An Organized Kitchen is Just a Plastic Shoe Box Away

Plastic box with layers of cleaned greens

[Photographs: Sasha Marx and Daniel Gritzer]

As someone who enjoys order and organization in the kitchen, I get very excited about unexciting things like neatly cut edges on tape labels. I have plenty of text threads with industry friends where we spend a lot of time talking about the best kinds of tape dispensers and where to get the best deal on Japanese stainless steel yakumi pans for mise en place organization. So getting worked up about boxes for organizing ingredients is pretty standard for me. This is an article about some plastic boxes that I really like using for storing fresh produce and dried goods. It's pretty exciting stuff, I know. Try to keep it cool, and let me tell you about these particular shoe boxes from The Container Store. (And no, this is not an ad.)

Storing Produce

Clean lettuce leaves layered in a plastic box for storage

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As outlined in my recent guide to produce storage, these clear plastic boxes are very useful for holding fresh greens and vegetables, especially if you don't have a functioning crisper drawer in your fridge (or if your crisper drawer is too full to take all the produce you just bought at the farmer's market). I was first introduced to these containers when cooking at Parachute Restaurant in Chicago. Along with the standard hard plastic Cambro containers and metal hotel pans used for storing raw ingredients and prepped mise en place, the walk-in and low-boy refrigerators at Parachute were stacked with all sizes of these clear plastic shoe boxes.

These boxes are more sturdy, and easier to quickly open and close than the opaque white plastic "fish tubs" I was used to from restaurant kitchens in Boston—which are used for storing a lot more than seafood. Those fish tubs are very cheap storage solutions for restaurants in the Northeast, where fish purveyors can deliver you a hundred boxes along with your daily fish order (also dropped off in those same plastic tubs). But in the Midwest, fish from the coast is shipped overnight to restaurants in styrofoam cooler boxes filled with ice packs, so if you want to add a bunch of fish tubs to your order, you end up spending a ton on shipping costs. So, it made sense for Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark, the chef-owners of Parachute, to find a more readily available container for storing ingredients, and these plastic shoe boxes from The Container Store were it.

A plastic box filled with clean salad greens.

These boxes have a lot going for them. They're simple, affordable, stackable, come in a variety of sizes, and are very versatile. I've been using them for years now, and love that I can use them for storing anything from winter clothes in my closet, to salad greens in my fridge. While they may not boast the bells and whistles of the specially designed "produce saver" containers on the market that come with removable baskets and carbon filters for trapping and absorbing ethylene gas, these boxes do a fine job of keeping produce fresh and uncrushed in my home mini-fridges (someday soon I hope to once more live in a home with a full-size fridge, and I will never take it for granted again).

I use the boxes for holding zipper lock bags of cleaned greens, unwashed whole vegetables, or layers of produce separated by kitchen or paper towels. With some painter's tape and a Sharpie, I can keep all my produce neatly organized and at easy reach in the fridge. And the same goes for dried goods as well.

Storing Dried Goods

Plastic box filled with bags of dried beans and legumes

I've spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about and organizing dry storage areas in professional restaurant kitchens, at the Serious Eats test kitchen, and at home. I'm not here to give the full elevator pitch for ConsoliDating, my dating app idea for busy restaurant workers who can find love while both checking in bulk orders of spices, oils, and vinegars and making sure potential partners know how to neatly put away and rotate ingredients following first-in-first-out protocol. That's a topic for another time. What is relevant is that these plastic boxes are just as useful for storing dried goods as they are for fresh produce.

We've all fawned over photos of neatly alphabetized spice jars and those staged pantry shots of perfectly organized shelves stacked with gleaming food storage containers of different sizes, each filled with a different kind of flour, grain, dried pasta, and beans. The problem with those aesthetically pleasing setups is that they're not actually all that practical for home kitchens. At home, I'm generally not blowing through ingredients at a clip that makes bulk storage in individual bins the best option, and even now when I'm doing all of my recipe development at home, I still don't have much use for a one-gallon container full of a couple bags' worth of loose rigatoni. I also don't want to spend hours creating the most perfectly organized spice rack or drawer, only to have it all thrown out of whack as soon as I add just a few new spices to the collection. What does make sense is having these large plastic shoe boxes filled with bags of dried pasta, spices, grains and rice, and dried beans—it's a solution that's more practical and more flexible.

Plastic box filled with containers of non-perishable Japanese pantry ingredients

These boxes help keep cupboards neat and organized, while allowing you quick access to categories of ingredients. Making lentils for supper? Pull down the legumes box and find that open bag of use-first black lentils with a couple hundred grams left in it from last time you cooked lentils and sausage. Need kombu and katsuobushi for dashi? There's a box you can designate for that. They're great for storing those resealable bags of spices and chilies that otherwise clutter up cabinet shelves, waiting for the perfect moment to take a swan dive into the prep on your kitchen counter (usually in a bowl of egg yolks or a fish sauce vinaigrette that will require minutes of painstaking cleaning to ensure an unplanned fermentation lab doesn't pop up in your pantry).

This approach to pantry organization allows you to establish order without forcing everyone in your household to live in fear of misplacing a penguin figurine or mistakenly putting the jar of sweet paprika back in the "S" row of the spice drawer when it should go in the "P" section (a labeling mistake on your part, next time make sure to label it "Paprika (Sweet)" to avoid such confusion). The only issue you might encounter with these boxes is that they're versatile to a fault, and if you don't designate some of them for food storage, they can soon be taken over by other items around the house. After talking them up to Daniel Gritzer, he ordered several boxes for himself, and within a week many of them had become storage containers for his son Adrian's toys. So long as he's properly rotating his Lego inventory, I approve.