Can't Go Wrong Pantry Design Rules
Jon Lo, MFA, NKBA
Senior Resident Designer
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- Mise-en-Place: Learning About Kitchen Design From Commercial Kitchens
- Budget Kitchen Remodeling: Guide for the Frugal Homeowner
- The Remodeling Design & Planning Process
- How to Measure Your Kitchen (And Other Rooms)
- The Ergonomic Kitchen
For even more in-depth home remodeling articles visit our Index to Articles.
Some Good Pantry Tips
"On high shelves, store boxes on their sides so their labels can be more easily read through the shelf mesh from below."
Lillian Muller of Rogers, AR
"Install a blackboard on the inside of your pantry door to jot down the things you need. Before you leave for the market, snap a photo with your cell phone. Instant, super easy, grocery list."
Amy, Christy and Terry at Eleven Magnolia Lane.
What is a Butler's Pantry?
Since 1900 the meaning of the word "pantry" has changed in America (but not in the UK). Today it means a place where food is stored, and usually refers to one or more cabinets or a closet adjacent to the kitchen.
In the late Victorian age, the room where food was stored was the "larder" or "buttery". The pantry was a serving area located between the kitchen and dining room. Often it was not much more than a wide hallway equipped with ample countertop space and, commonly, a sink.
Typically the butler would fetch the cooked food from the kitchen, divide it into serving portions, arrange it invitingly on dishware, then serve it in the dining room.
The pantry usually had swinging doors at both ends which helped keep kitchen noise, heat, and odors away from the diners.
With the simplification of house design that occurred during the Arts & Crafts period of the early 20th century, the butler's pantry was largely eliminated and replaced with built-in cabinetry inside the dining room for storing dinnerware, linens, glassware, and silverware — all the things formerly stored in the pantry.
Improvements in cooking technology, such as the natural gas or electric cookstove instead of coal and wood stoves made isolation of the kitchen from the dining area much less important to dining comfort. Still, heat from the kitchen remained a potential problem, so a single swinging door was usually retained to keep the noise and heat at bay.
Today the tendency is to call any walk-through or walk-in pantry a "butler's" pantry, but this term is not strictly correct unless it includes a counter-height set-up and serving area, and possibly a small sink. In a modern household, the serving area makes a convenient landing zone for loading groceries into the pantries — at least until you finally get around to hiring a butler.
Some Pantry Terminology
Buttery: Has nothing whatsoever to do with butter. It is an old English term for a room (or more likely a shed) where food was stored in large barrels called "butts", hence "buttery".
Dish Pantry: Typically a cabinet or closet just off the kitchen or in the dining room where dishes and serving ware are stored.
Larder: A Victorian term for a small, room, or tall cabinet for storing food. Used today primarily in Britain to mean what we call a pantry on this side of the Big Blue Pond.
Archaic: a well-ventilated room for storing perishable items. The more modern term is "cold pantry". Read more about cold pantries below.
Before the invention of the refrigerator, there were still all sorts of foods that needed to be kept cool, including dairy products, meats, and fresh produce.
One solution for keeping things cool in the pre-electricity era was the cold pantry. A cold pantry uses creative ventilation and some skilled design to keep perishable foods cool.
A cold pantry still has a place in a modern kitchen. A great many foods store well in a cool, but not necessarily cold, environment and the cooling uses no electricity, does not leave a carbon footprint, and, best of all, is free.
Read more about cold pantries at Cold Pantries for Green kitchens by Katie Marks for Homeworx.
Every kitchen needs a pantry — a notion that has not always been thought to be true. During the post-WWII building boom from 1945 to 1960, pantries fell out of favor. Architects thought that the new built-in cabinetry and the convenience of local supermarkets had made pantries unnecessary in the modern kitchen.
They were wrong.
According to a recent National Association of Home Builders survey, a kitchen pantry was the kitchen feature most wanted by buyers in the market for a new home.
Before the era of microwave meals and pre-processed cuisine, a well-stocked pantry was required for good domestic management. And, if you own a home built before 1945, you are probably fortunate enough to have a pantry of some sort. If your house was built after 1980, you might have a tall cabinet designated on the kitchen plan as a pantry. Neither many offer convenient, flexible, or functional storage, but at least it's a start. Bad pantries can be fixed.
