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Originally published Wednesday, October 31, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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45 minutes to an organized pantry

How to clear out the clutter in less than an hour.

Special to The Seattle Times

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When my father passed away in 1991, there were cases of Campbell's soup purchased prior... MORE

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I'll never forget the time I found a half-empty box of orzo in the back of my pantry that was four years past the expiration date. I was mortified that it had been so long since I did a thorough cleaning of one of the most-used spaces in my home, but I was also relieved it wasn't worse. (A friend swore me to secrecy about a 10-year-old can of green beans she once found.)

Regardless of the size of your pantry, keeping it organized can save you time when it comes to meal planning and preparation by allowing you to easily see what you have on hand and how much of it you have. You'll also save money by no longer buying duplicates of items you already have and by reducing waste associated with expiring food that's been buried under a year's worth of snack packs.

But if opening the pantry door to exploding shelves strikes fear in your heart (or is, at least, somewhat overwhelming), take refuge in the knowledge that cleaning up the chaos doesn't have to be a six-hour project. Gather as many tools as you can beforehand — baskets in various sizes, clear jars or airtight containers, shelf dividers, over-the-door shoe organizers, lazy Susans — and you can tackle this project in less than an hour.

Start with a clean slate

Begin by pulling everything out of the pantry and placing it all on the table or counter. As you work, glance at expiration dates and toss anything past its prime. Make a donation pile for unopened items you won't realistically use or don't want (such as random food gifts or baby food you no longer need). Once the pantry is completely cleared out, quickly wipe down shelves with a damp rag.

Total time: 10 minutes.

Create zones

Rather than organizing items by container shape or size, group them by category to create easy-to-navigate zones. Using this approach, all breakfast foods (such as oatmeal, cereal, peanut butter, syrup, bread and bagels) are placed together on a shelf, as are snacks, pastas and grains, baking goods and canned goods. Do this as you're emptying the pantry to give you a better idea of how much space you'll need for each zone and to save time as you put things away in their new homes.

To keep shelves as tidy as possible, place products like cereals, pastas and grains in clear, airtight containers, preferably of the same shape to utilize space. This will prevent all those half empty boxes and bulk bags from piling up and allow you to easily see when your stock is getting low. Use baskets to corral individually wrapped items that are in the same zone, such as granola bars, fruit leather and applesauce cups (creating a snack basket for kids).

Remember to place the categories you most frequently use around shoulder level for easiest access. Items you rarely use or appliances that are stored in the pantry can be placed on the top or bottom shelf.

Total time: 30 minutes.

Label shelves

Once everything has found a home, print labels and place them on the front of each shelf. This is essential to keeping your pantry organized longer. (Other family members are more likely to put the cereal back on the correct shelf if it's labeled as such. Make it easy for them and protect your hard work.)

Total time: 5 minutes.

Andrea Dashiell is a freelance writer.

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