If you live in an older home dating from, say, the 1920s through the 1960s, chances are your kitchen pantry is inadequate. Some grand older houses have butler’s pantries, where final prep was performed before service. But I’m talking about those catch-all kitchen closets where one keeps canned food, paper goods, spices and such.

As I write this, we are revamping the kitchen pantry in our 1920s Montrose house. It’s a tiny space that we carved out of a linen closet that previously served the bathroom on the other side of the wall. It’s not a “walk-in pantry” by any means – more of a “step-one-foot-in pantry.”

Here’s a little bit of the vast quantity of stuff that the pantry must accommodate.

When we started the project about a week ago, it was a challenge to figure out how to maximize the pantry’s usefulness. The major work-around was the 30-gallon metal trash can in which we store kibble for three large dogs. We set it on a plant caddy (like a square skateboard) so that we can easily roll it out at chow time. The space we had to allow for the dog food, however, is nearly half of the cubic footage of the pantry.

The kibble trash can

How to configure the remaining space to make it as useful as possible? Probably like you, I turned to Instagram for inspiration, but there were surprisingly few good ideas. I’ll just say that (1) Instagram’s idea of a “small” pantry and mine are very different, and (2) there is a lot of really silly stuff on Instagram.

But in the course of the past week, I did figure out a few things for creating a functional and attractive space. Perhaps you will find some of these tips as useful as we have.

  • As much as possible, choose drawers or sliding shelves. They are more expensive to build and install than fixed shelves, but 10 times more useful. Ask anyone who keeps their cooking gear in big kitchen drawers how much better it is than poorly lit below-counter cupboards. My wager: Try drawers or sliders, and you’ll never go back to fixed shelves.
Sliding shelves or shallow drawers are much more useful than fixed shelves.
  • Choose solid shelves over epoxy-coated wire shelves. I used to think that coated wire shelves somehow presented an obstacle to insects that might find their way into the house. Uh, no. Bugs jump, fly, flit, crawl and basically go wherever they like. In the meantime, small things fall through or fall over on those coated wire units. I’ve had them in the past in my utility room and grew to hate them.
  • Don’t forget to make use of the back of the pantry doors. The most obvious use is to install spice racks here: Open the door(s), and your spices are conveniently arranged right in front of your nose. (As you know, spices should be stored in a dark, dry and temperate spot, so the pantry is perfect – much preferable to hanging the spice rack near the stovetop, for example.) But, depending on your space, you could also use the back of the door to hang potholders, wraps – e.g. aluminum foil, plastic cling and wax paper – or a plastic bag holder for the supermarket bags that sometimes come home with you whether you ask for them or not.
  • Our pantry has an awkward little appendage to the main area, something like a tiny bottom of an “L.” This area had to have fixed shelves, as there was no room to pull out a shelf or drawer. The carpenter suggested putting a lip on all of these shelves so that things do not easily fall or slide off. Great idea!
  • Use clear containers – glass is nicest, though more expensive than plastic – for pasta, flours, sugars, rice and such. You can tell at a glance how much product you have and won’t be surprised when you grab a package and find only a few crumbs in the bottom. Stagger the height of the containers so the tallest goes in the rear and the shortest in front. You can still see everything.
  • For durability, we covered all vertical sheetrock surfaces inside the pantry with beadboard wainscoting. It’s been primed, and this week it will be painted with a semi-gloss white. The hard semi-gloss surface will be much easier to wipe clean and maintain than a matte, satin or eggshell finish.

The new pantry will be finished this week, and I am looking forward to the luxury of proper storage at last. The final detail will be the pair of brass pulls – oversized and shaped like fish – that we found a couple years ago at Houston Historic Salvage Warehouse. They will be installed on the pantry doors.

Oversized brass fish pulls will add whimsy to the double pantry doors