Tackling one of your kitchen's toughest organizing challenges is simple once you're armed with advice from the professionals.

By Blythe Copeland
January 11, 2021
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Your support-local-restaurants takeout habit, your well-intentioned New Year's resolution to pack your lunch, and your recently-discovered love for cooking at home can all lead to an influx of small food storage containers in your kitchen. This, in turn, leads to the nearly impossible task of keeping all those containers organized. "This is really a universal challenge," says Lisa Zaslow of Gotham Organizers. "The pace of change for these containers is practically daily, and if you don't put things back in the exact right spot, things get chaotic." Keep everything from your smallest dressing container to your largest tub for leftovers organized in just four easy steps.

Credit: Annie Schlechter

See what you have.

Before investing in new containers or even deciding where to keep the ones you already have, collect every piece you can find—those in your cabinets, on the lunchbox shelf, storing last night's pasta in the refrigerator, in the dishwasher—and analyze your lot. "Food storage containers seem to multiply like fruit flies," Zaslow says. "They sneak into our homes when we order takeout and when we take home leftovers, and lids and bottoms seem to get tossed at different rates." Pair as many containers with their lids as you can, and then weed out the extras. "When organizing anything, the first step is to clear out clutter!" says Zaslow. "Get rid of any unmatched pieces, any that are past their prime, and any you don't like." This includes saying a guilt-free goodbye to extra takeout containers you know you won't use. "Those are made to be temporary," says Zaslow. "It doesn't have as good of a seal as something you would buy. You probably already have something better, so let it go."

Decide what you need.

The next step is to figure out exactly how many containers you need, as well as what purposes you need them to serve: Do you have leftovers to pack up after dinner every night? How many people in your family use food storage containers at lunch? Do you need glass containers for reheating extra food, or lightweight, easily-replaceable plastic for the kids' lunches (or both)? "The quantity can make it difficult to keep them organized," says Neitra Rose of Organizing Lifestyles. "A household only needs one, maybe two sets of leftover containers, depending on the size of the family." Zaslow recommends a simple trick for figuring out how many containers you use regularly: Put a small piece of masking tape on the bottom of each container, and take the tape off as you use each piece. "After a couple of weeks," she says, "anything that still has tape on it can probably be let go."

Complete your collection.

You may have so many containers and lids already that you don't need to buy any new pieces, but for many of the organizers' clients, investing in a complete set—designed to save space—pays off in the long run. "The fewer different types and sizes of container you have, the easier it is to organize them and the less space they take up," says Zaslow. Sets that stack or nest, collections with mix-and-match lids, and store-flat containers all help you maximize your space. "For your lunch containers, get a different color for each family member," says Rose. "Everyone knows which set is theirs, and if something comes up missing or accidentally left somewhere, then you will be able to identify what needs to be replaced."

Create a system.

Designing an organizing system for your food storage containers starts with designating specific spots for each category. "When everyone in the house is putting things in different places, it is an indication that there isn't a specific home for something," says Rose. "Does everyone go to the same place to get a box of cereal, and, when they finish with cereal, do they place it back where it belongs? [The] same concept should apply to your storage containers." If you plan to use pieces interchangeably for on-the-go snacks or lunches and at-home food storage, keep them all in the same drawer or cabinet; if you've specified containers for different activities, store them separately (for example: lunch containers with lunchboxes, glass storage pieces in the cabinet by the refrigerator). "Depending on the space you have available, it's usually easier to keep [lids and bottoms] together so you don't have to match them up when you go to use them," says Zaslow. "Arrange containers to fit your space, putting in the largest ones first, and fitting the smaller ones around them. Nest and stack related containers as much as possible." Small cabinet shelves maximize vertical space, while baskets that corral containers and lids in your cabinets are especially easy for kids to navigate.

And if the organizing breakdown in your home comes from family members who can't be bothered to stack the pieces neatly when they unload the dishwasher, Zaslow has a trick for that, too: "Some people need to see a demo to realize how easy and quick it is to put things away in an organized manner," she says. "I've used the timer on my phone to show clients that it really doesn't take much time! And if you can get them to think about the time and stress it causes when you have to get a container and it's hard to find, that can help motivate them to change their habits."

This story originally appeared on marthastewart.com