So, the rule of kitchen pantries is this:
No matter the age of your kitchen or its size, it should include a convenient place to store groceries, and this critical storage requires careful thought and planning.
The Iron Rules of Storage
Creating a great pantry requires closely adhering to the three Iron Rules of Storage. If the rules are followed, any storage is almost always convenient and easy to use. Here are the Iron Rules:
The Iron Rules apply to any storage, but particularly to kitchen storage, and even more particularly to pantry storage.
A pantry should be large enough to hold at least a week's worth of groceries, and close to where the items in the pantry are first used. This is usually the food preparation area.
If the kitchen has a baking area, then a separate baking pantry should be considered. It should be located near the baking center unless the main pantry can be placed between the two work centers, and do double duty.
While size does matter, simplicity, organization, and the right location are usually more important than size alone. A well-designed small pantry will usually provide better, more convenient, and more functional storage than a poorly designed large pantry.
Convenience, Viewability, and Accessibility
Convenience, accessibility, and viewability are the key attributes of a great pantry.
A pantry is
Convenient, if it is located at or near the area where food is prepared, not necessarily in the kitchen, but if not, then in an adjacent area;
Viewable, if everything in the pantry can be seen at a glance; and
Accessible, if everything in the pantry can be easily reached and removed without moving anything else out of the way.
If the Iron Rules are closely followed, it is nearly impossible to design a pantry that does not include these key attributes.
For example, if storage is sized to the things being stored, it is easier to implement Iron Rule 3, and little space is wasted. Shelves should be just deep enough to store one row of items, and far enough apart so that the items just fit.
To avoid wasted space, shelves should be adjustable at a minimum of 2' increment so as storage requirements change the shelf heights can be updated.
At-a-glance viewability is also an important goal to strive for in pantry design. Everything stored should be immediately visible.
It should not be necessary to move something out of the way to see what's behind or beneath it. There should never be anything behind or underneath anything else.
This is an ideal that few pantries achieve completely, but the closer the pantry design is to this ideal, the more useful and convenient the pantry will be.
The Basic Pantries
Pantries come in three basic configurations:
- pull-out, and
All have advantages and drawbacks.
The reach-in pantry is usually the most convenient, the pull-out pantry the least convenient, but a boon to small kitchens with no wall space to spare.
The walk-in pantry holds the most, but since it is often removed from centers of kitchen activity, it is best used as a remote second pantry.
A kitchen can have two, even three pantries. We commonly design kitchens for large families or everything-from-scratch cooks to include a near pantry that holds small quantities of supplies most often used and one or more remote pantries that hold bulk supplies in large quantities.
The near pantry is re-supplied from the remote pantry periodically as consumables are used up.
This can be a multi-step process as the middle pantry is restocked every month or so from the cold room or very remote pantry in the basement, and the near pantry is restocked weekly from the middle pantry.
Don't miss our other helpful articles on home remodeling.
The ideal reach-in pantry is shallow. Deep pantries hold more, but all the stuff in the back is not immediately visible and not easy to reach. This violates Rule 3 of the Iron Rules of Storage:
"Iron Rule 3: Store items in a single layer with no item hidden behind or beneath another."
If you have more depth available, the temptation is great to build deeper shelves on the theory that while you may not use the back few inches for primary storage, it does not hurt to have it for stuff you don't use as often.
Don't give in to temptation. Deep pantries do not work!
Inevitably things you use often get pushed to the back as you add other things, so you end up with stuff you cannot find or get to without moving the things in front of the items you need.
Anything deeper than 16" requires a roll-out tray or a pull-out pantry. For cans and bottles, even 16" is too deep. Eight inches is the more useful maximum.
But, let's say you are planning a 24" deep reach-in pantry to align with your standard 24" deep kitchen cabinets. Sixteen-inch shelves inside a 24" deep cabinet leaves 8" of unused, wasted space which violates the Iron Rules. Or does it?
