The Key to Making Healthier Food Choices? Smart Kitchen Organization—Here's Where to Start

These pantry, fridge, and freezer tips make healthy eating easier.

Organised Pantry Items With Variety of Nonperishable Food Staples And Preserved Foods in Jars On Kitchen Shelf.
Photo: iStockphoto/Getty Images

It's 4:30 p.m., and you're hungry. Lunch was hours ago, and dinner seems eons away. You head to the kitchen for a snack knowing there's a pineapple in the fruit bin—but then you'd need to get out a cutting board and giant knife to eat it. That's a lot of effort. You could also search your pantry for that last protein bar that's buried among the snacks, but who even knows where it is? But when you open the fridge, there's a conveniently placed leftover piece of cake. Yep, cake it is!

Cake is great. You are allowed to eat cake and truly enjoy it. But your body does require variety—a reasonable balance of disparate, nutrient-loaded, energy-packed foods—in order to feel good and function well. If you're reaching for goodies like cake every single time your stomach growls, you're missing out on opportunities to feed your body with other valuable goodies, too (like fiber, protein, probiotics, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals).

The Secret to Making Balanced Food Choices

How can you make it easier to choose something like fresh fruit over cake (again)? The answer may be less about what foods you keep in the fridge or pantry and more about how and where you store it. "We tend to gravitate toward what's easy and in front of us," says Chelsea Stegman, MS, RD, LD, CPT, who explains that a disorganized kitchen can feel overwhelming. "If finding kitchen gadgets or nutrient-dense foods seems like a timely, uphill battle, we'll most likely feel overwhelmed, which might lead to us making the 'easy' choice, which is often not a real, home-cooked meal."

"When your kitchen is a disaster, and you can't find anything when you're hungry, you're [probably] going to eat whatever you can grab first," agree Brandie Larsen and Ryan Eisland, professional organizers and co-founders of Home Sort. With a show on The Design Network and a line of organizing products with mDesign, no one understands this more than these busy moms and entrepreneurs.

When it comes to eating well, extreme (and unhealthy!) measures like counting calories, eliminating entire food groups, or obsessively reading food labels usually aren't the answer. Instead, you can simply start by rearranging your kitchen shelves. Here are Eisland and Larsen's smart organization strategies to make nutrient-packed food choices even more convenient than opening a bag of chips.

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Create functional zones.

While there are many savvy ways to organize a kitchen, Larsen and Eisland suggest creating zones according to how you use the space. "Each zone should have a specific type of item. For example, we store spices and oils together and keep those located near where you're cooking," Larsen says. The key to creating functional zones is to store items as closely as possible to where you use them. For example, store oven mitts next to the stove/oven and cutting boards adjacent to the knives. This way, even if a nutritious food item or recipe does call for a few minutes of prep, the task of chopping, washing, or seasoning will feel far less daunting.

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Maximize the freezer.

It's so important to have a tidy, well-ordered freezer, especially if you tend to freeze leftovers. If you're trying to make good-for-you choices in general, prepping and storing healthy, pre-made eats in freezer-safe containers is a more convenient, nutritious, and faster option than hitting the apps and waiting for delivery.

"An organized freezer full of commonly used items is a must, especially when you're busy," Stegman says. "It's best to keep frozen vegetables and protein stocked for in between grocery visits, when you aren't buying these items fresh."

RELATED: Want to Start Eating for Better Brain Health? Here's How to Stock Your Pantry, Fridge, and Freezer

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Hack the pantry: Place healthy bites front and center.

An organized pantry is also essential—it's where most of us keep snacks and shelf-stable goods. "People make healthy food choices when healthy food is accessible," say Larsen and Eisland, so putting the healthiest snacks in the back of the cabinet so they're not in your immediate line of sight, and so you have to spend time looking for them, isn't conducive to a grab-and-go lifestyle. "Make sure you're utilizing the space well and making the things you want to grab quickly and easily accessible to get," Eisland adds. And not just accessible, but more accessible than the less-nutritious, eat-in-moderation treats. Place powerhouse munchies like nuts, seeds, nut butters, dried fruits, oatmeal, protein bars, seed crackers, crispy chickpeas, and more, "front and center, so you don't have to search," she says.

To make your life even easier, Larsen and Eisland also suggest organizing your pantry in zones. Cluster like items together, and "[s]tore the stuff you use every day in one spot and the things you need less often somewhere else."

RELATED: 3 Strategic Ways to Organize Your Snacks

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Decant your foods to streamline and declutter storage spaces.

Decanting food—the step of putting both fresh and shelf-stable items into new, often clear containers—has become more popular thanks to social media. While it looks Pinterest-pretty, decanting also serves a smart purpose: providing visibility, a longer shelf-life, and easier access to nourishing, satisfying foods.

Larsen suggests cutting up unwieldy produce (like pineapple, cantaloupe, and watermelon) as soon as you get home from the supermarket and storing the fresh-cut cubes or slices into tightly wrapped, air-tight food containers near the front of the fridge. After all, it's easy to forget that fruits and veggies are an option (and to let them spoil and waste your money!) when they're stored in the bottom back corner of the produce drawer. And since it can be a challenge to motivate yourself to slice and peel produce when you're hungry or busy, taking some time upfront to make your life easier in the future can be a real game-changer.

Most cut-up fruits and veggies should last up to a week in the fridge if stored well in an air-tight container (give it a sniff to make sure it's still safe to nosh on, if it's been a few days and you're unsure). While slicing and decanting certain types of fresh produce might technically shorten their lifespan (compared to storing them uncut on the counter—watermelon, for example), doing so can actually be smart way to incentivize yourself to reach for it sooner.

RELATED: The Secret to Storing Every Type of Fruit and Vegetable

Decanting can be a good step toward avoiding unnecessary food waste as well. While stocking up on containers can be an initial investment, your food will ultimately stay fresher for a longer—helping you save a little money and cut down on food waste overall. (Here are some of our all-time favorite food-storage containers.)

Eisland and Larsen also recommend decanting shelf-stable foods into clear jars (they like these airtight glass containers with bamboo tops from mDesign). Sustainably made and stackable, cylindrical vessels like these maximize vertical space. If you keep your pantry well-stocked, it's easier to spot healthy dinner staples like beans, brown rice, and whole wheat pasta in jars.

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