My relationship vs. my pantry: why I don’t need nicely-labelled canisters

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My relationship and my pantry: why I don't need nicely-labelled canisters
Labelled jars are gorgeous… but store-bought packets do fine, too. By: Dinudey BaidyaCC BY 2.0

After ending my relationship and moving out of the home I shared with my partner, I’ve moved into my own place with a roommate. We’ve been buying the things we need as we go, in priority sequence — a coffee maker was first, obviously.

In shopping for the new place, I remember what I left behind at my ex’s: the pretty swing-top jars and canisters with colourful, perfectly co-ordinated labels, on which I used my best handwriting to label the coffee, macaroni, etc. They sat on the pantry shelf, a Pinterest pin waiting to happen. I was meticulous — borderline obsessed — with putting every package of food that came into our home into a pretty jar with a nice label.

At my new apartment, my coffee sits in its original bag, with a rubber band closing it. It’s in my cupboard, which is next to my roommate’s, where he keeps his food in the bag it came in, too.

And I don’t care.

I still have a bunch of the Martha Stewart labels I used on the pretty jars in my old home, but they’re just sitting in a drawer. On a recent shopping trip, I saw canisters like the ones I used to use, and for a split-second, thought about building a new collection. Then I realized it’s not at all a priority for me anymore.

Maybe what I was trying to do in organizing my house perfectly was legitimize its home-ness, because I knew deep down that my relationship wasn’t where I wanted it to be. I was exercising control over something insignificant, cause I felt like I had no control over where our relationship was headed.

This isn’t to say that I don’t still admire a really well-organized home, or that I don’t lust over photos of gorgeous pantries. (And I’m not saying that your well-organized pantry is compensating for skeletons in a well-organized closet.) But I now know that for me personally, I was probably doing it for all the wrong reasons, and that coffee from the bag it came in tastes just as good.

Has anyone had a similar re-evaluation of priorities in home decor after a change in circumstances?

Comments on My relationship vs. my pantry: why I don’t need nicely-labelled canisters

  1. the sentiment behind this is super great!

    However, I had a TERRIBLE run in with some infested spices from Whole Foods which then infested all of my opened, but originally packaged foods (and some unopened because the little bastards could eat through plastic bags). So now I obsessively keep all of my foods in hard plastic or glass containers. They aren’t pinterest pretty, but they are bug proof.

    • This is one of my husbands worst fears – so we too keep *most* things in air tight containers. Especially things we don’t use quickly like cereal and chips/crackers. Not pretty – and I so wish it was – but functional. Bugs can happen to anybody!! Honest!!

      • Technically they had some sort of bug egg because it was a couple of months after I bought them that they chewed their way out of a bag of dill (which I don’t use very often). I trashed all of my spices in the drawer and then a few weeks later started to find them in my rice and flour and then (After trashing them) I found that they had eaten their way into an unopened bag of dried lentils. It was disgusting. I threw away hundreds of dollars worth of infested food and spices and everything else was put into airtight containers so that if they were contaminated at least they would also be contained.

        And yes, I did write a letter to Whole Foods to which I never received a response. I will never be shopping there again.

        • You can destroy many food-pest eggs by putting new foods they might be in (dill is a new one to me, usually they like grain products) into the freezer temporarily. I put my stuff like rice/beans/lentils in the freezer right when I get them home and then leave them in there a few days. I also keep them in sealed containers, but I’d rather not have to even throw out one canister of food, so I double-protect myself.
          Of course, now they’re in the carpet next to the cat food bowls, because I can’t exactly freeze an 8kg bag, but at least they aren’t in MY food. They’re technically food-safe and harmless, just gross.

          • I actually keep a lot of my spices in the freezer, since I only occasionally use most of them and I like to think that they stay fresher this way. If we had a big enough freezer, I would keep all of our pasta, flour, and grains in there, too, but since we go through those things pretty quickly, I don’t worry as much.