Let's use that extra 8" by attaching 8" shelves to the door for smaller items like bottles and cans. Now we have used all of the 24" and kept the shelf depth to a maximum of 16". All shelves should, of course, be adjustable. (Actual shelf dimensions are 15 7/8" for the pantry and 7 7/8" on the door. We have to leave a little clearance.)
This division of shelves between cabinet and door is exactly the configuration used in our favorite pantry style, the classic bat-wing pantry. With the doors fully open everything in a batwing pantry is displayed in a panorama and easily reached.
Besides being the ultimate in storage convenience, a bat-wing pantry is relatively inexpensive to build using standard factory kitchen cabinet components.
It does not require extensive pull-out hardware, which, because it must be able to hold a lot of weight, needs to be heavy-duty and can be costly. But, it does require heavy-duty hinges to hold the weight of the door without sagging.
On a full-height pantry, we typically use four heavy hinges on each door. These will easily hold the weight of the door and the 150 lbs. of cans and bottles stored in the door. (It will also hold the additional weight of a 5-year-old swinging on the door — something we found out entirely by accident.)
If the pantry shelves are more than 16" deep, then it is better to convert them to trays mounted on glides so they can be pulled out. Roll-out trays have the advantage of making everything in the pantry accessible, even the stuff at the very back of the tray.
The disadvantage is that above eye level it is difficult to see what's on the tray. For this reason, above eye-level, roll-out trays are usually replaced with lazy susan turntables.
A lazy susan turntable brings anything at the back of the pantry to the front with a twist of the wrist where it can be seen. The tradeoff, however, is that a round turntable stores only about 2/3rds the content of a rectangular shelf.
Roll-out trays require full-extension, heavy-duty glides, and these are fairly expensive. And, typically the trays are not height-adjustable, although there is hardware available that provides height adjustment. (See the Lavido Adjustable Shelf Pull-Out Pantry, above, for an example.)
The real disadvantage, however, is that you always have to open both pantry doors to get the clearance required to roll the trays out — a continuing nuisance.
Pull-out Pantry Units
A pullout pantry is a reach-in pantry turned on end and inserted into a cabinet. A door panel is attached to the front. The pantry operates like a very large drawer.
If it is accessible and viewable from both sides, it can be as much as 27" or even 30" wide. But, if accessible from just one side, the 16" depth limit applies.
A pull-out pantry is not as convenient to use as a bat-wing-style reach-in pantry. In order to get to the items stored, you must first extend the pantry, then push it back into place when you are done.
It is generally more expensive to build per square foot of storage because it requires elaborate, heavy-duty hardware. But in small kitchens where space is at a premium, it may be the only pantry solution that provides anything like enough storage space.
Like roll-out trays, a pull-out unit is not practical for anything above eye level. The individual shelves inside the pull-out can be made adjustable, which greatly increases the flexibility of the pantry. It is important to use gliding hardware that prevents the pantry from being slammed. This may dislodge items in the pantry which can jam the mechanism.
Walk-In, Walk-through Pantries
A walk-in pantry is usually a small room, essentially a closet for storing food, separate from but adjacent to the kitchen, called a "larder" back in the day.
Dual Pantries Solve Complex Storage Issues
This kitchen was once much larger, but a previous owner had taken the original pantry space to create a first-floor powder room under the stairs. The new owner wanted to keep the powder room, but she also wanted her pantry back.
To get enough pantry, a too-small breakfast nook was converted to pantry storage and coffee bar. A second walk-past pantry was created by building a tall cabinet alongside the stairs leading to the basement. Space for this pantry was gotten by sealing 16" from the back of the powder room and relocating the toilet.
This design violates one of the cardinal rules of pantry perfection: The pantry and refrigerator should be near each other.
We wanted to put the refrigerator in the new pantry, but this would have required removing one of the windows. The owner preferred to keep the existing large windows. The husband's instructions were gently but firmly put as something like: "Leave the damn windows alone!" So, that was that.
But, the solution works; did not require major, and expensive, structural surgery; and gives the homeowners enough convenient food storage for several weeks.
Not every pantry design solution can be absolutely perfect, but even an imperfect solution can still be made to work well with a little creativity.
