Spring Clean Your Kitchen: “Does This Old Flour Spark Joy?"

Spring Clean Your Kitchen: “Does This Old Flour Spark Joy?"

If your cabinets are crammed and your cupboards teem with way-too-ancient grains, it's time to give yourself a happy kitchen: Here is a tried-and-true system from a kitchen coach.

When we think of spring cleaning, decluttering is usually secondary. It’s mostly about the scent of fresh lemons, sparkling countertops, and finally making the grimy floor behind the fridge a safe place again. Sure, you might toss out a couple of old tea towels or that hopelessly bent spoon, but the point is to scrub every surface within an inch of its life, right?

But clutter, no matter how clean it’s kept, creates a sense of crowding and distraction that interferes with our goals — whether it’s making a quick dinner in peace or crafting a weekend cake masterpiece. One of the things I do as a kitchen coach is help people declutter; here's my approach.

Easy Does It

Decluttering takes some courage, so gentleness with yourself is key. When I’ve helped clients clean out their kitchens, I’ve observed that sympathetic encouragement rather than judging or shaming gets the job done better and faster every time. The same is true of how we speak to ourselves: It can be helpful to try talking to yourself as you would your best friend as you go through this process. Marie Kondo has it right: Enthusiasm, gratitude, and courage are the keys to being brave enough to let things go.

Decluttering vs. Organizing

Decluttering is a process ... but one that can be quite rewarding and (dare I say it?) even fun! However, a happy kitchen isn't just about folding your towels a specific way or spending lots of money on cute containers. We're talking true decluttering here, not simply organizing. To spring clean your kitchen, you have to actually get rid of unused gadgets, small appliances, and chipped dishes, not just rearrange them in the cabinets. It's a process of sorting, evaluating, and, in some cases, letting go.

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Sure, it's neat. But do you really need four rolling pins?

And don’t forget to include food items in the process! It’s easy to let the back of the pantry quietly age in the shadows, but those dusty canned goods, sticky outdated bottles of oil, and old bags of flour can also be let go to make space for fresh pantry items (or make it easier to find what's already there). Don’t be afraid to get rid of stale or rancid food.

Decluttering: The Three-Mountain Method

Ready to get started? Commit three to four hours to the process, and then make some initial preparations: Put on some music that you find uplifting, take a moment to breathe in and out, and reflect on how fortunate you are to have a kitchen. Next, designate three spaces in the kitchen (or in the next room if space is tight). You're going to make three mountains: "Keep It," "Toss It/Donate It," and "I’m Not Sure."

Now, start sorting! Go through your entire space and put everything on one of these three mountains. Start wherever you’d like, but be sure to completely clean out the cabinet, cupboard, or drawer you’re in before moving on to the next one. It pays to focus so you don't end up feeling overwhelmed. Feel free to take breaks as needed, but try not to wander off if the going gets tough. You’ve got mountains to climb, one step (or drawer) at a time.

Items in the Keep It mountain will end up back on the shelves, but it’s still helpful to know what you’ve got — these are the tools and items you use often enough to justify the storage space, or that have sentimental value, and that please you when you use them. Note: Simply feeling guilty about tossing an item is not a strong enough reason to keep it!

To set up the Toss It/Donate It mountain range you need some big trash bags and boxes for taking items of value to a charity you choose. As you go through the cabinets, be bold in letting objects go. If you’ve never used that second fondue set, get rid of it. If you’re reminded of a miserable ex every time you take out the waffle iron, let it have a fresh start somewhere else. And don’t let the monetary value of an item affect your decision: That scratched up Teflon pan may have been expensive, but once the nonstick gets sticky it’s not good for your health anyway. Toss it.

Likewise, check the expiration dates on your canned goods — if the date has passed, toss it. Flour has a little fat in it that can turn rancid; ponder how long the sack has sat there, and throw it out if it’s over a year old. Oil will taste and smell "off" once it turns, and at that point, it’s unhealthy to consume. Salt and dried beans, pasta, and popping corn can last for years, but everything else is up for scrutiny! Spices don’t go bad but lose their potency over time. Trust your nose: If you can barely smell it, you’re not going to taste it much, either.

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And don’t forget the fridge! While ketchup, mustard, and hot sauce seem to last forever, other condiments do not. Check expiration dates, open lids to check for mold, use your nose (if it smells off, toss it!) and give yourself permission to throw out that cranberry chutney you never asked for along with any nearly empty jelly jars.

The I’m Not Sure mountain may seem like a foolish endeavor, but I’ve found that by the end of a session there are usually only one or two items left in it, even if it was a formidable peak at the start. If you feel conflicted about an item, guilty letting go of a gift you didn’t want, or nervous about letting that pricey (but untouched) pasta maker go to charity, let it sit on the I’m-Not-Sure summit. As you make multiple decisions about what to keep and what to toss, your confidence will grow. Before the sun sets, clarity will come and you’ll know where it belongs.

Pace Yourself!

Don’t do the kitchen tools and food items on the same day unless you’re really on a tear and having fun. These mountains are a challenging climb! If you do decide to get it all done in a day, be sure to do one category at a time: Declutter all your kitchen items, put back what you’re keeping, take the trash out, and then get started with the food. Doing everything at once creates too much chaos and can make you feel overwhelmed.

When In Doubt, Phone A Friend

This process can be daunting and surprisingly emotional, in both tough and exhilarating ways. The good news is that you don’t have to do it alone: You can ask a good-natured friend or family member to help, or offer to trade services so you both end up with kitchens that are cleaner, brighter, and easier to breathe in. But if having company over isn’t feasible, you can still take a break and phone a friend. Share your progress, talk through a hard decision, and celebrate the victory when you’ve conquered that rocky range. Having a kitchen only full of tools and food you’re glad to use creates a space that's easy to you and inspiring. Now that’s a happy kitchen!

Ready to get started? Get going, and when you’re finished let us know how you feel!