
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 1 cup parboiled rice (such as Uncle Ben’s)

In a covered saucepan or Dutch oven set on medium heat, melt the butter. Once melted, add in the pasta, breaking the pasta into pieces about 3 inches long. Stir continually until pasta browns. Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Once boiling well, add in the rice. Cover and reduce to low heat. Simmer about 20 minutes, stirring halfway through, until all the liquid is absorbed. Makes 4-6 servings.

“We usually serve this with roasted or steamed vegetables and grilled chicken, steak or fish.”


The Daos
All the essentials for Asian cuisine

Kim Dao cooks Asian food, typically Vietnamese, practically every day. In order to do that, she has to make sure her pantry and cabinets are well stocked with all her essential ingredients.

“Fish sauce, soy sauce, oyster sauce, we use it all the time when we cook,” she said.

These sauces and several other large bottles all sit on the floor of the pantry next to a large white container that’s filled with rice. Above that is a shelf filled to the brim with different types of Asian noodles and several cans of Coco Rico, a coconut flavored soda. She uses both for different soups, including pho. The bags of soybeans she uses to make unprocessed soymilk.

“Obviously, the bucket of rice is on bottom because it’s the heaviest,” said Dao’s oldest son, Danny. “Then all the liquids she puts on the ground so they don’t break.”

Dao added, “I think I organize different than other people because I’m short.”

The Daos have been in their home for almost 30 years, and even though her three children, Danny, Cathy and David, are out of the house, her grocery list has stayed pretty much the same.

“We never really had snacks. It’s been always pretty healthy,” Danny said. “My mom was joking that we didn’t have sodas until I married my wife because she drinks two or three Cokes a day.”

Unfortunately, Waco doesn’t have an Asian food market, so some ingredients Dao has to stock up on when she can get to one. Rice, however, she buys in 25-pound bags from Sam’s Club.

“If the kids are here with us, we can use one [bag] in a month,” she said. “My husband, [Hai], and I, we use it longer.”

Wet seasonings for marinades are in the cabinet underneath the sink. In the cabinet next to the stove, Dao keeps her dry spices and blends. Some of her staple seasonings are chicken bouillon powder, turmeric, red chili flakes, star anise, five spice and annatto, which is mostly used for color.

“Spices are on the left side because it’s closer to her [when she’s cooking], so she can just taste and throw it in there,” Danny said. “The aromatics, she puts on the right.”

One dish Dao makes quite a bit is a vermicelli salad that’s made with marinated pork, lettuce, bean sprouts, sliced cucumbers, a fish sauce dressing and one of her many packages of vermicelli noodles. She also always has the ingredients and wrappers for spring rolls on hand. When she makes them, she makes about 100 at a time and simply freezes any leftovers.

“We’re Vietnamese, but she ventures out [into other cuisines] here and there,” Danny said. “She makes really good Korean short ribs.”

Vermicelli Salad
For the barbecued pork:

  • 1 pound pork shoulder, 3mm thin cut
  • 1 tablespoon garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons white sugar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon fish sauce
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon soy sauce
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon oil
  • Pinch of salt and pepper
  • 1 tablespoon caramel
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon lime juice

Mix all ingredients until combined. Cover and marinate in refrigerator for at least two hours, or overnight. Grill meat until a nice golden-brown color.

For the fish sauce dressing:

  • 2 tablespoon white sugar
  • 4 tablespoon hot water
  • 2 tablespoon fish sauce
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice
  • Chili, to taste, finely chopped
  • Garlic, to taste, finely chopped

In a small bowl, mix the sugar and hot water until sugar is dissolved. Add fish sauce, then lime juice. Mix well, then add chili and garlic.

For the salad:

  • 1 package (16 ounces) rice vermicelli noodles (prepare as directed on package)
  • Lettuce
  • Topping options: coriander, mint, pickled carrots, sliced cucumbers, bean sprouts, fried onions

To assemble, place lettuce, coriander, mint and then rice noodles in each bowl. Top with meat and pickled carrots, sprouts, onions and cucumbers. Spoon a generous amount of fish sauce dressing on top to taste. Makes about 6 servings.


The Shells
Gluten-free efficiency

Everything’s got its spot. I’m pretty finicky about it,” Heather Shell said.

The Shells’ pantry is about as close to Pinterest as a pantry can get when it’s actually used every day by a family of five. Shell and her husband, Jon, have two boys, J.J. and Jack, and a foster child.

“I like organization, and I like being able to find what I want to find. It’s easy, but then everybody in my house knows where to go to find whatever they’re looking for.”

Instead of using multiple kitchen cabinets, Shell keeps almost everything in the one location — spices, oils and sauces, canned goods, baking essentials, cookbooks, and plastic dishes for outside by the pool are all found in the pantry.

“If it’s used, let’s say every week or so, then it’s in the pantry somewhere,” she said. “All of our things that we use on a regular basis, you can easily get them in and out.”

Things likes snacks for the kids’ lunches, she takes out of their original boxes and packaging and places them in bins on the bottom shelf.

“I put them all in baskets, otherwise we’d just have stuff everywhere,” she said. “Plus, it makes it easy when I grab things for lunches. I just go — bum, bum, bum — and I make their lunch, so that makes it really easy for me.”