For many homeowners, a walk-in is the dream pantry that calls up visions of canning garden vegetables and making preserves. But, it is not as useful as you might think.
A walk-in is great for storing large quantities of foodstuffs, particularly bulk items, but because it is usually remotely located, a walk-in can be inconvenient to use for the storage of frequently-used items.
For that reason, many kitchens with walk-in pantries also include a smaller, more convenient pantry inside the kitchen that is restocked periodically from the larder.
The walk-through pantry is a little different.
Where the main purpose of a walk-in pantry is storage, the primary purpose of a walk-through pantry is to get from one place to another. It is first a hallway or passage, and only secondarily a storage place.
In designing a walk-through pantry, its primary purpose of providing a convenient and safe passage cannot be compromised.
This usually means an extra-wide walk aisle. We usually recommend a minimum of 44". Wider is better and 60" is the minimum for wheelchair access.
If the pantry has storage on just one side of the aisle, the minimum width of the pantry is 60" (76" for wheelchair access). If there is to be storage on both sides of the aisle, then the minimum width is 76" (92" for wheelchair access).
For much more on kitchen passageway widths, see The 31 Kitchen Design Rules.
Typical is a pantry/mudroom that you pass through on your way from the kitchen to the garage or back door. In old houses, it is often a converted porch. Groceries can be unloaded just as soon as you wipe your feet, which is very handy.
But, the main function of a mudroom must be preserved. It needs space for stowing coats, boots, and other outerwear, including a bench for putting on and taking off shoes and boots.
A lot of valuable real estate in a walk-in or walk-through pantry is used for walking rather than storage. The temptation is great to minimize aisle space to maximize storage space.
This is always a mistake.
The minimum walkway or aisle width in a walk-in pantry should be 36". You'll see why the first time you truck in a bunch of groceries to unload. Narrow aisles make it a knee and elbow knocking affair.
A 60" aisle is the minimum for wheelchair access. It permits a wheelchair to turn around — otherwise, the user has to back out of the space — inconvenient at best and potentially dangerous.
In a walk-through pantry, 44" is the absolute minimum, 48" is better. A 48" aisle allows two people to pass each other without someone turning sideways.
Deep shelves in a walk-in or walk-through pantry are no more useful than deep shelves in a reach-in pantry. The maximum depth of stationary (non-pull-out) storage shelves is 16" no matter where they are located, and 14" is better. Depths as narrow as 10" will work for general storage and as little as 6" for cans and bottles.
If one wall of a walk-in pantry could be used for deeper shelves, resist the temptation or install roll-out baskets or bins. Or, better yet, widen the walk aisle (but not wider than 60").
Shelving above eye level should be stepped back. The shelf just above eye level should be no deeper than 14" and the one above that just 12", and so on. This step back allows you to better see what's on these upper shelves.
Shelving can be solid or an open wire grid. Solid shelving eliminates the risk of small items falling between the grids but reduces visibility. It also tends to accumulate dust and debris and needs to be cleaned more often. Accordingly, the surface should be Melamine™ or some other very cleanable material.
Coated or stainless wire shelving does not collect dust and debris, which simply falls through to the floor. It does not work, however, for small items, like spice containers, that can fall through the grid.
It's easy to clean. A little Windex® and a paper towel are all it takes.
The drawback, however, is that modern coated wire shelving often looks out of place in a period kitchen.
To get the look we want in Craftsman and Victorian kitchens, we often build our own shelves out of a wire that fits the period stretched on a wood frame. Woven wire cloth, for example, such as the venerable hardware cloth or chicken wire, have been around for well over a century and a half, and works for almost any historic period.
Galvanized wire shelving units designed for industrial and farm use are also still available from farm supply stores and some home centers. It makes an ideal pantry shelving that is strong and easy to clean. The disadvantage is that it is usually not adjustable.
We especially like open wire shelving for high shelves because you can see through the wire to get a better view of what's stored on the shelves.
Location, Location, Location
Careful design is important to the convenience, functionality, and efficiency of a pantry. But, its location in relation to the other elements in the kitchen is even more important. A well-designed pantry put in the wrong place is less useful than a poorly designed pantry in the right place and impairs the efficiency of the cook.
