Today, I’m doing something unusual: I’m opening up my pantry, fridge, and freezer to show you my favorite kitchen management hacks! These are all solutions that I’ve learned to save money, reduce food waste, and generally keep a happier, healthier kitchen.
When I first started cooking, there were two big barriers I had to overcome: the expensive practice of wasting food, and the frustrating feeling of not having what I needed on hand.
If you have a wasteful kitchen, you’ll eventually convince yourself that it’s cheaper just to eat at restaurants, which Michael Pollan (and many others) says is unhealthy, especially over time.
(PS — His book Cooked is a great summer read if you’re wanting to start cooking more.)
If you don’t have a well-stocked pantry and fridge, cooking involves a lot more effort, because you have to go get each ingredient for each meal — which means you might burn out and stop doing it as often.
However, if you develop a good system, as I have tried to do over the last 5 or so years, for managing your kitchen, cooking becomes the cheaper, healthier, more sustainable alternative to eating at restaurants or getting takeout.
In general, when it comes to maintaining a happy kitchen, simplicity, thoughtful organization, and effective visualization are key. Note: By visualization, I do not mean having everything on your counter. I mean finding ways to clearly communicate your inventory, so that you stop leaving produce to die at the back of the shelf, or buying spices you already have (and forgetting ones you need). Here are some of my favorite kitchen management solutions that save money, time, and effort in the kitchen.
1. before anything else: download the clear app
This simple, user friendly app changed the game for me in terms of grocery shopping. Essentially, Clear is a list-making app. I use it for everything, from organizing my Saturday to-dos to remembering all my co-workers’ regular coffee orders. It’s especially helpful if you seem to always forget that one thing.
Because I like to visit a few grocery stores to get the best deals/quality of food, it’s especially important for me to stay organized. In my Clear app, I have a Trader Joe’s list, a Whole Foods list, and a Target list. Whenever I think of anything that I want to get whenever I’m at any of those stores, I just add it to the list. Then when I’m there, I pull up the list for that store and know exactly what I need. Since I only go to Trader Joe’s about once every two weeks, and Target about once a month, it really helps to have a running list — so I never forget my dark chocolate almonds at Trader Joe’s, or that weird spice I wanted to get from Whole Foods, or paper towels at Target where they’re cheapest.
Get this app. It’s $4.99 in the app store, and it’s worth every penny.
2. go nuts for (thoughtful) storage solutions (and buy in bulk)
Oh goodness, I love these OXO containers. They’re an investment, but definitely a worthy one if you value the aesthetic and organization of your pantry. I was lucky enough to find them on sale at TJ Maxx/HomeGoods last year, so I stocked up!
Here’s why they rock: They pop open with the push of a finger, and are easy to stack, mix, and match in any cabinet or pantry. I use the bigger containers for all my baking ingredients, and the medium-sized and smaller ones for nuts, which I use almost every day as snacks and salad toppers. Here is my current inventory:
- Raw walnuts
- Raw pine nuts
- Raw almonds
- Lightly salted and roasted peanuts
- Raw macadamia nuts
- Raw cashews
- Golden raisins
These containers have actually helped me save money, because I now buy my nuts in bulk. Once you realize how much cheaper nuts are in bulk, it’ll be hard to go back — raw almonds and walnuts at Sprouts, for example, are $6 a pound — much better than the usual $9-12 I’d pay otherwise! I buy as much as I need to keep the containers stocked.
It’s very easy to see when you’re running low on something. Just add it to your list on your Clear app, and you’ll be able to keep these pantry staples stocked.
3. use mason jars to reduce waste
Of course, if you aren’t quite ready to invest in some serious storage, you can make use of one of the South’s greatest inventions: the mighty mason jar. Sure, they’re a bit overdone in their stereotypical Pinterest uses — but this glass jar with a lid is undeniably one of the most multi-functional tools you can have in your kitchen. I’d recommend starting with a set of the normal pint-sized jars, as well as a set of smaller jelly jars. Here are some ways I commonly use mason jars to save money and time, and reduce waste:
- Salad dressings: Pour all ingredients into mason jar. Screw on lid. Shake shake shake. Keep in your fridge for a week’s worth of dressings or pack it in your lunch box for a portable salad.
- Snacks: My herby bourbon bar nuts store perfectly in mason jars. I carry a jar of walnuts in my bag for emergency protein — this way, they don’t get all crushed and spill into my bag like they would if they were in a Ziploc bag. Same goes for fruit, like blueberries, which are easily smushed in baggies.
- BYO Coffee: I like to have an iced coffee attached to my body at all times. At work, we have coffee, but we only have a few cubes of a ice at a time (not enough to make a proper iced coffee). Usually, this means that I have to walk to Starbucks and pay for a giant iced coffee. On my better days, I remember to bring some of the coffee I brew at home in one mason jar, and unsweetened vanilla almond milk in another. I plop a few ice cubes in the coffee with a splash of almond milk, and have the iced coffee that my hearts wants (instead of lukewarm Keurig coffee).
- Keep drinks fresh: I’m notorious for starting drinks and not finishing them. Usually, that means a pour of bourbon or wine goes down the drain (major sad face). Using a mason jar as your cup, you can simply put a lid on it and keep it alive to fight another day. Yay! Store wine in the fridge, bourbon in a cool, dark place. You can also use a mason jar as a to-go cup for picnics or kickball games.