          • This is exactly why my mom always froze extra bags of flour etc… Weevils are gross and although flour is relatively inexpensive, it sucks to throw out a whole bag of the stuff.

            On a disgusting side note, I’ve heard stories of my (very cheap) grandmother sifting the weevils out of flour and using it anyway. I’ve always been a little skeptical of her food since I heard about that one. ~shudders~

          • Aren’t they supposed to be flash frozen on arrival to the States? I know fish is supposed to be, and, trust and believe, that is the only thing allowing me to eat sushi…

  2. Yesss! I know the feeling so well … for me, it was moving out from my parents’ house into my first very own flat at age 18. My Mum is this obsessively tidy person who would freak out if being neat wasn’t done exactly her way – for her it was definetly about exercising control over us kids, keeping us on “a short rein” so to speak. It sounds ridiculous, but being able to have cereal in the original packaging on the countertop or stacking a red mug on top of a white mug and not having three cheese platters just in case, to me, was WOOO FREEDOM!

  3. “And I’m not saying that your well-organized pantry is compensating for skeletons in a well-organized closet.” – nicely put!
    I enjoyed this reflection. I’ve found myself organizing and cleaning a LOT lately. I don’t think it’s necessarily about my relationship, but I think when life feels a little out of control, I compensate by controlling my physical environment. I’m a freelancer and life is exciting but uncertain lately. My closets are very organized.

    • I have noticed this tendency in myself, too — if my life starts feeling out of control (family stuff, starting a business, whatever), I start obsessively organizing ALL THE THINGS! And then cleaning all the things. Our house is never cleaner and tidier than when I’m feeling completely out-of-control in some other aspect of my life. It’s definitely compensating for other things being out of my control by exerting control where I can.

        • That’s definitely sometimes a factor, but I’ve noticed that the Clean-All-The-Things response is at least as strong for me when there’s nothing I can do — for instance, when my Mom (who was diagnosed with Bipolar a couple years ago) was having a manic episode; there was really nothing I could do about it, and my parents don’t even live with me, but it still felt really out-of-my-control and unsettling. Not a big project that I was procrastinating on, but still something where I felt the need to exert control over what I could.

          • After my mother’s stroke, I cleaned the banister in our 160 year old house so thoroughly that I scrubbed off the stain in many places. I did the same thing to one of our dining room chairs. Usually, I’m gruff with my husband them storm off with a bucket and rags. He politely understands that the best option is to let me “clean out my frustration” then I’ll be in a better mental place. This rarely ends in disaster, as it did with the chair and banister. I now recognize that I shouldn’t clean wood when I’m upset.

        • I did this A LOT in college to avoid homework and projects. If I was cooking or cleaning, I still felt like I was being productive, even if I wasn’t working on things I needed to.

  4. I have to ditto on the putting things in glass/airtight canisters in case of infestation. My mom’s pantry got hit by moths HARD, and it kept coming back the second she became lax about sealing EVERYTHING – she lost a ton of food. In the southwest where I live now, there’s also the fear of things drying out or, well – melting. I end up putting a lot of stuff in an air-tight container and then in the freezer, because at least from May-September, the average temperature in the apartment is about 85.

    THAT BEING SAID – I totally agree that obsessively creating a pinterest-worthy home (why is this even a thing? sigh) as a compensatory mechanism for relationship or internal problems is not a worthwhile goal. 🙂 Introspection is a good thing!

    • Agreed! When I find myself wandering the bargain kitchenware at TJ Maxx (of all places), I have to stop and ask myself what aspect of my life I’m currently bored or unsatisfied with.

      • Kitchenware and stationery/office supplies, I’m right there with you. I have to stand back and ask myself, “will this really make me happy? Or is this just filling a void left by something else in my life or in my current set of behaviors?”

        It reminds me of the happiness/money post here on OBH a few years(?) ago, re: what purchases bring you the most money – and then also, what purchases get the most use? I had airtight canisters, several boxes of them(!) for a year or two before beginning to use them, and I’m fairly certain I still have one unused one lurking in the back of my closet that I could probably break out and put a bulk food in.