The very best-designed and organized pantry is of only marginal use if it is not conveniently located. This means, according to Iron Rule 1, near where the stuff in the pantry is going to be used. This is usually the food preparation area of the kitchen.
Ideally, a pantry should be placed within a few steps of the area where food is prepared. The general rule is not more than 48" (three steps), although this dimension is somewhat flexible.
Locating it reasonably close to the prep area is usually enough, and being flexible about location also makes it easier to take into account some other important factors affecting the placement of other cabinets and appliances.
From a purely aesthetic point of view locating a tall pantry and refrigerator at opposite ends of the room is good design because the height and bulk of these two large features balance each other.
Multiple Pantries for a Large Kitchen
Many kitchen designs locate a tall pantry and refrigerator at opposite ends of the room. From a purely aesthetic point of view, this is good design because the height and bulk of these two large features balance each other. But, from a practical point of view, it is better to place cold storage (refrigerator) fairly close to dry storage (pantry) so that multiple trips are not required to gather the ingredients for a meal.
This is a large, gourmet kitchen for an everything-from-scratch cook that we built in 2008.
Food storage is located along one wall adjacent to the main walkway from the house to the family room, patio, and pool. This location allows snack and beverage seekers to fetch items from the refrigerator or pantries without crossing the main part of the kitchen, which already has enough traffic. It is unavoidably in the pathway to the garage and basement. To allow easy passage through the kitchen without interfering with meal preparation, we enlarged the distance between facing cabinets to 62" to allow a clear walk path. Normally we recommend not more than 52".
The refrigerator is flanked by two base cabinets that form the "landing zones" for both pantries and the refrigerator. Landing zones provide a convenient place to set bags of groceries while they are unloaded. Each landing zone has its own light, and overhead recessed lighting illuminates the entire area.
The cabinets in the rest of the kitchen are natural hickory. The cabinets in the pantry area were painted eggshell to make a visual distinction between the pantry area and the main kitchen. Pantries are floor-to-ceiling bat-wing style reach-in pantries with adjustable shelves that hold two week's worth of provisions for this family of five.
But, for ease of use, it is usually better to place cold storage (refrigerator) fairly close to dry storage (pantry) so that multiple trips are not required to gather the ingredients for a meal.
Snack and Beverage Centers
In addition to being storage places, both the refrigerator and pantry are snack and beverage centers, especially in households with children.
Access to between-meal snacks without traversing the main part of the kitchen reduces kitchen traffic and possible interference with the meal preparation and clean-up processes.
If at all possible, the pantry and refrigerator should be located on the perimeter of the kitchen in a spot that can be reached without traversing the parts of the kitchen where work is done.
Every pantry should include or be adjacent to a countertop-height landing zone. The landing zone is a place to set bags of groceries while they are being loaded into the pantry or a place to temporarily stash ingredients while they are being unloaded.
The National Kitchen and Bath Association, which has developed guidelines for just about everything in a kitchen, does not have a guideline for the size of a pantry landing zone.
For refrigerators, it recommends a landing zone 15" wide on the handle side of the refrigerator or across from the refrigerator, but not more than 48" away.
These are also good rules for pantry landing zones.
For more on the basic kitchen design guidelines, see The Thirty-One Kitchen Design Rules.
Lighting, Appliances, and a Charging Station
Very often overlooked, but extremely important is pantry lighting. The ability to see what's in the pantry depends to a great extent on how well it is lit. This is especially true for reach-in pantries, which tend to be black holes without good lighting.
Lighting a pantry can be a problem. The usual solution is to install a recessed light in the ceiling in front of the pantry and call it good. Unfortunately, the usual solution doesn't work. The top few shelves are well lit, but the illumination decreases toward the floor until the bottom shelves require a spelunker helmet (or flashlight) to find anything.
The ideal lighting illuminates the contents of every shelf evenly. This is hard to do effectively.
What we do, that works fairly well, is to install an LED light strip down the two front corners of the pantry cabinet. In this location they are out of sight, and, at 2.9 lumens per linear foot, the strips illuminate each shelf quite well. So the shelves don't pinch the lights, the front corners of the shelves are clipped.