- Chia pudding or overnight oats: Pour all ingredients into your jar. Screw on lid. Shake shake shake. Pop in the fridge and enjoy your to-go breakfast.
- Desserts: Mason jar desserts are hyper-adorable, let’s face it. Use the smaller jelly jars as containers for chocolate mousse, yogurt parfaits, etc.
4. oh, honey — the exception to the no gizmos rule
Generally, I try to avoid buying specialty gizmos. For any given problem, there’s almost always a simpler solution that doesn’t take up any additional cabinet space. This mason jar honey spoon, however, is worth the purchase. Instead of dirtying a new spoon each time I want honey (aka all the time), I just remove the lid and have a honey spoon built-in, ready to give me a perfect drizzle of local honey goodness. The local honey that I buy is sold in mason jars, so it fits like a glove. Buy the honey dipper here.
5. the holy grail of spice drawers
I’m only kind of exaggerating when I say that this spice drawer is one of the greatest accomplishments of my life. It’s so…. relaxing. After years of being frustrated with an ugly, mismatched, inefficient spice drawer, I decided to tackle this head-on. With a label maker, these wonderful hexagon-shaped jars, my extremely patient boyfriend, and a funnel, I created the spice drawer of my dreams on a particularly crafty snow day. Storing them upside-down showcases all the pretty colors, and is another example of visual inventory management: it’s easy to see what I’m running low on (add it to the Clear list!).
You can also buy spices in bulk, which is a lot easier if you have somewhere to put them (i.e., cute jars). The savings are insane: Instead of a $4 jar of garlic powder, I spent $.97 at Sprouts this week for a full jar’s worth. Winning! And no ugly plastic spice jars to deal with — better for my pantry’s aesthetic and the environment.
Those metal, double-sided, interlocking (actually, magnetic) measuring spoons are another big win. With one spoon, you can measure out your wet and dry ingredients without cross-contamination. The longer end of the tablespoon also fits into most spice jars — which is very uncommon for a tablespoon. Buy them here.
6. keep salt within arm’s reach
This trifecta sits by my stove at all times — fine salt, coarse salt, and crushed red pepper. It’s so easy to grab an appropriately-sized pinch! I use the fine salt for things like soups, and the coarse salt for roasting (especially veggies). The crushed red pepper is used more for serving — sprinkled on top of veggies, farro risotto, or Italian-inspired chicken dishes.
7. susan-ize hard-to-reach shelves
Here’s the thing about vinegars and oils: You very rarely need more than one of either for a recipe. It’s usually either apple cider vinegar, or balsamic, or rice wine, or what have you. Thereby, you only need to reach one at a time. Before installing these lazy susans, I had to remove 2-7 unwanted vinegars, oils, and sauces before I reached the one I wanted. Then, I shoved them all back in there, in no particular order, only to have to repeat the process the next time I cooked.
With these shelves “susan-ized”, it’s so easy to get exactly the thing I want, without having to touch anything that I don’t. With literally one finger, I spin the susan around until I find what I need. Easy peasy. I also found these at TJ Maxx/HomeGoods. You can buy them on Amazon here.
8. visualize your inventory
I wish I could say I do this consistently, but really, it’s only when I know I really need to — like when I picked up this week’s CSA, and realized that I still have half of last week’s batch to go through. When the need arises, I write down every perishable thing that needs to get eaten, generally in the order of their expiration. This makes meal planning and grocery runs easier, because I know what I do and do not have. You can use a whiteboard, notepad, or your Clear app for this. I like to use this little whiteboard because when I’m deciding what to cook, it’s right there and I don’t have to open my phone (with my dirty kitchen hands) to make use of it.
9. freeze your carbs
Ooh, this is a good one. Whether you eat bread all the time or just once a month, freeze it — it keeps it fresh and will almost guarantee that you’ll waste less of it.
My freezer stays stocked with a good variety of quick carbs — whole grain frozen waffles, brown rice pouches from Trader Joe’s (which cook in 3 minutes!), organic sprouted grain bread, and yes, cookies.
The waffles are a great quick breakfast with some peanut or almond butter, while the brown rice and bread are awesome quick carbs for speedy post-workout meals.
Keeping cookies in the freezer is awesome, because when you’re craving a dessert, you have one there waiting for you — but you don’t necessarily have to eat the whole batch, as you would if you baked a batch of cookies or bought a box in a store and left them on your counter. These BPA-free quart-sized deli containers are awesome for everything from freezing soups to cookies. Be sure to label everything so you know what’s what.
10. practice effective banana management
I like to eat bananas raw, but it’s nice to have frozen ones for shakes too — if you’re in the same boat, get into the habit of freezing your bananas (cut in half, peeled of course) once they start to turn brown. These can also be thawed and used for banana breads! Or peanut butter-banana-oatmeal breakfast cookies, like you saw in my freezer. Recipe to come.
11. grow your own herbs
Herbs can be the difference between a basic meal and a simplistic, rustic one. Consider, for example, the difference between some noodles with Ragu plopped onto them, vs. a pasta with tomato sauce, freshly torn basil, and crushed red pepper. Or between baked chicken and rosemary baked chicken. I use herbs in almost every meal, so it stopped making sense to buy them in small, overpriced packages. Be sure you learn up on how to do it properly though — not all herbs play nicely together, and there is some (minimal) effort involved in keeping them not looking like awkward teenagers.
let’s talk kitchen management!
What are your favorite kitchen hacks? Share them in the comments below! I can’t wait to read them. ❤