Use the same strategies as grocery stores to keep your kitchen organized and minimize food waste.
Credit: Christopher Kimmel—Getty Images

When it comes to things like improving your eating habits and reducing how much food gets tossed, an organized kitchen is everything—but figuring out a system that works best for you and the fam can be a tricky business.

This is where knowing how grocery stores pull it off can really come in handy. They’re in the business of keeping food fresh, organized, and free from the landfill, and everything from their layout to their displays is specifically designed to accomplish just that.

So which grocery stocking secrets can you steal to fine-tune how your kitchen operates? We went to the experts to find out:

1. Put Your Healthiest Foods at Eye Level

Even when you have your grocery shopping system on lock, browsing the endless shelves stocked from top to bottom can be overwhelming. Because merchandisers only have a few seconds to capture our attention, they tend to put the premium (translation: pricier) products where the majority of our browsing takes place—at eye-level. “It’s premium shelf space, and grocery stores know it,” says Allison Ball, Bay Area-based food business consultant and former head of grocery at Bi-Rite Market.

Apply this technique to your own kitchen by putting your premium (translation: healthier) products at eye level—in your fridge, in your cupboards, and on your pantry shelves. “If something’s at eye level, and within easy reach, you’re much more likely to consume it,” says Ball. By putting healthier foods (or more perishable) within sight, it increases the odds of them becoming your new go-to convenience foods.

2. Use the “First In, First Out” Method

Deliveries are received at the back of the store and rotated onto store shelves or into backstock (behind-the-scenes storage) using the “First In, First Out” method (FIFO), which involves selling the current product first before putting newer product onto the shelves. “If stores mis-rotate product and don’t manage their inventory correctly, it can lead to spoilage or shoppers getting old product—both of which we want to avoid,” says Ball.

The same can be said about the foods in your own kitchen and pantry. When you come home from a grocery trip and are restocking your pantry and fridge, use the FIFO method: Put newer produce at the bottom of your crisper drawer, and bring produce and perishables forward on the shelves so that you know to use them up first.

3. Keep an Eye on Expiry Dates

Grocery stores are all about quality control: “Stockers literally check the dates on all products, paying particular attention to those with a shorter shelf life, such as dairy and deli meats, and pull product off the floor a few days before it expires,” says Ball. Many stores use a communication system so that employees on opposite shifts know what they’re long on (what they have too much of) so they can keep tabs on what may need to be pulled off the shelf at closing.

Though you don’t need to be as meticulous about the process in your own kitchen, keeping a running list—say, on the fridge door—of the short-dated products in your fridge and pantry (and when you should eat them) will help you use them up before they expire. Having these items top-of-mind can help speed up meal planning too, since you’re already aware of what you need to eat to cut back on waste.

4. Get Creative With Your Inventory

Different stores have different methods in place of using foods that are close to expiring. “Food that still has many days left can be turned into a deli special or daily salad while still being within the safe time to eat it,” says Ball. Some items can also be rotated into the staff break room, where an on-shift meal can be provided for every employee. Strategies like these ensure that short-dated foods are always consumed well before the expiration date.

By keeping your perishables front and center and consistently rotating your food, you’ll be able to keep spoilage to a minimum in much the same way. Similarly, if you’re long on a product and know you won’t get to it before it expires, create your own daily specials or deli salads. “A ‘fridge cleaning’ soup or ‘kitchen sink’ salad is endlessly adjustable, based on what you have in your fridge, and can often be frozen and saved for later,” says Ball.

5. Plan Your Menu Based on the Season

“We work with a lot of local farmers and vendors, so that dictates what we carry and how we sell,” says Jon Roesser, general manager at Weavers Way in Philadelphia. When there’s an influx of fresh, in-season produce, stores are able to sell these fruits and veggies through in-store specials for much lower prices than their off-season counterparts, giving consumers the opportunity to score some pretty amazing deals.

By planning your purchases—and the meals that follow—using a seasonal menu (for example, winter is peak citrus season and prices will reflect that, says Roesser), you’ll get to enjoy super-fresh and flavorful foods that are at their nutritional peak. The money that you’ll save doing so is just an added bonus.

6. Set Up a Bulk Foods Section

It’s no secret that grocers have to place their orders in bulk quantities, but the same idea can be applied to a single home. “One of our tactics to minimize waste in our stores is to offer as many products in bulk as possible,” says Roesser. “Our shoppers can get anything from our bulk sections in as large or small quantities as they need, and in containers that are reusable.”

Odds are, you already have a sense of how often you use specific foods each week—coffee beans, grains, nuts, seeds. By setting up a small bulk food section of your own (in a cupboard or your pantry), and buying only what you need, you’ll get to enjoy your favorites at their freshest and minimize waste in the process. This is especially true of ingredients or products that you use rarely, adds Roesser, like almond flour for a gluten-sensitive relative you only see once a year.