Spring Clean Your Healthy Pantry

Open kitchen cupboard


Open kitchen cupboard

Photo by: Margaret Edwards

Margaret Edwards

Open kitchen cupboard

None of us want to admit to stocking in our cupboards canned food dating back to the last century. Or how ’bout those spices produced by food companies that have long since gone out of business? Well, it’s time to get rid of the old — and the potentially harmful — and whip your pantry into tiptop shape. Rev up your cupboards with wholesome ingredients and you’ll increase your pantry’s potential for wholesome meals.

Sell-By Dates

The sell-by date is exactly that: the date at which point a product should be sold, and not necessarily consumed. While many products do contain a sell-by or expiration-date stamp, it is not an FDA requirement (except for infant formula). Consumption dates vary by packaging and food item. Here are a few rules to follow.

Spices and Seasonings

Spices are at optimal freshness if used before the two-year mark. If you really can’t part with those herbes de Provence purchased on your last trip to France, don’t worry; old herbs will not harm you, but they will be less pungent than at their prime. In general, herbs and spices past their due date could make your dishes taste funky, so do the smell test before you ruin those roasted spring veggies.

What’s left? Garlic powder? It’s fine to have, but whole cloves are a whole lot tastier. Stock basics like ground cinnamon, nutmeg and chili powder. Don’t have cardamom? It’s a great addition to morning tea and aids in digestion. Paprika adds a smoky flavor to soups, fish and chicken. Ditch the black pepper that’s been sitting in a tin container since the ’80s and fill that pepper mill with peppercorns to fleck your next set of spring salad greens.

Baking Ingredients

Salt and sugar last a lifetime if stored properly in cool dark place and sealed in an airtight container. Flour varies depending on whether it’s whole-wheat or white. All-purpose white flour will last eight months in the pantry (or two years in the freezer), while whole-wheat has a shorter shelf life of eight months refrigerated (or two years in the freezer).

Breads and baked goods might not rise properly if you’re using yeast or baking powder after they’ve lost their ability to lift. Check yeast by dissolving in 1/2 cup of warm water with 1 teaspoon of granulated sugar. The mixture should start to bubble after about five minutes. Baking powder will last up to two years at room temperature.


That walnut oil you bought to make that special salad dressing? If the grease has blurred the expiration date or you can’t remember when you got it, take a whiff. If it smells rancid, it is rancid. Oils should be consumed under a year, so don’t let those specialty oils go to waste. Enjoy them!

Grains and Pasta

Grains vary by the variety. Jasmine, white and basmati rice will last in a sealed container for up to two years. But brown rice has a shorter life span, up to one year in your pantry. Couscous and spaghetti are a good in a pinch — but there are other toothsome grains you should have on hand as well.

Consider adding farro to your arsenal. A versatile Italian grain, farro is great in a hearty salad. Couscous, quinoa and farro will keep for up to three months in the pantry or six months in the freezer. Pasta will last up to two years at room temperature, but the whole-grain variety should be tossed after six months.

Tip: Label your storage containers with the date you opened the package so it’ll be clear what’s a keeper and what to toss the next time you clean your cupboards.


There is no need to be hyper-organized, though some of us can’t help ourselves. For the rest of us, maintaining an alphabetized spice cabinet may not be so easy. Instead, make it simple to source your herbs and spices visually.

Separate by savory and sweet uses, then by color. Place those that naturally complement each other — e.g., thyme, parsley, rosemary, and dill — together. (Of course, fresh herbs are preferred when you can get your hands on them.) Cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and others of the same shade are also good neighbors.

Tip: When it comes to the heavier shelf-stable items, like canned tomatoes and jarred jams, place them on shelves that can hold their weight.

50/50 Rule

Look around. Do you have a variety of sugars but are low on whole grains? What about nuts, seeds or dried fruit? Now that you have removed those older items, you’ve made room to add dried beans, quinoa, oatmeal, bulgur wheat and canned oily fish.

Other shelf-stable items can be replaced with the homemade variety. Can summer corn and tomatoes at their prime. Pickle those extra veggies from your farmers market and make your own preserves with just-picked berries. You’ll be able to enjoy them out of season and create naturally prepared items with no additives. Take a look at this 101 for the canning and pickling novice.

Remember, if you have a well-stocked pantry you will be able to use 50 percent pantry staples and 50 percent fresh ingredients, resulting in wholesome, tasty meals the whole family will enjoy.

Kiri Tannenbaum is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Paris and holds an M.A. in food studies from New York University where she is currently an adjunct professor. When her schedule allows, she leads culinary walking tours in New York City and is currently at work on her first book.

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