If more light is wanted, install the strips in the back corners as well — we have rarely found this to be necessary, however.
If appliances are to be used (as opposed to merely stored) in the pantry, their placement should be decided early on in the planning process. The electrician needs to know where to install outlets. Appliances are usually not practical in reach-in or pull=-out pantries, but coffer bars are becoming increasingly common in walk-in and walk-through pantries. A coffee bar needs not only electricity but a source of water, which usually means a small sink with a faucet.
You might also explore the possibility of a charging station for those modern essentials, the cell phone and laptop computer. Where a walk-through pantry is also the mudroom, it provides a convenient location for a charging area.
The Ten "Can't Go Wrong" Rules for the Perfect Pantry
So, after considerable discussion we arrive at some specific rules for pantry design to supplement the "Iron Rules of Storage", that, if followed, will almost certainly result in the perfect pantry.
If it's unavoidable, any of these rules can be bent or broken, but the further you stray from the rules, the less serviceable your pantry is likely to be.
Rule 1 - Proximity to Food Preparation Area
Recommended: Locate the pantry within 48" of the food preparation area of the kitchen.
Rule 2 - Pantry/Refrigerator Placement
Recommended: Locate the refrigerator (cold storage) and pantries (dry storage) together.
Comment: Designers are often tempted to place large pantries and refrigerators at opposite ends of a kitchen for aesthetic balance. This sort of placement requires the cook to walk to opposite ends of the kitchen to gather supplies for a meal and should be avoided.
Rule 3 - Snack Center
Recommended: Locate the refrigerator and pantries at the edge of the kitchen so that snack and beverage seekers can get what they need without crossing into the working parts of the kitchen.
Comment: The refrigerator and pantries cannot be placed at the periphery of the kitchen, a separate snack and beverage center should be considered.
Rule 4 - Pantry Shelf Depth
Recommended: The maximum depth of a stationary storage shelf is 16" (14" is better).
Rule 5 - Pantry Shelf Spacing
Recommended: The vertical space between shelves should be
- 16"-18" for bulk storage,
- 10"-15" for general storage, and
- 6"-10" for bottles and cans.
Rule 6 - Pantry Shelf Adjustment
Recommended: Shelving should be adjustable in minimum increments of a minimum of 2 inches.
Comment: Most commercially available drilling guides space shelves 32mm or 1.25" apart. This spacing meets this guideline.
Rule 7 - Pantry Shelves Above Eye Level
Recommended: Shelves above eye level should be stepped back in increments of 2-3" so contents can be viewed easily without a step stool or ladder.
Comment: If possible, shelves above eye level should be coated wire or open grid wood to make it easier to view items on the shelf from below.
Rule 8 - Pantry Walk Aisles
- Walk-In Pantry: The minimum walk aisle width in a walk-in pantry is 36", 44" is better.
- Walk-Through Pantry: The minimum walk aisle width in a walk-through pantry is 44", 48" is better.
- Universal Design: The minimum walk aisle width for wheelchair access is 60", 64" is better..
For more in-depth information on Walk-ways and work-aisles, please see The Thirty-One Kitchen Design Rules.
Rule 9 - Pantry Landing Areas
- A pantry should be adjacent to a countertop-height landing area at least 15" wide to facilitate unloading groceries.
Rule 10 - Pantry Lighting
Recommended:Install adequate lighting so every shelf of a pantry is clearly illuminated with glare-free shadowless light.
Getting More Kitchen Space
And, that should about do it. If you design your pantry according to these guidelines, it will work well for you. The next step is integrating your pantry into the rest of your new kitchen, and that's a whole other issue. But, if we can help, contact us to see what can be done.
Now, for a new problem: Many existing kitchens are just too small for everything you want to have in the kitchen: including a decent-sized pantry. Of course, you can add space by building an addition. Although appropriate in some cases, additions can be costly and not always feasible. For that reason, it pays to consider the less expensive alternatives. What you don't spend on structure, after all, you can invest in better cabinets, lights, counters, fixtures, flooring, and appliances… (Continues)
Matt, Renee. The Complete Kitchen Pantry Guide. e-Book.