  5. I’m someone who likes things to be orderly and it really messes up my head if things are cluttered or untidy. I find my need to maintain things like my kitchen in a set way gets so much worse when areas of my life start to veer off track. It’s comforting to know others do that too.

    I’m glad you found peace in your life – and acceptance of original packaging!! 😛

  6. I’ve definitely thought a lot about this in my house. I’d think “I could totally make this prettier…” but then step back and ask “Am I really solving a problem I’m actually having here?”. And sometimes the answer is yes: the bulk food bags were tumbling off the shelf and jars were necessary, or the chaos of my entryway was so extreme that it stressed me out and I never cleaned that part of the house. But there are plenty of other functional, basic things (plastic hangers, cardboard boxes used as drawer dividers, boxes of tea bags all over my kitchen) that work just fine and I will never change.

  7. So funny… I feel like I did the same thing.
    I’m not a neatnik, so I was mostly just obsessed with having EVERYTHING in our pantry–I worried myself sick sometimes about making sure we had all the things in our fridge and pantry that a real household should have. In fact, I made all kinds of decisions trying to chase this illusion of what a real household was like. I thought that if I built it, then it would all be real, I would be a Real Adult in a Real Relationship. If I worked hard at making a home, I wouldn’t have to work at vocalizing my despondency.
    I’m getting better at it now and I don’t even know what the hell is in my pantry.

  8. I’m having almost the opposite reaction. I always viewed my last house as a starter house. Especially after meeting our paramours and all talking about wanting to move closer. I would have tons of ideas for things I wanted to do/organize, but it would frequently take me a year or more to get around to it (heck, we lived there five years and some projects from the beginning still weren’t done). Now we are all together in a new house and I want to keep it clean and organized (and continually purged of excessive stuff) because I want to live here, with these people, forever! So I want to stream line that process as much as possible and make everyone as comfortable as possible and have things be as beautiful as possible because it’s never gonna get better than this 🙂

  9. Interesting essay. It triggered a thought for me…

    I think, for me, the labeling is a sign of my general happiness. I don’t start labeling until I’m satisfied with a space–a cupboard, pantry, closet, desk–and so some spaces never get labels. For a person with borderline OCD, it is a very bad sign when I don’t label, sort and color-code. I know that many people (read: my parents) think of this kind of behavior as bad or dysfunctional, like it’s taking away from my time enjoying my life, but it’s actually the opposite. It’s a declaration of security and ownership. “Yes, this is mine. I claim it. I’m happy here.” It breaks my heart that I’m nowhere near this point in our current home, which we purchased in April. I feel more like a temporary resident here than I did in any apartment I previously lived in. Maybe committing to my labels would help.

    • This is sort of how I feel, too. I’ve got all of my dry goods in glass jars, mostly to avoid any infestation, but partly for organisational reasons (because I got sick of finding bits of bags of flour etc at the back of the cupboard!) and I’m waiting to “pretty-label” them all, but have no desire to do it at the moment because our kitchen is a space I’m desperately unhappy with. We’re in the process of sorting things out, and I can’t wait to feel happy enough in that space to finally label and organise my baking things 🙂 Although you’re probably right that actually committing to labelling would probably help to forge that ownership that you’re looking for. It’s a vicious circle, I find; I’m too down about the space to put in the effort, but the resulting mess and clutter of the unorganised kitchen only makes me feel worse about the situation.

  10. I’m kind of the opposite- it never seemed worth it to put a lot of effort into somewhere I didn’t think I’d stay for very long (though that wasn’t always a function of the relationship- my now-husband and I lived in quite a few slovenly apartments.) Now that we own a house I finally feel like it’s worth taking a little pride in how things look, though it’s definitely a long process (stupid money, and things requiring it. This house would be glorious within 48 hours if I had infinite resources.)

