A few years ago, I started seeing tiny little gray moths on the walls of my apartment. It was September and getting cool outside, so I thought maybe they were seeking shelter. No big deal, I am a pacifist, right? After a few weeks, the kitchen was overrun by moths. I mentioned it to my mom on the phone. “Oh yes, your brother had that. He had to toss everything he had in the kitchen because there were eggs everywhere.” Uh oh. Pantry moths. (Also known as Indian mealmoths and weevil moths. Learn more on Wikipedia if you must.)
I dashed to the pantry and started poking around. In every package I opened, I found tiny white cobwebs in most bags. They looked like they were pulsating. Then I found the infestation’s ground zero: a box of crackers that was teeming with little white worms. They had spread to every package of nuts, dried fruits, lentils, and pasta, chewing through plastic and even laying eggs in the little holes on the side of the cabinet and between the fibers of the agglomerated wood shelves. Ewwwww!
It took me days to get everything cleaned up completely. I kept on finding more eggs and larvae, including behind the labels of canned foods… Worse, it cost me hundreds of dollars to replace the food I had to toss. And also the shelves that had eggs in them. Ouch!
You have to know that my kitchen was not particularly dirty. It’s just that there are little pantry moth eggs in a lot of the food we buy – regardless of the cleanliness of the store. If allowed to sit for a year or more, inevitably the eggs will hatch and grace your kitchen with a flurry of little gray moths. (This will happen faster if your store’s inventory does not rotate very fast.)
Pests aside, there are lots of reason to be careful with how you store your food in the kitchen. The vitamin content of foods degrades over time, nuts, oils become rancid, dried fruit hardens beyond recovery, flours spill and make messes, and so forth. Make sure to follow these simple tricks to keep your food inventory safe and tasty until you can use it (hopefully soon). If you follow these steps religiously, you will prevent pantry moths from making your kitchen home.
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1. Keep it visible
2. Keep it labelled
It seems silly when you are just returning from the store, but I guarantee that two weeks after bringing them home you won’t remember which bulk bag contains the oat flour and which one has spelt. Food in the freezer also becomes hard to identify when your containers get a bit frosty. Recognizing what you find increases the chances that you’ll eat it. Keep a couple of fresh Sharpie markers at hand and a roll of kitchen labels handy. Jot down the description of the item and the date. I like using the digital format YYYYMMDD but use whatever works for you, as long as it’s always the same.
Chances are: your food inventory is more valuable than your appliances.
3. Keep the air out and the food in
Transitioning your pantry to a set of air-tight containers, whether they are glass or plastic tubs, will save you a lot of money over time by preventing messes, spoilage and pest infestations, but it can be costly up front. My solution of choice has been an assortment Mason jars. I get many of them for free from friends, neighbors, yard sales and Craigslist, and I did buy a few at summer-time sale price. I started with the flours, then nuts and dried fruits, and eventually beans. I refill them mostly from bulk products that I bring home using reusable cotton bags, but even if you are using the store’s little plastic bags you will end up with less waste than if you buy pre-packed ingredients. For spices, I use a combination of jars I bought after the dreadful pantry moth episode above (from the American chain Penzeys) and dollar-store jars. A few of my local ethnic grocery stores sell spices in bulk.
Aside from protecting my precious food, the assorted clear containers make is easier to identify and inspect what’s inside from any angle (although I always label the top just in case). It’s also easier to keep food neatly stacked, compared to a jumble of rolled-up bags and cardboard boxes. Do keep in mind that your ingredients should be stored away from direct sunlight and heat sources.
4. Keep just enough
Buying a large format is often not worth it when you consider the cost of the space required to store it. Unless you have a large pantry – and excellent inventory-control habits – I recommend you store no more than a month’s worth of commonly-used items like rice, pasta, flour and so forth. When buying an item for the first time, never be tempted to buy a large format, even if it seems cheaper. The cost of dealing with it once it’s in your home, if you never use it again, is more than the savings on buying that club-sized bag of nutritional yeast if you aren’t even sure you’ll like the stuff.
5. Keep on top
Take a complete inventory of everything you have in the kitchen every season if possible, or at the very least once per year. Toss what’s spoiled and bring feature ingredients to the front. If you don’t feel like you have the time for this, make up for it by eating committing to eat those slightly-older-but-still-serviceable frozen meals in the next couple of weeks.
If you haven’t taken stock of everything you have in the kitchen in a while, maybe it’s time for a pantry challenge?