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While cleaning out the pantry at my father-in-law’s farmhouse, I found a massive collection of old glass jars. It was incredible: Mason jars in every shape and size, ancient spice jars, old-fashioned milk jugs! Most had already been carefully stripped of their labels, cleaned, and still had their original lids.
It felt like a gift from the universe. My kitchen at home was a mess, and I had been thinking of scouring junk shops for some jars. It started with a suggestion from a friend who was trying to reduce her household trash, followed by a tip in Sara Kiyo Popowa’s Bento Power cookbook, in which Popowa talks about her own jar-hoarding tendencies. Finding this treasure trove of jars was the subtle hint from the universe that I needed to get my own pantry in order.
How I Organized my Pantry with Upcycled Jars
Armed with my (free!) set of sustainable storage containers, I ruthlessly attacked my kitchen. I took everything out of my cabinets and lined up the contents on the counter, tossing anything that had obviously gone bad or looked questionable. Then I started sorting.
My kitchen has four cabinets that are accessible for everyday use, each with two shelves, so I divided my pantry into four categories: herbs and spices; oils and condiments; nuts, grains, and legumes; and canned goods and specialty items. Next came the fun part, which was choosing the right-size jar for every item that wasn’t already in one.
I set aside the smallest jars for herbs, spices, and seeds. Cinnamon sticks were taken out of their pouch and went in a tall, skinny jar that had once held pickled asparagus. Oddly-shaped items like dried limes and my chili pepper collection went into jam and pickle jars. Quart-sized canning jars were used for things like dried beans, quinoa, and chocolate chips. Starches, loose tea, and leftover quantities of specialty flours went in pint-sized canning jars. I saved all of the largest jars for the items I keep on hand in large quantities: flour, rice, oats, sugar.
Armed with painter’s tape and a sharpie, I labeled everything. I stood in front of my pristine pantry in awe of the impact that a few dozen glass jars could have. I stored the rest of my jar haul in a cabinet under the sink, organized by size, with the smallest jars in the front and the largest in the back.
All the Things That Changed When I Switched to Upcycled Jars
Over the next few weeks, I started incorporating these into my everyday kitchen routine. When I had an odd half-cup of a sauce left over, I put it in a jar, labeled it, and placed it prominently in the refrigerator. I honestly don’t know why, but I soon found that I was more likely to use up a leftover if it was in a jar than if it was in a different storage container. A little silly, I know.
Homemade fruit syrups went into old maple syrup jugs, and nut milks and cold brew went into glass milk jugs. Pickle jars became aesthetic containers for pre-made lunches. I did, in fact, like Popowa, start keeping little two-ounce jars of spiced nuts and chocolate in my tote bag as an emergency snack. Putting away leftovers and bulk-purchased groceries became a creative endeavor, rather than a chore.
To say that upcycling jars changed my life might sound like an exaggeration, but as someone whose life revolves around their kitchen, it’s had a major impact one year later. Not only does it help maintain a sense of order in my often chaotic kitchen, but it also helps keep sustainability at the forefront of my mind. If I have the option to bulk-purchase a grocery item and forego some single-use plastic, I do it because I know that I have plenty of packaging at home.