    No labelled canisters yet though. The kitchen is my husband’s problem. (Though I wouldn’t mind having them just to ward against pantry moths…eep.)

  11. I love this, it’s absolutely something I recognise!

    I definitely start to obsess about cleaning/arranging/organising/perfecting things when other aspects of life are less controllable or scary. It’s not a bad defence mechanism and it’s often useful distraction (there are times when a break from the less controllable/scary thing is the best possible thing) but it can absolutely tip over and become unproductive avoidance of the difficult issue. Knowing the fine line between the two and what side you’ve just found yourself on is a constant learning exercise….

    I particularly like the title of this piece, it’s about realising that you don’t NEED the perfectly organised labelled canisters, leaving you free to appreciate the fact they are useful and you can enjoy them!

  12. PINTEREST!!! That’s what this is about….I know that as soon as I discovered Pinterest, it suddenly seemed pretty vital that everything be prettily labeled, in pretty containers, always. I wonder if our generation is going to be known as Generation Pin from now on instead of generations X and Y.

  13. I keep my stuff in pretty containers (not so pretty yet… Mostly empty Yogurt-Jars really), because we have ants that do not react to the Anti-Baby-Pill and we do not want to kill them. So we just hide stuff from them… But soon I will use the jars a friend collected for my wedding for my pantry and I can’t wait…

  14. SO well-put. I get the control rush whenever I do anything like that. Sometimes it is productive, but other times I know I’m doing it to feel better about something, like my eating habits or my parenting. Good for you letting this go and embracing yourself a little more.

  15. The bug issue is something I hadn’t even thought about, eww!

    On the other side of the coin, I’d like to say it’s refreshing to read this article. I, too, enjoy pinning images of the perfectly organized homes of ladies who seemingly have all the time in the world to do things like organize a pantry that few others will ever see. Of course they look beautiful, but thank you for the reminder that sometimes we should spend more time living our damn lives and less time trying to make everything look the way we think everyone else’s house looks.

  16. You guys, I’m living this right now! My daughter started back at preschool today after a wonderful summer of just her and me, and I’m about to start working again, so I decided I had to organize the closets today. I made myself sick to my stomach, because I can’t make the mess work out! At one point there was even tears. I feel like I have to get my house into a perfect state before I can leave it and start working again. The problem is I hate cleaning and organizing, so its all just a disaster that eats at me. 🙁 I’m gonna pull it together and just try to get all the clothes away at least!!

  17. I am a bit this way. I can’t throw out any large enough container without thinking ‘what could we use this for?’ Q-Tips are in an old Gatorate powder jar, honey’s gaming dice are in an extra large TicTac container, homemade dishwasher detergent is in a turkey gravy container. I suppose I look at it as tupperware I am ok throwing out if it gets melted/stained/moldy/etc. And, nearly everything can be repurposed. However, plenty does get thrown away and recycled. 🙂

  18. I’m a little bit the opposite. When I’m not happy with my living situation, because of the place or my partner or my life in general, I completely let it go to the dump. I’m pretty messy, but it can border on just outright nasty when I’m in that headspace. I still shudder to think how bad I let my last apartment get – just GROSS! I’m sure I was dealing with undiagnosed depression as well.

    Now, I live in a dorm of all places, on a campus in South Korea, and I spent a lot of my spare time over winter break making decorations for my room. I even invite people to come into my room occasionally, and I’ve NEVER done that! I’m pretty happy, and I want my living space to show it!

  19. I’m a big fan of “therapeutic cleaning/tidying”. So, yes, in a way, if my place is too tidy it’s a sign that something else is wrong in my life. But on the other hand I feel that while I am organizing the stuff on the outside, at the same time I get more clarity on the inside. So when I have to make difficult decisions, or go through a break up, or I’m otherwise unhappy, I start tidying up.
    But as Nikki wrote, when it’s really really bad, I don’t have the energy to do that, so if my place is super messy, it is also a sign that something is wrong.

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