Search "pantry organization" on Pinterest and you'll get pages and pages of images of perfectly arranged, color-coordinated shelves—all filled with healthy ingredients and snacks, of course. It's pretty, but let's be real: The amount of time it takes to get a pantry looking like that versus the time it takes for an average family to mess it up again is disproportionate. Pantries are designed to hold food, and as such, should serve function first. Not all organization styles are right for everyone if they don't fit your lifestyle. And besides, who doesn't have a bag of half-eaten tortilla chips shoved in there? Those salty triangles don't exactly transfer well into a tall, slim, elegant glass vessel.
Where did our obsession with these clear containers come from, anyway? Netflix's The Home Edit and Tidying Up with Marie Kondo have a lot to do with it, sparking a wave of previously disorganized watchers to run to shops like The Container Store (Marie Kondo even released her own line for them!) and begin transferring every possible pantry item to an alternative receptacle.
Why Clear Storage Containers Are a Good Idea
Clear storage containers do have their virtues, of course. For one, they are key to getting your pantry in Pinterest-worthy, uniform shape, if that's what you're going for. On a more practical level, they enable you to more easily see what you have and what you're running out of (i.e., no more going to pour cereal for your three kids and realizing there's only half a bowl's worth left).
Another plus is that if you splurge on vacuum-sealed containers, they help tremendously in keeping your food fresh, says Kati Wadsworth, a professional organizer in Florence, Ala. That, in turn, helps reduce food waste, which is a good thing. Also, because they're greener than plastic baggies, they also (hopefully) help you cut down on your single-use plastic use. (Read our guide to making your containers last as long as possible to ensure you're keeping them in tip-top shape.)
There's always a flip side, though. For one, clear storage containers can require a decent investment up front. The high-quality pieces don't come cheap. For example, our favorite five-piece OXO set is around $50, while a 20-piece set from the same brand, which you might need to outfit your entire pantry, is more than $275. The satisfaction you feel from popping open a tightly sealed, aesthetically pleasing container has to outweigh the eye-popping money you're spending on them. But some argue the investment is worth it if you'll continue to use them for the long term.
The price says nothing of the cost of your time you'll spend actually putting the storage containers to use, too. Buying groceries, unloading them and putting them away is time-consuming enough; when you're adding the extra step of "decanting" new items from their packages into storage containers, it can feel like even more of a hassle, says Wadsworth.
One more thing to consider is the safety of clear storage containers. The best food storage containers are made from glass, because you avoid the risk of having potentially hazardous chemicals from plastic leak into your food, says Adrienne Nolan-Smith, founder of WellBe. Always look for the words "BPA free" on the packaging, as this chemical is still used in some hard plastic food containers.
If you have your heart set on clear storage containers, here are a few tips to make them work better for you.
Take inventory before you buy.
Make a list of the items you’re planning to store in your clear storage containers, as well as the quantity you’d like to keep on hand. This helps ensure that you get containers that are the right fit, advises Wadsworth. There’s nothing as annoying as filling up a container with three-quarters of a box of spaghetti noodles and not knowing what to do with the remainder. (Hint: Clear storage containers and nearly-empty boxes together does not make for a pretty, organized-looking pantry).
Measure your storage space.
Next, measure your shelves (or drawers) before buying containers to ensure you’re getting the right sizes to maximize the space.
When you add food to a container, use a dry erase marker to write the expiration date of that food directly on the container. That way you won’t forget how old a particular item is (since you’ll be losing its packaging) and can use it up before it gets stale. If you'd rather make beautiful custom labels for your storage containers—they are on display, after all—the Cricut crafting machine will work wonders.
Keep recipes and instructions close by.
Similarly, before recycling the original packaging, be sure to save any cooking instructions. You can cut them out and tape them to the back, bottom or lid of the container to help you remember things like how long to cook your rice.
Work with what you already have.
Instead of splurging on a new set, look at what containers you already have and how you can make them work. For example, our house is overflowing with Mason jars. Not only are these jars glass (so they’re extra sturdy, and also wash up well in the dishwasher), they come in a variety of sizes, and you can pick up a set of interchangeable plastic lids on Amazon for less than $10.
Wash them regularly.
Don’t forget to wash your containers regularly, especially if you’re reaching for them often. Hands touching the containers and lids can easily introduce germs to whatever food is inside. Most containers are dishwasher safe, but take care to let them air dry completely before adding anything inside. Just a few drops of water can cause a whole bag of sugar to clump up.