All snacks that she wants to be easily accessible for her kids and their friends she keeps down low and tries to keep well stocked. Anything like cookies or candy, she keeps on higher shelves so they’re not as readily available.

Juice boxes and drink containers also get a bin, as well as their lids, which are in a separate bin. Her husband added coat hooks on the wall so she can hang the occasional bag for unloading, and below that she has a stepstool for both her and the children.

Beyond simply liking things to be tidy, the Shells also need things to be organized for dietary reasons.

“J.J. and I, neither one of us can have gluten. I’m a Type I diabetic, and I have celiac disease, so no gluten for us,” Shell said. “We try really hard to make sure that things like Girl Scout Cookies just kind of stay in the corner. All the gluten things stay right here, so they don’t get mixed in. Everything else in here is gluten-free.”

The family cooks three to four nights a week as long as Jon isn’t out of town, and they also bake quite often since Shell and her son can’t have gluten. For snacks, her boys enjoy eating a lot of Luna bars, Fruit Roll-Ups and dried fruit.

One thing you won’t find in Shell’s well-organized pantry is labels.

“I’m not a label person,” she said. “I know where everything goes. That’s why I put everything away. The boys pretty much know where it goes, but I don’t think that Jon pays enough attention. That’s just not his thing, but he knows where to find the things he wants to eat.”

Company Potatoes

  • 1 bag hash browns (thawed)
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1 can cream of mushroom soup
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1 1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese, divided

Preheat oven to 425 F. Melt butter in bottom of 9-by-13-inch pan. Add remaining ingredients to the pan; save 1/2 cup of cheese to sprinkle on top. Mix all together, sprinkle remaining cheese on top. Bake for 45 minutes, or until golden brown on top.


Tips from the Expert

Jennifer Snyder
Certified Professional Organizer
Feeling inspired to tackle your own pantry? To get you started, here are a few do’s and don’ts to organizing your pantry from Neat as a Pin’s Jennifer Snyder.

Organize food into zones. “The zones I typically use in a pantry are cooking, baking, condiments, beverages, breakfast, snacks. When I organize a pantry, that’s what I do. Cooking is like noodles and sauces. Things you would use for dinner. If there’s canned goods, they’re in the cooking zone.”

Take individually wrapped items out of the box. “I also encourage that you take things that are packaged for individual use out of the big boxes — like fruit snacks or granola bars. Take those out of the box so you can see when it’s empty. I like to make a big snack bowl instead of having them in the little boxes.”

Don’t store food on the floor. “I see a lot of people put their food on the floor in the pantry. Even if the pantry has a door, you’re still kicking the dirt on your shoes under the door into the pantry, onto the food. I always recommend that the only thing that you store on the floor of your pantry is packs of soda, jugs of water, things that are heavy and are contained.”

Find a separate home for paper products. “If you have another place to put paper products — paper plates, extra paper towels — I would suggest that those live somewhere else instead of the pantry. If you have a smaller pantry, those take up a lot of space.

See what you have with clear containers. “If you buy cereal, you want to be able to see how much cereal is left in there. I always encourage clear containers in the pantry [for loose items like flour and rice]. And the bags, for example. You can buy beans in a bag, you can buy noodles in a bag, and bags don’t store well. You can’t stack anything on them, and when they get opened, you can’t really close them back up very well. If you buy dry goods in bags, move those to a container because the bags make a pantry look junky.”

Use labels to get organized and stay organized. “If you organize your pantry and you want your family to put things back where they go, you have to tell them where they go. You have to put the labels because repetition is the mother of skill. It makes it easier for everybody. And labels don’t have to be hard. You can buy a good label maker for 20 bucks. There are fancy labels that you can buy on Etsy. But they don’t have to be super fancy. If you have pretty handwriting, you could put a piece of Scotch tape on there with a Sharpie marker, and it’d be labeled just fine.”

Corral smaller items with bins. “I have one bin just for baking supplies — not the flour and the sugar — the vanilla, the chocolate chips, those kinds of things. When I bake, I can take that little bin out and put it where I’m working, do my stuff and then put the whole bin back. They don’t have to be clear, but if you can, have them all the same color with the least amount of shapes or holes, so they’re easier on the eye. And with the exception of onions and potatoes, I wouldn’t use baskets made out of natural fibers. You can’t clean it. It can’t stay sanitary. If your honey leaks, there’s nothing you can do about that. You’ve got to throw it away. You always want something that you can clean, whether it’s glass, plastic or metal.”

For a limited space, keep a limited inventory. “If you don’t have a lot of room, you can’t buy a lot of stuff. What you want to do is use what you have before you buy more. A lot of times, really small pantries or just a kitchen cabinet, they get so tall or they get so deep that you can’t see what’s back there, so I would get secondary shelves or put everything in a clear container. If you have uniform containers, you can stack them on top of one another and really see what’s in there. But the best thing people [with limited storage] can do is just use what they have on hand before they buy more.”

Put the kids’ snacks within reach. “Especially for little kids that are just learning to be self-sufficient, I always like to use an over-the-door sorter with clear plastic pockets. You can put down low the snacks that they’re welcome to go get on their own. Then the things you don’t want them to eat so much, like candy, that can be in a coffee canister way on the high shelf.”

Join the Conversation