Sunday, November 24, 2013

How to maximize a small kitchen pantry

Answer:  Rotate your expectations by ninety degrees.  I'll explain below, but as usual, you'll have to slog through my whole chain of logic as to why I made the kitchen pantry make-over decisions that I did.

My pantry struggle story goes like this.  When we were having our glorious neo-eclectic American tract home customized for us, I had to sacrifice what would have been the "real" kitchen pantry in order to accommodate this laundry center and this massive upright freezer

According to the architects' plans, this five-foot-wide space was supposed to be finished with floor to ceiling pantry shelves, but we had the builder install just a single electrical outlet here instead.  We moved in the freezer and added the laundry rack after we closed on the house.  
That left us with this miserable broom closet as the sole pantry-like feature in our kitchen:
Not only was it microscopic, it had a 24-inch door which cut off part of the width and precluded the use of any of the fancier space-maximizing retrofits such as slide-out shelving and baskets.  
That sketch you see above derives from Container Store's online closet design utility.  I have an Elfa Platinum rack on this pantry door, and initially I had high hopes that I could rip out the builder-installed shelves and re-do the space with a bunch of really efficient Elfa.
Container Store has a free design service whereby you can specify that needs to go in your pantry, and then they have a human at the other end make a sketch of suggested lay-out and email it to you. 

Screengrabbed from the Container Store website. 
Unfortunately, there was no great inspiration forthcoming from the design service that day.  I told them on the phone that I wanted to maximize every inch of this space... but I think they took one look at that tiny footprint and decided there just wasn't much that could be done to improve it, because this is what they sent me.  A bunch of typical shelves - basically what I already had. 
No use paying hundreds of dollars for what's obviously not a big improvement, so I started looking at the problem from other angles.
This is what it looked like before I began any work.  I tried hard to keep a really neat pantry, because only one thing can come from having a messy pantry: wasted food, because it goes stale before you can use it.  And with us buying mostly organic, wasted food equals big bucks down the drain.   
The primary reason why food goes stale and gets wasted in a disorganized pantry is that you simply can't see it.  Stuff piles up and gets blocked from view and you forget that it's even in there.  Even trying to keep the pantry relatively neat as shown above, this was still happening to me.
The secret is to keep all items fully visible.  I had been trying to achieve that by using a series of shelf organizers like this one shown above.  The problems with that approach were as follows:  (1) The shelf dividers were flimsy and couldn't bear a lot of weight.  The one shown above is sagging in the middle. 
And (2) the shelf organizers were all different shapes and sizes, just a jumble of different pieces of equipment that didn't work together well and didn't properly fit the available space. 
Here's the key thing to notice about that sagging shelf organizer above:  I had instinctively started to store much of my stuff on its side rather than standing up.  That's when the light bulb went off in my head - the prevailing paradigm is that foodstuffs are packaged and stored long axis top to bottom (in other words, everything is designed to stand upright).  But in a small pantry, that makes no sense.  In order to maximize the space, you have to store stuff with long axis front to back.  Otherwise, you're always going to have things blocking other things from direct view, setting you up for inefficient food management and waste. 

For this reason, I decided that the best course of action was to simply double the available shelving, with a twist.  Rather than ripping out the builder-installed shelves and putting in all new stuff, I needed to retrofit a solution.  No sense wasting perfectly good shelves that were already there. 

I first thought I could simply acquire a better set of shelf organizers to replace the jumble shown above.  But guess what??  They don't exist on the market.  Therefore, I effectively had to create my own.
Closet hack - literally.  I bought a bunch of Closet Maid components from Home Depot, and chopped it all to size with a hacksaw and some bolt cutters.  Closet Maid is just about the most inexpensive stuff on the market, and I wasn't intending to win any fashion awards with the inside of a kitchen pantry, so it was good enough for this purpose. 
My Aggie husband helped a bit with this project, but not much, because A&M was playing LSU as I was doing it.  But by the time that miserable game was over, he was wishing he had instead devoted his time to honey-do's. 

Here he's using a Dremel to smooth out the edges of the wire Closet Maid shelving I had cut with bolt cutters.  The Dremel is not strictly needed for this project, but it makes for a cool action shot. 
So this is how I did it - I installed 12" adjustable wire shelves in between each pair of the builder's fixed wooden shelving.  Note that there's only one screw visible in the down-rod segment above.  That's a 3-inch screw set into a wooden stud and there are three down-rods per wire sub-shelf, plus I'm not planning to put tons of weight on these, so this was sufficient for my purposes. 
I knew that this would work from a functional standpoint, but here's the part I did not anticipate:  It ended up looking oddly cohesive from a design standpoint.  Two different shelf styles, intermingled.  Go figure. 
I think that cohesion is happening because the eye needs some relief from all that shelving.  If it were all wood, it would end up being too dark and oppressive.  If it were all wire, you'd be able to see through the entire stack and it would be too cluttered.
View from a wider angle, a system of shelves and sub-shelves.  I gained almost twelve linear feet of shelving here - that's a massive improvement for such a small space. 

I left the bottom shelf undivided for upright storage of liquid containers.  I also store liquid products upright on the door rack.  Generally you don't want to store liquid foodstuffs on their sides (long axis front to back), because they might leak. 
I ended up with a closet that is 90 inches tall where most of the shelves are spaced less than six inches apart.  Which means that almost every dry good lays on its side, long axis front to back. 
The original wooden shelves are 16", but I chose 12" for all the wire sub-shelves.  The staggered depths also help with visibility and not making the combined shelves feel oppressive. 

Visibility is particularly important for the snack section of your pantry.  If family members can't see what's already open, they're liable to reach for a new bag of snack before the old one is consumed.  Waste. 
You can see from the photos above that I also store my containers butt end out, rather than cap end out.  I also store Pyrex containers of dry food upside down.  Again, it's all about visibility.  If I can automatically see what's in the containers, I can skip the effort of making labels and reading labels. 

Anyway, here's the before and after.
Remember that this is an actual real-life pantry, not a photo that has been cleverly staged for marketing purposes, so both appear to retain some unavoidable clutter.  At first glance, the changes don't appear to be significant.  The important thing to remember, though, is that there are well over one hundred items in this tiny pantry and, in the photo on the right, one achieves a clear view of every one of them without having to first move some other item out of the way.  That's not true in the photo on the left. 
What did this little food foray into efficiency cost me?  About $110.  I am quite sure I will save that much or more by avoiding future food waste.  The cost could actually have been reduced significantly if I had instead mounted the down-rods on more centralized wall studs, thus reducing the number of rods and corresponding brackets per shelf from three to two.  But I liked the appearance of having the shelves supported on both sides and the middle, so I added the extras.

On a final note, you can see that this pantry appears oddly lit in the photos above.  That's because we installed a pair of automatically-activated LED strips down the interior left side of it a few years ago (there wasn't sufficient clearance for a ceiling light). 
They are tucked behind the door frame and wired to an automatic on/off switch.  Pantry door opens, light comes on, just like in a refrigerator.   
The pantry was so small and dark that we knew from the outset that we needed all the help we could get with it.  Here below is the older vid of how that switch operates, and the link to my original pantry gripes

Happy retrofitting.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I'm forced to moderate comments because the spammers have become too much for me to keep up with. If you have a legitimate comment, I will post it promptly. Sorry for the inconvenience.